S E PT EM B E R 2010
Number from the Editor:
3 Sincerely, Brad Nelson Chief Editor, Eclectic Flash email@example.com
e clectic flash ( ISS N: 2150-25 2 8 ) i s p u b l i s h e d t h r e e t i m e s p e r y e a r b y Eclectic flash P u blishing . Th i s p u b l i c at i on m ay no t b e r e p roduced i n whole or in pa r t w i t h o u t e x p r e s s w r i t t en c on sen t f rom the publisher or the in di v i d u a l a u t h o r s o f t h e w o r k s c onta ined within this issue, e x c e p t i ng b r i e f q u o tat i on s f o r u s e in critical articles a n d r e v i e w s . A l l r i g h t s r e s e rv e d . C op yr i ght ÂŠ 2010. V isit us o n the w e b at w w w. e c l e c t i c f l a s h . c o m . Co nta ct eclectic flash: edi to r @ e c l e c t i c f l a s h . c o m . Th ank y o u .
Table of Contents A Little Bit for Braz by Aaron Polson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10 After the Fire by Lewis J. Kahler. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11 An Unremarkable Death by Zach Owen. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11 A Simple Word Too Easily Said by Bud Koenemund. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 Antoine by Amy Holwerda. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 Apparition by Gyllian Davis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 Armageddon: The Short Version by Wayne Faust. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14 And We Danced by Annmarie Lockhart. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16 Aubade in c: A Story About Breakfast by Travis King. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16 Be sure to close the hatch, for that which followsâ€Ś by Darren Hawbrook. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18 Bleed Out by Matt Chupp. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19 August by Amy Ellis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20 Book of Gardens by Val Gryphin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20 Bottling Frank by Kate Brown. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 Crumbs in the Recliner by Dave Davis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 Flashlight Tag by Kim Klugh. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23
Deductive Reasoning by Maulik Shah. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23 Diana by Preet Kaur. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24 Don’t Bother by Rasmenia Massoud. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25 Following Abraham by Jan Smith. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26 Everything but the Man by Loren Arthur Moreno. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27 Family Heirloom by Helen Whittaker. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27 Geologic Time by J. Katunich. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28 Free Verse by Richard Soloway. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29 Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie: An Inherited Recipe by Annmarie Lockhart. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29 Handing Down by Ethan Swage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 How They Hunt Rabbits by Ajay Vishwanathan. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31 freeze by Samantha R. Peloquin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32 How to Write a Pop Song by Matthew Glasgow. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32 I Dream a Whisper by Loren A. Moreno. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .33 Last Days of Rome I: Nero by Andreas Sundgren. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34 Gravity by Diana Brodie. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35 Living Room by Jeni Aron. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
My Mind’s Eye by J. L. Stratton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36 New Friends by J. P. Reese. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38 Poets Never Really Die by Suicide by Bud Koenemund. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .40 Night Travel by M. Kathleen Topper Walworth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .40 Nightcrawler by R. K. Gemienhardt. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .40 Not Her Real Name by Michael Russell. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41 Prince Charming After a Long Day of Sole Searching by Kim Klugh. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .43 The Obituary by Michael Ramberg. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .43 Of Q-Tips and Tomorrows by Dawn Lei. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .44 Offices of Love by Joe Kraus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .45 Sorry About Your Poem by Doug Mathewson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46 Post by Sarah Eaton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47 Queen of Fire by Townsend Walker. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .48 Quittin’ Time by Russell Bittner. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49 Summer of ‘69 by Ray Sharp. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50 Rabid Angels by Stef Hall. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50 Recession Love by Aaron M. Wilson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .51
Salt Water by Juliet Kemp. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52 The Alchemy of Striptease by Marie Lecrivain. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53 Scarecrows by Sue Pickard. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .54 Seussical, the Romance by Rita Rubin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .54 Shell Game by Kristi Petersen Schoonover. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55 The Candle Shop by Shonna Gillis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56 Shore Leave by Austin Eichelberger. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 Siblings by Cezarija Abartis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 Storks by Bonnie ZoBell. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .58 The Necklace by Stephanie Wytovich. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .60 Summer School by Francine Witte. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .60 Sweet Pastry by Jennifer Stakes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62 The Cooper’s Hawk by Christina Kapp. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62 The Parson’s Confession by Darryl Brent Willis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .63 The Coulee Man by Len Kuntz. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .63 The Crunchy Truth by Steve Kissing. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .64 The Flood by Dariel Suarez. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .65
The Subject by Sherilyn Willard. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .67 The Gargoyle of Bishop’s Peak by Joe Amaral. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .67 The High Sign by Paul Beckman. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .69 The Probability of Him by Jen Knox. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .69 The Thing That Lasts by Robert Laughlin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70 The Sentient Soldier by J. L. Stratton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70 The Thin Pages of Her Words by Sheldon Lee Compton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72 The Watch by Craig B. Phillips. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72 The Well by Durga Vijaykumar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .74 The Wolves by Walter Campbell. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .74 Thirst by Tom Mahony. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .75 Waiting on the Road to Palladium by Neil John Buchanan. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .77 wordsFall by Ryan McGinty. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .78 Washout by M. P. Powers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .78 What Precise Moment by Dan Powell. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .79 What’s Under the Bed? by Amanda Connell. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .80 January by Michael Dickel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .81
E c l ec t i c Flash
A Little Bit for Braz by Aaron Polson The first victim tacked to Piecemeal’s rap sheet was missing the pinkie finger of her left hand. Three bodies later, and the police had a pattern, something to work with: a pinkie, a hand, the forearm up to the elbow joint. PK they started calling the murderer around the precincts in the city, PK for Piecemeal Killer, like a playground nickname. Braz Butterfield worked the case all the way to both shoulder joints and a missing leg. Five years. Fifteen victims. He’d wondered in the past if they’d missed one of the victims, working backwards like they did from the shoulder. After years of tiny pins on a map of the city, trips into the foulest alleys and the rustediron, faded-paint parts of town, rubbing elbows with junkies and greasy, early morning fog, Braz developed a certain belief, his own act of faith, that they’d miscalculated because PK took something so small, so insignificant, the coroner’s report had been remiss. Something tiny like a fingernail. Academic now, he reminded himself as he stood over the corpse in room 166 of the South Dells’ Motel 6. Academic. Braz Butterfield held the unfolded portrait of PK, the only sketch anybody had been able to squeeze from a potential witness in five years. The cold meat on the bed matched as close as anybody— the loping, dangling ears, the hitch in an otherwise thin and somewhat distinguished nose, the odd spacing of the eyes, a centimeter or two away from being “just right,” the obtuse pucker of the upper lip. Braz had him. The bullet wound and rest of the hotel room told the story: a plastic shopping bag filled with homespun collages made from snippets of truck-stop porn, the spilled bag with traces of methamphetamine, the lack of money anywhere in the room. Braz had searched of course, explored every possible crevasse and even scoured the Ford Ranger outside in the lot.
That’s where he’d found the suitcase. That’s how he really knew, even more than the artist’s sketch. Braz found the missing parts in the suitcase, each sealed like leftovers in vacuum-tight plastic bags. He didn’t bother to count and verify the fifteen victims’ missing bits or even search for the suspected sixteenth. No. That was for crime scene. He’d make that call soon enough. Maybe. The corpse held him for the present. PK had captured the last five years of Braz Butterfield’s life. PK had ended Braz’s marriage. PK had added fifteen pounds to Braz’s midsection and took a few inches from his hairline. PK had made him miss his son’s last football game, but nothing had kept Braz from the funeral after the boy wrapped his Honda around an oak on spring break. No, PK had captured so much of him, Braz might as well be missing pieces, too. The fingers of Braz’s left hand played at his pocket, feeling the outline of Toby’s Boy Scout knife. Remembering. Planning. Go on. The voice startled him at first, but Braz knelt next to the bed, praying at the altar of the monster who’d taken so much, piece by piece, little pieces adding to something bigger than Braz’s world. He fished the knife from his pocket and unfolded the smallest blade. Go on. With a trembling hand, Braz lifted PK’s left hand and separated the pinkie from the other fingers. He pushed the blade under the nail, pushed until it wouldn’t go any further. There was a dark line, but no blood came—it had already pooled at PK’s back. Braz twisted the knife, prying until the yellowed nail broke free of the skin. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, savoring the smoothness and thickness of it before stashing it in his pocket with the folded knife. He’d grab a box of plastic bags on the way home. When he walked out of the room, Braz couldn’t help but smile, his eyes lingering on the left pinkie,
wondering how long it will take the next detective to make the connection, piece by tiny little piece. After the Fire by Lewis J. Kahler
their brilliance finally fell silent. We never thought about the fact that we had imprisoned them; had killed them in our childhood innocence. I thought of the old woman, trapped in a bed, as the house fell down around her and her son played with fire just waiting and watching.
The last embers danced in brilliant arcs to the dirt, and died slowly in a final breath of smoke. He stood over the waning flames, stirring the ashes with the charred handle of a beheaded golf club. His hat sat slightly forward, pony tail jutting out the back, and his eyes were masked by the brim. The straw was frayed, giving him the look of an aged Huckleberry Finn. Occasionally, his eyes would look toward the farmhouse, a single light in the upstairs window shown bright in the cool night. Inside, a nurse made his mother comfortable, while the cancer ate away what was left of her body.
We each took a pull from the bottle of dandelion wine he had placed precariously on a rock at the edge of the fire. It glowed like honey.
“I want to be with her, but I can’t,” he said. “I know it’s wrong.”
I watched the final embers dance their shootingstar dance to the ground. He drank the last of the golden wine, and shook his head slowly but deliberately, as if he could shake the thoughts from his mind.
I had been called that afternoon. I was the only friend they had left. As the money dwindled and the house fell into disrepair, one by one their friends had abandoned them. The deterioration had become too much a reminder of their own mortality. I could see it, too—the pain and despair in his eyes as his mother struggled for breath, the clapboards on the house rotting, and the grass overgrown because there was no gas for the mower. “I could go in with you. I don’t mind,” I said. “No. No, I figure there are things to be done alone. Dying is one of ‘em. Won’t be long. I will miss her though.” I could see a tear in his eye. It almost sparkled in the flame. He wiped it with a hand scarred by work and covered in ash. “Damn smoke’ll get ya every time,” he said. I allowed him the lie, and, in his own silent way, I knew he appreciated it. Each time he stuck the old club into the ashes, the embers lit up the night like a school of fireflies. When we were kids, we would catch fireflies and put them in jars. Watch them light their tails, until
“You want another log for the fire?” I asked. “No,” he replied, and he jabbed the ashes one last time. I figure it’s about time to head up. We both looked at the house; the light in the window went out. “Yup, we need to put this all to bed, he said.”
“She’ll be gone by morning. I’ll need to make arrangements and such. Thanks,” he said. A tear still hung in his eye, and he extended his hand for me to shake. The flames died, and the last of the burning ashes changed from red to grey to black. We fell into darkness, and somehow we both knew that, in more ways than we could understand, this was the end. An Unremarkable Death by Zach Owen She is a beautiful member of her species—long legs, radiant eyes, fine hair, and a plump eightmillimeter body. She does not have her own name, but only a name that all of her kind carry: Musca domestica, otherwise known as the common housefly. Today She scavenges for food, hoping to quell Her appetite and to feed the children, all 150 of them. They’re still just pups, white little maggots left safely half-buried in a pile of dog shit somewhere behind a broken down tractor. It is strange
to Her, though, that none of Her friends or mates are in sight. Normally by this hour they are sharing feces and discussing their day. Still, dinner must be gathered (and vomited back up a few times). So She surveys the kitchen as She flies carelessly about. The enemy, strange two-legged giants, have become lazy in their attempts to kill Her and Her kind. Once, they had swatted flies to death and sprayed them down, but lately they have relented, and mostly just sit quietly watching their colorful box as it spits out flashes of light. She remembers a time when She witnessed a close friend crushed beneath one of the giants’ weapons, a strange limb that extended from the beast’s hand, with a broad flat structure on the end. For several seconds She had sat watching in horror, struck dumb with anxiety, before realizing that She too could meet death from the cruel flattening thing if She waited any longer. So She changed positions in a few milliseconds, and took off to warn Her community. In a week, they were so wary of the flattener that they never gave the giants a chance to pick it up. As soon as they spied the enemy advancing towards the flattener, they would take off and leave the towering monsters befuddled and red-faced. But the giants constructed a new death device, a large glowing building that buzzed noisily. When clouds masked the sun, the building’s glow intensified and the entrancing lights beckoned to be touched. It was more beautiful than anything She had seen. Many of Her friends admired the bizarre temple of lights, watching from a distance. The treasure was encased by some kind of fence, with gaps large enough to fly through. Some of them decided to put aside their fear; the light was begging them onward, into the temple. They were dead in an instant. A bolt of wicked lightning flung itself forth from inside the temple and killed its admirers. Yet, the lights were so powerful that many a fly couldn’t turn away from its unkind beauty. The body count rose. Only one fly survived the light.
This fly was quite old and unlike any other. He’d lived longer than a month, which was unheard of. The temple’s lightning gave him great pain but did not kill him; nothing could silence his will to live. To other flies he was a teacher and a prophet. He foretold of a great new trap that the giants would leave for them in the days to come. But for once, they thought him wrong. Nobody had spotted a new invention created to erase the fly population. And the time passed and no sign or omen of death presented itself. Over time, She stopped being superstitious and overly cautious. *** So far She’s done quite well for Herself, and Her recently spawned children are well fed. She loves to watch the gelatinous white pups wriggle excitedly when She comes back to spit their dinner up for them. The thought of food makes Her feel discomfort. She is famished. But the kitchen is empty—not a crumb in sight. Every surface has been wiped clean, and no scrap of food remains for Her to ingest. Wait! How had She missed it? All of Her friends are in the middle of the room, congregating on a long papery structure that hangs from the ceiling. Perhaps they can tell Her where all the food has gone to. She dives for the paper and feels Her excitement grow. There are mass numbers of Her friends and family clumped together. But why are they so silent? It is too late to question this and turn away, for She finds herself stuck to the paper. She begins to wiggle and squirm frantically, attempting to loosen Herself. She calls out to the other flies but they are still. They seem frozen in place, no movement in their limbs. Their responses are impossible because they are dead. She sees this now, as they lie motionless in awkward and unnatural positions. Trying to calm Herself, She looks around to see if there is some weakness to the sticky surface She is glued to. Instead, She sees the wise fly, his ancient, bloated body just above Her own. Panic strikes Her, and
She begins to let hysteria take hold, convulsing spastically. The wise fly was right, after all, and now here he is: dead. What does this mean? Is it fate? Is inescapable death looming on the horizon? She lays motionless and begins to weep, feeling alien chemicals seep into Her body and begin to poison Her organs. A subtle sense of pain is stirring inside of Her. It begins to intensify gradually. While She waits for death, She thinks of Her children. Who will take care of them? Who will nurture them and make sure they make it through metamorphosis and become healthy, full-grown adults? The paper above Her is covered with an incredible amount of flies. She knows that this will be a holocaust. There will be no more families, no more life here. It is the end of civilization. She watches as a giant enters the kitchen, his huge feet thumping on the ground and sending boneshattering echoes into the air. He has something in his hands. It is more of the sticky paper. She watches him hang it from the ceiling and waits for other flies to find death. Even though they are distant, she feels she can hear the cries of Her children. Nothing can extinguish them from Her thoughts as She waits for the poisons to send Her into darkness. A Simple Word Too Easily Said by Bud Koenemund for Kristen Brownell Lord, how can so small a word cause such pain? Indeed, the gift becomes too abstract when Words, easily said, fall like drops of rain On the ocean, and fool even wise men; Oh, how the promises the heart believes, When it dares to hope, break upon the rocks Of high speech—but feelings only conceived— Then sink down into the depths of self-mock; Verses and oaths so quickly lose their worth When once solemn pledges become dilute Through casual repetition and dearth Of the emotion real and absolute. Even sweet words, spoke too oft’, turn sour, And kill the root of this precious flower.
Antoine by Amy Holwerda Antoine goes to work and wipes down tables with dishrags. When the customers leave, he sits alone and watches the late-night news. As the stories of his neighborhood flash sadly on the television screen, he pulls a Winston from behind his ear and lights it, feet resting on a tabletop, pressing his luck into the back legs of the chair he tips. Five years from now, and maybe even ten, Antoine will be working the same job, wiping down the same tables with the same dishrags. He’ll be watching the same stories on the late-night news feeling like he’s seen all there is in this world, even though he’s never left his hometown. He’s traveled to Iraq, Somalia, Kuwait, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. He’s seen candlelight vigils, Powerball winners, blue-ribbon tomatoes, flash flood warnings, feedthe-children campaigns, red light specials, recalled toys, recalled meat, recalled tires, environmentally friendly cars. He’s seen beached whales. Mad cows. Cloned sheep. Adoptable pets. Smoking chimpanzees. Picket signs raising. Twin towers falling. Gas prices soaring. The stock market crashing. He’s seen his own hands clenched in fists and later embraced in prayer. And yet, with all he’s seen, Antoine doesn’t turn away. He stays. He waits, pressing his luck further into the chair he tips and the Winston lit at his lips. Apparition by Gyllian Davis The barn is silent as a cathedral. In place of stained glass windows, sunlight filters in through the open doors, causing the hay to shine like gold. Instead of Roman arches, thick beams of wood support the high ceiling. There are no statues of saints or the Virgin Mary, but barn swallows sculpt their mud-nests in the rafters. And there is no altar, only a rusting tractor in the corner, blanketed with cobwebs. Dust motes float gently to the floor, like manna from heaven. I had once dreamed of being married in a barn.
When I was a little girl, I would lie on the floor in a halo of itchy straw, swatting away horseflies and staring up at the bright pieces of sky that showed through holes in the roof, envisioning my future wedding. When I closed my eyes the ceremony played like a film in my head, one that I watched over and over again, even throughout adolescence. I would walk down an aisle of hay, barefoot, and the rafters would be decorated with flowers from the nearby meadow. Poppies, buttercups wet with dew, daisies, and lilies-of-the-valley nodding their heads in the breeze of a summer morning. The barn swallows would watch us intently, their beady little eyes blinking, their heads turning curiously from side to side. And when my new husband and I kissed, they would swoop over us, their wings flashing in celebration, and the horses in the stalls would stomp their hooves and whinny. Now the barn is empty. My feet brush softly against the wooden floorboards, stirring up miniature clouds of dust. The swallows have deserted their crumbling nests, and now all that remains is a single barn owl, staring disapprovingly down at me from the rafters. He adjusts his wings and closes his eyes once more. He needs his rest for the time of night when he will pursue mice across a damp field, coasting on his wings, a deadly hunter. I tread softly across the warped boards, as if afraid of waking the barn out of a deep sleep. I can almost hear the noise that has long been absent. The scratching of the chickens in the yard, the roar of the tractor as it sprang to life, the snorting of the horses impatient for their meals. Now the only sound is the creaking of the weathervane as the wind turns it around and around. I sit on a sagging hay bale and fold my hands in my lap as if in prayer. I study the countless scratches on the floorboards, put there by the hooves of generations of cattle, and sink into a day-dream where I hear the clatter of their hooves as they are herded through the barn doors, whisking away flies with their tails. Finally, I lift my eyes and before me is the hayloft, a ladder climbing halfway up the wall to a platform of rotten boards. Once bursting with golden bales, the loft is now sparsely coated with a thin layer of ancient straw. My father used to pitch straw and alfalfa from the loft
down into the stables. Sweat would bead on his forehead and every so often he would clutch his back, his face a grimace of pain. In my mind’s eye I watch him work, and begin to grow drowsy. As the noon sun shifts it comes to a rest on my skin, shining through an open crevice in the wall behind me. I close my eyes and breathe in the familiar smell of hay and old cattle dung. The air is quiet and warm. I lean my head against the wall and let my mind fade away into a gentle sleep. When I awake later in the afternoon, I dimly recall dreaming of the laughter of children. I lift my eyelids, heavy with sleep, and oddly, their laughter still rings in my ears. My gaze turns towards the hayloft and there they are: four sweet little children, giggling as they ascend the ladder. Colorless and nearly transparent, the boys and girls flicker in and out of my vision. The biggest one, a boy, reaches the top of the ladder first and helps the others into the loft. They laugh and frolic in the hay, rolling and jumping and chasing each other. They are difficult to see, and when they run through sunbeams, they vanish entirely. They are clearest in the darker corners of the loft. Their laughter is distant, almost echoing, as if it were coming out of the past. Now, one by one, they jump off the loft into a pile of hay on the floor below, shrieking with laughter. The girls’ dresses billow up like parachutes as they fall. My eyes fill with tears, and I watch as the children I never had dance out the barn door into the sunlight and vanish. Armageddon: The Short Version by Wayne Faust And unless those days should be shortened, no flesh would be saved. Matthew 24:22 And so it began… All the armies of Earth met in one place. On one side were the Americans and their allies.
On the other side were the Chinese, backed by the Muslim countries and some others. It might have been about oil, and it might have been about religion, but this is the Short Version. Suffice to say that it was Armageddon, the climactic event in all of human history. The top American general was named Wally, a nickname for William Wallace. He’d been named after the Scottish hero in the movie Braveheart, played by Mel Gibson. Wally’s parents had liked movies. The top Chinese general was named Wu Zhi. He didn’t have a nickname. Or a movie. The two men faced each other across the Plain of Megiddo at the End of Days. America and the world had finally signed a treaty getting rid of all nukes. There were internet stories that America had retained some in Mayfield, Iowa, of all places, but that was just a rumor. So this would be a conventional war—the true Mother of All Battles. But things didn’t go as planned… In the opening salvo, America fired off the first wave of Cruise Missiles. Then the Chinese did the same. Nothing happened. Impossibly, both waves of missiles simply disintegrated upon firing. Plodding ahead, the Americans next launched some bunker-busting drones, which had worked well in Afghanistan. But they too disintegrated upon take-off. The Chinese fired a secret laser weapon from one of their satellites. It blinked out like a light bulb. In his command bunker, General Wally stared wide-eyed at the wall screen. Some of his aides whispered that it was the hand of God reaching down to stop this war. But Wally wasn’t religious. He thought it might be a Chinese computer virus. But their weapons weren’t working either.
No time to speculate. Wally ordered his tanks forward. So did the Chinese. The ground rumbled for a moment and then went silent. The tanks had disintegrated around their crews. It was even worse when both sides ordered in their bombers. They disappeared on the runways, leaving their pilots in midair to comically drop down onto the tarmac like cartoon characters. General Wally ground his teeth. The war was half an hour old, and already he was running out of options. “Send the Marines!” he almost shouted. But what was the point? Every gun, hand grenade, and weapon had disintegrated. All the Marines could do was go for a walk. “Get me the President,” growled Wally. The President came on the line. Wally asked for permission to activate Mayfield. The internet rumors had been true. There was a big argument between Wally and the President. But this is the Short Version so we have to move on. Eventually, Wally got permission to launch the secret nukes. The Chinese had secret nukes, too, of course, in Lanzhou Province. They launched them at the same time. The world should have ended right there. But the missiles blinked out on radar screens. “Son of a bitch,” said General Wally. “兒子的婊子,” said Wu Zhi. There was just one thing left to do. “Send for my jeep!” shouted Wally to his aide, Corporal Theodore. Wally climbed the metal stairs to the surface. It was eerily quiet as he gazed across the vast Plain of Meggido. A large dust cloud marked where two million enemy soldiers waited. Wally had a million
soldiers of his own behind him, now completely impotent. A bird chirped. His driver, Corporal Rutherford, pulled up behind the wheel of the only jeep left in the army. Wally had modeled his career after George S. Patton, played by George C. Scott in the movie, so he needed a jeep. “Thanks for coming, Lumpy,” said Wally. “Where to, Sir?” asked Rutherford. “Forward,” said Wally, pointing toward the enemy lines. Rutherford swallowed hard as they pulled away from the bunker. It was a pleasant evening. A gentle breeze drifted down from the high country. A nice day for Armageddon. As they traversed the vast plain, Wally wondered what was really going on. There were no battle simulations for something like this. Rutherford slowed the jeep and pointed. On top of a small rise in the very middle of the vast plain was a lone figure, wearing the uniform of a Chinese Army officer. As the jeep crept closer, Wally gasped, “My God, it’s Wu Zhi. Stop the jeep.” The Chinese general gazed down at them like an evil statue, hands folded in front of him. Wally knew this was the defining moment of his life. The way he handled himself here would be written about in history books for a thousand years. He stepped out and began to walk toward the Chinese general, about a hundred yards away. Far in the distance, a wolf howled. Wally crested the rise and came face to face with his adversary. The man was a lot taller than Wally had expected. Like Wally, he wore an empty sidearm holster. The two men stared into each other’s eyes. Wally felt like Patton, facing down Rommel in the desert. One last doubt crossed Wally’s mind. Maybe there was a reason for all of this. Maybe God really did want everybody to just get along… But Wally wasn’t religious.
