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Confabulations a new collection by

Fern Bryar


C o n f a b u l at i o n s

a new collection by

Fern Bryar

Cobblestone Books Madison, WI


This is a work of fiction (mostly). All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination, are used fictiously, or are based on the author’s actual life. CONFABULATIONS Copyright © 2011 by Fern Bryar “Awakening” © 2010 “Moonsong” © 2010 “Between My Covers” © 2010 “Ode to the Rain” © 2010 “Upstairs” © 2011 “Groundscape” © 2010 “Gina” © 2011 “Confabulations” © 2010 “Doctor Visits” © 2010 “The Room” © 2011 “Perspectives” © 2010 “Worthless” © 2010 “Windows” © 2011 “The Collectors” © 2011 “Pura Vida” © 2009 “Rock Sit and Sandal Loss/Loosing Foot” © 2009 “Time for Good-byes” © 2009 All rights reserved. Edited by G.M. Cottrill A Cobblestone Crafts Book Published by G.M. Cottrill at Cobblestone Books Madison, WI Summary: A new, debut collection of poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and creative nonfiction by Fern Bryar. The work explores the beauty of nature, the life of inanimate objects, the supernatural, and human emotion. First Edition: August 2011 Printed in the United States of America 0 8 2 8 1 9 8 1


New and improved, just for you, Sis.


contents Poetry 2 Awakening 3 Moonsong 4 Between My Covers 6 Ode to the Rain 8 Upstairs 9 Groundscape Flash Fiction 12 Gina 13 Confabulations 15 Doctor Visits 18 The Room 19 Perspectives Short Stories 24 Worthless 36 Windows 47 The Collectors Nonfiction 62 Pura Vida 64 Rock Sit and Sandal Loss/Losing Foot 69 Time for Good-byes


poetry


A w a k e n i n g It’s the spring that arouses me from my winter drunkenness with its ability to admonish the mood swings, and misery, that lately governed my life by embracing my face with the sun’s radiant kiss and invigorating my being as if I just woke from bed and realized I had nothing to do but enjoy whatever I chose to do, like go slosh in the mud puddles or swoop up butterflies fluttering about in a glowing field aflame with wildflowers that flirt with the eyes and punch the nose with their pungent polleny breath.

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. ď ˘.


M o o n s o n g Stark-still silence. A vast expanse of white alive with dancing snow beneath the nighttime orb. The earth’s black cape aglow with stars of death, in all their shining wonder emitting only dying breaths of light. A wolf-wraith poised. Once a maven of the hunt, now a winnowed shape: a hanging hunkered head, golden ember-eyes alight in the dark-death night. Standing sunken in the shadows every footprint nonexistent, blackened spirit body, lithe and slim. One lone-wolf’s life: death’s majestic victim, wary of the darkness, ghost and howler of vigilant moonsong.

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Between My Covers It’s a fervent frenzy between my covers, within the threshold of my pages. Line by word by syllable, I am a constant stream of imagination cascading, swelling, raging. Each image embedded on my soul. Living ink pressed into my being. Once just a fragment, a distant notion until the day I was set and bound: a soft caress upon my spine, a gentle ruffle through my pages, each airy sniff a passionate kiss. Like the beings who live in me I share their every hope and dream, every trial, every victory. I am they and they are me and then, we are everything. We implant our story upon a thirsty mind, inflate it with adventure,

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suspense and enchantment. Moments I live for. Caring hands hold me close, fingers flexing with every emotion, sweating from anxiety, clenching in agony, smiling in elation. It’s a fading frenzy between my covers, within the threshold of my pages. Now crushed between two foreign beasts, their contents a mystery or horror, it’s been too long since I last was held, judged, skimmed, read. Between my covers.

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O de

t o

t h e

R a i n

af ter Yusef Ko munyakaa

Daughter of Thunder and Lightning’s sweet sister: you nourish the world with roaring torrents and spritzers, ravage and rejuvenate brown broken blades into green gloried grass. You are strong with desire, swollen with confidence, transfixing the land beneath your mother’s shroud. You form dark sheets: the sky’s curtain until you are here, pattering on the panes, grappling along the glass, your watery limbs reaching, veering down and around, seeping into the thirsting earth. As you pass overhead, I relax.

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Then your brother’s flash. Your father’s crack. Sudden tension for one moment. Your onset is like protection, a celebration and fixation to satisfy the land’s expanse. No thing can fear you, dearest Daughter of the sky, for without you, nothing grows nor survives.

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U p s t a i r s Upstairs a pair of eyes watch. The winter blue eyes growing colder with each icy echo of each icy slap. Mesmerized. Frozen in fear. Chilling words drifting on a chilling breeze upstairs. Upstairs a pair of hands move, the delicate fingers floating across pages flying through a world existent only behind the wintery blue eyes. A story unfolds magnificent and wondrous tumbling down from her mind like the woman outside the door tumbling down from the steps. Upstairs: a prison for the witness a haven for the mind.

. ď ˘.

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G r o u n d s c a p e after Brigit P ageen Kelly

There is a hidden place near my home. A forsaken wreckage. Shattered glass, flaked plaster and crumpled body carriers, their cables snapped and twisted like dead snakes. The shambled mass once a wonder, grounds for dares and midnight outings. A mysterious place with an unknown history. The fractured remains, just desolate refuse. Broken walls and shattered windows of a world too distant to reach. Filthy tiles scuffed from years of filthy trampling feet of a forgotten people. Now we think we understand. The structure fell with the rest of the world. It fell when the world tore itself to pieces and civilization crumbled. Now slowly rebuilding. But this never will. The building once stood tall, a tower of babbling business reaching into the sky, the reflection rippling in the structure’s ten thousand glass prison panes. Each being imprisoned by his own ambition. A barren place. Lives regulated by individualism and societal correctness. The crumbled, misshapen grey matter tributes a time of cold, cemented ideals. A time of oppression and disillusioned independence: when everyone felt as if they ruled the world while the world ruled everyone. Near the devastation’s end, there is an area oddly intact. A rotted table burrows into the concrete blocks, and remnants of office thrones sit disgruntled and disheveled. Clearly an antechamber: here, naïve peasant workers awaited the presentation of their monarchist’s latest legislation or termination. Clearly a place of sophistication: the situation room of primal

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G r o und sca p e co nt inu e d ... instincts and life-and-death decisions. Death won. I see it in the broken glass, a prison destroyed before liberation. I see it in the broken cemented blocks of condemnation, in the crumbled slabs of stone. The building never built for success: tall, mighty and selfish. A structure built to society standards. A skyscraper fated for groundscape.

. .

Fern Bryar on poetry: “I don’t write poetry often. Most of the poems I’ve written were for a creative writing class. I generally experiment with free form, rhyming, a bit of meter here and there, and the look of the piece. I tend to write about anything and everything. I enjoy trying to capture emotions felt when experiencing parts of nature, or writing about something I love--books, wolves, writing, art--or things that I feel strongly about when I’m in the mood to write a poem.”

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f lash fiction


G i n a

S

he walked into her apartment and slammed the door. It had just been one of those days. One of those days that no one really cares about hearing, but one that most everyone feels they must share. Except for Gina. Gina didn’t want to tell anyone about the day’s events. In fact, she didn’t even want to think about what had happened that day, but as she whipped her coat off and flicked her shoes at the white wall and saw the black smudge they left, it was all she could think about. The time on the coffee maker read 8:00am and the pot was finally full, 12 hours too late. She cursed the clock for being so off. When had it been switched to being the wrong time of day? Gina stalked away from the appliance, the first supplier of angst to her day. Usually it would have been fine, but added to a cold shower, soap in the eyes, unclean underwear, sour milk, moldy bread, and still wet shoes from the rain the day before, Gina had known it wasn’t going to be a good day. Gina walked through the kitchen and into her bedroom, trying to shed an angry thought with each step. Her phone had died during an important call to a possible employer, and now she was finally able to charge it. She had emailed the guy of course, apologizing for her phone, blaming it on the battery that she needed to fix, trying to sound professional and not as pathetic as she felt. She slipped out of her corset-like business suit and threw on a pair of sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. She grabbed a Mike’s Harder Lemonade® and put in an episode of ALIAS, one where Sydney Bristow kicks the ass of some crippled creep who had once pulled out her teeth. Gina forgot about her day in the bad-assery that ensued on screen, and she envisioned, tomorrow, taking on the worst luck in the world in tight leather pants and heels.