Wally offered his right hand to Wu Zhi, flashing him the most sincere smile he could manage. Wu Zhi hesitated, and then finally reached out his own right hand. It was just what Wally had been waiting for. Wally reared back with his left hand and punched Wu Zhi in the nose as hard as he could. The sound echoed like a gunshot across the Plain of Megiddo. Wu Zhi fell back, his nose bloody and dripping. He prepared to retaliate. And so it began… Again. And We Danced by Annmarie Lockhart Our first night, we danced and you told me I reminded you of someone; neither of us mentioned we were seeing other people. Our last night, we drank and your friends pulled us apart; you told me what scared you and slipped beer-top rings on my fingers. Aubade in c: A Story About Breakfast by Travis King Morning. The rising sun shines through the glass of a sliding door and through the slats of the vertical blinds covering it. This door separates the wide outdoors from the insular comfort of the ranch-style house in which Kathryn and Raymond Livewell have made their home these past fifteen years. The two sit across from each other, each eating with mechanical motion their masses of instant oatmeal from cheap ceramic bowls. This is metaphor. Take, for instance, the oatmeal itself—a very obvious metaphor for life, which is soft and chewy and
tastes rather of oats— No. That’s not it. I mean to say, of course, that this oatmeal is a metaphor because it can be too hot or too cold or just right— No again. Too vague. Too simplistic. Think of it this way instead: It’s all about Scotland and how oatmeal there isn’t the same as it is here in . . . er, something about variety, see— Okay. Forget the oatmeal metaphor. They’re eating goddamn Life cereal. And as they eat, the cereal becomes soggy and the milk grows warm, and they avoid each other’s eyes, focusing on the newspaper, or the clock on the wall, or even the wall itself. Or on their spoons. They focus much attention on their spoons. Time passes. Not a lot, but enough. 400 seconds have passed since a particular group—no special group, but a particular group nonetheless—of photons launched themselves from the sun toward the earth at the universal speed limit: 299,792,458 meters per second, c. This is of no conscious concern to Kath and Ray (as they call each other), but it’s important. Kathryn has very little milk left in her bowl and only one square of cereal. She looks at the square, letting her gaze rest for a while, and then, with a flicker, her eyes focus on her spoon. With her left hand, for she is left-handed (this too is important), she swirls the spoon slowly around the bowl, once, twice, thrice, stirring up a whirlpool that is small and insignificant to her but oh-so-large and threatening to the small, soggy, tattered bit of processed and enriched grains that is her food. Perhaps if she had ever experienced existence as a piece of cereal, she would not be doing this; perhaps she would see it for what it is: unnecessary and wanton torture inflicted upon the helpless viand before it meets its end. Then again, perhaps not. 499 seconds have passed since those photons left the sun. Kathryn’s just about to snatch up the cereal with her spoon, when that very stream of photons passes between two of the slats of the blinds. It passes through a very narrow slit, since Raymond prefers them closed and allows Kathryn to
open them only slightly during breakfast. It passes through a very narrow slit, and it strikes the amethyst stone set into her engagement ring, a silver ring that she still wears nestled up against the much more expensive but less visually impressive platinum band that marks her as Raymond’s wife. It reminds her of something she has been wanting to say, something she knows she must say. She forms the words in her mind. “Ray . . . we never make love anymore. Hell, we hardly ever touch anymore! What’s wrong with this relationship?” She has many questions, but she’s afraid to ask them for fear of the answers. What if he says he doesn’t love her? What then? What would she do? “Ray . . . we never make love anymore. Hell, we hardly ever touch anymore! What’s wrong with this relationship?” The question plays over and over and over in her head, like a goddamn advertising slogan, until she can no longer stand it, until the words are a cacophonous roar drowning out everything else— no longer a slogan, but an emergency broadcast warning of the storm she can already sense descending around her. “Ray . . . we never make love anymore. Hell, we hardly ever touch anymore! What’s wrong with this relationship? Don’t you love me? I love you.” “I love you, too, dear,” says Raymond, his voice flat. Kathryn’s eyes widen. She doesn’t know what to say next. She stares at her husband, whose face is hidden in shadow as he gazes at the Entertainment section of the newspaper. He’s reading an opinion piece about celebrity divorces. The writer of the piece has expressed how terrible it is that these celebrities don’t respect the institution of marriage, that they marry for prestige or money or lust or anything but love, that they’re no small part of the reason family values are going to hell. Raymond’s not sure celebrities have that much power to influence social institutions, but he does find it sad that so many of those Hollywood types
are so distracted by the superficial, by the small, unimportant things like fame and wealth, that they can’t see what they have before them. He finishes the piece, closes the newspaper, glances at his watch. “Well,” he says. “Time to go. Gotta get to the bank before the employees. Money, after all, doesn’t manage itself.” It’s the same thing he says every day. He stands. Without a glance at Kathryn, he walks away. As soon as she hears the front door close, Kathryn stands, too. She considers opening the blinds. She likes the bright natural light of the sun and the warmth it offers. But there’s no point. She won’t even be in the room. She removes the bowls from the table—hers and his—and steps up to the kitchen, where she places the dishes in the sink. She heads off to the bedroom. To go back to sleep, perhaps, or to fantasize about another life and another man, or to pack her bags and run away. I can’t say. This is a story about breakfast. Breakfast is over. Be sure to close the hatch, for that which follows… by Darren Hawbrook The thought occurred some twenty minutes after he returned from his foray outside. Grubb threw down the ripe, green fruit he had scavenged from the jungle and froze with fear, mouthfuls of mulch filling his cheeks. It must have been tiredness, a mind devoid of company for six months that allowed him to make this most rudimentary of errors—one never to be made after nightfall. And it was dark now.
From the cockpit he had watched the sunset ebb through colours of purple to phantom green, before blackness enveloped everything. Only then did he seal the storm shutters on the stricken vessel. That was his ritual. Surprising, then, he had forgotten to close the outside hatch on his return. His whiskered cheeks twitched—the reflex to chew stronger than the prescient sense of danger that stiffened the rest of his body. He spat his food out and froze, disquieting thoughts arresting his breath momentarily. Silence hung in the air, and time itself appeared to disintegrate. Turning sharply, he grabbed his laser from the console panel and started to run. His desperate footfalls reverberated through the metal corridors; shadows lived and died in the glow of the permalights, sourcing their power from the auxiliary cells. At the first hint of cool air seeping in through the hatch, he arrested his stride and readied his laser. The nocturnal world had woken. Harsh sounds issued from the jungle, the calls of a thousand different life forms aware of his presence there. He heaved the hatch shut and slumped to the floor, his shoulders resting against the sixteen-inch hull of the vessel, and remained there for some considerable time, wondering if anything had gotten in. Finally, he returned to the cockpit and picked at the remaining fruit, his appetite more or less gone. A red LED flashed away on the central panel, an SOS that had transmitted its weak signal for six months, barely penetrating into space. Six months. Had it really been that long since the failed landing? He laughed, regretfully. Keltia IV’s quarantine status ensured them no interference from the galactic authorities. It also meant there’d be little hope of rescue if anything went wrong. And now the three quantaines of Lodianz crystals stashed in the Bronitum’s hold were worthless to him, for anyone picking up his SOS was likely to be a smuggler or drug-runner, and take the haul for themselves. Of course, Grubb hadn’t been the one to suggest such a harsh alien world to stash their cargo on. That had been Luger, captain of the Brontium, a decision seconded by the remaining member of their tertiary, Carlos Salcido. And they had both
failed to return from the jungle before the sun had set on their third day. Still, he was here now… No point in going over the past. A noise not in keeping with the regular creaking of the hull arrested Grubb’s attention. He held still, straining to hear; it came again, a firm clank and then a dragging noise, repeating itself at short intervals, each time a little louder…a little nearer. He tightened his grip around the pistol. Something had gotten in. He retreated behind a collapsed column that had previously housed the ship’s air circulation pumps and waited, his finger resting on the trigger. Peering down the corridor, it seemed like darkness itself had crept in through the open hatch. One by one the permalights blinked out, overtaken by a creeping gloom that drained the light and energy from the lamps. Clunk, drag. Clunk, drag. Grubb stared into the darkness. The lights dimmed around him, offered up a final flicker, and went out. He brandished his weapon blindly, his head lolling from side to side, trying to locate the direction from which the awful clunking sound was coming—and then the breath, the hot dank breath of something alien touched his skin. It was warm and unpleasant, unmistakably wild. He rolled away instinctively, unloading several rounds that exploded in bursts of fragmentary energy against the interior hull. The plasma glow that accompanied each blast afforded him enough visibility to mark out the stalking anomaly bearing down on him. His primitive instinct to survive streamed out in a constant flow of protons, his finger held relentlessly on the trigger, until a warning light flashed to indicate his ammunition was almost spent. And still it came. He ceased his fire. Sparks of energy flitted capriciously and died. The realization almost crippled him. There lived on this planet something so terrible that the first men that came here condemned it and left, never to return. He stood there, fixedly, in a rare moment of calm, and heard his stalking death moving nearer in that
same shambling manner: clunk, drag; clunk, drag. He primed his weapon one last time, pressed the warm barrel to his forehead and pulled the trigger, departing the world in a searing glow of atoms before the darkness could possess him. Bleed Out by Matt Chupp You’re 15 and riding in the back of an ambulance for the first time. It’s mid-June and hot like the inside of an oven. You’ve spent much of your life bleeding for one reason or another, but never this much, never this fiercely. You see panic in the small-town paramedic’s gray eyes and know you should feel pain, but there’s only a chilling numbness. You see his lips moving and hear a faint, distant buzzing in your ears. He presses his thumb down on your forearm, choking off the flow of blood to the radial artery while he packs your right wrist and hand with dry gauze. He retightens the tourniquet he put in place before hauling you into the ambulance. His lips move again. It sounds like an ocean is sloshing around inside your head. “What year is it?” you manage to make out. “Am I underwater?” you think you answer. He bites his lower lip and continues to apply pressure. You don’t think to ask if you’re dying. As the drive lengthens, the adrenaline fades, and your mad-thumping heart slows its beat. You close eyes blazing green yet sprinkled with redness. An abrupt, powerful shake jolts them back open. “Don’t close your eyes,” Gray Eyes says. Easy for him, you think; he’s not as tired as you. You grow angry at him in that moment. In your anger, adrenaline reignites, and you begin to listen, to feel. You rock gently around in the back of the ambulance as it starts and stops in what you imagine to be heavy midday traffic. The dullness in your ears pops like your airplane just descended, and you’re suddenly able to hear the roar of the siren overhead and the honk of the horn out front. Clarity returns. You wonder where your dad is; wasn’t he supposed to pick you up from driver’s ed? You ask Gray Eyes. He seems surprised and
pleased that your words, though spoken slowly, aren’t slurred. “He’s following close behind us,” he says. “He’ll meet us at the hospital.” Gray Eyes and his partner, a tall white man with yellowing teeth he flashes in an encouraging smile, wheel you into the ER. The doctor, a petite, unassuming woman with glasses and short-cropped brown hair, helps them pull you into a private room down a side hall. She listens as the paramedics recount what’s happened. Then she takes a look. “Dipshits,” she exclaims, shaking her head. “Why would you use dry gauze? The blood’s already clotting.” She looks at your dad, who you only now realize is standing next to you, and then at you, eye to eye. The paramedics mumble an apology and leave. “This is going to hurt,” the doctor says. You nod and scrunch your face while your dad grasps your left hand and tells you to be strong. Someone, maybe a random nurse, tightens the tourniquet even more. Firm hands lock down your right arm, and someone starts to peel back the makeshift bandages. You’re assailed by a sensation like tearing muscle. You scream. It stops briefly, then continues. More screams. Tears leak out under closed lids. You raise them, blinking to clear your vision. The jagged wound is exposed to the air and the doctor’s scrutiny. “I have to check for glass shards,” she says after a time. “This is going to hurt more.” You appreciate and hate her honesty. The pain is jolting. Nerve endings—some of which you’ve diced like tomatoes—fire off simultaneously. Your arms, chest, legs, stomach, neck—it all clenches brutally. You crush your dad’s supportive hand in a vice-like grip. You try and scream, but it can’t force itself out of your constricted throat. To your ears, it sounds like a cat being choked, but you feel like you’re the one choking. You begin to sweat, even as the chill is replaced by burning ice. You don’t know how long it lasts, only that it stops as the edges of your vision start to go black. “You’re doin’ real good,” your dad whispers. A bead of his sweat falls and strikes your forehead. “Real good.” Eight hazy hours later, after jamming a block nee-
dle into your armpit, they wheel you into what’s supposed to be a reasonably simple surgery. Instead, they find much more damage than expected, and you feel your arm start to tingle after seven hours under the microscope. The block holds, and the stitches pull without pain as the surgeon closes the wound. Someone wheels you into recovery. Meanwhile, all you can think about is how your bladder is about to rupture. You croak out your need to a nurse on duty, and she places a bottle into your left hand. You look at it forlornly, knowing you’re not up to the task. She seems to recognize this, too, and slips your flaccid penis into the opening. You’d crack a joke if only you could frame the words. You wake up—minutes? hours? days?—later in an unfamiliar bed. Your right arm is heavily bandaged and elevated. The sun shines in through bleachwhite curtains. You hope to hear birds chirping in the trees outside, but only the noise of car horns and crowds filter in. Familiar faces surround you. Knowing only how to be brave, you hide your vulnerability in a slanted smile. August by Amy Ellis The waves formed holes in the sand where our feet stood and we lay in them like shallow graves, letting the salt water rush over us as our skin browned in the August sun. Our hair caught salt and sand, matting up and tangling together as the ground washed away from under us. We formed tide pools and caverns. We displaced water, air and earth as we caught our skin on fire and let it burn. Book of Gardens by Val Gryphin Psalm I – The Apple: Lament of the Sacrifice Grandmere, Grandmere! I must speak with you. I— I apologize, Grandmere, I have spoken rudely. Please forgive me.
Yes, the goats are fed. And I brought in wood. It is about Gentleman. He is coming here tonight to ask if he might employ me. Yes, I know it is a wonderful chance, but please, you must listen to me. When I speak with him, his eyes, they hunger for things forbidden. When I move, he watches me, and when I speak to him, he has the oddest smile. No, he has never been less then gentlemanly to me, but I have spoken to other boys who have been in his employ. Even those who are still with him whispered to me of his perversions, and the ones who have left tell me of their nightmares. No, Grandmere, they are honest. I know they are telling the truth. Grandmere, please, he wants more than I—more than he has a right to demand. There must be another way for us to survive. Grandmere! I— Of course I do not wish you to die! I have always done whatever it took to care for you. But this is not the only way. I cannot— Please, Grandmere, don’t cry. I am not turning my back on you. I just— Someone is at the door. Yes, I will answer it. Psalm II – The Snake: Song of the Deceptor Good evening, Grandmere. Greetings, Young One. How are you both this fine night? I am happy to find you at home. How is your health Grandmere? Ah, good to hear, good to hear. Is it not wonderful how well the people are doing? Even with the drought everyone has enough to eat. Oh, don’t be silly. It is my pleasure to aid my fellow man. I feel it my duty to help where I am needed. Ah, you are too kind, too kind. But I am not here to
talk about what I have accomplished; that would be pointless. I am here to offer your grandson a position in my household. From what I hear, Young One is very good at aiding in the daily tasks of the household. Yes, it is a wonderful opportunity. My manservant is leaving to marry after the harvest, so I will also be seeking a new boy to aid me in my daily grooming. Ah, I do understand that you need someone to care for you. Let me assure you that you will be well compensated for letting me employ your grandson. I will see that you never want for food, nor clothing, nor anything your heart desires. And Young One will be given frequent holidays so you will not grow lonely. Oh nonsense, Grandmere, it is not a favor; I am pleased to do it. Do we have an agreement? Excellent. I’m glad we see eye to eye. Young One, come to my house early on the morrow and we will settle you in your new home. I bid you good evening, Grandmere. Goodnight, Young One. Psalm III – Adam: Requiem of the Complacent Ahh, that went well. See? This is a good thing for you, Young One. Yes, yes, you will be well taken care of, and I will die safe and warm in my own home. Tish! You know there is no other way for you to provide for us in this village. Gentleman’s offer is most generous. Come now, you know that even if you farmed you would not be able to provide for me as I should be provided for. This drought has practically killed our land, and the best you can do is eek out a meager harvest each year. Ah, and maybe he will offer to pay a dowry for some fine young woman so you can marry, as he has for so many other boys. Then you will have a wife who will care for me in my old age. Do not disrespect Gentleman! I am sure he will
treat you as nothing less than a son. Ack, those other boys! They are simply troublemakers. They are just upset that they are no longer sheltered under Gentleman’s wing. It is their own fault, you know. If they hadn’t disrespected such a good man, they still might be living there. No, not another word. You sound like a little girl. This is the best thing that could have happened for us, you will see. Titch! Don’t weep. It is unseemly for a young man to cry. Bottling Frank by Kate Brown It was Ada’s New Year’s resolution, the climax to last minute Christmas shopping. As usual, Frank had ogled the peroxide blonde with baby-blue eye shadow who worked at the checkout. As usual, when he handed over his debit card, he bragged about how he’d been in the marines. As usual, Ada felt her heart turn cold. But this time, contrary to the normal flow of events—Ada looking bashful and pretending it wasn’t happening—a gentle palpitation thrilled through her body. Hearts were meant to be warm, Ada’s heart told her. If she didn’t do something about it soon, hers would turn to stone. Ada ordered a giant size bottle from an online curiosity store. She had worked as a lab technician at a hospital in her youth and was familiar with the use of formaldehyde as a preservative. She cheered herself with the knowledge that not many prospective murderesses would be as practically well prepared as she. On New Year’s Eve, just as the clocks were set to chime, when Frank had already almost done the job for her, half-pickled on cheap sherry, Ada put a plastic bag over his head. The death blow, if you could call it that, was surprisingly easy. It reminded her of watching her grandmother drown an unwanted litter of kittens. She squeezed Frank into his new home before rigor-mortis set in. A trip to a local art gallery sufficed to give Ada an idea of what to do with the body. “Husband in a Bottle,” she named the work, as Frank set sail for
the last time down the river Thames. Crumbs in the Recliner by Dave Davis What a wonderful thing it is to live in a free society. Every man has his castle to do with what he will, depending, of course, on the zoning laws where every man lives. In my neighborhood, for example, I cannot so much as build a shed or park a boat in my driveway without express written consent from that warren of wizards known as the township zoning board—an all-powerful body imbued with an unerring sense of what is good for us and bad for our community. Every night, on my knees, I thank god for their unassailable wisdom. My castle is made of sturdy red brick—small, but as my son described it once for a school writing assignment, cozy. Hearing him refer to our non-descript, perfectly rectangular, semi-level 1,200-square-foot abode in such a term assuaged some of the guilt I felt—and still feel—for not measuring up to the many fathers of my son’s friends who provided for their families in ways that I either could not or would not. It is a mark of my selfishness that I never thought of those fathers who did less or had less. What a wonderful thing is capitalism, offering us, torturing us, alluring us with an endless and everchanging variety of choices. As an economic philosophy, capitalism achieved its greatest expression in television advertising of the fifties and sixties, mesmerizing the Baby Boomers, the first generation to grow up in front of the TV set, with dreams of lives we could only live vicariously through the purchase of things we did not need but had to have. The living room was the womb of our existence, television the focal point of our universe, and commercials our oracle. Our parents, somehow shamed by memories of a Great Depression, of which they were victims and not perpetrators, longed not to deprive us of our hearts’ desires. Baby Boomers were America’s first spoiled generation; though, in our advanced age, we often choose to view our youth in the light of what we didn’t have rather than what we did
have. In the midst of my castle sits a recliner, the symbol of my familial authority, the showpiece of my wealth. Enter into homes all over America—rich, poor, and in-between—and you will find the ubiquitous recliner, capitalism’s great equalizer. And in front of my recliner a high definition, flat screen TV. Oh yes, I need high definition. Being able to see that shadow of a mustache on the over-styled, infinitely coifed morning show lady is priceless. And below the high definition, flat screen TV sits an overblown sound system so powerful I can call down the wrath of neighbors who do not understand that volume is not simply our generation’s birthright but a necessity. So, in my castle I sit, enthroned upon my recliner, watching TV shows crammed between an endless parade of commercials. And, as I did when I was a child of the fifties, I eat and watch, eat and watch, enjoying the fruits of capitalism, the benefits of living in a free society. Into my recliner fall the crumbs of my abundance. Peanuts, popcorn, chips, cheese snacks, candy, cookies—things I do not need but must have—the daily droppings of my luxurious life—the blessing and bane of my generation. Flashlight Tag by Kim Klugh Children of Summer you flit in the twilight you flicker through thick summer air like fireflies filling the yard you flash signals, send secrets in code SOS fashion—one blink sent, two blinks back a language based on glimmering lights— on, off, on, off, on, on, off flecks of light land on dew-laden grass blades, the drive-way, a splintered fence post, a broad flat stone, entwined honeysuckle vines hours later on the shadowless lawn darkness swallows each of you
and your bodies soak up starlight and fallen moonbeams glowing deep in the folds of sleep. Deductive Reasoning by Maulik Shah Jane Watson roamed the stacks, looking for the one book that she still needed. This branch of the London Public Library was vast and cavernous, and the classification system here was arcane. The musty smell of the rarely opened tomes was overwhelming as she stifled her need to cough. She turned the corner and spied the title that she was looking for waiting on a shelf. With a small cry of victory she seized it. She made her way back to the table where she was working. As she sat down amidst the array of papers and books spread out in front of her, she was startled to hear someone clearing their throat behind her. She jerked her head around to see a wizened man with barely recognizable features meet her gaze. He was easily the oldest person that Jane had ever seen. He was sitting at a nearby table, in front of an opened book, his gnarled hand resting on an ornate cane that lay beside him. On the seat next to him lay a well-worn cap, an old-fashioned sort which Jane couldn’t make out. “I see you’re studying the different forms of plant poisons in Northern England,” the man croaked, looking at her newfound prize. “It’s for my graduate thesis,” she said, wondering at this old specimen of a man before her. Although the man’s face with obscured with layers of wrinkles, the one feature that was still bright were the eyes that shone through. “You should check out the Rhymes book on the subject; it’s the definitive work.” He indicated the book that was sitting in front of him. “You’re welcome to it, if you like.” “I’ve been looking for that!” she replied. “I gathered you might.” “Well, thank you. Sorry, let me introduce myself.
My name is Jane Watson. I’m a doctoral student in Botany at Cambridge.” She proffered her hand. The man took it with a surprisingly firm grip. “Watson, eh? I knew a Watson. Couldn’t have been a relation, he didn’t have any children. My name, young lady, is Sherlock Holmes.” Jane chuckled. “Sherlock Holmes? Your parents must have been real mystery buffs.”
“It’s true, nonetheless.” Jane thought for a moment. “Well, there’s no way for you to really prove it. Even if you could do your Holmesian magic and divine something through observation and deduction.” “In fact, I can already tell much about you.”
“On the contrary, you misunderstand. I am the Sherlock Holmes. You may have read about me.”
“Really? What could you tell about me from meeting me for five minutes?” she said.
Jane laughed out loud, her voice echoing around the stacks. “You’re the Sherlock Holmes? Sure.”
“You are twenty-seven years old, and you’re a graduate student in the school of science,” he said evenly. “You have a dog named Max, and you were born in Liverpool. You have two brothers, and your parents have a store near Wembley.”
“I assure you, madam. I am not joking,” he said, not smiling. “You’re real? You’re not just a character in a story?” “Yes, Ms. Watson. I’m real. The Watson that I knew wrote about our adventures, until we parted our ways.” “It’s impossible! You must be over a hundred, at least. Nobody lives that long.” “One hundred forty-four, actually. As I’ve been quoted saying, my dear, when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Jane crossed her arms in front of her. “Right. You’re the real Sherlock Holmes. How do you explain that?” Holmes leaned forward conspiratorially. “I retired earlier this century to take up a hobby of mine, beekeeping. I discovered a rather startling property of the queen bee’s jelly—Royal Jelly, as you might have heard it called. Once prepared properly and ingested in just the right way, it’s a remarkable curative.” Jane vaguely remembered reading a Holmes story about his retirement somewhere. Could this really be the original Sherlock? she thought. “I see you’re still skeptical, young lady.”
“It’s hard to believe, wouldn’t you agree?”