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C o n f a b u l a t i o n s

T

here is a man in front of me. I do not know this man. This ugly, hairy man wearing a long white dress and a funny necklace. He looks over at a woman I didn’t see before. He writes something down on that damn clipboard he always carries that makes a screeching snap sound every time the white oaf rocks his heals and clips the board. “Good morning Mr. Matthews,” he says. He always calls me that, I think, but I don’t know who he is. I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know how he thinks he knows who I am. Hell, I don’t even know who he is! “Quentin, sweetie,” the woman says. She takes a step closer, and I scream. I cover my face and rock back and forth. I don’t want to be here. I want to be on a mountain. A tall mountain that I can jump off and fly away. Fly away to nowhere. To nowhere where there aren’t any funny men in white dresses that call me stupid names. My name is Jack. There was that piercing clip board snap again. “Mr. Matthews, my name is Dr. Conrath. We spoke yesterday. Do you remember yesterday?” I didn’t talk to anybody yesterday. I wasn’t alive yesterday. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Mr. Matthews?” I stand up and look out the window. The sun is out, and I think of my ranch I will own in the future. “No,” I say. “What is your name?” “Jack. But you call me Mr. Matthews.” “How old are you?” “Twenty-seven.” “When were you born?” “Today.” “Interesting. Are you married?” “No.” “Quentin!” The woman shrieks from the corner. Her eyes

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look ugly and water runs from them. It’s disgusting. She’s fat. And old. Hardly a beauty, but I think she comes in often. “What’s your problem, woman?” I wince as she hurries towards me and my window. “But Quentin, I’m your wife.” “I don’t have a wife.” “Of course you do, Quentin. We’ve been married for 40 years, and we have three kids, and they have—” “My name’s Jack. I’m not married.” I look away from the annoying strangers loitering in my room. The woman makes a weird noise, and the annoying man mumbles something to her. I ignore them and look out the window. The sun is out, and I think of my ranch I will own in the future.

. .

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D o c t o r

V i s i t s

D

espite their good intentions and the wonders and near miracles they have performed for people, I do not really like doctors. Perhaps it’s the situation generally surrounding the visits, or the fact that they never listen to me. Ten years of grad school apparently outweighs a patient’s own opinion of their symptoms. However, it could also just be the actual places: doctor offices, clinics, hospitals, etc. The worst thing about all of those is the waiting at each of them and waiting in a place that buzzes with silence and smells of latex and air that’s too clean. I think the hatred begins with the early appointment time because the receptionist scheduled an “urgent” appointment after hearing one or two symptoms. Of course, the only times available would be early; who wants to start their day being interrogated and examined by cold hands, stethoscopes, and ear probes? I know I don’t. So, envision this. It’s 8:00am. You’ve been up for an hour, didn’t have time to shower long, drove for half an hour, and now you’re walking into a dark brick building. Only one car is in the parking lot along with yours. The frigid air meets your still tired body. Supposedly not many germs can survive when it’s freezing. Nor can many humans, geniuses. You go to the counter that’s so high it comes up to your chest, but the receptionist is at waist level. You can hardly make eye contact, and she’s not looking at you anyway. You clear your throat, but the phone rings. You stand there like an idiot for two full minutes trying not to eavesdrop and failing miserably. (So there are people who can hear the receptionist’s conversation when you’re on the phone asking about chronic constipation and yeast infections. Thank God it’s a normal appointment today.) “Can I help you?” you are finally asked. “Yes.” You say your name, sign a sheet, and answer 100

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D o c t o r V i s i t s co nt inue d ... questions. The same 100 questions you answer at every medical facility. You wonder what the point is to actually having a wall of manila file folders filled with those sheets, no doubt filled out 100 times by the same people. “Thank you. You can have a seat, and the doctor should be with you shortly.” You sit. The silence is more awkward than the silence in a conversation hiatus in a room of people, more awkward than phone silence. The magazines are ones you don’t enjoy: home and garden and medical ones. Brochures cover the tables lecturing about various vaccines, CPR, abuse and the latest “epidemic” and germ control instructions. Your chair is not really soft despite the four-inch cushion. There are some children books, but who wants to read about Baxter Bunny going to the doctor? So you wait, shivering and silent for a good ten minutes. You hear the doctor’s voice; the receptionist leaves and comes back, glancing at you without smiling. And there’s still only one other car in the parking lot. Finally, another person comes out the heavy wood door. Following her (or him), you pass five rooms, all empty, before you are asked to enter one. You take off your coat and stand on a scale, and you’re sure to be depressed because the doctor’s scale always adds at least ten extra pounds. She takes your blood pressure, squeezing until your arm is numb, and then it’s released and tingles painfully. She reads some numbers out loud to you (like you really understand) and scribbles them down. She asks you questions about why you’re here, writes notes, probably the same notes the person on the phone took two days before when you made your appointment. “You can wait here. The doctor should be with you shortly.” “Should,” again. Ten minutes later, the doctor comes in,

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reiterates what you just told the nurse. He nods and asks a few random questions. Smoke? Drink? Pregnant (or obviously not)? Taking medication? Then you’re made to sit and lay in every position possible, touched nearly everywhere, nearly gagged by a throat swab, and all your symptoms are in your ears. Yep, you’re sick; the verdict is what you suspected the entire time. You are prescribed an expensive antibiotic and sent on your way. Two days later, you receive a $200 bill in the mail for a near two-hour endeavor with only five minutes of contact at the office. They didn’t even wait until after you were better to send the bill.

. .

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T h e

R o o m

O

h! Fuck! Gross!” The rancid stench slapped him in the face when he opened the door. The door led to a room. An extraordinary room like no other. The room smelled like must that had stewed in a toilet filled with excretory remnants of beans and jalapeños. But despite the smell, the room was one of grandeur. Well, if you were a mad scientist who enjoyed experiments gone wrong. And something had gone wrong. “Oh! Fuck! Gross!” was a minor exclamation and an understatement for the horrificly rambunctious resplendence that met his eyes. It was the image of neglect, but also, oddly enough, of love. It had once been a place of solitude, serenity and sex. Well, when it had been a place suitable for such an act. Now, the only sexual intercourse taking place would be between fungal spores and plant pollen. The desk that had once been home to important everyday work was now littered with crumpled yellow paper covered with worn out ink, tired from fighting away dust and crumbs and insect feces. The desk was made of oak, but the hard wood had begun to rot and had become the berth of thirsting parasitic roots of mutant plants, grown from the refuse of forgotten food and human wastefulness. The room had become a jungle. Literally. What the fuck? How had it happened? What could he do? “Oh! Fuck! Gross!” He did the only thing he could do as a man. He shut the door and walked away. Someone else will discover it eventually.