“How did you know all this?” she exclaimed, delighted and frightened at the same time. The old man hadn’t lost any of his legendary acumen. “Was it what I’m wearing? My manner of speech? What?” “It’s elementary, my dear Watson,” he said dryly, holding up his Blackberry. “I just googled you.” Diana by Preet Kaur A dreamless night, that night. My eyes buzzed and itched. I rubbed them while waiting at the void deck. For five pitiful minutes I watched as the last buses deposited late-night commuters. Then an old friend picked me up, and we drove up and down highways, like bums with nothing better to do. I must have closed my eyes, because I didn’t notice when the neighborhoods disappeared and the big roads appeared, roads which were bright as daylight. The hum of the air conditioner masked sounds of cars zipping by. Rushing to funerals and anniversaries, they must be, for nothing else could account for such dangerous speeds. All ahead the road stretched, yawning across tar and smoke and plume, like a scene from a nineteenth century industrial novel, only now the factories were invisible erections on a landscape made to look like
a permanent green garden planted with luscious artificial trees standing tall and endlessly waiting in vain for a new cycle, a new Armageddon, a release from this mechanical setup. In a bubble of safety from the humid air without, a pleasant lull occupied the cool silence of the car. Someone was telling a story or a joke on the radio. Three men in a bar: an Indian, a Malay, and a Chinese. My eyes buzzed some more. I brushed my hair, feeling for a rough bump of the occasional dry skin and pulling it out of the soft strands. Cramped for space, the bits of skin pushed out and became tiny dandruff hills. I wondered if my keys were in the bag. Then I wondered about the Portuguese author and his story where death disappeared for seven months and the old age homes were full of the stench of scented powder and urine, which is exactly what old people smell of. I know this because an old man had fallen asleep next to me in the library the day before, and I wasn’t sure whether he was sleeping or dead, he looked so peaceful, and I was just on my way to alert a librarian when he stirred or snored—I can’t remember—so I continued reading. But I remember his smell, like newspapers left out in the rain. Below that a lace of ammonia. Outside, glaring headlights pierced brightly, and their heat penetrated the glass windows. The afternoon rain had left a mist hanging over trees and under street lamps, gathering flies in a tropical nighttime ritual. As my hand moved mechanically within the maze of my head, I wondered if we had suddenly, unknowingly, crossed over from that world to this one. There is something uncanny about being protected in the cushion of a steel shell. I wondered if it might not be that we were still and the world, instead, moved and maneuvered about this car as though our destination were the center of all activity, the penultimate motivation for the existence of this world and its occupants. “Look,” he said, pointing upwards while he rounded a sharp bend. At first I didn’t see. His voice had sounded strange and frightened me, so I stared at his face instead and tried to recognize this stranger. And then I looked up and saw her, mighty Diana brighter than all the earth. Gathered around her were oddly contorted fluffy battleships with holes in their masts and husks, sailing in the
wind, the wind tattering their sails. Her glittering pupil shadowed the perfect circle of her eye, and hurt mine. The moon had stolen the glory of her brother, and on the edges of her wispy outline, I could see the Antipodes walking, hard-shelled turtles crawling on soft bellies, rounding up their affairs or just beginning them. I wondered if we mightn’t be on the other side of things, the world up there and us floating about the stars, such that our lights appeared like dying fires by the time we reached them there on the moon. Don’t Bother by Rasmenia Massoud If you feel like you need to read this, don’t bother. It won’t provide a satisfying explanation. It won’t make anyone feel better about what’s happened here today. You won’t be comforted. I won’t be redeemed. Our parents will still be dead, and so will I. You’ll still be alone. Lucky you. Are you still reading? You never could do what you were told. I don’t know what you’re hoping to find here. Now would be a good time to find something better to do. Enroll at the community college. Join a gym. Be smarter than your parents. Be stronger than your older brother. Be a greater success than your family. You’ve already outlived us. I’ve given you a head start. What happened was what has happened countless times before. His fists. Her face, big and round, looking like a plum that someone dropped on the pavement. We’ve seen all of it before, but I just got tired of the routine. The same scene, the same excuses from him, the same argument in his defense from her. The same watery eyes looking up at me from that bruised plum, begging me to stop when I did the same thing to him. If you’re still reading this, you’re only wasting time. I haven’t immortalized any words of wisdom here for you. No pieces of brotherly knowledge and experience to take with you. My failure is your disappointment. My big mess is your salvation. The woman who gives me my methadone every day is always so optimistic. She smiles all the time and tells me how great it will be later on, when I’m better. I don’t know what “better” means, but I think
she only says things like that because she doesn’t know that I’ve been selling my methadone. If you’re still reading this because you want to know why, it’s because this is what big brothers do for their little sisters. You’ll get more insurance money and fewer burdens this way. You’re finally free. I’m sure that reading this didn’t bring you any peace. I’m positive that it didn’t win me any forgiveness. I can’t tell you what to do from here on out. But, I can tell you that you won’t have a face like smashed fruit like our mother ever again. You won’t have to bail your older brother out of jail anymore. If you read this looking for answers, they’re not here. Now would be a good time to stop asking questions. Don’t bother. Following Abraham by Jan Smith Do you remember the Christmas we agreed no gifts between us, the year you played Abraham, I played Sarah, the children played hostile and we all became refugees herding our pets and possessions across the Jordan called Route 17
When finally you returned to our tribe, older and wiser, I thought surely your love affair had ended with the graduation season but you said Yahweh’s whisperings had seeped into your very soul bidding you join Him in another place with your loved ones as a sacrifice So we wandered three children, two cats, and one dog to where Jehovah waited and pitched the tents in time to make the youngsters cry for their old school and I cursed myself for not striking you with a household idol to end your talk of a Promised Land That Fall between homesick sobs, I resigned myself to life as a martyred nomad hating your romance and finally you until by Christmas I suggested we not celebrate your lover’s birthday with affectionate tokens to each other knowing all I wanted was to stuff your stocking with books on atheism and God as myth
Your exodus began at forty-seven when you quietly confessed a dalliance with God and I supported this liaison, thinking He seemed a safer object for your mid-life restlessness than a young blonde in a red convertible
You handed me a box anyway and said, in gratitude for this pilgrimage, and for a trembling moment believing in redemption, I opened the accolade and found resting, in a firmament of tissue paper stamped with silvery stars, a vanilla-scented cross
Soon after that you left for seminary to tions, you said, while back at the tent I dren and I could keep to our routines in sweeping porch the home of memories and picnics, of friends and family
A holy car deodorizer, you exclaimed with obvious delight, to hang by a thin gold thread on my rear view mirror, leaving me in aromatic silence to wonder what gift my ancient sister Sarah got to dangle on a camel’s ear, her tribute from Abraham the First for following illusion
be with Him, no distracwaited, grateful the chilthe big pink house with and dreams, of bonfires
Everything but the Man by Loren Arthur Moreno He thought he heard the clicking again. It always woke him at that hour of the night. At two o’clock in the morning. That clicking coming from downstairs, Kenneth’s writing room. The sound of Kenneth’s fingers gliding rapidly over his computer keyboard, writing another one of his stories. Stories of boys who lose their parents to house fires. Stories of gay lovers torn asunder by the ravages of the virus. Stories of fathers and sons and a lifetime of disappointment. He turned to his side and squinted through his sleep-blurred vision. He felt through the crumple of sheets and covers for Kenneth, but he wasn’t there. Over the humming of the air conditioner, he heard the clicking. He knew he heard it. Kenneth should come to bed, he thought. He tossed the covers off his body. He sat up on the edge of the mattress. He stood and felt the cold wood floor under his bare feet. He adjusted the elastic waist of his boxer shorts; they had risen up to his navel. The floor boards creaked as he made his way toward the bedroom door. The hallway was awash in a dull orange glow. Night-lights, a habit from his childhood. They still gave him that sense of motherly protection, though his mother had been dead for years. She had willed his childhood home to him. To him and Kenneth. Her husband wouldn’t have let her do it had he still been alive at the time. Leave the house to their son and his gay lover, that is. He made his way down the stairs. Through the bay of windows in the living room he saw moonlight filtered through the branches of the mango tree. They always kept the windows open, he and Kenneth did. He could smell the scent of Manoa rain, those showers that come at night, as if God is sad. Those showers that keep the valley lush and green and attainable. As he walked toward Kenneth’s writing room, he felt alone, though he knew he heard the clicking, Kenneth’s clicking, so he could not be alone. He came to the door, and it was closed. He opened it to a pitch-dark room. He entered and turned on the light and felt sad. But deep inside he knew to expect it. The room hadn’t changed. He had refused to touch a single thing after Kenneth died. The com-
puter. Papers strewn across the desktop. The overturned cup of pens. Kenneth’s gray cardigan sweater draped over the back of the chair. A bookshelf full of Proust and Joyce and Bronte and Wilde. The photograph of his and Kenneth’s commitment ceremony on a Kauai beach, the pair, younger then, dressed in white linen and draped in ti leaf lei. The room was full of everything but the man. But he thought he heard the clicking. He always thought he heard the clicking. Family Heirloom by Helen Whittaker My grandmother’s house was just as I remembered it. The crunch of gravel on the front path, the lion’s head knocker, the smell of beeswax, and the umbrella stand in the corner of the hall. When I was a child the umbrella stand fascinated me. It had an off-white circular base; ivory, Oma explained—like the piano keys. The umbrella bin was shaped like an umbrella itself, inverted and partially opened. Its spines were ivory, too; and stretched between, forming the fabric of the umbrella, was a translucent beige-coloured material that reminded me of the hide on my bongo drums. Whenever Heike and I stayed with Oma, the umbrella stand was our touchstone. One of us would stand next to it, close our eyes and count to a hundred while the other hid. It was our hiding place for the sweets we smuggled in for midnight feasts. As teenagers, it was where we stashed our make-up. It didn’t take long to clear the house. I got the umbrella stand and the contents of Oma’s bureau. Sorting through her papers the next day, one handwritten letter caught my eye. Sehr geehrte Fräulein Schwartz,
June 14th 1943
Please accept my deepest sympathies. Your late father’s patronage of our work has helped to make this country great. Your own generous donation from your father’s estate will allow us to continue our research for many years to come. Please accept this small token of my appreciation: an umbrella stand, fashioned entirely from waste materials.
Yours, Joseph Mengele Geologic Time by J. Katunich It wasn’t so long ago that she and Keith would sit under the railroad trestle in his truck, parked in the dark and getting drunk on Zimas (for her) and Busch (for him). This time, though, she sat across from him in the truck’s cab, sober and chaste, while he counted in his head precisely how long it had been since the last time they kissed, when the taste of malt in her mouth had seemed to Keith both foreign and stale. It felt as though he was lying when he told himself it had been only three months. It was more like the geologic time he had been learning about in his class at the community college. A kind of time counted in millions of years, though more meaningfully measured, his professor once said, in the laying down of successive strata, one layer over another. Like time itself was being buried, Keith had thought, sitting in the large and nearly empty lecture hall. “Do you have any questions?” she said, and she sounded like a professor herself. It was after all what she’d gone off to school for. To be a professor. In math. Just like her: in a field that only seemed obvious until one looked at it more deeply. Keith was earning a D or worse in pre-calc, although it really didn’t matter whether he failed it, since he had no idea what to major in anyways. She, on the other hand, had an impressive way of mapping out her life that both marveled and scared Keith. She cleared her throat. She was expecting questions from Keith. A dozen or more fat and luscious snowflakes fell on the windshield, and melted instantly from the heat she radiated. Keith did have questions to ask her, and many of them he had wanted to ask her for a very long time. It just never seemed the right time and place, and this of course, in his truck, under the trestle, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the day before she flies back to her college on the other side of the country, was the completely wrong time. Keith knew her well enough to tell she was impatient. He knew this from the way she looked three times at her wrist even though she was wearing
no watch. She wanted some response from Keith that showed, at the very least, he had enough interest in her news to ask a question. Although he knew she didn’t want any of the questions he had jostling in his head. Like: “Do you remember the time when we were five and we pulled down our pants and showed our stuff to each other?” Nor: “Did you really kiss Jesse Turner in the back of the church basement, or did the other kids make that up?” And especially not: “Were you really a virgin when we made love the first time or did you just tell me that because you knew I was?” Nor even: “Did it happen the time we came to the trestle at the end of the summer, right before you left, when you were so wild that I knew it was our last?” None of these questions would work, although he’d have to make do and ask something to satisfy her. So he asked: “Will they tell you if it was a boy or a girl?” “Jesus, Keith,” she said, as if his question was sarcasm. “I’ll ask the doctor right after the extraction.” Then she told Keith she needed to get home, she needed to pack, and that when it was all done she’d send him half the bill. “Around $300,” she said. On the drive back through the thickening snow, toward the world of lights, the world of geology classes and calculus, and of airports and clinics, she and Keith passed in silence over the low weathered mountains where they had spent their lives. Keith found himself thinking of the fossils his dad used to find in the rocks, they were these little stars in a round circle of rock, the size of a Life-Saver. His dad would bring them home for Keith from the quarry, and explain how they were shafts of an ancient seaweed. When they dug deep through the rocks, they’d find them all the time, accidental discoveries after three hundred million years buried.
To Keith three hundred million years sounded about right, to leave for forgotten the remains of a life. It sounded about the time, he thought, it would take to get over her.
Free Verse by Richard Soloway
In the reverberating silence that shook the table, my mother put her hand to her head and worried her temples methodically. She raised her right eyebrow and responded: “What about Grandma Ann? Did she know any of this?”
It all depends on means and ends; vers libre is all very well, some think it swell, but Heaven forfend, you should for too long dwell on rhyme and stress, dactyl, antipest and spondee, count all the syllables, oh fucking hell, life’s too short to worry about a trochee. Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie: An Inherited Recipe by Annmarie Lockhart Thanksgiving was traditional enough, with the requisite turkey and stuffing, cranberries and sweet potatoes, the lineup of empty wine bottles. The younger children ran downstairs to play after eating, but my cousin Sarah and I, in high school now, lingered with the adults over dessert plates piled and re-piled with Grandma Ann’s handeddown, liquored-up pumpkin pie. Uncle George and my mother were talking about old family stories, their voices a droning soundtrack to the private thoughts of the absentminded eaters at the table. It wasn’t until Uncle George used the words “speakeasy,” “raid,” “G-men,” and “floozy” all in the same sentence that anyone noticed their conversation. “What the hell are you talking about George?” my mother asked. “Well, didn’t you think it was odd that her name was Dot?” “Dot is short for Dorothy.” “Sure, if you’re from Kansas. But there are no Dorothys in this family.” Uncle George had a point and my mother thought about this for a minute. “Alright, but what are you
“I’m saying our mother, Dot, was named for Dottie Dollar, the dancer Grandpa Charlie was banging at the speakeasy.”
Uncle George just rolled his eyes. Sarah and I looked at each other. I went to the kitchen and opened another bottle of wine. I refilled my mother’s glass first. She drank down half of it and held it up for more. After topping her off, I walked around to Uncle George and poured him another. Aunt Elizabeth and my dad took half a glass each. No one batted an eye as I poured an inch of the garnet liquid into two glasses for Sarah and myself. Aunt Elizabeth brightened. “I almost forgot! I made that chocolate-chip mint ice cream pie you like so much! You know, with the Girl Scout cookie crumb crust?” Aunt Elizabeth scrambled for the kitchen. Uncle George finally spoke. “Margaret, I can’t believe you didn’t know this.” My mother shrugged. My mother looked at Uncle George and asked: “Wasn’t Grandma Ann pregnant when Grandpa Charlie died in the car accident?” “Not exactly.” “What do you mean ‘not exactly’?” Uncle George shook his head. “Margaret, did you spend our entire childhood with your nose in a book? How can you not know any of this? Grandma Ann couldn’t have children. Something about some childhood illness, I don’t know. She was never pregnant.” My mother’s head nearly spun off. “But Dot was born seven months after the accident! The dates work out.” Uncle George waited a slow minute for the truth
to register with my mother. Let it not be said that George wasn’t a patient man.
Handing Down by Ethan Swage
“You’re not saying—”
Hibernal: Grandpa’s hands were meaty and powerful. Even after two heart attacks and a stroke had caused the rest of his body to deteriorate, he could still bend masonry nails with those hands, the way he had when he first met Grandma. He kept a pound box of four-inch Tremonts on his bedside table, next to her picture, and bent them for the grandkids every Sunday when they came to visit. Sometimes they showed him nails that their fathers had hand-bent for them. “Good enough, I suppose,” he said, studying the nails, somber yet beaming inside. “But Grandpa bends them better.” He bent nails to reassure himself that the real David Kindig, not just the lonely old widower his grandchildren knew only as Grandpa, was still alive and robust somewhere within his withered shell. That the wild man who had earned his steelhard reputation long before his grandsons were born was still capable of resurrecting some of the hell he had long ago buried. Every night he fell asleep dreaming that he was back in his mother’s arms, beginning instead of ending, the hands she had always adored still pink and smooth instead of liver-spotted and wrinkled.
“Yes, I am saying.” “Our mother wasn’t—” “No, she wasn’t.” “Our grandmother wasn’t—” “No, she wasn’t.” “Our grandmother was a stripper, not a schoolteacher?” “You got it, sister.” “What does that make Grandma Ann?” “Our adoptive grandmother, I guess.” “Well, what the hell ever happened to Dottie Ditz?” “Dottie Dollar. Yeah, well, things didn’t go so good for her after the accident. She apparently hit the bottle. Pretty hard. She died. Drowned out in the Sound one night. Someone saw her step out of her silver dress and walk out into the water. By the time anyone realized she was gone, well, she was really gone. Her body was never recovered.” Too many thoughts seemed to be swirling around the table as we all sat there considering our misunderstood origins. It was my father that finally put the room to rights. “Let’s not forget those were crazy times. No point getting all worked up about coming from a stripper. Hell, if you knew who I came from Margaret, you’d take the kids and run.” My mother raised her other eyebrow this time and said, “Quite a leap of faith there Steve to think your origins have anything to do with my kids.” As her words stirred up my father’s features into a confused jumble, my mother winked at me, smiled, and told me to pour another round for the table.
Autumnal: Five hulking Kindig boys, each separated in age by two years, habitually bragged to their friends that their father was a bear, a grizzly when he was angry. Each of their house key rings sported a masonry nail fob that their father had hand-bent. They displayed them to friends as if the fobs were trophies, and to their enemies as a warning. Although his sons grew up during a time when corporal punishment was still commonplace, Dad never spanked them. Their hushed consensus held that he was afraid that if he ever spanked them, he would break them. They proudly reminisced about the time a man ran a stop sign and hit Dad’s car. Nothing serious, no injuries, but Dad leapt out of the car roaring like a lion. He brought both fists down on the man’s hood, and the resulting blow sounded like a clap of thunder. His boys sat frozen in their seats, backs straight, hearts thumping madly, their eyes bulged in horrified wonder. The man’s hood looked as if a meteor had fallen from the sky and crushed it. But that was Dad: nothing could withstand the force of those massive hands. When his eldest son, David Jr., bent his first nail at the age of eighteen, in hands
that had grown large enough to rival his father’s, Dad’s smile seemed as if it could have outshined the sun. Later that night, after gazing at himself for what seemed like hours in the bathroom mirror, Dad plodded down the basement stairs and then sat in the dark in his workshop, bending masonry nails until his hands were raw. His descent had finally begun. Estival: Nineteen-year-old David Kindig held Maura Crawford’s delicate hand in his, promising not to crush it as he gave it a playful squeeze. His hands were huge, and the mere sight of them made her feel safe. She had seen what he could do with those hands, and considered them the impenetrable gates to a burly castle she longed to explore. Maura’s father was also a mason; she had met David at one of her father’s worksites. He had introduced himself by bending a masonry nail into a crude circle, slipping it on her finger, and saying, “With this ring, I thee invite to lunch.” After eliciting Dad’s nod of approval, she joined David. With her legs dangling from the tailgate of his Chevy pickup, she shared one of his three sandwiches, all the while watching his hands, mesmerized. Those hands, she thought, will one day hold our babies. Vernal: Jacob and Muriel Kindig gazed in amazement at their newborn son, David. Ten pounds, four ounces, they both thought repeatedly, still trying to convince themselves that the “bear cub” shivering in Muriel’s arms was really theirs. Jacob was still aghast at the image of that massive head slowly emerging from Muriel’s petite body. He crossed himself and silently begged forgiveness from above as he pictured a full-grown steer emerging from the belly of a spindly-legged calf. Muriel felt as if she were a dinghy that had just dropped a battleship-sized anchor. She swore to Jacob that this would be their first and last baby. Then David reached out and grabbed her finger, squeezing impossibly hard for a newborn. Muriel fell silent. “Look at those mitts,” Jacob said. But Muriel disagreed. “My son’s—David’s hands are not mitts,” she said. “They’re just like yours—hammers. So strong that someday he’ll be able to drive nails with them.” “Or bend nails with them!” Jacob said, his words rife with pride. David fell asleep in his mother’s arms, alive and robust within a shell she was confident would eventually grow to match his beautiful, powerful hands.
How They Hunt Rabbits by Ajay Vishwanathan Donald Rumsfeld Looks at his men and responds, “Then go for it.” He then becomes a pebble in a river as his men sweep past him, loaded with arms and intention. That evening, he smiles at his waitress as she serves him his meal hot, smoke still rising like rumors. “Nothing like a good kill,” he remarks as he digs into his rabbit. Even today, he refuses to believe that it was not a rabbit he ate. There were none that day. M. Night Shyamalan Is told cottontails are active early or late during the day. But he prefers nights, less melodrama. Says he shoots better when no one else is watching him. When no one sees the victim, just its wavy silhouette. He keeps following moonlit paths for years in search of his climax. Mohandas Gandhi He doesn’t need to hunt them. They surrender at his feet. Every one of them, till the other animals start coming. And it becomes a problem. Sigmund Freud Having abruptly abandoned his hunt, he lies on a bed of rotting roots, arms flung to the sides, and tries to figure out why he’d accidentally crushed a stem with pink buds underfoot at the same time the hem of his coat snagged on a rose bush thorn. John McEnroe Just as he is about to take his shot, his phone rings. “You can’t be serious calling me in the middle of my vacation?” He flings his cell phone into the woods. And turns to his assistant, “Dumbass! I had said vibrate mode. Do you have a problem other than you’re bald, you walk like an elephant on dry leaves, and now you’re deaf?” Mao Zedong He doesn’t sneak up behind them or tiptoe around trails, his aides do. He doesn’t have the time because he is finishing his book in his van. On a sighting, he cocks his gun, takes his shoes off and walks to a predetermined spot. Then, a gunshot. Another. Shouts of hooray. He sits back in his van, nonchalant about the dead rabbit being carried behind him. Difficult to say who shot it. His
book has no mention of rabbits. Which could be because he didn’t take permission from peasants for hunting on their farms. Harry Houdini He cannot shoot them. They escape every time. Angelina Jolie She stops, eyes squinted above the barrel, then goes open-eyed. And stares at the curve of the morning sun emerging from behind tree trunks, and wonders if she missed a secret along life’s way as she prepares to litter her course with voiceless dead. Al Gore In his book, he writes, “Five Things Before You Hunt Rabbits.” 1. Keep away from paved roads. You will never find them there. Man has driven them away. 2. Try arrows. Gunshots release too much heat. 3. Protect yourself well. Wear smart, wear cotton. 4. Walk to your spot. Save gas. 5. Used a gun? Fine, now pick up the shells after yourself. freeze by Samantha R. Peloquin the air is so hot that the bar of soap in the shower is melting and my brain is scrambling like eggs that sizzle when they hit a blistering iron skillet. people slither through the scorching streets, dripping liquid candle wax, vividly colorful tears from a sputtering flame. it feels as though the city has been doused in gasoline and set alight, and I can hear people below my window moaning and sighing in despair.
the priest this morning said this is what hell feels like, but I’m not sure I believe him. How to Write a Pop Song by Matthew Glasgow Verse 1 I was starring at the tracks With a hedge stone at my back It was closing in on dawn And I was barely holding on That night, I took the outgoing train to New York City. There, I was certain, my talents would be recognized. I had to get out of that small town if I ever wanted to become a famous musician. I said one last goodbye to my grandmother, God rest her soul, and made my way to the big city. I hope, wherever she is, she understands what I had to do. Refrain I’ve been running for a while I’ve been gone from day to day But if I’m still here tomorrow I think its time I stay I played at any club or bar that would take me. It was just me, my voice, my hands, and my guitar strings. I inherited all of grandmother’s money, as well as the money my parents left me from when their station wagon careened off the road when I was five years old (I will never forgive my uncle for getting married), so I was able to afford a decent apartment and a high quality demo CD. I gave that damn CD to anyone with ears, and eventually I started to catch on amongst the underground listeners. Within no time, I was actually playing for money, and the venues got larger and larger. Verse 2 My hands began to shake As I walked on past the gate I did what I done before Still searching for something more My manager told me that my first single, “I’ve
Been Running,” was rising up the charts. I cannot explain the sheer joy of hearing a song that I wrote on the radio, seeing my name on the marquee, or reading a favorable article about myself in the newspaper. People said they loved my music because of my raw style. They believed the words I sang, they felt my pain. Refrain Verse 3 I was walking down the road The air was blowing cold The headlights hit my eyes And I was barely alive Now that I look back, I owe everything I have to my dear grandmother. Whenever I’m up on the stage, I think of how she used to sing to me. Her voice was so soft and sweet. It still haunts my ears when I’m playing to thousands of fans. Sometimes I wish that I could go back to that time, before her tracheotomy, when her lullabies were all that I needed to sleep at night. I tremble more and more with each waking day now. When I’m swarmed with praise and fame, I wish that I was back in that small town, but deep in my heart, I know I can never return. It was all so simple, watching her lay still in her bed while I got dressed to work another nightshift at the supermarket, restringing my old guitar that never could stay in tune. The paramedics pronounced her dead due to complications of the surgery. There was no autopsy. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time. Refrain 2x (Outro) All of these years later, I still play my first hit to end each show. My voice now worn from screaming for help, my fingertips forever calloused from those cold, lifeless strings. No one would ever believe me now, no one would care. They pay their ticket, they see the fading celebrity. Just the other day, my manager asked me why I still carried that old guitar on tour. I told him because music is a cut-throat business, and I need to remind myself how I got here. He looked at me strangely, then laughed. I laughed as well.
I Dream a Whisper by Loren A. Moreno In the dream I’m digging a hole. I stand in the middle of a vast field, the night awash in tarry darkness, save for the twilight from a tiny crescent that burns in the sky. Hundreds of thousands of stars dominate, as if the sky is a black canvass littered with silver glitter. I dig. The reason for my back-breaking chore, I am unsure. But I hold in my hands the wood shaft of a steel shovel that is longer than I am tall, and its weight is demanding and savage. Every so often a whisper speaks: I am not allowed to leave. Even if I were to run, where would I go? All around is emptiness, a field of dead grass from where I stand to the infinite. No matter where I run, it would be the same spot—same earth below me, same sky above. I dig because it tells me to, the whisper. The voice comes from both somewhere and nowhere. Kyle. I dig because it says things to me that no one really knows and it scares me. I’m scared because the whisper threatens my mother. It says it’s going to strangle her if I don’t keep digging, and that I will be to blame for her death. It says it will lock me in a closet, pants legs and shirt sleeves brushing against my head as I hug my knees and cry while my mother screams. It says it will push me down the stairs. The whisper knows, too. It knows about Bryan. Digusting little boys. It knows how he and I went looking for honeysuckle behind the houses. How we picked the blossoms and licked the tear drops of sap off its ends. How we stripped down to our nakedness and hugged each other, our soft, warm bodies pressed so closely. Joined. How we kissed each other, two boys kissing. We didn’t know what we were doing. It just felt right. Bryan, too. I’ll find him. He’ll dig, too. The digging continues because I have no other option but to wait until I wake up. I’m knee deep in a hole, a hole as big around as the wide trunk of a monkey pod tree. The earth is supple, as if forty nights of rain has seeped to the very core, softening the sod and dirt and clay. I pile the extra dirt at
the surface, but when I go back to pile more, the dirt has disappeared. I am never filthy. It’s as if the dirt I shovel is not real. Then stars drop from the sky. It always happens when the hole is chest deep. The stars are suspended in the air in front of my face, all around. Or perhaps the earth has lifted into space and I’m now among the stars. How it happens, I am unsure. But there is beauty in this moment, and I anticipate it each time I dream. I hold my breath when it arrives, when the silver masses swirl and dance and burn. They sing. I stop digging and bathe in the chorus of stars. But then the whisper speaks and all goes silent and dark and desperate again. His voice chases it all away, the moment filled with Mother’s embrace, her humming and rocking, her kiss. He tells me to keep digging, don’t stop digging. And I do. I dig because I am frightened. Because his voice is my father’s voice. Because in the whisper I smell the wafting of cigarettes and acrid sweat and Jack Daniels. Because I feel a crazed grip at my throat. Because I cannot breathe. My arms should ache from the repetitive penetration of the earth and tossing of dirt over my head. The shoveling should have taken its toll on my body by now, but it has not. I feel nothing. I am numb. Not a drop of sweat has broken my forehead or above my lip. I only feel tired in my mind. Then Bryan appears. He stands at the surface of the hole, looking down at me, as if he arrived out of shadows. He is beautiful, his youthful chestnut skin glistening in twilight as if he is a newly developed sepia photograph. Where did you come from? How did you get here? I ask. I always ask. He does not reply. He looks at me, eyes painted with sadness. He turns and walks away, walks dragging his shovel behind him. I scale the wall of dirt, clamber out of the hole, and watch him walk away. I want to follow but the voice won’t let me. It whispers. Disgusting little boys. Bryan is far now. He lifts his shovel. And I brace myself, because I know what happens next. I’ve experienced this dream too many times. He pierces the earth and a bell tolls, a loud Kawaihao Church bell. This is where the dream is supposed to end. It always ends with the bell ringing. Tonight,
it does not. I’m still standing there. I see Bryan digging now, a frantic shoveling. I don’t know what to do next because I’ve never dreamed this far. So I run. I run to Bryan. The voice no longer whispers now. It screams. Run and your mother dies. She will die. But I don’t listen. I run. I run because Bryan is there in my sight, and nothing will prevent us from being together. Not now. Not ever. I tell Bryan to stop shoveling. That the whisper can’t hurt us. That it’s just a voice, a voice from somewhere and nowhere, and it is not real. Bryan stares at me plainly, as if I have spoken a language that he cannot understand. I am scared now, scared that Bryan is not real either. But Bryan drops his shovel and smiles. He reaches for me. Last Days of Rome I: Nero by Andreas Sundgren “The last days of Rome,” he mumbled. The bartender paused in polishing glasses, “Excuse me, sir, can I help you in any way?” The man by the panoramic window did not answer; he just inhaled deeply on the cigarette that he wasn’t allowed to smoke where he was sitting. While evening fell he had chain-smoked almost two packs of some menthol crap, whatever was left in the vending machine. The bartender went back to the polishing. From the 20th floor the man looked out over the city, all its fading splendor mirrored in the bay. The bridge was barely discernible through the smoke, but whatever was beyond it was lost in the growing darkness. The traffic out of the city was a string of pearls in yellow, red and white in constant motion swallowed by the black hole as it reached the final bridge span. The shifting light from the brightly lit streets reflected in the mirrors of the sky bar ceiling, flames creeping along the oak wall panels, licking the brass railings around the bar, dying when they reached the wall to wall carpet. The man raised his voice. “Nero,” he said. The bartender stopped again, “Nero, Sir?”