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P e r s p e c t i v e s Library Creeping

T

he library can be an interesting place, with all its quiet activity and frenzied silence. Students like myself go there to punish their distracted minds and supervise their procrastinating tendencies. But it doesn’t always turn out that way, and for me, it is just as much a distraction and way of procrastination to go to the library, especially when I begin to feel lost in my end-of-theyear-blues. The library is a terribly busy place, and always filled to max capacity. I generally feel incredibly awkward trying to find a place to sit by myself, trying to be as inconspicuous and discreet as possible (and usually met with unsuccess). I like to find a place that is cozy, and still a place where I can creep on others. The library is a perfect place to people-watch. I find a corner chair; the entire room is in my view. I take my time setting up my station so people get used to my presence. The longer it takes, the more it seems like I am focusing nearly all my attention on my own belongings and activities. I’ve picked the best seat available: thickly padded with minimal stains and crumbs. I scrunch up in the cushion, draw my knees up to my chest, place a folder and some papers on my thighs, and peer down at the page, then up and into the throng of students. I know I actually have to get some work done, so for starters I only take in whatever I can in a quick first glance: a dark haired guy reading four books at a time; a group of girls chatting on facebook while “working” on a “group project”; a couple playing footsie; two guys laughing and snickering at nothing; two girls judging every other person that walks by; one or two people doing the same thing; and quite a few people bobbing their heads, already succumbing to inevitable slumber. With my first pan complete, I look down at my paper and begin reading. True

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library creeping must be achieved in stages.

Library Creeper

H

er backpack hung low on her back, and her shoulders were hunched as she tried to alleviate the painful weight of her books, computer, and random items for a night of studying at the library. The building was filled with students, and even the quiet reading rooms were humming with a light chatter. The girl meandered through a number of tables, trying not to look flustered or blatantly uncertain of where she was going. She paused at a couple tables that were home to only one occupant, but their quick glance up through half-squinted eyes quickly sent her on her way. She stopped finally in a quiet corner and put her bloated pack on the ground. She sat in a large cushioned chair and began unpacking her bag’s contents. It took her a few minutes as she sifted through the items in the bag, glanced about her surroundings, took out all her folders, placed them on a small ottoman table-type thing, and sifted through them again. She took some food out from the bag, looked around the room, and then put some of her other things back in the bag. Finally she decided on a yellow folder. She sunk down into the chair, brought her knees up to her chin, and placed her work on her legs, but her eyes did not focus on the papers in front of her. The room was large and open and a distraction for the girl. She glanced around at everyone she could, not keeping her attention on any one subject too long. It appeared she knew what she was doing and was confident in the secrecy of her observations. After about a minute of glancing about the room, the girl looked down at her homework and began to read. The library creeper’s shifting eyes and subtle head turns and tilts had gone, seemingly, unnoticed by everyone under her scrutiny.

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. ď ˘.


Fern Bryar on Flash Fiction: “I used to think that I would never be able to tell a story in less than four pages, that my one to two page freewrites could only be a beginning to something larger. However, I was recently introduced to the idea of ‘flash fiction’ and discovered that I had written some! While I enjoy constructing longer stories, experimenting with a shorter form is actually quite thrilling. It prevents me from becoming too wordy and forces me to take extreme care in every word I write. For me, writing flash fiction is a baby step to becoming a better writer. I have fun with it, trying to explore new ideas, new voices, and new styles.”

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short stories


W o r t h l e s s

I

’m afraid there is nothing I can do, Genie,” the doctor said, his brow furrowed. He glanced down at the man lying on the hospital bed. “I don’t know exactly what is wrong with Sam,” he said. “He’s in some sort of coma, but one unlike I have ever seen before. It’s as if…” he trailed off, unsure of how to continue. “As if what?” Genie asked the doctor. “It’s as if he’s resisting, fighting to stay asleep. It’s very odd. I will need to call in a specialist, but he may not be able to arrive until tomorrow.” Genie, who had kept her features emotionless, now covered her face with her hands and began to weep. Through her sobs, she told the doctor, “I just don’t know what happened. He was fine, and then he began to tell me strange stories, and he hardly went to work. We got in an argument, and I left the apartment. Then today, I went back to try to sort things out. I was worried about him, and then—and then I found him lying there on the floor. I thought he was dead.” “Well, he’s certainly not dead. His brain waves are excellent. He is in perfect health. But don’t worry. We’ll have Sam sorted out soon enough. Sometimes bodies just need rest and may shut down and sleep to recover. I mean, this does seem a bit extreme, but I’m sure he’ll be all right.” “But that’s all he has been doing the past week.” “I beg your pardon?” Genie shook her head. “That’s why I left. He was always finding some excuse to sleep. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left. Had I known what would happen…” Genie broke down again. This time the doctor went to her side and tried to reassure her as he glanced down at Sam. The young man was resting peacefully, seemingly content, yet around the closed eyes, the doctor noticed a slight pained expression.

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There was a knock at the door. “Dr. Leonard? I have another visitor.” A nurse moved aside and motioned for a young man to enter the room. “Liam!” Genie hurried over and hugged him. She wiped her cheeks. “Thanks so much for coming. I don’t know what to do.” “I’ll leave you two alone,” said Dr. Leonard. The nurse had already left. “If you need anything, just find someone over at the desk. Someone should be back to check on Sam in a little bit.” Genie nodded and Dr. Leonard left the room, gently closing the door behind him. After a short agonizing silence, Liam asked, “What happened Genie?” “I—I don’t know. I really don’t. We had a fight and I left, and then when I went back today...I found him—I found him on the floor. I thought he had killed himself.” Genie felt tears seep from her eyes and sagged into Liam. He held her close and tried to reassure her. “Shh. Everything will be fine. Here, sit down.” A few minutes passed until Genie was able to look up. Liam studied her with concern, and Genie turned away embarrassed. She chuckled softly. “I’m a mess. God. What has he done? What was Sam even thinking? I just don’t understand it.” “I don’t either,” Liam added. He was looking straight ahead, speculating about something as he usually did. Genie was used to his silence that generally preceded a sudden question or proclamation. “Genie, what were you fighting about?” “Ugh. It wasn’t even that big of a deal. Not for him to try and do something like—” She cut herself off. “I just, I couldn’t understand what had been happening to him. Just in the past few weeks he began being obsessed with sleeping. He lost his job a while ago. Did he tell you?” Liam nodded. “I told him to stop messing around and to find another job. I wasn’t going to pay rent and buy food for the both of us and try to

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take care of him. He didn’t even shower regularly anymore. I told him he was worthless, and then I left.” Both were silent. “Did he ever talk to you about any of this?” Genie asked Liam. Liam didn’t answer right away; he didn’t know how to begin. “I’ve known Sam a long time,” Liam said slowly. “Since we were kids. He’s had a rough life, with his dad abusing him and his mom all the time. I felt sorry for Sam. I loved him. I still do, and I would do anything to help him. He used to use his imagination as an escape from anything problematic in his life, and he never really learned to stand up for himself. He lets everyone tell him what to do.” Liam paused, not sure how to continue. “I read in this book once that lucid dreaming can help people practice working through real life events and struggles while dreaming and being in control. I told Sam about this, and he began practicing.” “Yeah, Sam mentioned something about controlling his dreams,” Genie said. “He told me he was getting damn good at it. Said he had been building up the courage to quit his job and find a better one, but often his dreams turned into nightmares about his dad. I told him to just imagine things like he did when he was little, to just work with taking control of any situation in his dreams. It’s a crazy technique, and the book went really in depth. I tried to become lucid in my dreams, but I can’t keep it going for long.” “But—” Genie interrupted. “What does that have to do with the state he’s in now? He won’t wake up.” Liam shook his head. “I never heard of this before either, but maybe, just maybe, he has become addicted to the power within his dreams. Maybe he has become trapped in some fantastical world he created.” Genie snorted. “That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. It’s ridiculous!” Liam shrugged. “The mind is a powerful thing. And with a

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lost job, a seemingly lost girlfriend…” Genie bit her lip and looked away. “A dream-life filled with wonder may be more desirable than the one he has to deal with every day.” Genie glanced over at Liam. “How do we wake him up?” Liam’s face darkened. “We don’t. It could be like some sort of night terror deal; it could be dangerous to force him out of it, and actually, if he hasn’t woken up already…I don’t know what will.” “Do you know how ridiculous you sound right now? A dreaminduced coma? Liam, it doesn’t make any sense.” “Genie, does any of this make any sense? I’m just trying to put the pieces together.” Genie looked at Sam, lying still on the bed. She took his hand in both of hers and softly massaged his knuckles. “Sam…it’s Genie. If you can hear me, I’m here for you. Please wake up. I love you. And, I’m sorry.” She kissed his hand gently, and Liam stood by her, rubbing her shoulder. She looked up at Liam, and they exchanged worried glances. Neither noticed the rapid movement behind Sam’s closed eyelids… My eyes open, and I quickly close them again. I hate when I wake up suddenly and cannot focus my eyes right away. Everything around me is white, a bright blank expanse, like a burning field of ice-glazed snow, blinding me with sunlight. I can’t tell where I am; I’m not in my apartment, nor even in a bed. Panic sets in, and I realize this moment is like one that I have witnessed many times before. Again and again, and I am powerless to prevent it from happening. I think at one time I may have been able to, but now, now I am lost, my sanity questioned in a room of emptiness. I suddenly notice two doors on the other side of the room. Only their handles are visible from where I am. I make my way over to them. Perhaps one will lead out of this barren place. As I near, I see that the two doors are very different. One is tall and skinny, just about my size. A head taller maybe. The handle is plain, like all the ones in the drabby apartment Genie and I share. Only darkness peeps through the small crack by my feet. I look at the

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other, and it’s quite extravagant. It is like porcelain: pearly streaks swirl around the door, and the handle is large, old-fashioned, and made of blackened iron. My hand fits neatly in its curved shape. There is a lever on top that my thumb presses down easily. A light click echoes through the empty room, and with barely a tug, the door opens easily, and a startling yellow light blinds me. The light is not from the sun. Its source is a bright, uncovered light bulb shining into my eyes. I look away. My eyes recover slowly, too slowly for my liking. I try to sit up, but I can’t move. I lift my head, but my chin barely rises over my chest. Only my hands can move. I’m strapped to something, and now I can feel the heavy leather on my arms, my chest, my abdomen, and even my legs. My feet are bare, my toes cold and numb. The light above me bothers me. My eyes can’t escape it. I turn my head to see the room around me. An unsettling tingle spreads throughout my body, and I feel my thoughts begin to glaze over. I’m breathing heavily. Brick walls, uneven and wet, glisten from the lone bulb torturing my eyes. The mottled cement flooring makes me queasy. It’s splattered in blood. I hear footsteps outside the door. My stomach clenches, and my eyes begin to water. I am terrified. The door opens, and there is only blackness. A large shape seems to float towards me, and I close my eyes tight, tight as I can. I squeeze my lids together so hard they hurt. Warm steamy breath flows across my face, and a rolling laughter echoes through the room. It’s my father, laughing in drunken rage. Across the room he slams my mother against the wall. The straps are gone, but I can’t move. My voice won’t work, so I try harder. I scream at him, at my mom. My father lumbers over to me. His eyes are bloodshot, flashing and crazed. There is no stopping him. I turn and run. I find the stairs and charge up them but I’m uncoordinated. I feel as if I’m hardly moving, like there is an invisible force trying to stop me. Some stairs are missing, and I trip on the dark gaps. Suddenly I see there is nothing beneath me, beneath the stairs. The stairwell begins to swing like a suspended jungle bridge. I keep moving. I can hear my father’s ragged breathing and his raspy voice.

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“Sam! You worthless piece of shit! Come here!” I nearly fall. His words cripple me, and I’m angry and saddened. I don’t know what to do. I keep climbing; the top of the stairs is near. I don’t look back as I run across the paved landing. It’s actually a parking ramp. I hear sirens and blue and red lights flash around me. They’re after me because I escaped that dungeon. An officer spots me and I run, this time quickly on the solid ground. They’ll never catch me. This is my dream. I stop. I check my watch, but I can’t read it. This is a dream. Just a dream. I try to stay calm because too much excitement or panic will cause me to lose any control I have gained at this moment. The parking lot is empty except for a few cars. I go to one, a black one with dark tinted windows. The seats are leather, and I feel they are beseeching me to sit in them, or at least the driver’s seat. And I don’t argue. I speed down the road, reaching 60…70…90…100…120…130! Everything around me is a blur, and I feel only the rush of speeding. Thoughts of the past couple weeks creep their way to my relaxed mind. Genie and Liam. They’ve been spending a lot of time together it seems. I was fired from my job. I hate my boss, Douglas. He doesn’t let anyone call him Doug. I stop the car, and I can see my office building. Being lucid is too much fun, and I owe Douglas a visit. I walk up to the fourth floor and enter a conference room where Douglas and my exco-workers are discussing the month’s budget. “Hello Doug.” Douglas looks up at me. “Excuse me? What did you just call me?” “I called you Doug. Do you have a problem with me calling you Doug, Doug?” “No, I—” “Good. Because you’re fired.” I enjoy the look of confusion and panic that spreads throughout Doug’s features. His skin pales,

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and he shakes his head in disbelief. “You can’t fire me. I’m your boss!” His eyes flash, and I feel nervous. “And you Sam, are just a worthless employee. You’re lazy and stupid and don’t deserve this job. Go home, go party, and don’t expect anyone else to hire you, you pathetic, worthless piece of shit!” The scene begins to fade around me. Things are spinning and all I can hear is the word “worthless” echoing in my head. What went wrong? How come I lost control? I thought—the spinning becomes faster and faster, and I feel sick. All noises fade and then: blackness. Genie was alone in the hospital room. Liam had left to find something to eat. A nurse was checking the machines hooked up to Sam. Nothing had changed except that it looked like he was dreaming on the machine they had kept hooked up to measure his brainwaves. Now the activity had stopped, and Genie tried to talk to Sam again. “Sam. I’m so sorry about the other day. I didn’t mean to, to be so cruel. I just wish you’d trust me.” She stopped, losing herself in the memory of the day she left, not thinking Sam would be in the hospital only days later. Genie had found Sam asleep on the couch in the apartment at two in the afternoon. She didn’t understand why, so she woke him up. “Asleep again? Jesus Sam. Is that all you do anymore? Get a life.” Sam shrugged. “Sleeping is my life now. It’s amazing! My dreams... Genie, I can control them. It’s like I’m really living in them.” “But you’re not! We’ve hardly spoken, and you haven’t even tried to find a new job. You’re filthy and disgusting. What’s happening to you?” “Nothing, Genie. And that’s it. My life is nothing. It always

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has been. There is nothing in this life for me. Nothing to live or work for.” “Nothing? Sam, don’t be so stupid. What about your family? And your best friends? Liam. Me.” “Genie, you know I love you. But you don’t understand the power I have.” “You’re right, Sam, I don’t. I don’t understand how you’re entirely capable of losing everything, and not being able to fix any of it!” “What are you talking about? I haven’t lost anything.” “Damn it, Sam! Yes you have! You’ve lost your job, your motivation, and now you’ve lost me. I can’t be with someone who would rather live in an imaginary world. Grow up Sam. Stop being so worthless.” Sam’s eyes blazed with anger and he slapped her. And instantly regretted it. “Genie, I’m—I’m sorry,” Sam said. He reached for her, but she stepped away. “Please, don’t go,” Sam begged. Genie left before Sam could see her cry. Sitting in the hospital, Genie could still feel the sting of Sam’s hand and the fear and horror in his eyes after he had hit her. He had never done such a thing and vowed never to do so. He never wanted to be like his father. Genie leaned nearer to Sam. Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she stroked his face. He didn’t move. “Sam. You can control your life. Forget the dreams. They’re not real. I’m real. We’re real. Let me help you. Let Liam help you. Now. Here. Wake up, Sam, and take control of your reality. I know you can. You just have to believe you can.” I am a king. A mighty king in a fortified palace. The great audience chamber is aglow with festival candles. A small band plays wondrous music and everyone is dancing, bowing as they pass close by. Oh, the wonder of long-forgotten times of fancy dresses and chivalrous men. Being lucid is great. I have command over everything it seems. This, this is a life I could live, and I am living