“Nero; wasn’t he the emperor that sang while Rome burned?” “Possibly, sir. History was never my subject, sir.” “It was Nero,” the man said. “I think he played some kind of instrument, too. A Lyre?” “Can I get you something, sir? On the house of course.” The man turned his gaze towards the window again and said, across his shoulder, “Yes, please. A Vodka. On the rocks.” The bartender picked out a tumbler from the freezer underneath the counter—a big, broad glass, thick bottomed, entirely iced over. Relieved to be given something to do, he took on the task of preparing the drink with extreme care. He balanced the glass on the tips of his fingers, picked three ice cubes carefully with the tongs, let them drop into the glass without hitting the inside ice layer, put the glass exactly in the center of the white napkin on the little silver tray, measured the liquor without spilling a drop, and carried it, straight-backed, tray balanced in turn on the fingertips of the right hand, from behind the bar, across the floor to the table where the man sat. “There you go, sir, the best the house has to offer.” The man nodded, gave the tray a cursory glance, took his drink and returned his gaze to the scenes playing out beyond the window. The bartender lingered, but before he had time to clear his throat, the man said, without looking at him, “I have no cash for a tip. Put ten dollars on my room bill.” “Very well, sir.” The bartender started back towards the safety of the bar, but stopped halfway, turned around and said, “Sir?” “Yes?” “You’re not allowed to smoke in here, but I’ll make an exception just this once.” “Thank you.”
Outside the window, the light had grown in strength; the streets were filled with people running as best they could; cars, bumper to bumper from Market Street over the hill, and Union Square down to the water. “Sir?” “Yes?” “It’s the news. Would you mind if I turned up the volume?” “No, of course not.” Fading up in the background, the sound of a news anchor from the wall-mounted TV set. When the sound was turned back down again, muffled sobs could be heard from the bar. The man turned around to see the bartender with his face buried in a white towel, crying. The man tilted his head slightly, catlike, and said, “What is wrong?” “The President just made the rescue package public; the whole country is declared a disaster area.” The man smiled, shook his head and bent down to retrieve a small black case from the floor underneath his table. He put it on the tabletop and opened the lid. Inside, on burgundy colored crushed velvet, lay an instrument, the same body shape as a Mandolin but about twice its size, made of deep black mahogany. He turned back facing the window and played his Lyre as San Francisco burned. Gravity by Diana Brodie Sunday afternoon. You have left it late. Though the pavement steams up through your feet, you’re intending to walk on. A moment’s inattention. The manhole cover flips open. And an arm, silk-sleeved, clasps you by the ankle, pulls you down.
You stand outside a shady courtyard, an arched gateway you pass through as beneath an eyebrow raised. Music floats down from shuttered rooms. Smoke curls and stifled laughter. The singer repeats the sonorous swing of clarinets. No more false starts. As you are halfway up the stairs, you recognize the stone step you stumble over, the banisters oiled by hands. You reach the darkened room. Stay all afternoon. Forever. The saxophonist plays while the singer in red velvet ends her song. She blows a kiss, and leaves. While you stay on. Living Room by Jeni Aron He sits down on the brown corduroy sectional, pushes the colorful knit afghan to the side and exhales with a large gusty breath. He needs to rest, just for a moment. He slides off his church shoes and tucks them under the couch. They hit something. He reaches down to find the forgotten pair of soccer cleats from last May, grass and dirt still clinging to the pegs. He picks up one of the cleats and pinches the dirt between his two fingers, massaging the soil as it falls to dust onto the crisp tan carpet. He places the shoe back under the couch, sits back and removes his glasses. He wipes his forehead with his handkerchief. He was at the cemetery all morning in the unforgiving sun. The most recent L. L. Bean catalog sits on the sturdy oak coffee table. They had ordered camping gear before the deployment, but the gear now remains untouched in the garage, piled amongst paper towels in bulk and multiple bicycles. The catalogs continue to come. Under the table is a basket holding his wife’s knitting project, gnarled and unfinished. He hears her and the other women in the kitchen cleaning up, glasses and silverware clang. The sound of their busy work is comforting to the man, and he closes his eyes for a few seconds. The song of children playing in the front yard trickles into the house. The children shriek and yell,
chasing each other with their voices. The man opens his eyes and winces at the late afternoon sun as it streams through the window, hitting the colossal flagstone fireplace, the sole reason why they purchased the house over twenty years ago. The American flag stands proudly in its tight triangular fold, snubbing him valiantly and commanding attention at the center of the mantle. To its left is a framed family portrait from three years ago at Disney World—smiles, souvenir sweatshirts, Goofy looming above even the tallest boy. The man feels the pain in his chest twist as he locks eyes with his son in the photo. The man slowly gets up from the couch and plods to the aquarium, its huge world contained in a simple glass box. This box holds life, the man thinks. The other box holds shrapnel and bone. The orange and turquoise fish dance to the top as he shakes out some flaked food onto his palm and sprinkles it on top of the water. This he can control; this he can maintain. The fish gobble up the food and dance some more. The miniature treasure chest at the bottom of the tank opens and closes on its own, burping bubbles at each beat. The man is mesmerized by the contraption and feels himself become weightless as if he too is in the tank. His wife calls out a question from the kitchen and he continues to stare blankly at the water. She calls out again, “Joe! Do you want coffee?” He comes back to himself, wipes his hands on his pants and leaves the room to attend to his wife. My Mind’s Eye by J. L. Stratton Dear All-seeing Sophia,
I am sending you this email from a hospital bed. One would think that after using the All-seeing Sophia email psychic service for many years, I would have been afforded a proper reading and prediction of my future. I certainly believe, if you truly were psychic, you might have told me to be more careful. Yesterday afternoon, just after receiving your
cryptic email, I was hit by a Wal-Mart truck carrying a load of Dr. Thunder soda. I would think that being hit by a truck would be something you could have easily foreseen. My next correspondence will likely be from my lawyer.
Love impresses upon your eye and punctures from astern. Beware: Love comes from ahead, and pain from behind.
Good day, Jonathan Tischel
Once again, I have failed to understand your cryptic message. It seems you are telling me that, again, I will be slain but not see it coming.
You might recall, as I certainly do from my records, my exact words were, “Take heed the rolling thunder, as its love will hit you like a tidal wave bringing you sweetness and effervescence.” My website states, and my lawyer concurs, that All-seeing Sophia will not be responsible for any event, real or perceived, that may or may not be attributable to predictions made by said entity. The notice on my website also clearly states, “Allseeing Sophia services are for entertainment purposes only.” In consideration of your current and rather painful predicament, I am willing to offer you a fifty-percent discount on a future service of my choosing. All-seeing Sophia Dear All-seeing Sophia,
I certainly wish that I had eyes in the back of my head with the way you predict my fortunes, or rather, misfortunes. On a more civil note, I did meet someone today as you had mentioned in an earlier post. It seems I had left my wallet in the hospital, and as I was leaving, a nurse chased me down to give it back to me. She seems very nice. We have our first date tomorrow. Your friend, Jonathan Jonathan,
Wish granted. 2 February
Point taken, Sophia, but frankly, I interpreted your message to mean that I would find love, or rather, love would find me. What I received instead, was a fast ride to the hospital in an ambulance. Although, I must say, the EMT was nice to me and I managed to get her number. Do you have any prediction on a future with her? Jonathan Tischel Jonathan,
Please notice in your next statement, the discount applied. All-seeing Sophia Dear All-seeing Sophia,
Thank you for sending Rochelle to me. She is wonderful and our relationship is progressing wonderfully. Is this the wish you’ve granted? Anyway, thank you.
I must confess I am very disappointed in your services to point of anger. Do I understand correctly in assuming that Rochelle was not the wish you granted? I am in disdain of your cruel sense of humor.
I am writing on behalf of All-seeing Sophia. The Law firm of Adleman, Forrester, and Klemisch has concluded that your case against our client is without warrant. We have taken the initiative and spoken with your lawyer. There is no case.
I woke the other morning with a terrible ache in my eye. I groggily left my bed to wash my face with cool water. The water did not sooth my aching eye, and I was horrified to discover that the pain could not be soothed because THE EYE WAS IN THE BACK OF MY HEAD!
Furthermore, the accounting firm of Wallace & Sons wished to have our legal firm relay this message: “You get what you pay for, at fifty percent.”
HOW COULD YOU!?! Just combing my hair was a terribly painful event. By the way, I only have one eye back there. I can’t make out distances and, try as I might to use the eye, I just run into walls and doors. My hair covers the eye (something I consider a positive considering the grotesque nature of the new visual atrocity) and becomes irritated and painful by day’s end. Furthermore, I had a very romantic evening planned with Rochelle for Valentine’s Day, but you ruined that as well. For the first time since our meeting, she met me in her doorway and quickly embraced me. As we pulled close into that inevitable kiss that I was sure would make her fall in love with me, she slid her lovely hands over my shoulder and into my hair. In my enamored condition, I had forgotten about the eye and, of course, had not told Rochelle of my predicament. Just as I felt the warmth of her lips so close to mine, she poked me in the eye! As you may well know, she was completely disgusted, and I was in no shape to explain, as I was reeling from the pain and trying to keep my own hair out of my watering eye. Rochelle refuses to answer my calls. Lastly, I spoke to my lawyer and he believes we have a viable case. Our next correspondence may very well be in person—and in court! Jonathan Tischel
Condolences, Adleman, Forrester, and Klemisch New Friends by J. P. Reese John Doew (Writer)
Clear Chat History Me Can’t sleep either? ; )
John Hi. How are you?
Me 4:03 Fine. What are you doing up so late? or is it early? ; ) You must be writing. I friended Amy Tan yesterday. I love being friends with writers. It’s so inspiring. Me --You still there?
4:06 John Sorry. I was writing--an early piece of my memoirs. I have to get it all down while I have time or I’ll forget. I like to multi-task. Me Your memors? Coll.
Me I mean “cool”
Me 4:07 ..and “memoirs,” of course. Sorry it’s early. : ) John 4:08 How’s your daughter doing? Was it Stacey? At least she’s sleeping, I trust. LOL Me 4:09 Yes--Stacey can sleep through a hurricane. She’s fine. When I was twelve, I slept like the dead too ; ) Me What are you “getting down” at this hour?
John 4:10 Glad to hear she’s fine. Actually, I have to capture the image of a little girl I once knew on paper before I move on to the next chapter. Me Little girl?
John 4:11 Yes. Adjectives are sometimes difficult for me I’m trying to think of a word for a strange shade of blue --Can you think of any adjectives for bluish? Me Cerulean? (sp? ; ) Sky? Navy? Bruise?
John Buised blue. Sounds right.
Me This giurl is in your memoirs?
John 4:11 Right. I have to remember how her skin felt. I can’t recall if it was damp or dry, and I can’t capture the color of her face in words. I knew her a while ago, so it’s hard to capture the first moment perfectly. Me The first moment of what? : )
Me --you still there?
John 4:18 Too bad you’re in Akron. Isn’t it Firestone Park? If we lived closer, we could get together when I have these writer’s blocks at four am and you can’t sleep. It’s always nice to meet “friends” in person. Maybe we could go to Starbucks. LOL. Me John? Are you writting a short story?
Me writing ; ) The first moment of what?
John 4:19 Is your daughter in middle-school? They’re so sweet at that age, but it must be hard raising her when you have to work full time and you’re alone. Does she spend a lot of time at your house by herself? Me How do you know I’m raising her alone?
John 4:21 I always like to scroll back through a new friend’s old posts to get a feel for them and their lives. People post such interesting things about themselves on Facebook. Sometimes I can get ideas for stories from them. I noticed your post a few months back about your ex and how he doesn’t pay support or come to visit. So sad. I get to Akron occasionally. Maybe we can have dinner. Celebrate that birthday you’ve been dreading : ) You can bring Stacey. I love kids an… (SEE MORE) John You there?
John 4:27 Oh, well. I suppose you’ve finally popped off to sleep or maybe that Boston Terrier of yours is howling in the backyard again. Anyway, thanks for the “friending.” Enjoy your Saturday gardening, and I hope we’ll be able to meet in person soon. Sweet dreams...
Poets Never Really Die by Suicide by Bud Koenemund “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” —Ernest Hemingway Poets never really die by suicide, The sad victims of self-inflicted harm; Though it’s often the cause the Times will cite, In obits written while the body’s still warm; They do not succumb to mere oven gas, Single-car “accidents” on long, straight roads, Exposure, starvation, or shotgun blasts; Nor to drowning, slit wrists, or overdose; Sadly, many fall long before they jump, Or break their necks at the end of a rope; They die when faith is lost and spirits slump; When this mortal life leaves them without hope. The cause of death need not be picked apart, For poets only die of broken hearts. Night Travel by M. Kathleen Topper Walworth I step in and the elevator descends, lands with a thud and springs to ascent: an exhilarating rush to the top. The door opens. I step out, tumble into the abyss. My own deep snoring wakens me. I open my eyes but cannot lift my head. Late-morning light sits on the pillow. I have overslept and missed breakfast. Again.
I left nineteen messages for you one night—a little obsessive. I can admit that now. But I wanted to explain. About the astral travel and the blade cutter. I only brought it to cut the silver cord—to free our astral bodies from their earthly vessels. Can’t you imagine it? The two of us stranded forever in another realm? I get up and dress. I tuck my night gown under the bed pillow as I feel inside the hem for my last Silver Serpent Capsule. I’ll take it tonight. I have more at home, and I’ll probably be home tomorrow. I’ve been here at least seventy-two hours. Daytime in here slogs along so slowly: free time, lunch, group. I say all the right things. I interact. Yet all day long I crave the night. Night. I will swallow that capsule and lie on my back in the narrow bed. I will methodically relax my body from toe to head. As I teeter on the narrow ledge between waking and dreaming, one muscle jerks, then another. You once told me that the muscles jerk because a chemical is released to relax them. So scientific. I’ve come to believe the muscles jerk to help the earthly body release its imprisoned spirit. When they come for bed check, they will see me sleeping soundly, snoring softly. And in your room, miles away, you will see me, too. I will stand at the foot of your bed and say, “Unwind your silver cord and join me, now.”
I tentatively rub my hands together under the sheets. They are dry, not drenched in sticky blood. My body is leaden but my mind races. Last night I left my body. I traveled.
I’ll show you the plane of light that I know so well— the one that exists between Heaven and Earth, between Earth and Hell.
Astral projection. With practice and an open mind, it is truly possible. Even in this cold, unfriendly place. I use self hypnosis and the recommended herbs. They are expensive but worth the price.
Nightcrawler by R. K. Gemienhardt
It is probably for the best that I don’t have access
to my cell phone. I would be so tempted to call you and ask, “Do you remember what I remember? Were we really together last night?” And I must not contact you. I promised. I will not send you packages and emails, or show up unannounced at your door.
Brandon paced the living room of his dingy apartment. He knew that he should keep a low profile, but the fact that his latest victim was found alive
left him feeling unfulfilled. He needed something big to take the edge off. Something he could relive and savor for a long time. He needed to kill a child. Brandon couldn’t believe his luck when he spied a young girl of about six or seven playing on the swing set in the park. He studied her from the shadows. She was dirty and barefoot, and her frayed, worn sundress had seen better days. But beneath the glow of the sodium-vapor light she looked like an angel. Brandon walked up to the girl who sensed his presence and stopped swinging. Brandon smiled, they were never afraid at first; he looked like such a nice guy. “I am the answer. What is the question?” he asked. The opening line he always used, his ritual. The little girl giggled, staring down at her toes sifting through the dirt. “That sure is a silly question,” she said. She suddenly kicked her feet out and started to swing. “Would you give me a push? I want to go really high,” she squealed. Brandon stepped forward and grabbed the swings chain, stopping the girl’s motion. “I am the answer. What is the question?” he growled. “I’m not going to ask you again.” “Sorry, mister,” the little girl whispered, her head down in deference. “If you’re the answer, then the question would have to be…” The girl paused and finally looked up. “Which one of us is going to die tonight?” Brandon took an involuntary step backward, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There was something wrong with the girl’s face, and it took Brandon a few seconds to realize what it was. She didn’t have any eyes. “You know, Brandon, looks can be deceiving. You should judge a person by what’s on the inside. And you’re not going to like what’s inside of me,” she said. Brandon took another step back. How could she possibly know his name? He quickly pulled the knife from the waistband of his jeans and held it out in front of him.
The crack of the girl’s jaw breaking startled Brandon, causing him to drop the knife. A giant white worm forced its way out of her mouth. The growing worm split the girl’s head wide open, leaving the top half of her skull hanging by a loose piece of skin on the back of her neck. Brandon stumbled and fell to the ground. He scooted backwards, never taking his eyes off of the monstrosity emerging from the little girl. The worm continued to grow once outside the confines of the host. It opened its mouth in a silent scream, revealing circular rows of jagged metal teeth descending all of the way down its throat. The worm reared up and lunged forward scooping Brandon’s legs into its mouth. Brandon thrashed and screamed as the worm inched its way up his body until it had swallowed him whole. Once he was all the way inside, the worm began to slowly regurgitate Brandon, allowing the circular rows of razor sharp teeth to strip the skin from his body, exposing the true Brandon. Not Her Real Name by Michael Russell I went to Six Flags Great Adventure with a Romanian prostitute I met at a psychiatric hospital in northern New Jersey. On the rollercoaster, her long apricot hair fluttered in the wind like a battle flag of an ancient army. It was as cold as Christmas, but she loved the short lines. We went on the same ride twenty times. Her favorite place in the world was Great Adventure. She explained, growing up in Romania, they didn’t have amusement parks. She didn’t talk much about Romania, except to say they did not have roller coasters. My addiction to painkillers came after a swimming accident. I was a lifeguard and dove into the shallow end to retrieve a lost engagement ring. My hip banged against the tile bottom and my leg went numb. The next day, I awoke in pain; stabs along my back and leg made me think I had cracked my hip. Doctors determined I had injured my sciatic nerve. The medical term for the condition was Sciatic Nerve Palsy. The palsy facilitated addiction. My doctor prescribed freely because the injury could only heal over time.
When I first used Oxycodone, crusty spring dog crap would make me gush gleefully. A pet owner forgot to stoop and scoop, and I stepped in it. No problem. The high made it impossible to get annoyed. An overflowing gush of joy and sweetness swept over me. We shared that. Nadia (not her real name) used the same drug—the same way. Her face was creased like a spider had spun a web under her tight skin that had evaporated leaving thread-like grooves in her skull, but her green eyes were ageless piercing hooks. Her lips flickered like a silent movie; the movement of tongue and teeth enough to communicate even if the words weren’t always in English. Her bones were brittle, but her breasts were reinforced engines of the adult-entertainment industry. Stopping bullets seemed possible. I met her in group therapy. I stared at her like she was my long-lost childhood friend from across the circle. The next day playing ping pong, I fell for the violence in her soul. That can be beautiful too. Outside, wind whipped angry tree braches against the window pane and cold rain beat the ground to black mud, but inside she was a tropical island. Against the fading purple orange light, she swung at the darkness of approaching night, her floral print halter top exposing the sharp hones in her spine and shoulder blades. I asked what she wanted to do after she got out. Move to the country. Why? “Because I hate people.” For weeks inside a sterile reformatory, I took every chance to see her; being around her made my blood pressure drop and biology change. We talked about simple things: television, music, food, bad drivers, or nothing at all. She was my drug inside the hospital; out of all the new people I had been surrounded with, Nadia was the only one I trusted. We would sit side by side, looking out the window, glancing at each other occasionally, until some rule prevented us from being together. The morning we got discharged, we went to Great Adventure, but had to stop to have sex in a Red Roof Inn. There was so much pent up energy expelled, we lay around afterwards for hours on the bed. Naked on the bed, she admitted she wasn’t allowed to be in the United States and she wasn’t a dancer. She was a prostitute who had used fake identification to get admitted to hospital. When I
asked how she came over to begin with, she said she didn’t know. Her agent had brought her over and she hadn’t understood what he said to the INS. She said the first song she ever heard in America was “Just Like a Pill” by Pink. The radio in the shuttle bus that had taken her from Newark International to the Port Authority bus terminal played it. She had flown in from Italy, after being in Albania for a year. She was twenty-one when she arrived and didn’t speak English, but her agent had found her work the next day. She couldn’t remember the name of the club. We got dressed and left for the amusement park. The brochure said Great Adventure was the biggest Six Flags in the country, but it was the last weekend of the season and abnormally cold, which made it feel like Euro Disney—desolate and misunderstood. We ran to the thrill rides. Her head swung back and forth on the roller coaster, her neck muscles, sleek and rigid, fighting the torque as the contraption hurled us furiously in tight orbits across steel loops. Early on, we had to exit the loading dock and race down stairs and through a stainless steel maze to get back to the front of the line. After a few hours, the pimple operating the circus trick allowed us to sit in the carriage as he shot us off again and again until winter stole our last chance. Past the toll booths, her cell phone rung and I knew where to drop her. The Skyline Hotel on 10th Avenue and West 49th Street in Manhattan. I risked showing my face and walked into the lobby. Two women were waiting and spoke the same language. I kissed her and gave her a big hug, my arms enveloping her boney back. Clutching her hard, I double pumped five or six times and almost cried. The embrace embarrassed her. She said in English, “eezz a life guard.” I drove along 49th Street east to Times Square, past the School for Graphic Communication Arts, and called from a pay phone inside the Starbucks at Eight Avenue. Crime Stoppers is anonymous. They gave me a code number to call back if I wanted to find out what happened. I never did. It was too painful.
Prince Charming After a Long Day of Sole Searching by Kim Klugh
lay a weary newspaper, open by chance to the obituaries, and there she was, dammit, staring up at him.
So I left the castle as the sun rose with high hopes thinking, How tough can it be to find a mate to the size 6 1/2 glass slipper I’m carrying in my pocket?
He knew she’d been sick. He’d called in from the shelter a few days before, just his random holler and hassle to let her know he would never let her be. But his brother the genius writing professor had answered, given him the news. That was—when? And now, with the paper and obituary before him, she must have gone the next day. He read the first sentence: “She wore her beauty like a stone that became her anchor that became her wings.” They were his own words, something from the rant he’d given Genius. He hadn’t thought them positive at the time, but that brother of his had a way of twisting things. The obituary went on to mention her charity work with the homeless, the impoverished, the mentally ill. He was mentioned as a surviving son, but that was all. Not even beloved.
After spending the day getting up and down off my horse, making pleasantries with the village maidens (and their mothers), it became clear to me how hard it is to live up to this “charming” moniker while sizing up feet And the delicately fragrant feet were few—talk about knocking my socks off—Whew! Door to door these women (and their mothers) threw themselves at me, batted their eyes, fanned their feet in my face and assured me that the glass slipper I found at the ball belonged to them, which was a sorry cry from the truth, I soon found out, as each one jammed, squeezed, stuffed or thrust a big, wide, flat foot into this revealing shoe Ladies, your calloused soles, corned toes and bulging bunions were not meant for the likes of this classy glassy number. I don’t mean to be a heel, but this town could use a podiatrist— Dear ladies, have you never heard of Odor-Eaters? Methinks I will be stopping by the local pub on my way back to the castle, seeking glass of a rather different shape. The Obituary by Michael Ramberg He tucked the cash into an old cigar box, threw the coins on top, shoved the whole thing into his backpack. Wandered off the exit ramp, tucking the cardboard sign under his arm, and five minutes later was in the coffee place. On the nearest table
Last he’d seen her was his seventeenth birthday. That cold February tenth when he’d awakened her at 3 a.m. with the sound of his thunking an ax into the cedar tree she claimed was carried by his sainted father from the Holy Land itself. She’d gasped in fear and locked him out and gone to stand at the window, staring at the sight: the cedar a pile of slivers and boughs and him panting and bleeding in the cold. She opened the window, said, “Where is this anger from? Where?” He never went home again. Went out to a friend’s, got a job and a woman before losing them both in the depths of the bottle and pills that quieted the rage. Then there’d been years of counselors and medication, all abandoned when he fell in with the street folk she loved so much and wanted to save. He ranted at her a few times over that, how he’d ended up with her pets, but by then she wouldn’t help him, had moved her cause to the library and its woeful underfunding. So he went there at night, pissed on the walls, tore pages from books, was banned, snuck back in, was arrested, laughing, and after that more counselors and different pills and then, finally, once again to the welcoming calm of the street. He stood over the obituary, the whiff of his own self in his nose and the stink of his own words rising up at him. Maybe, she being dead now, he’d get some cash out of it, maybe he could find a
thing to do that wasn’t standing on the exit ramp with a sign at his chest saying, “It’s Hard Times for a Free Man.” Maybe there’d be no money. He found it hard to care either way. Maybe rage was a young man’s game. He tore out the page, folded it, put it in the cigar box with the change so he could remember when the service started. Maybe he’d get on the bus tomorrow, go give his brother a hard time. He ordered his coffee and crackers. Sat down. Thought maybes till dusk. Of Q-Tips and Tomorrows by Dawn Lei There were a lot of places Jonathon Anders imagined he’d be on the morning after his twenty-first birthday—splayed across a bathroom floor, curled in the corner of some bar with an empty bottle of Smirnoff, heck, even trapped on top of a Vegas hotel with nothing but a mattress. But here? Standing in front of a dimly lit bathroom mirror with a sterile swab clutched in his hand, trying to make the biggest decision of his unfortunately sober twenty-one-year-old life? Not exactly top of the list. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. You weren’t supposed to face your own mortality and infirmity until you were a paunchy forty-somethingyear-old, because at least then you could go out and buy a red Corvette and pretty blonde to ease the whole mid-life-crisis thing. He looked down. “Stupid pretentious Q-tip,” he muttered, fingers tightening around its fragile stem. It was a simple enough procedure. Swab mouth, place in tube, close and ta-da. One week and then all his questions would be answered. So why couldn’t he do it? Why was he doing it? Why him?