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it. I will never leave. And why should I? I can have whatever I want. Whoever I want. I have worked hard for this skill, practiced many nights, and days in fact. Now I can enjoy the realm of the world that is my mind. Genie sits beside me, regal and tall, the most beautiful woman in all the world. I lean over and kiss her, her soft lips press against mine and I can feel her smile. I sit back and look into her sparkling eyes. She giggles. “I love you,” I tell her. She laughs and leaves her chair, disappearing amoung the dancing crowd. The music continues as I, chuckling, jump down from my own and chase after Genie. “Hey! Come back!” I finally find her, and she grabs my hands, and I twirl her around. Her long hair flows behind her, and I can’t get enough of her gorgeous features. We dance, but say nothing to each other. The light begins to dim, and I’m losing myself again. I can feel it., but I don’t want to leave this moment. We spin in faster circles, and I try to concentrate. “Sam, let’s go. Follow me,” Genie whispers in my ear. I shake my head. “No. I’m staying here. There’s nothing for me if I follow you.” “Not even me?” “Genie, you know I love you. But don’t you see the power I have?” “The power to lose everything?” I scoff and wave my arms. “Lose? What have I lost? Look around us! Look at—” I stop. There is nothing around us. We’re in an empty house with no furniture, and no decorations. Just dust and grit. I don’t understand. What happened to all the people, the music, my throne, my kingdom, my world? “Grow up, Sam,” Genie says. “Stop being so damn worthless!” I lunge at her but she sidesteps me. Genie’s eyes are wide with terror. I bring my arm back. She runs. My vision blurs as I try to

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run after her. She’s out the front door, and then so am I. I follow her into a forest. Her white shirt is easy to spot, but I only catch glimpses of it as I try to track her in the labyrinth of trees. The branches grapple with me. I see Genie’s dark hair, but I can’t call out, and she doesn’t stop. The dirt floor becomes smooth tiling, the trees melt into walls and I’m in another house. People I don’t know are everywhere, talking, pointing, laughing. I realize I’m naked. I sidle into a room and pull a blanket off the bed. Where the blanket was, I find Liam and Genie cuddling and kissing. They don’t notice me. “Hey!” They stop and look at me, annoyed. “What?” Liam asks. I pull him off the bed and shove him towards the door. He starts laughing. He’s still Liam but not. He kind of looks like my father. “Piece of shit,” he spits out as I slam the door in his face. I turn to Genie and charge at her. “Sam, stop!” she yells. I grab her arms and shake her. “What were you doing with him?” “With who, Sam? We’re all alone.” “You were with Liam! What have you two been up to?” Genie snorts. “Honestly? Nothing, Sam, Jesus. How could you ever think that?” “Why him? What do you want from me?” I shout at her. “Oh, wake up...” is all she says. I raise my hand to strike her, and the sudden fear in her eyes doesn’t stop me. I swing as hard as I can. I cry out in pain and realize my hand has punched a door. I turn the knob, enter through the doorway, and there is another. Inside is only a mirror. When I look, I see a man lying in a hospital room. A doctor stands nearby, and there is Genie, crying by the bedside. I see the man is me. I punch the mirror. It shatters. Another door appears, and I swing it open. I’m in Wonderland, trying to escape the rabbit hole. Every door I open leads to another. I need to get back to the white room, where this started and where this must end. There I’m neither awake nor really dreaming; it’s just a room

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in my mind. I open another door. I don’t want to dream anymore, lucid or not. I need to get back to Genie and my real life. I was so selfish, dreaming up wishes and forgetting to live. Wishes that are easily lost. My control has been weakening with every new dream, and I know I must go through the white room and exit through the correct door. How do I get there? I decide it best if I just envision it. I stop before opening the next door. I focus on the white room. I feel things start to spin, and this time I embrace it. I collapse from dizziness, and I am blinded for an instant. The whiteness always startles me. Exhaustion creeps through my body, and I feel myself fading. Soon I will be in the darkness of sleep and probably lost. I will be trapped once more in my mind’s empty white expanse until I enter another dreaming spell. This time I’m determined to fight the darkness. I must do something to escape this limbo. I turn back and look at the two doors. One is tall and skinny, just about my size but a head taller. The handle is plain, like all the others in the drabby apartment Genie and I share. Only darkness peeps through the small crack by my feet. I look at the other and it’s simply extravagant. It is like porcelain: pearly streaks swirl around the door and the handle is large, oldfashioned, and made of blackened iron. The first one is the one I need, but it is so repulsive. Like my life. My life doesn’t matter. I have ruined anything that could have been good. It would be so easy to just stay in this world, my world, where I can be anything, do anything. I could recreate everything and make it better. I shake my head, shaking the fuzziness from my diminishing consciousness. One more thing to do, and I can’t do it. I really am worthless. The door handle nearly burns my hand, and the door will not open. It is too heavy. Instead of hinges, there are bolts, a seemingly infinite number of bolts, keeping the door in place. It is a mile high, and I can’t open it. Not now. I reach into my jeans pocket and pull out a piece of paper and a pen. I write a simple note for next time, something simple but effective for my pathetic self:

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Open the plain door. I hope it works, because I don’t have the strength to fight. Not now. Through the window on the door, I see Genie crying. Liam is there, too. I see a doctor talking to them. I see a foot poking through from beneath the covers. It looks like mine. I’m in a hospital? That can’t be right. And why is Genie crying so hard? She left me. She left, and I entered this room, not caring if I ever returned. Now I know I must go back, but I am too scared. I look at my note, but I can’t get myself to go home. Not now. The wall across from the doors seems like home enough. I fold the note and hold it tight in my hand. I must not lose it. When I awake, it will help me. Help me remember, help me to go home. I sink to the floor, thinking I hear voices… “Genie? Liam? The other doctor should be here early tomorrow morning. Until then, it’s probably best if you both get some sleep. Sam will be fine here.” “Thanks, Dr. Leonard. We’ll see you tomorrow. Come on Genie, I’ll take you home.” “One sec…Good-bye Sam. I love you.” My eyes snap open, and I quickly close them again. I hate when I wake up suddenly and cannot focus right away. Everything around me is white, a bright blank expanse, like a burning field of ice-glazed snow blinding me with sunlight. I can’t tell where I am; I’m not in my apartment, nor even in a bed. Panic sets in, and I realize this moment is like one that I have witnessed many times before. In my hand is a crumpled piece of paper. I unfold it, but I cannot make out any writing. I don’t know where it came from. The room is completely empty. I turn around, and I suddenly notice two doors on a far wall. One is quaint and ugly. The other is quite extravagant.

. .

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W i n d o w s

J

o stepped into her apartment, hair hanging in wind-blown wisps across her face, arms filled with groceries, mail, and a few books. A purse hung from her right shoulder, slipping down her arm as she struggled to hold everything, shut the door and still hold a phone between her shoulder and chin as she reiterated the work list for her replacement at the hotel desk. It happened every night, and Jo quickly ended the conversation with a short, “I gotta go Tina. Just check the computer log. Bye.” Jo threw her pile of goods on the kitchen counter, dropped her purse next to everything, and sighed as she closed her cell phone. She hung her black pea coat on a hanger in the closet next to the door and took a few moments to put away her groceries: frozen pizza, black olives, chicken, macaroni and cheese, milk, and a six-pack of a microbrew made at a brewery a few blocks away. Her home, a a spacious studio apartment in a high-rise building, was spotless: counters free of dust, the sink home to a lone bowl and spoon. The carpet showed regular vacuuming lines and every room smelled faintly of ocean breeze candles and oil diffusers. It wasn’t a large place, but it fit its sole inhabitant. Jo put water on the stove to boil and walked down the hall to her room. She took off her heels, dress slacks, and blouse and slipped into comfortable sweatpants and a loose T-shirt. Evenings were when she allowed herself to relax and wear casual clothes. Once home, Jo never had to impress anyone. After making spiral macaroni and cheese, Jo went to work on her computer in the living room to a mix of Hans Zimmer orchestrations but was soon distracted by the view from her ceiling-to-floor windows that spread nearly the length of the living room. She always left the curtains open, as she had nothing to hide and an entire world to spy on.

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Jo had noticed the single mother and child in Window 8D talking about something (in Jo’s window codex, 8D meant eighth floor, room D, or fourth window from the left). From what she could tell, nothing was out of the ordinary, and she watched with an impassive, disinterested look upon her face. The mother, whom Jo called Evil Mother 2 (the first being her own), was angry. She had one hand resting on a cocked hip, and the other hand expressively pointing and shaking and gesturing at her son who could be no more than ten years old. The son, Jo had named Poor Child in 8D. Jo always became uncomfortable as she witnessed Evil Mother 2 gesture so angrily at her son. Jo continued to watch to see if it would turn into something bigger. Poor Child sat on their couch, first taking his mother’s banter light-heartedly, so it seemed, obviously used to the constant unhappiness shown by his mother, but as the conversation progressed, Jo saw that the poor child became less and less interested. Jo knew the feeling, and as she watched the child kick his feet together and look out the window, Jo swore she saw his eyes pierce into her own. His head suddenly snapped up to look at his mom. He nodded enthusiastically, probably agreeing to never make a mess again. Evil Mother 2 stepped in front of Jo’s view of the boy, threw her hands in the air and then on her hips. Poor Child leapt off the couch and darted out of sight. The mother ran after, and Jo thought the boy would probably lock himself in his room until his mom calmed down. Jo decided to keep a wary eye on 8D tonight. Jo could spend hours watching the various inhabitants of the apartment building across the street. Jo was twenty-three and single. Her work was her life, her hotel guests and co-receptionists just daily social challenges. If Jo had it her way, she would work from home and not have to answer to any manager, nor listen to anyone complain about wrinkled sheets or warm bottled water that is ridiculously overpriced (although Jo totally agreed). She wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. I-walk-with-stick-up-my-ass who asked her weekly if they could “go out, have a drink, make out

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and maybe even have sex.” And she wouldn’t think it would be awkward after the fact, right? If Jo had it her way, she would spend her time with herself and her books and her living room window, staring out at the hundreds of others across the street, each its own movie screen. As people entered into their home stage, Jo would become director and screenwriter, and the windows became her personal silent movie productions with the actors a safe distance away, the only danger being her own invading memories, usually sparked by the things she witnessed. “Jo!” her mother screeched from the kitchen window. Eightyear-old Jo was sitting against a tree, hidden from her mother’s view from the house. She did not stop reading, but yelled back, “WHAT!?” Her mother didn’t answer, so Jo continued reading. Ten minutes later she heard again, “JO!” “WHAT!” “Come here dammit!” Jo sighed and walked to the house. As she entered the kitchen, she heard her mother curse. “Jesus Christ. Come when I call you!” Jo didn’t say anything but stood quietly shuffling her feet and waited for the scolding that was soon to come. “Did you hear me?” “Yeah. I tried to call, b—“ “Give me that book.” She snatched it gruffly from Jo. “Less Mis-er-ab-less? Psh. What is this shit? You can’t even read this.” “Yes I can.” But her mother ignored her. “I want you to do these dishes. And there is dirt everywhere. I wish you wouldn’t track in so much filth. Why don’t you wear shoes when you run around outside?” “But I didn’t—” Jo’s cheek suddenly stung from a backhand slap. “Don’t talk back to me! Learn some respect and decency. And clean up after yourself. Christ, there are fucking crumbs and

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shit on the counter, on the table, on the floor, everywhere! It’s disgusting.” Jo’s mother took a hiatus from her tirade and lit a cigarette. Jo glanced up and watched her mom take a long drag as she looked out the window. Her eyes squinted as she tried to keep the smoke in as long as possible. Jo saw that her mother had once again put on too much make-up, and her hair had that rough mangy look which she claimed was “in style”. “I should have put you up for adoption,” Jo’s mother said as she exhaled. “And go to your room when you’re done.” She took another hit of her cigarette, threw Jo’s book in the trash, and left the kitchen without looking at her stung, bewildered daughter. Having heard and felt much worse, Jo took a deep breath and tried to not get too upset. “I would have been happier,” Jo mumbled as she salvaged her book from the garbage and began working on her newly assigned chores. Jo checked the clock. It was only 8:00pm, and she had already finished one beer and walked to the fridge to get another. When she returned, Jo noticed that the young couple, dubbed Divorced-in-Five-Years, in room 7A were both home. The woman flitted about the apartment, going in and out of Jo’s view (Jo wished she would just stay out of sight), and her husband stood by the kitchen counter, mostly hidden by their living room furniture. Jo thought he looked annoyed at his bustling wife, like he didn’t care about anything she said. Jo couldn’t blame him. His wife was probably gushing about some cute dress she saw or a conversation she had with some girlfriends at work. Jo felt confident in her prediction of divorce. Let it be pessimism or real-life experience, Jo could not believe that they would stay together. From her window to theirs, one could already sense the resentment forming at the corners of his mouth or the simple lack of physical contact. She had seen it all before and had experienced the same clues with her last boyfriend of a few years. She had just failed to notice until

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it was too late. Divorced-in-Five-Years had now disappeared, and the Club Slut of 8C arrived in her window stage, introducing a suave brawn to her abode. It was early for her for a Friday, Jo thought. Perhaps he was a young college frat boy who thought he could rise up in the ranks if he left the fraternity’s dark sticky basement to get laid in a downtown apartment. Jo watched with mild fascination and curiosity at this lifestyle. Club Slut was her favourite. The creatures of the nightlife she was able to find—it was an impressive talent. Just then the phone rang. It was Annie, Jo’s friend from high school, and college, in a way. Annie and Jo had their on and off moments in high school, and once in college they went their separate ways, but Annie still called now and again, and Jo wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it. “Jo! How are you!” “Fine. I’m—” “That’s great! I’m visiting my parents this weekend, and I was wondering if you wanted to grab lunch or something. It’s been, what, almost like five months since I’ve seen you last! Are you still working at that hotel? How is it?” “It’s all right. I mean, it’s a job. The people aren’t much fun.” “Aw. I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re great though. I mean you’ve gotten around, you know how to deal with all sorts of people! “ Jo didn’t reply. “I just got a new job at an elementary school a few hours away, and I’m so excited. I’m teaching third graders, and I’m their actual teacher. No more assistant jobs for me. I can’t wait! And the pay is actually really good. I’ll be making like 30 thousand in a few years. Isn’t that great?” Annie took a breath, and as Jo remained silent, she continued, “So, Jo, anything new with you?” “No. Not really. I don’t really go out much anymore.” “Ha! Really? I find that hard to believe. Jo Morrison a homebody? No, really, what are you up to these days?” “Work. I go running now because I hardly ever exercise, but