It had to be karma, he decided. Some grand way of evening things out, because it wasn’t fair for him to get to go to med school and to get to teeter on the brink of rock stardom—okay, maybe “brink” was a bit of a stretch, but, dammit, what was hyperbole for if not to soothe his own ego? Maybe he’d gotten too cocky and had somehow infuriated the gods in that old mythological, hubris-now-Imust-fall kind of way. He sighed, his hand rubbing tiredly at his face. All dramatics aside, the fact was that he had to decide. Decide. Did he want to know? Know if he faced the same horrifying fate that had felled his once sharp-witted, able-minded, strong father? Could he live in oblivion? Would it haunt him? Knowing, not knowing? Pro, con. Pro, con. Con: It couldn’t absolve him, couldn’t promise him he’d age free from the terrors of…of… It wasn’t error free; it could hand him a sentence that might never come to pass. There was nothing he could do, even it did tell him what he feared. There was no cure, no amazing treatment lurking on the horizon—just the horror of what could happen swimming dizzyingly into sight. Pro: It was worse not knowing, right? Imagining. Jumping at every forgotten task. Panicking over every misplaced item. Wondering if this was the start. He’d know. Maybe it couldn’t tell him he was free, but maybe there was a blessing in knowing that he wasn’t. He’d know. Knowing had won. That’s why he was standing there staring at this stupid cotton stick, only…only, it was suddenly all too real. How could knowing be better than the soft comforting swaddle of ignorance?
Knowing hurt. Three years ago he’d had a father. A forty-sevenyear-old, slightly embarrassing dad who tended to ask too many questions. He’d give anything for his dad to pepper him with questions again. Johnny had been surprised how quickly a person could disappear, how fast it’d progressed. They had caught it late, and he still blamed himself for that. For being so absorbed in his own dreams that he’d never noticed anyone around him. One day he was playing gigs at a local bar and the next he was getting calls from the police about his dad meandering the neighborhood in his boxers. That was then. Now? Every day was its own sort of hell. From the moment he walked into the overly sterile halls of the nursing center, he could feel the dread. The icy clutch around his chest that didn’t leave until he saw his dad. Some days there’d be that spark, that brightening around the Alice blue of his dad’s eyes, that slight straightening and forward lean of anticipation and recognition. Those were the good days. The ones when he remembered, and the hours would flash by because it was almost like they were back at home, just catching up. It’d been a long time since they’d had one of those days. And a part of him couldn’t help but wonder if the last one had been the last one, and he’d start scrambling to remember what had been said so he could cradle those fragile syllables, those last—those words. Most days he’d walk in and his dad would look up, glance at him a little quizzically, as if he knew he should know him, before going back to whatever he’d been doing. And Johnny would have to decide. It’d be easier to walk away, try again another day. And there were days when he did that, when he couldn’t muster the strength to stride in and strike up a conversation.
On Johnny’s good days—funny how he had good and bad days now—when his emotional armor felt solid enough, he’d go in. Sometimes he’d play himself, only that was selfish in its own way because all the prodding in the world couldn’t help his dad reconcile the adult he saw before him and the child he remembered. So he’d be someone else, whatever name his dad placed upon him. He was Fred, his dad’s old frat buddy who’d died a couple years back; or Danny, the guy that’d served with his dad in the Gulf War or... Was it really possible to prepare yourself for that fate? To be the one forgetting and losing? He looked down, rolled the tan stick of the swab between his fingers, and wondered. Did he want to know? The swab was in his mouth and plunking into the tube before he could fully decide that answer. He didn’t know what he’d do when the results came, whether that envelope would get opened or the page unfurled and read. All he knew was that today he was pressing the answer to his future into the awaiting nurse’s hands and walking out before he could change his mind. Today he knew. Tomorrow? Tomorrow was another day. Offices of Love by Joe Kraus Leonard assumed Frances was lazier than usual that morning until, passing by to get more water, he teased the cat with his stockinged foot. When she continued to lie still, he bent to feel her throat. It was cold. He called Sarah, and had to explain to the switchboard, as usual, that she was a temp. “It’s Frances,” he told her, trying to let his tone carry his message. “She stopped breathing. Sometime in the middle of the night. I only just found her.” She let out an “Ohhh” that stretched across four syllables. “My baby. My poor baby. You’re sure?”
Leonard was sure. “It must have been that eel I gave her last night. You were right, honey, when you warned me about it.” He had given no such warning. Instead, coveting the leftovers for himself, he’d asked why they were wasting gourmet food on a creature that licked its anus. He didn’t correct her. “I can’t get home right now, I can’t…aw, Lenny. Can you do this—the right way—for me, for us? “Who knew that eel could do that to a cat?” After hanging up, Leonard gathered Frances’s effects for a Humane Society donation: her water bowl, two unopened flea collars, a full bag of clay litter, a started jug of the kind that clumped when she peed in it, her catnip mouse, a toy he’d made for her from a broken guitar string and a twist tie, her litter box, and, since they’d been out of dry food for a week, six small tins of Fancy Feast. He threw away the piece of plywood she’d shredded as a claw-sharpener, and he vacuumed the sofa, love seat and carpet of all visible hair. He located a box from Quartet Copies that he remembered from the day several months earlier when Sarah brought home two copies of her dissertation, ripe for binding and symbols of a professorship just over the horizon. He lined it with crumpled pages of the Sun-Times and then, cringing slightly, lifted Frances into it. He decided she looked comfortable. He talked with Sally, their jewelry-designing landlord who’d bought in West Rogers Park while it was still affordable. As he’d assumed, she told him it was fine to borrow the spade and put Frances in one of the weedy corners of the back yard. “Just dig it deep, Len,” she said. “One of these years I will get around to putting in a garden.” That night, as they nursed a bottle of Shiraz at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, Sarah put her hand on top of his. “That was beautiful, Hon,” she said. “The way you printed out that picture of the three of us for inside the box. She was so small then, you could cradle her in your forearm. Thanks. Thanks for making that my last memory of her.”
He threaded his fingers into hers and gave a gentle squeeze. When she looked up, she was crying. Leonard felt the familiar panic of not knowing what she was feeling. “Would you ever, maybe, think about… naming a child Frances?” He decided to pretend that she was joking. “Not if it’s a boy, I wouldn’t.” “Okay. Frank.” “That isn’t very Jewish.” “Then some Jewish name that starts with F. How about that?” “I think,” he paused, “I’d rather go with Eli.” She took a moment. Then, making the connection to the fatal leftovers of the night before, she burst into laughter. Even after she held both hands to her mouth, she was so loud that several tables looked their way. That night, she initiated their love for the first time in a month. He awoke the next morning to find her spooning against him. Several weeks later, Leonard looked up from his book to see Sarah standing before him brandishing a small brush his mother had sent them as a “Congratulations on my First Grandcat” gift. He’d overlooked it in the drawer beside their bed. “You suck,” she hissed, “you really suck.” Then she shoved him in the shoulders with so much force that he fell back into his chair and, as he watched her pass through their bedroom door, he could not raise himself. Sorry About Your Poem by Doug Mathewson I’m sorry I did not understand your poem. Really, so incredibly sorry. You held it up to show that it was printed in a shape. You were very excited and so was I. I hadn’t really caught the title,
but you were so happy, I let it go. I’m sorry I did not understand your poem. The shape was a nut, maybe an acorn, I thought. There were winter scenes and images of bright eyes longing for special treats. Then I understood it was a dreidel, and your cousins, Nathan and Sahara, were celebrating the joy of Hanukkah! Not two hungry squirrels at winter’s solstice like I thought. I’m sorry I did not understand your poem. You cried then, and told me the shape was a heart. A heart, your heart, you said because this was a love poem, written because you loved me, or used to think you did. I felt horrible making you cry and for being such an oaf. Then I was crying, too, and laughing crazy. Because I had always loved you, and never thought you’d notice. I’m sorry I did not understand you poem, but now I do. Post by Sarah Eaton He was on the ground in the kitchen, and I thought he was being strange. I nudged him with my foot, and he didn’t make any sounds, and it seemed like his body was actively resisting the nudge. I stepped on his fingers a little bit, just to play, and when he didn’t react, I full-on kicked him in the ribs. Then I called emergency services, and they came in a flurry and pumped his stomach, which made a huge mess they did not clean up. He came home a week later. “‘Outpatient’ is a weird word,” I said to him. “How did I break my rib?” he said to me.
read it once, and then I ate it. It said, “I was so bored.” He wrote it in the past tense. I tried not to whisper around him, or ask questions, or cry, which I didn’t really feel like doing anyway. There are stages of grief, you know, and anger feels so clean. I made him scrub up his stomach contents. They ate away part of the linoleum, so I made him go to the hardware store and find replacement tiles and install them. Two days later, he told me his therapist liked this exercise, and I wished I hadn’t made him do it. “I’m betting there wasn’t a tunnel or a white light,” I said. “Nope,” he said, and then he spooned a huge amount of macaroni onto his plate. “No cheese in the afterlife?” I asked. “It’s the only thing keeping me here,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if that was a joke, so I snorted, and he didn’t react, and that confused me more. He ate a lot more, after. Sometimes he would take fourths and fifths of dinner. I really wanted him to go to a class after work, and I kept suggesting pottery because it seemed like he would get actual stuff from it, but every time I said it, he looked at me with his eyes but not his face. “You should quit your job,” I said. “I like my job,” he said. “If you don’t change anything about your life from before, then how do I know it’s not going to happen again?” I said. “What is ‘it’?” he said. “You know, ‘it,’” I said.
“I’m not an oracle,” I said. “Maybe you should sacrifice an animal and read its guts.”
“I’m going to go buy some razors and sleeping pills,” he said, and then he left the house, but he came back with nothing.
I was acting out. It was because of the note, which came in the mail while he was in the hospital. I
He started to become plump, and I honestly didn’t care, because it’s not like there was any physical
contact between us, and besides, I’m not superficial like that. After a couple of months, he started to use a cane. “What’s this affectation?” I said. “Do you think you’re a gentleman scholar?” “I need it for my back,” he said. “You need it for your head,” I said, and I picked it up from the ground by his recliner and made a fake threatening gesture, like I was going to crush his skull. He grabbed it from me and lashed me across the backs of my legs before I knew what was happening, and then time slowed down. I looked in front of me, and I saw that if I kept my arms limp and fell, I would hit my head on the coffee table, and it would be his fault. He would call the doctor, and I would go to the hospital, and he would react. So I crumpled, and I fell, and I hit the corner of the coffee table with my head, right about my left eyebrow. When I woke up, he was watching a game show. “That was cute,” he said. I didn’t say anything. My tongue felt beefy. “No, really,” he said. “That was a good way to get attention. Tell me your feelings.” I spat blood onto his shoe. “You better clean that up,” he said. “There are consequences for every single thing you do. Every single thing.” I went and got a paper towel and some blue spray cleaner, and I removed the blood from his shoe, and then I went to the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I had, as people say, a goose egg, and there was this flap that I could pull back to expose part of my skull. I put a strip of medical tape over the flap. My tongue was bleeding. I guess I bit it. “Maybe this was just the change I needed,” he said from the doorway. “For you to shut the fuck up for once.”
I stopped going to work, and he stopped going to his therapist, and we got our groceries delivered: mac and cheese, sleeping pills, razors. I hid the sleeping pills and razors on my body, hoping he would touch me. I felt a new appreciation for game shows; people know things that are different than the things I know. I wondered about usefulness and necessity. I started to do ten sit-ups every night at nine o’clock as something to anticipate. It made a difference. There was a woman whose skin melded with a toilet seat, she sat there so long. She recovered. She knows what I know: Sometimes you have to wallow; you have to rub mud on your face, and let it dry and flake off naturally. You have to stop using language with the person you love and just be there, in the same place as him, until the place you occupy together becomes the only place in the world. That’s making a choice. He closed his eyes, and I did, too. Queen of Fire by Townsend Walker I know who set fire to the barn. The big barn, out Ranch Road, west of Nicasio. Had a new coat of red paint, pretty white trim. Two years ago it was converted into a music studio with a performance space. Did a real nice job. I’ve been in it three or four times. A local couple own it. Good neighborly people; organize the Fourth of July and Labor Day events here in the village. They work in the city. She runs an insurance agency. He’s a music professor at SF State. Live in that icy-white Edwardian two-story across the field. No one was hurt, though I’m not sure that was the intent. A fair amount of electronic equipment destroyed. Some people figure it was that stuff that caused the fire. Their real losses were sentimental: paired guitars custom-made for them by somebody named Darren Hippner. The couple played the guitars at their wedding. It was the second marriage for both. They broke the divorce news to their unsuspecting spouses on the
same day, at the same time. That’s a few years back now. For her, the separation was easy. Her ex moved out on the weekend, and there weren’t any kids. For him, the divorce was a tangled affair. His wife Suzanne, also a musician, a flautist, would have issued a fatwa against him had she been able. I’ve known her for years, knew her mother; and I’ve got to say this: Suzanne can be a holy terror when she gets hold of something. She wasn’t shy about telling anyone in the village of her unmistakable pain in being cheated on, lied to, and spat upon. Add to the mix: her replacement was younger and prettier. She fed this gruel to her daughters. When the youngest daughter married and had twin boys, she reconciled with her father. This rapprochement caused Suzanne “inextinguishable heartache.” Those were the words she used. She alternated between writing flaming letters to her ex and traitorous daughter, and absenting herself to Brazil for months at a time. In Rio, she found choro, music with a Portuguese melody and African beat. Soon, a Brazilian choro mandolin player and the anguished Suzanne found common cause in their music and their lives. It seems he too had been overthrown by a spouse of twenty-plus years.
Three months after the night in the terreiro, Suzanne breezed back into Nicasio to find that the Umbandan curse hadn’t traveled. Her ex-husband and his wife had become the most popular twosome in the village; in fact, their barn was now the center of its social life. Suzanne raged at the injustice. She became so fevered that her friends, including me, feared for her sanity. Neither we, nor her therapist were able to get her to settle down. That only happened a bit after the fire. She stopped by for coffee the following morning. It was hard talking to her. She couldn’t focus, twitched some, and her voice was low, disembodied. Like something had taken over. When I brought up the barn, she said: “you know, some people assert their morals with fire.” I sat there, at a loss for words. When Suzanne found out all the stuff in the barn was covered by insurance, she got screwy. That week before she left for Rio she was like a bull: head down, rushing around, on a mission, nobody could figure out what. She left on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, dogs began to die.
One night they visited an Umbanda priestess in her terreiro. That’s what they call the place where they have their ceremonies. It was a low ceiled room, an altar at the far end with statues and guttering candles. In the dim light, two dolls were made, representing their former spouses. The cloth figures were smeared with ritual oils and adorned with snake bones. The figures were stuck through with nails in the head, heart, stomach, leg and foot. Curses were chanted by the priestess and the choro couple, their hands laced over the book Capa de Aço, by São Cipriano. The final curse: I swear to you, under the power of Maria Padilha, that henceforth you will be under this spell.
Quittin’ Time by Russell Bittner
Maria is the Umbandan Queen of Fire. Centuries ago it’s said she was a prostitute in Paris—or maybe it was Madrid. There’s more than one story. Her many “patrons,” if that’s the term, in each of her seven incarnations, are believed to be with her in the spirit world.
You’re traveling light now. No more need for tools, for accessories, for baggage of any kind. You’re walking towards the light, and you can finally travel light. There’s a certain beauty in light—of both sorts.
It’s quittin’ time. You’ve had eight long hours, and the gig is up. You’ve asked the Bossman for overtime, but He ain’t havin’ none of it. You’re done for the day. You pack up your shit and head for the door. The door, at least, shows light. Everything behind you, everything still overhead, underfoot, off to the side, is dark. Once you pass through that door— glory Hallelujah!—there’ll be no going back, no more darkness.
“What about ‘job satisfaction?’” you may well ask. Don’t. The Bossman didn’t hire you, didn’t pay you, doesn’t support the charity of ‘job satisfaction.’ The Bossman gives out jobs—that’s it. You do yours for as long as you’re able, for as long as you do it to His satisfaction, and then you just don’t anymore. Someone else’ll do it.
into scattered light and listen to the ticking in my ears
Work is a constant. Workers are not.
curiously, I was light in the way alone is not lonely when you’re under the porch in a storm, smelling rain.
There’s for sure less of it at times—due, of course, to something reverently called “market forces.” (“Market forces,” I guess, are a bit like “natural forces”—‘cept they ain’t, not really.) And then, the forces behind “market forces” withhold the capital, and work slows down. Fate—and a bit of cronyism—decide who continues to enjoy the so-called “fruits.” But at the end of the day, the Bossman steps in and decides who stays and who don’t. And those that don’t get shown the door, get shown the light. It’s now your time to step up to the light. Step lively, Mr. Redundant, and feel its glory. Summer of ‘69 by Ray Sharp The circle where we played, a rabble of bare-footers browned like August lawns, was ringed by ranch houses and split-levels. Some days I rode my red bike alone to the new neighborhood to climb dirt-pile mountains and hide in the cool of the culvert.
Rabid Angels by Stef Hall God sighed and turned from the window. The archangels Peter and Gabriel waited anxiously by the door to God’s chambers. They had brought the news to God as soon as they had heard it, and now they waited for His reaction, His instruction. They had been waiting for twenty minutes. God regarded them, the most faithful of His creations, and opened His mouth. The archangels leaned forward unacceptably, anticipating His word. But God sighed, closed His mouth again, and turned back to the window. Peter and Gabriel exchanged glances. They had never known their Lord to be lost for words before and the experience was deeply unsettling for them. One of them had to say something, but neither of them wanted to be the one to do so. They tried to stare each other down, but when that didn’t work, resorted to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide the matter.
By night I lay on the bed tossing a ball toward the plastered ceiling textured like the surface of the moon.
“I can see you doing that, you know,” God said. “One of the perks of being omnipotent.”
That was the summer I learned to lie still by the drain at the bottom of the pool and look up at the sun.
“I’m sorry, Lord,” Peter said finally. “It’s just... we need to know how you would like us to proceed in this matter. Loki will be at the Pearly Gates any time now, and we need to know whether he is to be admitted back into heaven.”
The trick was to go limp, watch the exhaled breaths bubble
that felt like the pressure of the deep but could have been the weight of seconds passing, precious and ordinary, and yet,
The archangels shuffled, embarrassed.
“How has he done it? I banished him. He should
not be able to find his way back here.” The archangels exchanged glances again. “For the past thousand years, he has lived a pious life, Lord. He has given up his smiting ways, and has turned his hand instead to bringing lost souls back into your fold,” Gabriel said. God turned from the window again. “But he’s an angel, he cannot die!” He said. Peter cleared his throat. “It appears, Lord,” he said hesitantly, “that we are not impervious to everything. Loki was bitten by a rabid dog, and the disease spread through his veins with alacrity, bringing us swiftly to our current dilemma.” God shook His head. “Rabid angels,” He said. “Whatever next? Mind you, I always thought Loki was kind of rabid when I threw him out the first time.” He sighed again. “Very well, you may admit him back into heaven. But you can tell him from me that his pocket money is docked from now on.” “Yes, Lord,” the archangels chorused, and scurried from God’s chambers with relief. “If Loki’s pocket money is docked, does that mean I get mine back?” Jesus asked from the sofa, where he was reading a comic. “No,” God said. “I still haven’t forgiven you for that Gethsemane debacle.” As God stumped from the room, Jesus made a rude gesture behind His back. “All forgiving my arse,” he muttered. “I saw that!” God shouted from the other room. Jesus scowled and went back to his comic. Recession Love by Aaron M. Wilson Jack carefully placed a blank 11½-by-8½ sheet of paper on the kitchen counter in the place where he left mail for Janine. He knew that she wouldn’t check the mailbox on her way up the stairs to their
small condo. He’d pick up the mail when he got home from teaching English, pick out what was addressed to only him, and leave what was address to Janine or to them both for Janine to open when she got home a few hours later. Jack knew Janine loved to open the mail. When Janine would arrive home, she’d drop everything on the kitchen counter and rifle through the mail before taking a bath. However, in the last few months, Janine had stopped opening the mail. She’d still drop everything, like a tree in late October, a trail of leaves from the front door to the bathroom signaled the end of a long work day. Jack had noticed the unopened mail. The bills from Excel Energy, Center Point Energy, Verizon, Quest, Comcast, life insurance, home insurance, car insurance, condo association dues, and their mortgage piled up, unopened. When Jack had first noticed the bills beginning to pile up, he asked Janine if she wanted him to pay them for a while. She never answered back. In the center of the blank sheet of paper, Jack lovingly laid his favorite correcting pen: blue India ink, a gift from Janine for completing his Master’s of Fine Arts Degree in Writing and immediately landing an instructor position at a local college. At the top of the page, he placed his favorite framed picture of their wedding: Janine’s smile was perfect next to his lopsided grin. At the bottom of the page, he placed one unopened envelop from Northwestern Mutual Life. Jack stepped back from the counter. Something was missing. He removed his wedding band, placing it between the pen and their wedding photo on the blank page. His love letter was complete. He needed only to sign it. Pulling on the blue sport coat that he insisted on wearing everywhere and in all temperatures, he walked out of the condo, making sure to lock the door behind him. Jack walked with purpose. He had always told Janine that people judge you based on how you walk. To walk with purpose, straight back, eyes forward was a marker of confidence. Jack found the weak rail of the pedestrian walkway across Highway 35W. He gave it a quick shove. It
creaked and dislodged. For a short moment, Jack watched the morning rush hour traffic beneath him. Cars of all shapes and sizes blurred, creating a rushing, burbling stream. Then Jack pictured his message on the kitchen counter. He could see the puzzled look on Janine’s face. He could see her tears. Tears he knew would dry as she moved on, finding someone who could make the mail fun to open again.
I scowl. “It’s good surf. Not being out here would be a waste.” I can feel opportunities lost, snapping at my heels. Mine, and—other people’s. I can’t bear to lose any more. “Not a waste if you’re not enjoying it.”
Salt Water by Juliet Kemp
Enjoying it isn’t the point. It should be, I suppose. It always has been before. Not this time. Cathy squints at me, pushes her hair out of her eyes as the wind gusts. I shiver suddenly.
Everything’s better when you’re in the sea. Sitting on your board, leaning on your hands, watching the waves and waiting for a good one. The smell of the seawater that’s cool around your legs, the comforting warmth of the wetsuit. The sun on your face—well, not today. Just a grey English sky, too pale to match my mood.
I’ll admit that I’m not fully compos mentis at the moment. I do know that, under the heaving mass of everything else that I daren’t look at too closely. But I’m not quite bad enough to force myself back into the water when I’m shivering this hard. I pick up my board and walk out of the sea, towards Cathy. Neither of us says anything.
I’ve always said: whatever happens, everything’s a little better when you’re in the sea.
The next day, I’ve been out for an hour when I see Cathy. She’s sitting up the beach a little, arms wrapped round her knees, staring out to sea. She doesn’t come to talk to me. After another half an hour, my hands start bleeding slightly. I should bandage them tomorrow. As I come up the beach, Cathy gets up, shoves her hands in her pockets, and walks beside me back up to the car park.
Turns out I was wrong. I see the wave coming in. Spin the board and lie down, feeling it against me, sternum to knees, toes braced against the end. Head up and paddling, picking up speed to match the wave, before the rush as it catches me. I never realized the power behind a wave until my first time out. That first wave was an accident: it hit the board broadside and spun me round, and suddenly I was speeding back towards the beach. These days I have more control, but I still feel the power, every time. I paddle once, twice more, then up onto my feet. Normally I’m laughing at this point. Normally I’m grinning with every wave. Not today. The power’s there, sure, but none of the joy. I’ve been out here for two hours. I’m out of practice; I can feel it pulling in my arms, feel the patches of raw skin on my palms, abraded by the board. I jump off as I reach the shore. Cathy’s standing there, hunched in coat and scarf. It’s October; hardly surfing weather. “It’s not going to help, Vic,” she says. I can barely
hear her over the few feet between us.
“I miss him, too,” she says, leaning against the car, as I struggle out of my wetsuit. I get into the car without saying anything. Not offering a lift is petty—Mum will be livid—but I don’t care. She’s looking back out to sea as I drive away. The next day is sunny. I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing. I just—need to be out here. Something will happen, somehow. Maybe. It’s probably irresponsible to be out on my own, but I can’t find the energy to care about that any more than I can find the energy, once I’m out past the breakers, to look for a wave, and paddle, and stand up, and then go back to do it all over again. Surfing, life: the inevitable cliché. I don’t know how long I’ve been out there, sitting on the board, staring at the waves, when I hear a splash behind me. I turn to see Cathy, in a wetsuit, with a board. Which is a surprise.
“Mum dug it out of the garage and gave me a lift,” she says. “It’s harder than it looks, just paddling the damn thing.”
The Alchemy of Striptease by Marie Lecrivain for Nelson Gary
“It’s knowing when to the put the armor back on...” –C.B.
“You want to learn to surf?” She shrugs. “It doesn’t seem like you’re going to come in any time soon, so I thought I’d come out.” She looks down. “Tom used to promise to teach me. I never—” She stops again. “I always put it off.”
It’s the first time I’ve even thought his name since the funeral. It clubs me, hard, in the stomach.
a night at Spaceland with the Bindlestiff Family Circus, in love with the Reverse Clown Stripper,
“Will you?” Cathy finally says, voice small.
It’s the word bindelstiff, that sends my memory packing back to the debauchery of my youth;
I open my mouth without knowing what’s going to come out.
clad in nothing more than a fishnet body stocking & an extra-small dickie
“First time, don’t try to get up. Just lie on the board, and push yourself up a bit on your arms. Keep looking forward, not down.”
straining against a pair of voluptuous breasts, she teased the so-called hipsters
I push her onto the first wave, then catch the next one myself and pull up beside her in the shallows. She’s not quite laughing, but she can’t help the small smile, the wide eyes. I remember that first wave of mine, hurtling towards the beach, the excitement. Tom coming to a much more graceful halt and jumping off his board as I sat in the waves, giggling. First wave, sis, he said, grinning down at me. C’mon, back out for the next one, and you can try to stand up this time.
into chanting along with that classic stripper leitmotif put it on... put it on... put it on.
It’s never going to stop hurting. But that shouldn’t stop us laughing. “First wave, sis,” I say, smiling down at Cathy, and she smiles back, broader. “C’mon, back out for the next one, and you can try to stand up this time.” She falls off before she can get up, but I can hear her laughing as she surfaces; and this time as I ride in after her I can feel the joy of the ocean coming back up through my feet, and I can see Tom shaking his wet hair out of his eyes after wiping out, and I smile again.
As she shimmied her delicious curvy frame into a neon green clown suit, coyly fastened a series of huge orange buttons, & then seductively slid her petite feet into an enormous pair of floppy electric-blue shoes, that I discovered the bawdy alchemy of transforming fear into art. II. It’s a joy for me to be able to place my heart & grail on the line
in the name of the greatest good; some genetic memory or impulse drives me forward to strip away my history, reveal hidden mysteries to ascend to the top of the world, naked and shining gloriously... but, in the dark awakening next to the one I love the weight of awe & rejection stills my hand & heart. Desire unrealized, I choose to remain alone, back stiff, as layers of resolve quickly descend. Eyes closed, I lay quietly weeping in my rusty armor wishing I could work that same alchemy upon myself, wishing I could close my ears against the chorus of voices quietly intoning take it off... take it off... take it off... Scarecrows by Sue Pickard I remember the scarecrows on my father’s farm. The silent people he called them. There was something unsettling about their persistent presence. Day and night they stood there, stick-arms outstretched, silhouetted against the sky. If I looked at them long enough, they seemed to move. At night, I dreamt that they left the fields and walked towards the house, a ragged army full of menace. But when I woke in the morning, with the birds singing and the sun glancing in, I saw they hadn’t
moved at all and none of it was true. When I grew up, I left my childish fears behind and stopped being frightened of scarecrows. Until, that is, I saw them again, in plain daylight, the silent people, shuffling towards me, in rags, stick arms outstretched, blank eyes staring. And like a child I was scared again, to my shame. Human scarecrows, that’s how the newspapers described them after we liberated the camp. And now when I dream about them, I wake up and know that all of it was true. Seussical, the Romance by Rita Rubin Isabella Gold taught at the same preschool and lived in the same third-floor walkup apartment ever since she finished college twenty years ago. Roommates came and went, but Isabella could always count on her cat for companionship. When George, a fat, striped, pumpkin-colored cat, finally died of old age, Isabella drove out to the pound and adopted Gracie, another fat, striped, pumpkin-colored cat. Isabella wore her brown hair the same way she had since she was nine, a chinlength bob with bangs, now scattered with silver strands among the brown. She never paid much attention to fashion trends, sticking for decades with jeans and t-shirts in warm weather, jeans and turtlenecks in cold. Her jewelry box contained little more than an assortment of earrings shaped like classic characters in children’s literature. Her favorite pair was a tiny enameled Thing One and Thing Two. She had plenty of boyfriends, all three years old. To win their hearts, she only had to ply them with animal crackers and juice and entertain them with her dazzling rendition of One Fish, Two Fish at story time. She regarded her young admirers as far more enchanting than males old enough to know how to tie their own shoes. Not that Isabella had given up on meeting men her own age. She’d drag a girlfriend to “artful evenings” at the museum, where they’d sip wine, listen to a string quartet and discuss which Monet they’d like to hang above their couch. Sometimes guys would join in the conversation, but they never seemed to have staying power. She posted an
ad on meetyourmatch.com: “SWF, 39, ISO funny, intelligent S or DM who likes green eggs and ham and other food for thought. Kids, cats welcome.” But the handful of responses were from men closer to her father’s age than to hers, so she passed. One drizzly Saturday afternoon, Isabella ducked into the café at the neighborhood mega-bookstore to wait out the rain before finishing her errands. She ordered the usual (of course): a decaf cappuccino with skim milk. When the drizzle turned into a full-fledged downpour, Isabella licked the last of the cappuccino foam from the rim of her cup and strolled over to the children’s section. She figured she might as well use her unplanned stop productively. She was always on the lookout for new books to add to her classroom’s reading corner. After selecting a copy of The Runaway Pancake, Isabella stopped to browse the shelves lined with Dr. Seuss classics. The first book she’d ever read on her own was The Cat in the Hat, and she’d been a fan ever since. Of all Dr. Seuss’s characters, Isabella identified most with Horton, the steadfast but lonely elephant who saved tiny Whoville from destruction and hatched that flighty bird Mazie’s egg. As she scanned the familiar titles, she noticed that she was not the only childless grownup in the children’s section. A tall man about her age scanned a display of dinosaur books. He was attractive, in an intellectual sort of way, with intense blue eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. Maybe Isabella had stared a minute too long, because dinosaur man not only returned her gaze but walked over. “I see we have similar tastes in literature,” he said with a smile. “Sam I am, and who might you be?” Isabella blushed slightly and told him her name. “I’m shopping for a birthday present for my nephew, who turns four next week,” Sam explained. “I’m not sure whether to go with Thomas the Train or Jake the Great.” “My kids are big Thomas fans,” Isabella replied.
“So you’re married?” “Oh, no.” Isabella smiled. “I teach preschool.” “Wait a minute.” Sam smacked his forehead with his palm. “You wouldn’t by any chance be Miss Isabella who teaches at Small Wonders, would you?” “How did you know?” “My nephew is in your class! Noah has the biggest crush on you. He talks about you all the time. And I can see why. Would you like to continue this conversation over coffee? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Dr. Seuss’s exploration of totalitarianism in Yertle the Turtle.” Sam grinned, which only served to emphasize his dimples. Isabella blushed in earnest. Although the rain had stopped, and she still hadn’t picked up her dry cleaning or done her grocery shopping, she was taken by Sam’s smile and his appreciation for all things Seussical. “Only if we can then discuss The Lorax as environmental allegory,” she said, making a mental note to slip Noah a few extra animal crackers on Monday. Shell Game by Kristi Petersen Schoonover There are eighty of them, their backs looking like so many rocks on the beach. I had not expected to see this many. I climb down over the fence and onto the sand, and each turtle looks at me as I move past. Each eyes me with a curious expression, as if to say, “my, but you’re a strange looking turtle. What happened to your fins?” And then each lolls its head in the direction of the other turtles, as though it has decided I am not a threat. I step carefully. I do not know which one to pick first. There is the roar of the cars along the highway, and I see the headlights illuminate the waving
grasses. I take a deep breath and tell myself not to worry. The Conservation People don’t even know about this beach; they are too busy setting up their volunteer watches on the larger beaches where the news crews go. They need to be on camera and wear their matching shirts and wave their flyers and scream their message of turtle protection. How the balance of the whole world will be affected if even one sea turtle should meet an untimely end at the hands of men. This so they can generate sympathy and people give them money, which they use to go out and make shiny propaganda posters. One poster has a half-naked woman on it. The poster says, “My man doesn’t need turtle eggs. Because he knows they don’t make him more potent.” That poster doesn’t bother me so much, because I have never used the turtle eggs that way. But the other posters have two coffins. One is in the shape of the turtle, and one is like the ones in which we put our loved ones to carry them to the cemetery. “One of these will not save one of those! Turtle Shell powder will not save you from death!” They are liars. I have seen the powder heal a baby with a burn on its head. I have seen the powder give relief to women in labor. I have seen the powder stop a man from bleeding to death. That man is my neighbor, and he plays with his children outside every day, takes them to baseball games and buys them hot dogs. And that is why I am here. Because my father can’t go to baseball games anymore. Because the powder will heal the infection that they cannot stop with their pretty pink pills and their bags of clear liquid. I hear the roar of the cars again, but still no Conservation People. The turtles stare at me like they know. Like they know, and like they are at peace. I wrap my fingers tightly around the machete and raise it over my head. I slice each turtle’s head and flippers off, and put each shell into a garbage bag. All this I do while I dream of the day when my father will be able to once again take me to baseball games and buy me hot dogs.
The Candle Shop by Shonna Gillis cinnamon chai reminds me of sweet nights on the beach, searching for one last score. lemon sage reminds me of scouring my skin raw, trying to relieve the dirty shame coursing through me. strawberry slices reminds me of the pure scent of my mother’s embrace, as she tried to save me from my downfall, and disgrace. almond orange or juicy peach? or pineapple orange? of my first hit of heroin, waves of ecstasy puls-ing through my veins, no longer pure. vanilla bean of the unbearable smile of the nurse I first encountered, as the heavy doors of the rehab facility closed around me. honeysuckle reminds me of the pill lady who pushed her lips apart slightly as she handed me my cup of chemicals lavender sage of the linens washed in an obnoxious amount of detergent. evergreen of the walks I would take around the grounds,
and my first week clean. spiced eggnog of my first relapse at that horrendous New Year’s Eve party. caramel of my mother’s return, and the hope that never left her eyes of her solid love that melted out, and never stopped flowing. spiced plum of the meth-addicted girl down the hall, that made me her friend until she could no longer fight her temptations. McIntosh of bright, bold dreams and six months happy, sober, and clean. Shore Leave by Austin Eichelberger Across the airstrip, soldiers’ feet applaud against the pavement while Sari runs toward them, her children’s hands in hers, to welcome Jack, her husband, back from the ruined land of her ancestors. She almost laughs, picturing Grandmother’s reaction to Emma in a skirt and cowboy boots at nine, how Jack cackled for days about the face Grandmother made. Sari’s right knee aches as her foot strikes the asphalt, but her legs will not slow, and she doesn’t try to stop. The rock in her stomach tells her he’s there, and she pictures Jack’s grin so she can match it to his face, but features blur in all the camouflage and buzz-cuts. Sari’s son, Adair, runs ahead of her, his yells of “Papa” so excited and sharp that he sounds scared.
The men stride forward, and Sari is the only woman—only civilian—as the stomping men surround her and move on. Her mind spins through the past few weeks: the mail she let pile up, none of it bearing a military insignia; the times she forgot to plug in her cell phone because Jack usually reminds her; the names she neglected to record at the hospital, despite Post-It reminders from the doctors and receptionists. But none of this reveals a reason for Jack’s absence. The first coffin is unloaded from the plane, and the blood leaves Sari’s face and settles wetly in her gut. She tells herself that Jack is one of the men—same height, same build—carrying the plain wooden box with a flag placed delicately over top, even as she pictures herself in all black, receiving a flag folded into a triangle from a man wearing the same uniform as her husband’s. Her daughter’s touch startles Sari; the soft, clammy lines of Emma’s palm are not the dry, rough fabric she was imagining, and she jerks away from Emma as if burned. The soldiers are breaking rank now, jogging to their families, laughing and hugging and crying, as a uniformed man with a clipboard walks up to each wife who is frantic, confused, places a hand on each one’s shoulder, makes a check on the list he carries. Sari swallows hard as she remembers the fading scent on the pillow next to hers, pictures the watch she wrapped and labeled for Jack’s thirty-fifth birthday, imagines the weight of the unfamiliar hand that will soon rest on her shoulder. Emma looks up, not smiling anymore, asks where Papa is, and all Sari can murmur is that she doesn’t know. She looks for her son’s ever-present smile and finds Adair halted beside her, grim, searching for a quick wink on the face of every passing man. Siblings by Cezarija Abartis “That’s a photo of me and Dad,” Teddy said, tapping it, “in front of Notre Dame.” He wore the bathrobe she’d brought him three days earlier. “Mom is off to my left.” His hand twitched around his cheek. “But you were never there,” she said. “That photo is so small it could be anyone.” When her brother was young he wanted to be an architect. “That’s just a photo from a magazine. That’s not you, is
it?” He handed her the photograph. The paper felt flimsy, but for a moment she believed her grayhaired, sweet-natured brother. “Look at the flying buttresses,” Teddy said. “Look at the prickly spires, the points like knives. How did the stonemasons carve those points? And those statues of saints and angels and god—how did they heave them up? They must have had sore muscles.” He rubbed his knuckles. She turned the paper over and saw the advertisement for the gallery opening on the back. “Honey, did you cut up somebody’s magazine?” “The Greeks and Romans did that too when they built their temples. I almost said, ‘erect’ but I caught myself in time. Bad boy.” He mockingly slapped himself on the back of his hand. “It’s just a word,” she said. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never....” “That’s right, Teddy.” “I’m sick of it here,” Teddy said. He stood up and paced beside the neatly made bed. “Take me home with you.” “First you need to get better.” He stopped in front of her and spread his hands in display. “I’m better. I’m better. Look at me. I’m better.” “Yes, you’re better, but you still need this hospital.” A skinny teenager shambled by the open door. The boy twisted his lips as if he were in an unhappy conversation. She shivered inside her cardigan. “I’d rather go to church. I miss God and the other gods.” He scratched at his cheek. She took his hand in both of hers. “You’re here because we love you. This is not punishment. We want you to recover.” “Why doesn’t God heal me?”
She shrugged. “It’s Easter. He’s busy.” Teddy laughed. “Lots of chocolate to deliver, lots of Easter eggs.” He rubbed his brow. “Remember the time when we ate so much candy we nearly threw up?” She smoothed his hair away from his brow. “I ate more than you.” She reached into her purse and brought out a box wrapped in lavender and yellow foil. “I did bring you a chocolate bunny.” “I don’t have anything for you.” He furrowed his forehead. “When I get better and get a job....” “I know.” Teddy unwrapped the box. He lifted out the chocolate and broke off a piece. “It’s delicious. Like when we were little.” He sat down on the bed and turned his face to the window. The golden afternoon light washed over his features. His hands were comfortable and still in his lap; his feet were quiet. “I wish Mom and Dad were alive.” He breathed evenly. He closed his eyes and sighed, then turned to her and smiled. “Jim’s probably waiting for you. Is Kathy coming for dinner? What’s her boyfriend’s name?” “Nathan. They’re having dinner with his parents.” Teddy nodded. He offered her a chunk of chocolate. She had a small bite. The tension left his face. His smooth, plump features looked young. He reminded her of a carved cherub. They strolled down the hall to the lobby with its gray carpet, with its practical stripes and tight texture. Outside the window the trees were budding out in pale, trembling tufts. “Look at that sparrow on that branch. It’s injured.” Teddy pointed. “Look, it’s flying.” Storks by Bonnie ZoBell Phil couldn’t believe Donna would even ask, despite her sister crying at the dinner table. “She’ll never have a baby if you don’t do it,” Don-
na explained after her sister Janice left. The two women had talked nonstop in the kitchen during cleanup. It wasn’t that Phil didn’t feel for Janice. “If she could keep a boyfriend, it wouldn’t be a problem. She hates men.” “That’s just not true.” Donna scooted further from Phil on the multi-sectional. The kids fought over reality shows in the next room: a bounty hunter and his family vs. a long-tongued rocker and his. “Who was that last guy—Bernie? Couldn’t keep his mitts off her. So what does Janice do?” “He was a wolf, Phil.” “Changes her phone number because he’s calling too much. Jesus H.” Donna studied Phil. “What we’re asking for is not a big deal, honey. Just a little . . .” “Jiz? A whole other human being is what it is.” Phil couldn’t stand it when women cried, but this was a little too personal. “All you have to do is . . .” “Beat off, I know. But I thought I was supposed to be saving the stuff for you, hon.” He tried to deflect his shock. He liked to think of himself as more worldly than Donna. She smiled. “I think we have enough children, don’t you?” As the voices rose in the family room, he thought maybe he and Donna had more than enough. “That’ll make me both the kid’s uncle and father. Talk about confusion.” “The child will never have to know.” “She should just use a stranger’s.” “Just anybody’s? That’s what she’s so afraid of, Phil. She’s scared about how it could turn out. We’re family.” Within a week, Phil was crammed into a tiny bathroom at the sperm bank with an old issue of Play-
boy. He tried to ignore the fact that all the nurses knew what he was doing in there. Instead, he focused on a girl in a bunny suit, her ass high in the air, waiting for him to enter her. Two months later, Janice was pregnant. “Hey there,” he said quickly the next time he saw her. But he couldn’t face her, and she looked away. He was coming in from work just as a couple of his kids were leaving. They didn’t say hello, though maybe it was just as well since he was tired and had oil stains on his hands. “Hi, honey,” Donna said, but she didn’t move from the box of old baby clothes she and Janice were sifting through in the living room. Was he supposed to think of it as his kid, or just some fluid he gave away? “Don’t mind me,” he said, slipping into the kitchen for a beer. The last thing he wanted was to distress them now that the deed had been done, now that he had two women he had to be careful with. He’d never have gone on a date with Janice, though some people thought Janice and Donna looked like twins. Janice didn’t like football. She didn’t like baseball. She didn’t cook. She was too emotional for him to feel he could really talk to her, not comfortable like Donna, though he and Donna didn’t have sex too much anymore. Janice’s stomach seemed to explode over the next few months. Then there was the shower Donna threw. “We’re so happy with the way things turned out,” friends of Donna’s said at the door. Did the women know he was the father? He didn’t think he should be ashamed, but the whole thing seemed like a big secret. He wasn’t sure whether to act like the disinterested husband whose house the party was being thrown at, or the father of the pending baby. When the third guest appeared bearing yet another gift wrapped in stork paper, he grabbed his cap and fled to the neighborhood pub as dusk fell. He couldn’t clearly see the group of kids passing across the street. What if in the future he couldn’t keep track of which children he’d fathered? When he returned later, much warmer and fuzzier,
only Donna and Janice were left. Maybe it was really their baby. If he were to explain the story to an outsider, someone might think his wife would be jealous that another woman was having his baby. He wished Donna was just a little jealous. As it was, Janice was moving in with them. Just for a while, Donna said. “What are you thinking, Donna?” he said when he heard. “She’s lonely. And she needs some help.” Providing his sister-in-law with a baby and now with their home didn’t make him feel like part of the circle, but the odd man out. He was the one who was lonely. But he was probably being ridiculous. He’d been married to Donna for nine years. And then at work one day—under a car, draining the transmission—his beeper went off. “Hey, Phil. Isn’t that you?” “Yep.” “Aren’t you going to answer it?” “Nope.” And he didn’t go to the hospital either. Not a week later, he got home from work one evening to find Janice nursing on his and Donna’s sectional. The baby was wrapped in a blue receiving blanket covered with yellow storks. A warmth spread over Phil as he approached from behind them and even smiled as he got a glimpse of the boy’s innocent face. Instinctively, he offered his finger for the baby’s pudgy little hand to grab onto. But before making contact, he saw that Janice’s breast was exposed. Immediately, he backed up. Where was Donna? What if he really started liking the kid? What then? “Put that thing away!” he shouted, trying not to look at the bosom. Donna barreled in from the kitchen. “It’s not like you haven’t seen one before.”
“We’re not animals,” he said, grabbing the front door knob he’d just shut behind him and exiting again for the neighborhood pub. At the pub, the bartender mumbled, “Been seeing more of you lately, Phil.” “Yep,” Phil said. On the community bulletin board next to the bar was a For Rent sign. Someone needed a mature, independent roommate. Phil tore off one of the phone numbers and stuck it in his pocket. The Necklace by Stephanie Wytovich The rope burned my hands. My hair got caught in the knot. I twisted it. I wore my best dress, my most fashionable shoes: skinny stilettos that looked like daggers. I put on my choker, (It was always my favorite necklace) I stepped off the stool, and danced in the air. Summer School by Francine Witte It is the hottest August ever, and my skin has turned eraser-pink from the heat. I have 43 in my first-period English class. They are spilling into the hallway, and not one of them is here to learn. I think about Lou and our late-night coffee dates. How each night I lie and say I have lessons to plan. Last month, when school started, the assistant principal, short sleeves and Bugs Bunny tie, hefted the curriculum into my arms like it was a baby. I never have to think again, I thought. Each morning, I write an aim on the board. This is where we are going today, class. Lou asks me each night where we are going. Eight months, he says, holding up his fingers. He opens
and closes them, like a yellow traffic light. Soon, he will have to start on his toes. He seems to want a lesson plan from me that I don’t have. No one handed me the curriculum on love. Suarez, a beefy senior in the first row asks me why I’m even here. “Hey, couldn’t you be at the beach, Teach?” We both smile at the rhyme. I tell him I have rent to pay and credit cards. “Ain’t you got no husband?” he says. I notice the long red scar down the side of his face. I don’t even want to know. “Don’t.” I say “Don’t I have a husband. And no.” “I’d marry you.” He winks. “You pretty.” Lou tells me I’m pretty first thing when I see him. I can be striped or polka dotted, hair up, hair down. I think he is looking at the picture of me from his head. In this picture, we have two, maybe three kids, the kids I already know at 30 I will never have. Lou has names for them, just in case. He starts to name them and that’s when I order the pie. Lou is happy just for the coffee dates, he says. I like to pretend you’re my girlfriend, is what he means. I tell Suarez, “Sit down and open your notebook. Write a page about the last time you went to the beach.” “I don’t go,” he says, “condoms and shit in the sand.” I imagine Suarez, all sausage toes and seaweed. I am surprised he has another life outside of the class. “Don’t curse,” is what I say. “You even got a man?” he says, and suddenly the others are silent and watching. Does coffee count? I want to ask. Does it count that it’s been eight months? “Start writing,” I say. That night, I tell Lou we are through, and he thinks I mean with coffee. “Too much caffeine,” he says, and nods. I tell him to go find himself a life outside
this pretend one with me, go out these doors and become real. He tells me these summer school hours are getting to me. Quit teaching, he says, “I make enough.” “You aren’t listening,” I say, which, of course, he doesn’t hear. “You need some sleep.” He pays the check and pats me on the shoulder. That night, before bed, I check the curriculum. The Aim, it says, is to understand the symbolism in Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I think of symbolic examples to write on the board, the flag standing for freedom, the dollar sign standing for money, coffee dates standing for love. Next morning, Suarez’s seat is empty. Cutting, I think, and start to write the aim. I get as far as the y in symbolism when the summer school principal walks in. Seersucker and Easy Spirit pumps, she settles the class down with her raised hand. She waits, simply waits until they are quiet. “It seems,” she tells them, “Evander Suarez has suddenly died.” Suddenly died—like he cancelled a trip or just decided it would be more convenient not to live. A girl in the back wants details. She is wearing a halter top, and any other time the principal would remind her about “proper school attire.” Before the principal can speak, one of the hall boys, no more than his knee in the classroom, yells out, “Knife fight, yo.” The class explodes in chatter. The principal raises her hand again. This time she will wait and wait. That night I wait for a phone call telling me there’s no school tomorrow. Death of a student, I think. Then I think about Willy Loman. The whole night passes. No phone call. Life will go on. Life will go on even when Death sticks its knee in out of the hallway. I decide to do a lesson on irony, even if it’s not in the curriculum. Also that night: no Lou, no coffee. When I get into bed, I fall
asleep right away. Maybe Lou was right. Caffeine was keeping me awake. When I dream, I am holding a coffee pot. Not a glass carafe, but an old fashioned stainless steel percolator, the kind my mother would drag out for company. I am not holding the handle. My hands are wrapped around the metal sides. It is way too hot, but for some reason I can’t let go. I tell it to write about the beach. I tell it to turn into a tea kettle. Sweet Pastry by Jennifer Stakes He had been dragged away from one of his passionate speeches in the village square, limp from the blow to the head. They believed he had links to the guerrilla fighters, but he just wanted an end to the child soldiers. They questioned him for three months in the barbed-wire-fenced compound with its windowless cells. He never mentioned his daughter and her hidden grenades. They cut out his tongue and ended his eloquence. Unable to teach in the school anymore, he now worked in the volunteer kitchen, making food for the women with no hands and the children with the broken childhoods. He liked to draw smiles from them with his sweet-pastry animals: a horse for Pedro, a goat for Aurelio, who saw it with his fingers, feeling carefully around the edges. He made them letters with pastry shapes and showed them to spell the words: H-O-R-S-E, G-O-A-T, L-O-V-E. The Cooper’s Hawk by Christina Kapp When I was young, we went to Disney World, and when we came back, we discovered that a hawk had taken up residence in our backyard. It was a little thing but fierce enough, and it liked to sit on a branch right outside our kitchen window, surveying our house and yard. My father was furious. My mother went into a panic. Our yard, previously teeming with squirrels, chipmunks and songbirds, was an animal wasteland. In a corner near the rhododendrons we found a spread of bones and feathers.
“He’s eating our little birds!” my mother cried. “Get away!” my father screamed. My brother and I thought he was cool. We named him Sam, since he looked a little like an eagle. Then we got sent to our rooms. A pest control specialist was consulted. He came in a truck with big bugs painted on the side. The hawk was nowhere to be seen at the time and, at least temporarily, a few chickadees were flitting back and forth from our birdfeeders. My brother and I watched as my parents pointed at the trees. The pest control guy shrugged and wandered around the side of the house. My parents followed. When they came back inside they were holding several Xeroxed pages with pictures of ants and my father’s face was all ballooned out. “What did he say?” I asked. “It’s a Cooper’s hawk,” my mother replied, “Apparently they’re protected.” “He can’t just shoot it?” my brother asked. My father left the room. We did not see him again until dinnertime. The hawk remained in our yard for several weeks, my mother yelling and swinging rakes at it, my father conducting scientific observations in an effort to determine where its nest was. He taped a poster board to the refrigerator so he and my brother could track flight patterns and directions. “At least the chipmunks won’t dig up your garden this year,” I told my mother in an attempt to be helpful. My mother could hardly stand to do the dishes anymore. The hawk’s grey, bullet-shaped body and the frowning arc of his beak sent her right to the edge of her sanity—or so she said. “I’ll take the chipmunks any day over this beast,” she wailed. My father’s observations seemed to pay off. After we found the splayed remains of two more birds and a squirrel in the environs of our house, he deduced that a nest in one of the old oak trees just
outside the perimeter of our backyard belonged to the hawk. He began to puzzle over how he could get rid of it. “It’s really high,” my brother and I observed. “Honey, you can’t get up there. It has to be 100 feet in the air,” my mother said, shielding her eyes from the sun. “I’ll get a guy with a truck if I have to,” my father countered. “You know, it looks a lot like a squirrel nest to me.” My mother squinted and shook her head. “Squirrels build nests?” I asked, realizing I had no idea where squirrels lived. “Don’t you know anything?” my brother said, rolling his eyes. “Oh, come on,” my father said. “Look at the size of it. The shape. That’s a hawk’s, for sure.” We went back into the house, where we continued to debate the nest. As we stood in the kitchen, we noticed that the hawk was looking, rather intently, right at us through the kitchen window. It was a bit eerie, almost like he could hear what we were saying. Mom reached for my father and said, “Honey,” just as the bird stretched his wings. Then it happened so fast—one moment the hawk was on the branch, the next he was coming straight at us. He hit the window with such force that he exploded into a streak of rust and feathers that made the wall shake and cracked the window. We screamed and ducked. The hawk’s body fell and disappeared. We stood, stunned, as my father’s hand stretched across the sink to the cracked window and the little bird figurine in front of it. We had bought the figurine on vacation in Vermont few years earlier, and it had hung from the window for so long we had ceased to notice it. “He thought it was real,” my mother whispered. We looked at each other and started to laugh. Then we ran outside to see what had become of the Cooper’s hawk, who, we suspected, would no
longer bother our little backyard creatures. The Parson’s Confession by Darryl Brent Willis Pedestals are designed for urns and figurines, but not for priests and parsons. Stained glass and sacred art cannot hide a heart stained by greed and pride. And I so long ago seemed far too strong to fall victim to the lesser sins of lust and rage and drunkenness. My flock held me in respect (and, I confess, not without a little awe). And when I walked into a room they turned to me and gave a smile and nod of deference. When the parish built for me a brand new parsonage to honor my long years of service I could not see what was plain as the pious look pasted on my face: how I manipulated and cajoled to get what I thought I deserved. Now as I gaze into my avaricious eyes (as in a mirror darkly) I can see all so clearly now: my glass house is filled with stones. The Coulee Man by Len Kuntz The Coulee Man was known to eat children alive, gouging their chests open with fingernails the size and sharpness of garden shears, not a man at all, but a monster, an oozing creature with peeled flesh, moldy green eyes, a socket for a mouth and leeches—thousands of the squirming things— shrouded on his skin. And supposedly his preference was skinny blonde girls like me. But I didn’t scare easily. I told everyone this. I grew up with seven brutes for brothers. I had been to Hell many times and somehow found a way to make that place livable. At the bottom of Stockyard Hill the water drained into the coulee and there sat a manmade water transfer tunnel made of metal. Lore had it that if you happened into that tunnel—which was maybe twenty feet from end to end—The Coulee Man sprang up from the slimy water and shredded your
skin without warning. When Dennis Miner, the handsy boy that wanted me, announced this, I laughed so hard that I spit two-percent milk in his face. He went a queer shade of fuchsia, seeing as we were at school and his friends were around, in on the scare trick. But I could see Dennis believed it, just as he believed he would get what he desired from me. We went there on a Saturday night, a gaggle of us, mostly boys, except for me and Rhonda Schneider who was no longer a virgin at thirteen. Cattails stuck up from the swampy marsh like spears warning you away from an Indian burial site. My Mary Jane’s sucked up mud and muck but I kind of liked it. I imagined this was what a foot massage felt like. “Who’ll be the one? Who’ll dare tempt The Coulee Man?” Marshall Greer said, waving his hands like a carnie preacher that makes a mockery of us real Christians. When I shot my hand up, Dennis grabbed it automatically, as if it was spring-loaded, as if his groin was always on alert around me. Some of the boys snickered and jeered. “She’ll chicken out,” they said. “No way,” they said.