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I’ve gotten a regular route for myself now.” “Well, that’s neat. Any boys?” “No, not since Philip.” “Still hung up on Philip? Oh honey, he was such a douche.” “Yeah I guess. But I mean, I dated him for three years.” “It was that long? Huh. So, do you want to get lunch or something tomorrow?” “Um, no, I don’t think so. I may have to work extra hours at the hotel tomorrow, and I just don’t know if I have time. Sorry, Annie.” “Oh. Okay. Well maybe after your shift at work. We could get dinner and have a girls’ night out or something. Just give me a call when you’re free. I’ll be in town until Monday. You could probably come to my parents. They haven’t seen you since high school.” “That might be a little awkward.” “Nonsense! They’ll be so impressed with how you turned out.” “No thanks. But, um, I need to go. Thanks for calling.” “Sure! Call me tomorrow hon, and I’ll see you then! Bye!” The call was dead before Jo could say anything more. She closed her cell phone and looked back across the street. Club Slut had had enough decency to close the curtains for the final act, and Jo decided to go to bed. The next day was Saturday, and Jo decided to sleep in. Talking with Annie always made her feel weird, and while she wanted to meet up with her, she couldn’t get past the feelings of hurt and anger. Jo, although she understood Annie’s motives and life goals, had felt betrayed by the end of high school. Maybe if Annie had made more of an effort, Jo wouldn’t have made some of the decisions she did. Jo had nearly been the Club Slut of her high school, but she tried to change in college. That’s when she met Philip. Jo didn’t want to think about Philip now though, so she decided to go for a run and spend time at the park. It was warm outside, and Jo was comfortable in her jogging

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shorts and sports bra. She ran to the strings of Hans Zimmer as he accompanied her in nearly every activity she did. The sun was out and brought with it a large crowd at the park. Jo jogged leisurely around the paths, freeing her thoughts of cranky guests, douche-bag ex-boyfriends and irritating high school friends. She lost track of time and ran until she needed to stop. She caught her breath at a park bench and sat down next to a young woman reading a book. Across the path she noticed a familiar looking woman and little boy sitting on a blanket. The boy sat close to his mother as they ate lunch and played a card game that looked like Go Fish! It took Jo a few moments to realize it was Evil Mother 2 and Poor Child from 8D, and they were... happy, and the boy was unscathed and laughing. “Cute aren’t they?” a girl asked. Jo, startled, turned to look at the other person on the park bench. “I beg your pardon?” “That kid and his mom. They’re cute, aren’t they?” “Yeah I guess so.” Jo was stunned. What a weird coincidence. The girl next to her was Club Slut of 8C, sitting sideways on the bench with her back against the armrest. She was wearing tan capris, canvass shoes and a tank top, and her hair blew in the light breeze. She wore minimal makeup and small silver earrings. Jo thought she looked very beautiful and never would have considered her as a slut when running into her on the street. “My name’s Ansley.” “Jo. Nice to meet you.” Ansley smiled and placed her book on her lap. Jo saw that it was Les Misérables. “You live in High Rise Court, right?” “Yeah! How did you—” “I’ve seen you watching me. And them.” Ansley motioned to the mother and child. “Oh. I…” Ansley laughed, a soft chuckle that seemed to stay aloft in midair long after it had stopped. It was pleasant, and Jo felt at

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ease. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.” Jo began to feel uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say. Ansley chuckled again, her laugh emanating a warmth that Jo couldn’t ignore despite herself. She was embarrassed she had been called out on her spying, but Jo could not help but find Ansley interesting, and she was not about to purposefully sabotage this chance meeting. “Just curious,” Ansley said, “why do you do it?” “What?” “Why do you spy on people? I’ve seen you watching me on multiple occasions. Other times you’re looking someplace else. Who else do you watch?” Jo was taken aback and looked down, ashamed. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I just admitted I’ve creeped on you. I’m sure you’re a nice girl. I’m just curious.” Jo played with her hands and thought about how to phrase her answer. Why did she spy on people? “I…I don’t really know why I do it.” “I guess I just don’t understand why you watch people you can’t talk to instead of meeting the people who live next to you. For instance, them over there, they live right next door, and I don’t know a lovelier single mom. And her son, Cory, is absolutely adorable. They make me cookies for every holiday and invite me over for dinner once in awhile-but you’ve probably seen that.” Jo frowned. She had missed those moments, but she didn’t interrupt and Ansley continued, “Susan, the mom, has been so great. It’s been hard for me to live on my own. I can’t afford a fouryear college, but I’m taking classes through a tech school. I’ve still made a few friends on campus though. I was never great at school, so I have a few tutors who come over. They’re usually really busy during the day but they come by in the evening and we study, and I ship them home pretty late sometimes. There is one though who I wish he would just stay over. Just once. I have three tutors, and they’re all great, but this one, ah! I want him so badly.”

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“So, all those guys you—they’re not…” “All what guys?” Jo felt ashamed. “You have guys over all the time.” “Only three, girl! Matt, Ivan, and my dearest, James.” “Oh. I thought…” “I was a slut?” Ansley laughed. “I can see how you may have thought that. I will admit I’ve slept with a few guys, but I personally wouldn’t say I’m a whore or anything. Some people might, and I guess from your vantage point it would look that way. I’m sure it’s hard to see faces and all that from your place.” “Why so late though?” “I mean it’s not so late most of the time. And it creeps me out to have the curtains open all the time, so I close ‘em when we study or when they leave. I guess part of it is that I feel if they’re there when I close the curtains and there’s a psycho creeping on me then it’ll seem I’m not alone. Silly I know, but I have an overactive imagination. I’m sorry. I’ve just been blabbing away, and you never finished what you were saying.” Jo shrugged. “That’s okay. I’m not all that exciting. My dad left my mom when I was born, and she kind of took her anger out on me I guess. I hated living with her, and when I was old enough to have friends, I was hardly home. But, I won’t bore you and go into my whole life story.” Ansley shook her head. “Oh no, go on! I mean, if you feel comfortable talking about it. But being a creeper and all that I bet you don’t have many opportunities to talk about stuff,” she said with a teasing smile. Jo almost took offense, but she just couldn’t get mad at Ansley and for whatever reason, it felt okay to keep talking. “I had this friend, Annie, who actually called me yesterday, and she wants to get lunch or something today because she’s in town for the weekend, but I don’t think I’m going to.” “You should! How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” “I don’t know. Five months or so.” “Well it’s nice she still keeps in touch. Why don’t you want

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to go?” “I don’t know. We’re just…different now, I guess. And she never showed much interest in keeping in touch when we were in high school together or even when we went to the same college. I just feel a bit betrayed, you know?” Ansley nodded. “So, I don’t know. With a mom I hated, losing a friend, having shitty relationships and getting dumped by a guy I’d been with for three years, I just haven’t had the energy to really put myself out in social places.” “You could come over to my place tonight. I’m having a few people over. I grew up in the city, and a few people are still around that I know. I also work at a pub and so a few fellow workers will be there. I have some of them over a bit, so that may also be where you get all the guys coming over thing. I could introduce you to James, and maybe you could tell me how you think I could get him to like me. I think he may be starting to.” “Maybe…” “Oh, it will be fun! I won’t make you talk to anyone, but you should definitely come over. You shouldn’t stay cooped up in your apartment all by yourself. It’s unhealthy.” Jo shrugged. “I don’t mind it.” “Mhmm. Well, the offer still stands. I need to head home to get ready for the party right now, but it starts at nine. And here… is my number.” Ansley ripped off a bit of the sticky note she used as a bookmark and wrote her phone number on it. “You know which apartment is mine I’m sure.” She laughed again, and Jo was beginning to feel slightly happy. Maybe she had found another friend at last. “See ya! If nothing else, we’ll make another park date.” She waved good-bye and walked away. Little Cory and his mom were also packing up to go, and Jo figured it was time to take another quick jog around the park and then head back to her place. Once home, Jo sat down heavily on her couch and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She had several hours before nine

45


o’clock. She could still meet up with Annie, but she really did not want to. Glancing outside, she saw that in the window directly across hers, or window 9B, Total Business was seated at his desk. Every weeknight and even on the weekends, he sat there working. He always wore a suit; Jo had never seen him in lounge wear through the window. Although they had never met, Jo felt that she and Total Business were almost identical. But now, maybe not. How could Jo possibly know anything about him? From window 917 High Rise Court, Jo could not make a judgment call on the life and values of Total Business. She had been wrong about Evil Mother 2 and Club Slut. Without being able to see every facial expressions and hear words, some actions can be mistaken for others. Jo left Total Business to work the way he wanted. The young couple Jo had so harshly criticized for months were playing a board game together, and Jo thought she though the husband might be lifting the corners of his mouth in a way Jo could never have noticed before. Maybe their love was genuine. She stood up from her usual spy chair at her desk and walked to the window. Ansley was bustling around her apartment, preparing what looked like food and drinks. Jo thought about their meeting in the park. Ansely had been extremely nice. She sighed and stretched her arms the length of her window and drew the curtains closed, blocking off her view of the other side of the street, leaving Total Business to his work, Maybe-Not-So-Evil Mother 2 and her child to their evening activity, and Probably-Not-Divorced-in-FiveYears to their board game. As for Ansley, well, she would soon be interrupted by a surprise visit from the girl who stared out at windows.