When I finally got to dry land, the others didn’t say a word. They looked frightened, and that’s when I saw my arms and legs. There must have been over seventy of the slimy slugs trying to suck the life out of me. Joey Benet shined his flashlight, hands strobe-light shaking from the cold or fear. “You’re going to owe me for this,” Dennis said. I begged him and he flashed me his smirk. Dennis plucked them off using his fingers for tweezers. Rhonda squealed. She couldn’t watch. It was a treat for the boys, but after awhile even they got bored and left. When Dennis was done an hour later, the moon seemed to be studying me like a monk. I was clean but I felt dirty. My knees shook. “Well?” Dennis said, grinning so proud. “What now?” I knew what that meant. If there was anything I’d learned so far, it was that “monster” could be a slippery word. Brothers or boyfriends, they could all be in on the act.
But I trudged right up there, hiking my knees and sloshing the foulest smelling water.
I closed my eyes. To be double sure, I put my hand over my eyes. I took a deep breath and told this Coulee Man to go ahead.
I knew what was supposed to happen. Once I got inside the tunnel, bars would drop down on either end, but I just swim-marched my way through.
The Crunchy Truth by Steve Kissing
I came out the other end and did a twirl right where I was. The moon lit my T-shirt incandescent. I heard applause coming from the slope of the hill, so I started working my way back. That’s when I felt them. A sting on my ankle first. Then a prick on the calf. The knee. I knew the leeches were glomming, working their way up my legs. I knew what they wanted, but then I always knew. I just wished I hadn’t worn a skirt.
Something slimy slithered across my ankles and so I did scream. It tugged and I kicked. I stumbled but I ran.
Returning from yet another solo fast-food lunch, I passed the company break room where fifteen or so people were all abuzz about something or other. “Wh-wh-what’s up?” I asked Larry, who, like everyone else at the company, had grown accustomed to my horrible stuttering problem. “Lisa found a potato chip with the image of Jesus,” Larry said, wiping away a tear. “It’s a miracle!” He started reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the others joined in.
I wormed my way through the group to the counter where Lisa, a very quiet, somewhat odd gal, stood holding the potato chip in her hands as if cupping an injured bird. I was quite taken aback. The burn mark on the chip did look like Jesus. Though I’m not religious, I knelt before Lisa and the Jesus potato chip just as the group finished praying, “… deliver us from evil. Amen.” Standing, I shouted—without stuttering on one syllable—“Lithuania! Encyclopedia! Onomatopoeia!” Silence filled the room. “I’ve been healed! I’ve been healed! My speech impediment is gone!” The group gasped in unison, and then applauded. Larry hugged me. No one in the company had ever heard me speak even a few simple words without stammering. “It’s a miracle!” I said, to nods of agreement all around. Everyone patted me on the back. Nancy, our receptionist, brought in a small cardboard box lined with tissues, and Lisa placed the Jesus snack chip gently inside it. “Well, we best get back to work,” I said with a smirk. “The Lord doesn’t like slackers.” Everyone laughed. Lisa said she was going to take the holy chip down to the fourth floor so that people in the sales department could gaze upon and pray before it. I asked if I could come along, thinking people may understand the true significance of Lisa’s find if they heard me speak without a single stutter. “Yes, please come and bear witness,” Lisa said in her nasally voice. “Believe me,” I said, “I’ve never been so happy to talk—ever!” As soon as we stepped into the stairwell and the door shut behind us, Lisa began to bawl, her hands shaking so much I had to take the box with the Jesus potato chip from her. “What’s wrong? You overcome by the spirit?” I said, taking one of the tissues from the box and handing it to her. Between her blubbering breaths, she confessed that she used a magic marker to put the image of Jesus on the potato chip, that it was all just a hoax to get some attention.
“I’m so, so, sorry,” she said, still crying. “Oh, that’s OK, Lisa, your secret is safe with me,” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I have a secret of my own.” “What secret?” “My stuttering was just an act. I never really stuttered. In fact, I was the captain of my high school debate team. I just got irritated with having to answer the phones at my last job.” “I sensed you would understand,” Lisa said, wiping away her tears. We proceeded down the steps with the snack food miracle to see what other secrets it may reveal. The Flood by Dariel Suarez Tobias sat on his only chair at his only table, cursing the rain. The interior of his hut smelled of wet wood. The oil lamp at the edge of the table burned humbly, a flicker in an otherwise dark room. The temperature had dropped since the morning clouds had taken over, and Tobias now felt on the brink of shivering. Outside, the rain fell as if wanting to drown the earth. Tobias didn’t look forward to the muddy trails and slippery hills that were sure to greet him the next day on his way to work the fields. With the beginning of the rainy season just a month away, he wondered whether it had arrived early and he should start getting used to the inevitable seclusion. He considered taking a peek at the sky. His father used to claim he could distinguish the first seasonal downpour by looking at the clouds, by examining their shape and color. Tobias figured he could do the same. As he opened the door, the wind smothered his face with cold rain. He blinked, making an awning of his right hand to shelter his eyes. Lowering his head, he saw a body lying at the bottom of his front steps. The man’s clothes were soaked and transparent, his pale face half-buried in a puddle. Tobias raced down the steps and situated his left hand under the man’s head. He shook him gently,
attempting to bring him back to consciousness. “Are you okay?” Tobias said, his voice muffled by the battering rain. The man didn’t respond, so Tobias decided to take him inside. While he carried the body, he was glad that the man was lean, almost like a long twig. Once inside, he laid him carefully on his bed. Tobias checked the man’s pulse and noticed that, though faint, it was still there. His first thought was to get the village doctor, but the main road was sure to be impassable by now. He snatched the oil lamp and ran to the wooden chest he always kept on the far corner, retrieving his only blanket and quilt. He placed the lamp on a narrow stand by the bed, removed the unconscious man’s clothes, and covered him as best as he could. Then Tobias went back to his chair, hoping the man wouldn’t die in his home. An hour later, the man awoke. “Are you all right?” Tobias said, standing by the window. The man remained silent. He sat up, his legs and feet still under the covers. Tobias walked slowly toward him. “Sir, do you know what happened to you?” Again, the man didn’t respond. Tobias watched him as he checked his hands and massaged his own throat. He looked at Tobias and nodded, a faint smile on his face. Tobias took this to be a sign of gratitude. After some hours of gesturing and waiting, he realized that the man was either a mute or didn’t speak his language. Tobias offered him to stay overnight, promised to take him to the village doctor the next day, not sure if he’d understood anything. Tobias warmed up the stew he’d cooked earlier for lunch, ate dinner silently with his new companion, and later slept on the floor like his father would on the rare occasions when a fellow peasant needed an overnight roof over his head. The following morning, after washing his face with tepid water from a small wooden pail, Tobias
noticed the man sitting at the edge of the bed, stretching his limbs. His complexion had a livelier color, his countenance a hint of contentment. “Feeling better?” Tobias said. Though they had awoken to an overcast sky and the road was most likely still flooded, it would probably not remain as such for long. Tobias had already planned an afternoon visit to the doctor. Without warning, the man stood up and moved toward Tobias. He tilted his head to one side, studying the left side of Tobias’ face. Confused, Tobias ran his fingers over his own left cheek. An arching line of permanently damaged skin travelled from below his ear to the side of his mouth. The accident had occurred when he was child. He had fallen over a heap of thick barbwire his father had forgotten to throw away and left behind the hut. Before he could react, Tobias watched the man stretch his hand toward him. As soon as his fingers made contact, Tobias lost consciousness. His senses returned some time later. Tobias could hear raindrops tapping on the roof. He opened his eyes, and quickly recognized the inside of his home. He was lying on his bed. He looked around and realized the man was gone. Tobias’ only mirror, which resembled a sizeable shard of glass, was resting flat on the nightstand. He reached for it with anticipation. His reflection confirmed it: his scar had disappeared. Tobias brought his hand to his cheek. There was no dreadful ridge anymore, only a smoothness that felt unfamiliar yet pleasing. Tobias took a glimpse at the door. He ran across the hut and opened it. Just as he did, the light rain became torrential. It seemed to be falling harder and faster than ever before. His vision couldn’t reach more than a few steps beyond the hut. Resigned, Tobias got back inside and closed the door. He stood by the window, pushed it slightly open. He looked at the sky and saw only darkness. He cursed the rainy season, then wondered where the man could be, fearing he might end up lying in another puddle, or worse, swept away by
a flash flood. Sighing, he caressed his own cheek once more. He turned to his left and gazed at the empty pot in which he’d cooked the stew. He should make some now, he thought, to pass the time. He just had to be patient. Sooner or later, the rain had to cease. The Subject by Sherilyn Willard Sitting in scaffolds of relief, on a stool of pine tooled by lumberjacks’ whispers— One for sorrow. Foot extended, then toes spread, heel sighing thalo blue choruses and blowing hollow kisses to the thigh— Two for joy. Elbow meeting knee and palm cupping chin in the cool of its Depression Glass— Three for a girl. Small of back fighting for the origin of the world as the spine becomes tectonic plates of pose, and brush marks the point of silent caresses— Four for a boy. And brash lights beckon tiny pearls of tepid sweat that skip to pool in the slight of the belly— Five for silver. Where wisps of hair choose sides and back and sweep shoulders that yoke the silver birch of ribs entwined in monastery mortar— Six for gold. When one deep gasp frees collarbone from soil and quill from ink, and oil from waterfalls and time from itself, and from the muse a magpie—
Seven for a secret never told.
The Gargoyle of Bishop’s Peak by Joe Amaral Amanda immediately knows something is wrong. She has just awoken from a vivid dream, or more correctly a nightmare, where she is plummeting off a cliff face like a base jumper. The azure sky has transformed into a black whirlpool of howling wind. A crack of lightning peals, ferocious and unapologetic—or had that been her leg fracturing? She tentatively wiggles her toes and fingers, fingers and toes. Pain courses through her bruised extremities, her heart pounding. Amanda’s eyes flutter open to the searing sun showering her in fire-orange rays. She lies supine on a boulder, surrounded by dense chaparral. Her body is streaked in sweat and blood, caked with dirt and bramble. The pungent smell of sage burning in the late afternoon heat tickles her flaring nostrils. Amanda squints upward and sees the silhouettes of Mike and Lindsey looming high above on the plateau. The white whorls of their wide, uneasy eyes worry her. Lindsey begins to wail, as if a banshee possesses her soul. Remembrance returns in a tidal memory rush. This isn’t a dream. *** “Let’s go bouldering on top of Bishop’s today,” Mike exclaims, cinching his running shoes. “Is that like rock climbing? We don’t have any ropes or stuff,” Amanda frowns. Her fair skin and blond locks already feel sunburned just thinking about the day’s journey ahead. “Scary!” Lindsey firmly shakes her head, powdering her face and checking her make-up through a compact mirror. “We’re only going hiking.” “No, no, no,” Mike reiterates. “Bouldering is simple. You grab onto rocks with your fingers and toeholds with your feet and climb up a little ways. You only climb six feet or so, so if you lose your grip you push off and drop to the ground. The worst you could do is twist an ankle, I guess, but it’s easy.”
The three friends sit on the stained couch in Mike’s frat house, which more resembles a pigpen than an abode. Empty beer cans and half-eaten burritos litter the coffee table from another Friday night of college inebriation. Lindsey snaps the compact shut, proclaiming herself ready for action. Amanda stands up and stretches. “Where is the big boulder, at the top?” Mike jingles his truck keys. “Yeah, around the side from the main peak. Let’s do this!” Bishop’s Peak is a popular hiking spot for the university coeds. It begins in a cow pasture, where the intrepid hiker skims over a muddy, eroded creek and adeptly dodges meadow muffins before agriculture gives way to forest. The trail then winds between gnarled oak trees and large shapeless boulders, eventually giving way to switchbacks and shrubbery. The three friends snake their way up the mountain, idly chattering and gossiping about the typical interests of college freshmen—beer, books, and, much to Mike’s chagrin, boys. The sun towers, queen of a cloudless blue sky commanding a royal breeze. They reach the summit in just under one hour, leaving the main peak area for the giant boulder Mike is still excitedly describing. It juts out over the ridgeline, where the scratch-thin deer trail dead ends. A steep ravine to the left falls away from the edge. “It’s way higher than six feet, Mike; there’s no way I’m trying that,” Lindsey snorts in derision. Mike is currently stuck halfway up the boulder and does not speak. He pushes off the granite and spins in midair, landing with a thud in the dust. He gasps heavily from exertion.
“Alright,” she says. Mike gives her a high five. She tentatively grips the fragmented boulder, flexing her muscles and kicking off from the ground. Mike acts as coach and cheerleader, shouting words of encouragement. With a few pull-ups and some quick footwork, Amanda makes it to the same spot that stymied Mike. Confidence high, Amanda flattens her body against the gritty rock and churns her knees aloft, fingers grappling for a handhold. It lies just out of reach. Amanda gives a strangled cry as her shoulder scrapes against the boulder, body lurching in effort. She slips, pauses in fear, and thrusts her feet and arms out for balance, rebounding off the rock and windmilling into space. Mike tries to catch her but misses. She hits the ground, her right leg striking the earth awkwardly like a javelin, and then snapping like a twig. The lunge takes Amanda too close to the left side drop. She reflexively rolls further in that direction on impact to absorb the blow, and caroms off the edge, free falling thirty feet down the steep ravine. Amanda wakes up, floating adrift in semi-consciousness. The adrenaline has worn off, and her bones throb. Lindsey has stopped screaming; in fact, Amanda only sees Mike staring down at her now, a silent observer. Amanda smiles, knowing she landed on her butt first. The whiplash motion then whacked her head against a stone. Her broken leg tingles, but it’s her pelvis and spine that vibrate with pure, excruciating pain. Mike sees her stirring. “Amanda,” he yells, voice raw and urgent. “Lindsey went for help, don’t move, we’ll get to you, talk to me please!”
“It’s super fun! Amanda, try it, come on.”
Amanda hears him, but once again drifts off, wishing to escape the heaviness resonating in her skull. A dark shadow crosses over the horizon, soaring on the wind currents.
Amanda looks at Lindsey, who remains firmly perched on a fallen oak tree, digging dirt out from under her manicured nails. Amanda sets her face determinedly.
“It looks like the grim reaper,” she murmurs to herself. The condor begins circling nearer, guardian of this ancient mountain. As the moon quenches the sun, Amanda falls deeper asleep, descend-
ing further into the peaceful cobwebs of her soul, buoyed on the wings of a black angel, who softly carries her to the topmost summit.
How about if I’m the one who wants to leave, Elaine asked?
The High Sign by Paul Beckman
That’s too complicated, she said. I’ll just give you the look. You always say you can feel my look as well as see it so that’ll be perfect.
When it’s time to leave the Silberstein’s party, I’ll give you the high sign, Mirsky told his wife, Elaine. How will I know it’s the high sign? she asked. Don’t worry, you’ll know, he said. Show me. Give me an example? she asked. I can’t do that. It depends on the situation; it could be a raised eyebrow, a tilt of the head, a point of the finger… Would you just come over to me and say it’s time to go? Nope. That’s not a high sign. But it would work. It would work but a high sign is subtle, and subtle is the way to leave a party at Silberstein’s. It might be a glance at the door, a wink, a tug on my ear lobe… What happens if we’re talking to each other and decide we want to leave? Do we just not look at each other and whisper, “high sign”? No, because Irene might overhear and then it would be rude. A high sign is silent and never rude. What happens if someone else sees the high sign? That’s the beauty of it all. They won’t know it’s a high sign—only you will know it. But if I don’t know what it is, how can I be sure it’s a high sign and not just a tic or a gesture? Don’t worry. You’ll know it when you see it. I promise.
Then you give me the high sign, Mirsky said.
How will I know if you’re giving me the look to leave or because of something I’m doing that displeases you? Mirsky asked. Don’t worry. It’s like the high sign. You’ll know. You can count on it. The Probability of Him by Jen Knox Sarah’s yellow summer dress blew against her long, tanned legs as she sifted through a flower pot half-filled with gravel. I wondered how she could be so comfortable as to bend over in something so short. I had a similar dress, a blue one, and the one day I wore it to school I’d been so worried about the thing blowing up or getting stuck in the back of my panties that I ended up walking home for lunch just to change. I massaged my temples as my sister brushed off a half-smoked cigarette and followed my gaze, which had settled on the boy across the street. She laughed. “Make your move,” she said. “Yeah right.” “You’ll never learn to be a lady if you don’t practice now, during the, urm, developing stages of your sexuality.” She looked down at my mud-laced tennis shoes and baggy jeans as I pushed the swing back and held it there. “I’m not thinking about that boy. I’m thinking about my algebra homework.” “He’s more important,” she said. I watched as Sarah lit the butt, took a long drag and sat on the porch step watching the boy. It seemed as though she were trying to will him to look her way. He
flipped his skateboard up under his arm and inspected its underside. He tried to spin one of the wheels and it barely moved. The boy was new to the neighborhood and there was something about him that I liked, maybe the fact that he hadn’t hit on my sister. His body was angular and thin. His face was freckled and pale. My sister whispered that she found nothing attractive about him, but it interested her that he hadn’t even bothered to look our way. “You’re staring. It’s probably freaking him out.” “He’s fascinating. OK, Algebra 101: If X is hot and Y is ignoring her, then Y is what? Gay?” “I’m getting a D in algebra,” I said. “Mmmmm. Maybe not gay. Maybe he’s slow. Maybe his eyesight is poor, no peripheral vision…” I figured quite the opposite. People didn’t not notice my sister. The boy had probably picked up on the fact that the pretty, fast-ass-looking girl across the street was watching him, and to lure her in, he was playing hard to get. “Not every boy is interested in you,” I lied. “We’ll see,” Sarah said. She licked her bottom lip and bit it. “Go ask him out then,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t. “You think I won’t?” “I don’t think he’s interested.” “Excuse me,” Sarah called out to the boy, who turned around and his thin, wide mouth curled up in a half-smile. It was his mouth that I concentrated on. He nodded hello, and much to my dismay, sized her up as she crossed the street. Sarah said something and pointed toward me, or our house. His eyes did not follow her directive. For a moment, I felt like I was watching the Nature Channel. My sister might as well have been mewing and lifting her tale. But the boy seemed less interested after a short exchange, and ultimately, he broke their mutual gaze to look up at me. The bottom of my feet began to tingle as he smiled at
me, and the moment hung heavily until long after the boy turned around. My sister returned to the porch, shaking her head. “Shot down?” Sarah hit me with her bony fist, causing my forearm to sting. “What, you think it’s funny?” I realized the smile I had returned to the boy hadn’t left my face. “That boy probably suffered some trauma; he probably saw something horrible and suffers from post-traumatic stress, which causes him to retreat into himself,” my sister said. “He can’t relax and therefore doesn’t allow himself the pleasures of youth.” My mother is a psychologist and she used to make a game of labeling people we all knew, telling us her theories upon first glance. It was highly unprofessional, I thought, but the game was addictive. It made every person a mystery, a riddle that could be solved with history, behavior and body language. Usually, our diagnoses lacked factual reasoning—the history portion—but this only made it more fun. “Maybe he just doesn’t find narcissistic teenage girls attractive,” I said. It turns out that it wasn’t the past that haunted the boy but the present. He had Leukemia. He was hospitalized for the last time soon after the day my sister approached him. When Sarah heard the news, she nodded. “I knew it had to be something… I mean, he just cut me off that day and asked if I’d leave him alone. Chronic disease explains everything.” “You couldn’t be more full of yourself.” She shrugged. “Did you pass your test?” “72%.” “See, my algebra lesson paid off that day.” I hit my sister on her shoulder. The blow surprised us both, and for a brief second I didn’t think she’d retaliate. Before I knew it, though, I was groundlevel, with size six boots pummeling my sides. I was still sore when I attended the boy’s funeral. If you would’ve asked me why I went, I couldn’t have said; so, I didn’t tell anyone where I was go-
ing. I stood among a small group of people I didn’t know, wearing sunglasses to hide a yellowing bruise. Everyone around me was crying—or looking like they wanted to—and offering each other comforting half-smiles. I found out the boy’s name was Danny; he was sixteen, the same age as Sarah; he was a photographer and skater, a bit of a daredevil. I thought about the way he’d looked at me, with a photographer’s eye, as though I were a mystery he wanted to solve. And I felt my eyes begin to swell as I joined in mourning this boy I never got to know, who never got to know me, because we missed our chance. The Thing That Lasts by Robert Laughlin An athlete: proud to break old records that Had stood for years. Then his were broken too, And no one thought about him after that. A beauty: gracing coffee tables once. Those pics are in her scrapbook, nowhere else. The adverb “next” sums up the fashion trade. A statesman: highways bear his name, but no One knows the man—he’s out of office now. So little rank surrendered power has. A scholar: living for and through the mind. Two dozen books are in her room. She has No memory of writing them herself.
cupation. No, that’s not it; he’s been on a hundred planets like this one, clearing them of wretched state-sponsored colonists. It’s something else. He sensed it in the landing craft, a thought, or premonition of something beyond his understanding. Thoughts he should not have. He gives himself another squirt of adrenaline, still no response. His orders resound in his mind—shoot on sight, nothing lives. The planet’s thin atmosphere permeates his suit, filling his body and soul with the eerie cold blackness of the cave as he plunges deeper into darkness. He moves into a large open cavern and makes a quick sweeping motion with his weapon from right to left, illuminating an infrared beam that shows through his helmet visor in shades of gray. Something reflects back, and he quickly locks onto the object. In the far corner of the cavernous opening, a woman hunches over, holding a small child under a blanket. She looks at him as if in daylight, her eyes reflecting as white pins of light through Alpha Two-Four’s infrared goggles. She is weeping and muttering some phrase his communication equipment cannot decipher. He tightens his finger on the trigger, but something makes him hesitate. She’s weeping openly, and he’s never seen such a display of emotion before. Moaning, rocking the child rhythmically in her arms, wetness around her eyes; all indicating pain. But why? He hasn’t shot her yet. What pain could she be experiencing?
Four people, focused on the earnest goal Of doing something worthy to endure, And finding out, each one of them, a truth To show them what their effort counted for: The stern reality of mortal rot Is all there is that ever really lasts.
Alpha Two-Four stands motionless, looking at the woman. He hears the double clicks of other team members as they clear the cave in darkness, and the sounds of the weeping woman and child echo off the cavern walls. The cacophony of sound assaulting his ears makes the call from control barely audible in his earpiece.
The Sentient Soldier by J. L. Stratton
“Alpha Two-Four, this is control. Respond.”
Something isn’t right. Alpha Two-Four feels it in his bones; his thoughts betray him, his mind wanders. He pushes the button on the forearm of his exo-suit, giving himself three squirts of adrenaline as he heads down into the cave, but feels nothing. Maybe it’s this dismal planet—just another rock deemed worthy of overthrow and oc-
“Alpha Two-Four here,” he finally responds. “What the hell are you waiting for?” The voice from control is loud, aggressive. “Your orders were to shoot on sight. Get it done soldier.” “Roger.” Alpha Two-Four pushes the adrenaline button on his suit repeatedly—still no effect.
He shakes his head to clear his mind, raises his blaster, taking aim at the woman. He tightens his finger on trigger but cannot follow through, as if the trigger has become hard and immovable as stone. The child is crying, the woman strokes its tiny head and pulls it close to her. Alpha Two-Four feels an unexplained heaviness in his chest and a pressure in his throat, as if lodged with food. Moisture pools at the corners of his eyes, blurring his vision, and his thoughts. He cannot kill this woman with her child—he wants her to live—although he cannot discern why. He is wracked with pain. Not a physical pain, some other, harsher pain that rips at his brain and defies all he has ever known. “Alpha Two-Four, this is control. Shoot or pull back.” The console operator on the control ship observes the woman through Alpha Two-Four’s helmet camera. He swivels in his chair to face his superior. “He’s not responding, sir.” The officer standing behind the console operator thinks for a moment, rubbing his chin. “He’s gone sentient on us,” he says, nodding in self-affirmation. “What does that mean?” the operator’s forehead creases as he looks up at the officer. “It means something’s gone wrong. It means our training, his battle suit, or some combination has failed. It means he’s developing emotions, empathy—the very things we bred and trained out of these soldiers for their own good. It means you are going to have to hit the kill button and waste all the resources that went into birthing, growing, and training our little elite soldier.” The officer falls silent as he looks at the monitor to see the woman removing the blanket, exposing a belt of explosives wrapped around the child’s body. In her hand, she holds a small triggering device. The officer lunges over the console operator and slams his hand down on the transmit button. “Alpha Two-Four, shoot the woman!” The console operator and the officer look on in
horror as other members of the team enter the large room, the woman appearing across five screens from their helmet cams. Before the officer can reach the kill button, the screen flashes white, and then turns to static. The Thin Pages of Her Words by Sheldon Lee Compton for Shelby Lee Adams Years pass, escaped feathers across the pillow, unnoticed. But those were the years, the days are the slow drip of time spent together, no visitors for the brothers, alone. Clark lies that morning, says he stopped crying for their mother long ago. His arms, the skin baked onto the bone, as thin as bible pages, show his lie, the rushing of blood through veins scrawling across his wrists, spreading, raindropping the outer map of his quickened heart. Ease yourself, John Lee tells him. All that’s here is in Jesus’ name, and we know not when she comes home. Huddled on each side of the wicker chair where they are sure some part of her must still sit firmly, reading warnings of Cain and of Abel, reminding them, John Lee leans forward in prayer and waits for Clark to join. Between them are the thin pages of her words, and the brothers lean even more closely to each other so their heads touch, so that with one hand she might offer cover for them from a forgotten world. The Watch by Craig B. Phillips I need stuff on my table to help me watch him. The more stuff, the more it looks like I’m doing something. I know it sounds silly, but I know this to be true. The waiter’s about to take my plate. Remnants of a cheese omelette half-eaten. An observer of me would comment that the choice was unimaginative. The menu here is varied and modern. Very good for a cafe. A truly uninspired
choice. But I’m not here to eat. I’m here to watch him. Sad fucker, you think. I bet you do. I probably am. But am I a sad fucker for watching him every day, for practically obsessing about it, or because there’s nothing much else in my life? If I was an open-heart surgeon who excelled at love-making, owned a yacht and was a member of the golf club, but just happened to like to watch another member of society in some of his spare time, perhaps I wouldn’t be a sad fucker. Alas, that’s not my life. That’s what I imagine his to be, but I really have no idea. He doesn’t say much, so how can I tell? You get some oddballs, come in this cafe and shout about their lives: my car’s just gone in for repair; my wife’s just gone into labour; the weather’s nice today isn’t it? He’s the quiet type. Every lunchtime he’s here—dark suit, starched white shirt, tie loosened around the neck, normally a shade of blue, mobile phone out on the table, but it never rings. I say mobile phone but it’s a blackberry; you know, the sort you can also send emails on, or log appointments. I’d like to look at his appointments. He orders the same thing everyday: jacket potato with coronation chicken. The jackets here are pretty good, it has to be said. I sometimes go for one. Haven’t for a while. I’m playing with a fresh napkin. I’m idly turning it into something else. And I don’t mean a beautiful swan. I don’t wish to attract attention to myself with some wonderful origami, even if I could. I want very much to be unnoticed. I re-arrange the condiments; ketchup, brown sauce, next vinegar, sugar—they have those ugly bulbous glass containers that dispense a teaspoon’s full at a pour— then the salt and pepper. So why do I watch someone with so little to see? It’s a good question. One I didn’t know for a long time. I think I know the answer now: contentment; not mine, his. I see contentment in his face and it’s like a drug to me. That’s why I imagined the heart-surgeon life. Of course he might be an actuary, or a draughtsman, or an architect, or a real estate agent, or a blank clerk, or a software engineer. In fact, those careers are more likely, as I doubt heart surgeons are able to keep such regular hours. He arrives
at twelve fifteen and is gone by twelve fifty-five at the latest. At around twelve forty-five, he begins to divert attention from his newspaper to his watch, so he’s never late leaving. The cafe’s getting busy now. People want my seat. Today I’m lucky though, another table are leaving. I order a second coffee. When more people come in, I just dip my head. I can make this coffee last all day if I want to. It only needs to last till one though. I’ll be missed back at work. That’s a laugh. The new blood hardly know me. And my experience counts for nothing. These youngsters are making more commission than me. Enthusiasm wins over knowledge when you’re selling used cars. Good luck to them. My heart’s not in it anymore. I know I said it yesterday, but maybe today I’ll follow him. See where he goes afterwards: around the corner to an anonymous office block; into the car park across the street, and his shiny new BMW five series. I swirl my coffee with a teaspoon. As fast as I can without spilling it over the side. But really, I’m watching him. He’s readying himself to leave. God, I know his routine so well by now. He’s looking at his watch and adjusting his tie. He’s got the waitress’s attention. She’s beside him jotting out his check. He doesn’t need it, he knows the amount. Fishing in his pocket now for a ten. She drops the check on the table. And there it is again. The halfsmile, the smile behind the smile. I can read it in his eyes, not his lips. Contentment. Maybe I’ll sleep tonight. I hope so. I always used to find it difficult to sleep with another presence in bed. Ironic that now, since she left, I can’t nod off in an empty bed without the curve of the mattress towards another centre of gravity, without the soft inhale and exhale of breath to keep me company, without the radiating warmth of another body. I think I even miss the tug of the covers as she tossed and turned in her sleep, her occasional start during a vivid dream. It was about the time she left that I started watching him, a year ago. Well, she’s gone now—stop, don’t go there, not today, don’t go to that sad place, don’t waste the drug. Look, he’s leaving. He’s picked up his coat, he just drapes it over his shoulder. It’s warm today. He pockets his blackberry. Then he’s off. Goodbye, stranger.
The Well by Durga Vijaykumar Turtle Doves cooed and gurgled in crevices. The water tainted with droppings. Speckled eggs nestled in down. A bat lived somewhere in dark depths and flew with no direction. By this well, under the rose-apple tree, I stood many an afternoon with my thoughts. The house slumbered. To this well I brought my childhood friends— Tamarind, rock salt and gooseberries, wrappers, smooth stones, feathers and leaves. To this well I brought my broken nail or scraped toe, resounding slap or some other woe. To this well I brought the sighs of youth, glass lovebirds and letters few. Now I draw water thirstily and taste sweet memories. Silent sentinel this well. The Wolves by Walter Campbell The wolves had been circling her for at least five minutes—growling, howling, grunting, grinning, snapping, seething, and slinking. But it didn’t worry her; this was entirely expected. The wolves had come in because the humans had been gone the whole day and the dogs had gone with them. The wolves had headed right for the sheep instead of the pigs or the goats, because the sheep fought less. Among the sheep, she’d been singled out because she was sick. So the wolves now circled her, entirely expected. That was the way it went. Don’t get her wrong; she didn’t like it. How could you like being sacrificed to a pack of savage carnivores? But she understood it; someone had to go and she was the weakest.
What did shock her was how long they’d circled, entirely unexpected. She’d watched the wolves slaughter so many of her herd that she knew how long they waited, what openings they liked, and how they moved in, and these wolves had had plenty of great openings and hadn’t gone for any of them. She could see their rancorous eyes widen with each opportunity, but they’d just shake it off and move on. She baaed at them, telling them to get it over with and take her. She was ready. She baaed to tell them she wasn’t scared, just do it. This torture wasn’t necessary. But they kept circling. The herd of sheep huddled across the yard baaed at them, too. Sure, they wanted her gone; she was sick, putting the rest of them at risk. By letting her go, they saved themselves not just from the wolves but from her disease as well. But this endless circling was unnecessary cruelty, beyond even what the humans were capable of, and so they baaed and baaed for the wolves to stop. But they circled. They circled until suddenly, the lead wolf approached her. Inches from her face, he bared his teeth, spit bubbling with his guttural growls. She closed her eyes, hoping it would be over soon, which was what she expected. But there was nothing. No pain, no release. Nothing. She opened her eyes and saw him launch his head back and howl at the just-risen moon. He stopped, looked at her, and waited. The rest of the wolves followed suit, howling then looking pleadingly at her. And they kept looking at her, patiently waiting. Entirely unexpected. She straightened up, heaved in a breath for courage, and walked away. Whatever a sick sheep was supposed to do with confused wolves, she wasn’t going to do it in front of her gawking herd. She walked past her herd and around the barn, and the wolves followed calmly and quietly, but when they got to the garden of turnips and eggplants, they stopped. Sheepishly, the lead wolf looked around to make sure only she was there and none of the other farm animals could see
them. They wanted to murder her in private, she thought. They were going to attack her so brutally that they didn’t want an audience, which was not exactly entirely expected, but wasn’t unexpected either. The lead wolf turned to the rest, made a soft yipping sound, and they all opened their mouths wide. She squinted, but as she did she saw something so entirely unexpected that she immediately reopened here eyes. The wolves were scarfing down the vegetables. She watched, stunned, while they ferociously ravaged turnips and eggplants, ripping roots and lacerating leaves with wild aggression. Then, with only a glance her way, they left, hoping the fence and darting into a cluster of trees, but not before the largest wolf rammed his shoulders into the top fence post, smashing it, and leaving a significantly shorter fence. A fence that was just low enough for a sheep to jump. It was all very much entirely unexpected. What should she do?
before it sinks. I tread water in shock, watching the sail slip beneath the surface. In the moonlight I see a small island. I swim toward it. *** Dawn breaks over the island. The sun is not yet up but the heat is already stirring. I lean against a spindly palm tree, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. I have no provisions: no food, no water, nothing. I survey the island. It’s barely an acre in size; it’s barely a thing at all. There’s no drinking water, no vegetation save the lone palm sporting only a few fronds and no coconuts. The island is nothing but sand and shells and a few pieces of driftwood washed up with the tide. I return to the meager shade of the palm, wondering what to do. ***
She should run back to tell her herd so they could all escape. Yes, that’s what she should do. Run back and yell, “Hey guys, guys, the fence has a hole. We’re free! We can leave, and never be sheared, never be corralled, and never nipped at by collies again!” She should tell them, because if she didn’t tell them, they’d never know. They’d stay huddled at the other end of the farm, scared of the wolves. They’d wait until the humans returned to protect them. And the humans, upon seeing the fence, would block it off or fix it, penning them in once again. Very predictable, very expected.
The midday heat is stifling. I fan myself with a palm frond but it offers no relief. My throat rages with thirst. I watch the endless ocean, azure blue, taunting. Waves peel across the reef, perfect and unridden.
She should go back to get them.
I chose this life and will live or die by it.
But they probably believed she was already dead, she thought as she backed up to get a running start. Entirely unexpected, indeed. Thirst by Tom Mahony It’s dark when my sailboat hits the reef, jolting me off my bunk. Water gushes in. The boat goes down so fast I barely have time to jump into the ocean
What am I waiting for, someone to save me? I’ve always saved myself. I left home six months ago to sail the world for two years in search of meaning. I thirsted for it the way I now thirst for water. I know the answers can only be found in solitude and self-reliance.
*** In the evening, when the heat subsides a little, I wade into the shallows looking for food. I try to catch fish using a stalk-and-grab technique. It fails miserably. I throw rocks, fashion a spear, use a palm frond as a crude net, but have no luck. Back at my palm I gather the scant burnables, pile them together, and find two pieces of driftwood to use as a fire starter. My signal fire is ready for ignition. All I need is a passing ship.
I watch the sun set and twilight fade from the darkening sky. I think of her. *** On day two, I wake with an optimism that quickly melts in the heat. I again try fishing the shallows. Futile. I shrug off the failure: I’m not hungry, I’m thirsty. My body feels like a leather belt. I retreat to my palm and think about water. I slice into the trunk in search of sap, but nothing emerges. I know how to make a solar still, but have nothing to make it with. I scan the sky for rain, but it’s a perfect blue, with only scattered puffs of fair-weather cumulus. I study the ocean, tempted to take a drink, desperate for it, but a rational part of my brain resists, knows that would lead to madness and death. The ocean is vast and empty. I’m on my own. *** On day three a coconut washes ashore. I trudge over and haul it in. It’s a beautiful specimen yet maddeningly inaccessible. I pound it with a rock to no avail. After some struggle I pierce the skin with a shell and drink the liquid.
broken. I dream of coconuts, I dream of her: the crushed look on her face when we parted, the way I ignored it, overcome with desire to escape. From what? Commitment? Responsibility? I lie down and slip away, unsure if my impending death is gallant or foolish. I know one thing for sure: I can’t do it alone. Maybe I never could. I curl in the sand and stare at the ocean, fading, fading. I see a frigate bird floating in the distance. My eyes burn in the glare. As I watch the soaring bird, I see a speck on the horizon. At first I think my eyes are playing tricks, but the speck moves closer. A ship. I muster my strength and try lighting the signal fire, but fail to get a spark. My arms ache from furiously rubbing the sticks together. I toss them aside and struggle to my feet. I wave, shout, brandish a palm frond. Fatigue overwhelms me. I slump against the palm watching the ship zigzag across the ocean. I fade into unconsciousness. The ship comes closer, I fade more. It comes. I fade.
I tear the coconut apart and devour the meat, bland but nourishing. I add the husk to my unlit signal fire and rub coconut oil onto my sunburned face. Then I return to the shade, feeling better. I wait, watch, think. If I die here, were the last six months of freedom on the open sea worth the cost? Or should I have stayed home with my comfortably bland life? No, it wasn’t all bland; not her. But she never understood my desire for independence. She called it selfishness, called my obsession with self-reliance a delusion, said I was just running from something. She was wrong. I was right. Or so I thought. *** Two more days pass. My body is weak, my spirit
I wake on the ship in a comfortable bed. A woman stands above me, holding a glass of water to my lips. I drink greedily until nausea hits me, then I collapse against the pillow. My journey is over. I’m going home in defeat: everything I’ve always believed in has proven false. I glance at the sea, thinking of her, of another chance—with her or my journey? I’m not sure which I want and which I need, but I can’t have both. And then it hits me: at the heart of everything is fear, of what I can’t control, of things that can’t be fixed with tools and sweat. Of what could be if I let it. I stare at the wall, thinking of her, of another chance at sea. Of her.
Waiting on the Road to Palladium by Neil John Buchanan I wait for the bus to arrive. It’s late and the sun is going down. I don’t want to be out here after dark. Hell, I don’t want to be outside anywhere after dark. No one does, unless they’re plain crazy or bug-eyed stupid. It’s the way of life since anyone can remember. For some it’s too much. They walk from the Compound when the sun is highest and don’t return. Sure, you’d see them three nights later at the wall, calling for their loved ones, but it’s not really them. Not anymore. It was the same for Mikhail. He hated being caged. He used to dream about flying. Said he would spread his arms like wings and fly across the dunes. I would ask what was on the other side and he would respond, “Palladium.” It made me cry. The bus is coming and the sun warms my back while setting fire to the sky. If I close my eyes, I can see Mikhail as he was on that last day: pale and thin, his bald scalp dry and flaky, his hands shaking as he lifts a cup to bloodless lips. The memories return unbidden and I’m powerless to resist, swept up in their pull, a hapless passenger, adrift on the ramblings of my mind. It’s Zero Hour. The bell chimes and it’s safe. We go to mum’s marker to lay flowers and in the brilliant sunlight Mikhail says he wants to die. “It won’t be an end if I walk past Dead Man’s Trail.” Mikhail leans in close as he speaks, his voice barely above a whisper. “I saw a maple tree there once, split near clean in half by lightning. I could stand in its shadow. I wouldn’t have to wait long before they came. Then I’d be safe.” “You’d be dead.” He gives a small smile and kneels down to the marker. The act sends a flash of pain across his pale features. He no longer tries to hide his discomfort. He traces the inscription in the weathered stone with a long thin finger, the nail cracked and broken. His eyes are clear and focused as he speaks. “I can’t end up like mum; blinking out of existence, gone as if I never was. I won’t choose that fate.” He stands with difficulty; a smile lingers.
“If you’re honest, you don’t want that either.” “Don’t leave me, Mikhail. You’re all I have left.” “If I stay, it won’t be for long. There’s nothing they can do. Don’t deny me the dignity of choice,” he places a finger to my lips. “There’ll come a time when you’ll need this as well.” “Never,” I push his hand away, desperate to make him understand, but he no longer listens. I try to argue, to cajole, even bully, but his mind is made up. In the end, I have no choice but to kiss him upon the cheek and let him go. Mikhail walks out to the hills without a backwards glance; he disappears into shadow and is gone. I am alone. Three nights later the border patrol informs me Mikhail was seen digging in the pits of Harmony Hill. My brother has got his wish. Does the thing that wears Mikhail’s face understand that? Do the memories of the man he was remain? Or is he a savage beast: immortal, immoral and uncaring? The bus is coming. I can hear its engine, feel the vibration through the soft earth. The number 46 glows pink neon in the half-light. Up close I see its dented steel plating, the barrels of machine guns though the roof, the faded cross of Christ painted upon its side. Red stains that might be blood mar its surface. It rolls to a stop, its engine a deep murmur. The doors creak open. A priest in armor regards me, his face lost behind a dark visor. “A new life waits,” he states mechanically. “You’ll work the caverns. It won’t be easy, but if you survive, you’ll be rewarded.” I look down the bus at its passengers: men mostly, young boys desperate to get away or old men escaping the inevitable. They seem alone, lost in their troubles. “Are they all like that?” He grunts as if he’s heard it all before. “Son, they’re breathing. Isn’t that enough?” I look away to the horizon; the sun is now a small slice of brilliant orange. “I heard they dig on Harmony Hill. Together in groups. That they talk and
it isn’t all bad.” The priest sighs. “Nothing living on that hill. Or rather, nothing that has a right to life anymore. You’d best forget it. It isn’t good to think about them.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder. “Take a seat, there’s a long way to go. It’s near dark, and we can expect trouble before it’s over.” I hesitate and catch the glance of a passenger. His eyes are pools of unfettered horror, his face a dark smudge. I wonder what he’s running from. Is it the same as me? Would I always be running? “No. I’ve changed my mind,” I step away from the bus, aware the machine guns rotate to fix upon me. “You’ll never make the Compound wall before nightfall. They’ll find you,” the priest explains with a weary tone, as if he’s said the same thing a hundred times before. “I know.” “Let him go,” the priest shakes his head. “He’s no good to anyone. He wouldn’t last a day in the caverns anyhow.” The doors slam shut and the bus rolls away into the dark. It’s night now. I wonder if I’ll find Mikhail on Harmony Hill, or whether they’ll find me and I’ll serve another purpose. A breeze stirs the sand and I hear laughter, high pitched and childlike. In the end, I don’t have to wait long. Mikhail stands by my side, his cold hand in mine, and I am no longer alone. wordsFall by Ryan McGinty Somedays there’s nothing better to do than write in an igloo of your own crafting and dream up images that fire across barren landscapes, burning pages in their wake. Mostdays
I sit in a hut made of ice and warm my shaky twigfingers over a cup of piping tea slowly melting a groove in the ice…I write the image down, embellishing every sound.
And all the poets are drowned and their poems never found.
Thesedays on frozen ice life I sit deadquiet and the frigid soilground births nothing but desiccated images, flashes of firememories— a city illuminated in flame, children with soot-covered faces running naked…then the deluge, at once the fire put out and murky water rushing through the avenues…
And all the poets were drowned and their poems never found.
…water turns to ice suspending bodies in graves anonymous and one left no to write it down...errorsyntax,syntaxerror… This is the starting point— the reset button pressed and all that cyberspace data lost (FileNotFound filenotfound) The cup melts the ice, language falls dead to the ground
And all the poets are drowned and their poems will never be found.
Washout by M. P. Powers Greg, my old mailman—the one who used to bring me all those rejection letters and bounced check notifications—I’ve been seeing him in the bars for
more than ten years now, always alone, wearing his Hail Mary clothes: a black shirt and white jeans, or vice versa. I saw him again last night. He was on the far side of the barroom, too far away to acknowledge, but I could see through the crowd a little reddish light falling on the side of his face. He wasn’t young anymore, just more life-eaten and sad-looking. Still playing the same game, still searching, giving it another go in the same going-out clothes—white shirt, black jeans. His uniform. Empty and alone in it. Trying to give the impression he wasn’t, or at least that he enjoyed his own company, that everything was going according to plan. Even as the night began to sink. He must’ve known how it would end. The failed Hail Mary pass. Melted ice in a glass, watered-down bourbon. Taking that last rusty swig and no one to say goodbye to. No one even noticing as he heads for the door. As he walks out into a parking lot, lit up like a stadium. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the roar of the imaginary crowd, cheering him on out there, mocking him stumbling towards his car. Yes, I too have been there. Although I’ve never gone out with the sole intention of being saved or cured by a woman, I do admit thinking about it, looking for someone in bars, or something that just wasn’t there. Finding in the end only the sadness of a parking lot, and the bright terrible lights of late, late night. Key in the door, key in the ignition. Driving home. Driving alone and bleary-eyed past
restaurants, bars, sidewalks flooded with people. None of them knowing the first thing—or even caring about—who you are. What Precise Moment by Dan Powell Georgina Samson woke from troubled dreams to find herself transformed into a vending machine. She stood in the kitchen, beside the fridge, a convenient spot that anyone entering or leaving would have to pass. Unable to cry out she could do nothing but wait for her family to appear and unravel exactly what it was that had happened to her. Milton, her youngest, was the first to enter the kitchen that morning. “Beckfast,” the three year old said, slurring the word sleepily. He spoke directly into a flat, round microphone set into her casing that felt, to Georgina Samson’s ruffled mind, not unlike an ear. Deep inside her workings she felt something mechanical shift and rotate and tip, followed by the sound of flakes hitting ceramic. A chill feeling, almost like wetting oneself, flooded through the lower regions of her chassis. She watched Milton pull open a flap in her front and remove a bowl of cereal. “Tanks, Mam,” he said before taking himself off to the table. Georgina watched him seat himself and begin to eat, more than a little proud of how he managed it all with a minimum of fuss and mess. Someone thumping her smooth glass front wrenched her back to her strange predicament. “I said, toast.” Violet, her eldest, whacked her again. “C’mon, mother, Paul’s picking me up in a minute.” Georgina’s insides grew hot and fiery, and she thought she might be about to explode, but it was simply the toast popping inside her. Violet yanked the somehow buttered slices from Georgina’s
hatch and raced out the back door to the yard. “I’m late,” she yelled back at her mother.
fense. People underestimate the intelligence of seven-year-olds, I swear.
Last down was Michael, stuffing papers into his briefcase.
It’s just after midnight when I wake up and make my way groggily into the kitchen to hydrate. I don’t turn the lights on for fear of losing hold of the drowsiness that is going to lay me easily back into sleep. I shove a glass under the running faucet, down the contents, and then set the glass aside and mope back to my bedroom.
“Just coffee for me, dear.” Heat filled her again, this time fluid and drenching, flushing through her with cystitic urgency. A creamy coolness followed. Finally she spat something granulated into the mix. Michael lifted the flap and gently removed the paper cup. He planted a quick kiss on her hardened exterior, grabbed his keys from her top, where he must have left them, and headed out. Her inner workings still for the first time that morning, Georgina Samson watched Milton finish his breakfast, and wondered when it was exactly, what precise moment of her marriage, her motherhood, it was that she turned into this. What’s Under the Bed? by Amanda Connell I may have only been seven, but I was positive that there was a monster underneath my bed. No one believes an eight year old, though. One little kid uses the monster-under-the-bed excuse to be allowed to stay up late and all of our credibility is gone. Parenting books everywhere start convincing parents that monsters don’t dwell under beds, and we start getting scoffed at every time we insist that they do. They mockingly check underneath the bed before bedtime and tell us we’re being silly. We’re being silly? Everyone knows that only kids can see monsters! Twenty-two years later, exactly six hours away from my thirtieth birthday, I lay peacefully in my dark bedroom. I stopped sleeping with a nightlight years ago, once I reached adulthood. My eighteenth birthday was the happiest day of my life; it was a relief to be free of the threats of monsters after all those years. I reflect on all of those monster movies that I had watched. Mom blamed those for my fits of fear during the night, but what she didn’t know was that I was only watching the movies in the first place to find new forms of de-
It begins with a soft rustle from below, just enough to heighten my senses. I wait for a few minutes before putting the sound off as a figment of my imagination. The rustling gets louder. It must be the cat. “Quit it, Cuddles. You‘re such pain,” I say as I heave myself toward the end of the bed. My leg swings out and bumps into something furry. “Cuddles?” The cat glances back, ears fixed back and tail jerking furiously. If she’s up here…my eyes widen as I look down at the growing shadow creeping across the floor. Cuddles lets out a ferocious hiss and darts off of the bed. I gasp as a hairy red beast emerges from beneath my bed. It is big and menacing and… vaguely familiar? “What’s the matter?” it cackles. “Don’t remember me?” For a moment I have trouble stringing together my thoughts. It’s as if this creature has come about and erased my brain. Suddenly it hits me like a ton of bricks, “You—you used to hide under my bed when I was kid!” An ugly smile forms on his face, all fangs and no lip. My mind flashes back to all of those nights of hiding under my covers in the fetal position, shaking and doubting I’d make it to morning. “You were real!” I say, pointing accusingly. “I knew it!” “Were? I still am!” “But…how can I see you? Adults can’t see mon-
sters.” “That’s because adults don’t believe in monsters. You, however, seem to be the exception, the weirdo, if you will. The child-like state of mind that you are stuck in makes me visible to you.” “I may still believe in you, but you can’t scare me anymore,” I lie with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. He lets out an earth-shattering roar accompanied by a high pitch scream. I realize that that scream is my own. My chest is tight and sweat drips down my face. An I-told-you-so smirk appears on the monster’s face. I take a deep breath and regain my composure. “You just surprised me, that’s all,” I explain. I scold myself for not being able to hold it together. “What do you want, anyway?” I demand. “Well, since I can’t scare you anymore,” he begins sarcastically, and I can’t help but feel embarrassed, “I just wanted to pass on a message.” “A message?” “Yes. I think it’s time to get a new bed. This mattress sags right on my back and after all, you have had this bed since you were seven.” January (cubist poem in entangled form) by Michael Dickel i Thoughtlessly exhausted urban steam escapes into ice above industrial towers. Sodium-orange highway lights reflect on the underbelly of this dragon’s breath. Lighting out from the city in my ‘87 Chevy, headed west on a moraine highway, I course cross-country madness, a beetle caught in a frozen rattler’s cast-off skin. Threads of night radiate along the blue-black mussel-shell sky— lucid, nacreous stars proof of the wind’s crackled nostalgia.
Fragments knot my mind; desire—nothing but ground up memories, a slight ocean taste in the air— a distance between us that was within. ii Thoughtlessly exhausted urban steam lights out from the city, threads of night radiating fragments, knotted—my mind escapes into ice above industrial towers in my ‘87 Chevy, headed west on a moraine highway, along the blue-black mussel-shell sky. Desire—nothing but ground up memories sodium-orange highway lights reflect— I course cross-country madness, lucid, nacreous stars proof of a slight ocean taste in the air— on the underbelly of this dragon’s breath, a beetle caught in a frozen rattler’s cast-off skin, the wind’s crackled nostalgia, a distance between us that was within. iii Thoughtlessly escaping sodium-orange lighting I thread along, lucid. The fragments, desire: nothing, exhausted highway, me, beetle of the nacreous wind’s knot, slight distance. Urban ice lights the underbelly of ‘87, coursing, catching night— blue-black stars, crackling ground, ocean—between. Steam above reflects the Chevy, cross-country striated mussel-shell proof of nostalgia mind. Tasting us, this industrial city headed toward madness, a sky of memories. In those towers, dragons. West was the frozen breath on a rattler’s air—within, a cast-off moraine skin. Highway.
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Published on Sep 11, 2010
Eclectic Flash is a nonprofit online and print literary journal dedicated to bringing our readers the best flash literature available, regar...