. ď ˘. 46


T h e

C o l l e c t o r s

J

im watched as a solid line of trees, branches thick with summer foliage, clipped past the truck window and attempted to hide the fields of corn or potatoes. An occasional farmhouse littered his view from the passenger seat. The driver, Glen, sat hunched, keeping his eyes in the shadow of the visor. The window was open, creating a pleasant, ruffling breeze on Jim’s side of the vehicle. Glen grabbed the wheel with one hand and rummaged around the console with the other. “Jim, where are my cigarettes?” Jim squinted his eyes as he turned his head to look down beneath the setting sun’s retina-piercing rays. He reached past the ashtray and grabbed a box of camels. He offered the open box to Glen who reached in, took one, put it in his mouth, and mumbled through his lips, “Can you light it?” Jim sighed and shifted in his seat to grab a lighter from his pocket. He lit Glen’s cigarette and was met with a stifling cloud of gratuitous smoke. Jim coughed slightly and sat back. “So, how much longer, Glen?” “Another hour.” “What if it’s not there?” “It is.” “And if it’s like last time?” “Last time, I fucked up, all right? It’s there. We just have to make sure no one sees us.” “‘Cause we’re digging up a grave.” “Right.” “God, it better be there.” Glen didn’t answer. Jim hoped it was because he was concentrating on driving, but he doubted that was the case. Glen was probably lost in the memories of the last time he had dragged

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Jim out on such a journey, to find Phineus and his lucky charm. But lucky wasn’t the word Jim would have used, and as Glen continued to drive, Jim reflected on the not-so-pleasant past between himself, Glen, and Phineus. Jim had met Glen and Phineus at a bar soon after graduating from college. Twenty-three years old and feeling a failure, Jim spent most nights drinking at the local pub, so he noticed when someone stood out, and Phineus had stood out. He wasn’t cut out for the bars. Jim let out a chuckle as they drove. “What?” Glen said, taking a quick glance over at Jim. Jim shook his head and half his mouth pulled back in a grin. “I was just thinking about the night I met Finny. And you.” “Huh. Oh yeah. I remember. He was pissing me off that night,” Glen said. “He told me you were pissing him off. You didn’t want to hear about his latest finding.” “Jim, no one ever wanted to hear about Finny’s damn ‘research.’ It was all a bunch of bull shit, and he latched on to me because I was the only one who ever gave him any real attention.” “Then you believed him.” “No. Finny liked attention. He made a lot of shit up that annoyed a lot of people. I kinda liked the guy, so I gave him what he wanted. I never actually believed in all his superstitious mumbo jumbo shit.” “Yet here we are, on our way to digging up his body to get some lucky charm,” Jim pointed out. “There are people. Other people who think it’s worth something. I’m not superstitious; I’m just opportunistic. And what about you? You in it for the money or for the superstition?” Glen took one last hit of his cigarette and flicked the butt out the window. Jim was mute. He didn’t want Glen to think he was right, but that was better than Glen thinking him superstitious. Jim knew Glen had his doubts about him, but he would never admit that he did believe in some of that “superstitious mumbo jumbo.” But he

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hadn’t always. Not until he met Phineus that night at the bar. It was only three years ago at the Cobbler Tavern. Jim sat in his regular spot at the bar and noticed a stranger fuming next to him. The man ordered a Sprite and glanced over at Jim who was downing a blind Russian. Jim motioned for another when the bartender delivered the Sprite. Jim observed as the man sipped pensively at his drink. “You’re not from around here, are you,” Jim asked the stranger next to him. “Me?” the stranger asked, looking around him to see if someone else was being addressed, and realizing he had indeed been asked a question, he replied, “No. No, I’m not. I’m here on business with…a friend.” “Business, huh. What kind?” Jim asked. “I’d rather not talk about it. Phineus by the way,” he said, reaching out a hand. “Jim.” “Nice to meet you.” Jim nodded and raised his new drink to Phineus. Phineus complied but stopped himself before he took a drink. “Say, would you believe someone if they told you they could give you good luck for the rest of your life?” Jim glanced over at Phineus. “Pardon?” “I met this woman yesterday, and she told me she could see that I was unhappy, and that she could help. By giving me a good luck charm.” “Old Lady Esther? Haha. You can’t take her serious, man.” Phineus frowned. “Why not?” “Why were you visiting that woman? She’s not really the main attraction of this town. Most people steer clear from her and all her…things.” Phineus leaned in close to Jim. “We’re collectors. Me and my partner, Glen.” “Collectors? Of what?”

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“Anything, everything that we hear is worth something. Glen dropped out of school and tracked me down in college. I wasn’t getting anywhere with my schooling so I joined him, and we began collecting artifacts and things.” “Collect as in buy?” Phineus looked down. “Sometimes. Most of the time.” “So you’re thieves.” “No! Some things just don’t have owners anymore, so we take ‘em.” “All right! Okay. So…were you looking to take something from Lady Esther?” Phineus shrugged. “We haven’t been able to find much lately, and Glen’s been getting antsy. I suggested we stop by, see what weird items she’d give us. Glen isn’t one for superstition and thinks ‘anything that old bat has is worthless.’ But I disagree.” “You think there’s truth to that woman’s voo-doo thoughts and charms?” “It’s not voo-doo.” “Whatever.” “But yes,” Phineus said. “I believe in stuff like that. Charms, amulets, demons, ghosts, all superstition is so ancient. How could it have all survived for so long if it’s based on complete lies? The lore is consistent over hundreds of years, and the similarities across cultures is astounding.” “Fine. Did she give you anything?” Phineus looked around cautiously and nodded. He looked to the far back of the bar and saw that Glen was talking to a woman, his hand on her arm, head tilted drunkenly towards hers. He would be distracted for a few hours yet, probably until the next morning. Phineus carefully pulled something from his jacket pocket and gingerly opened his hand to show Jim. “Esther said it’s a good luck charm and that it will help me accomplish anything I wish in life.” Jim looked down at the object, a tarnished round amulet on an old chain. There was a symbol on it, a star inside a circle, and

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smaller letters and symbols written around the main image. In the very center lay a black stone, the size of a pea, dark, any reflective glimmer absent from its varied faces. “And the proviso?” Jim inquired. Phineus was taken aback. “How did you—” Jim shrugged. “There always is.” Phineus sighed and fingered the symbols on the amulet. “She said that it would only make me successful if I was at peace with myself. If I wasn’t, it could turn against me. If that happens, she said, I must find a way to get rid of it. Glen thinks it’s stupid. He won’t even try to sell it, and he thinks I should just throw it out, but I can’t. I can feel it working already.” “In a good luck sort of way?” Phineus frowned. “I can’t tell.” In the truck, Glen was smoking another cigarette, and Jim looked at the clock. It was 9:12. The sun was nearly gone; this time in summer, the sun’s light lasted far into the late evening. The cooling air flowed through the open window, carrying with it a heavy scent of the dampness descending over the ground. Glen looked over at Jim. “You’ve been awfully quiet.” “Just thinking about Finny.” “Still? What about ‘im?” “The night at the Cobbler in my hometown, when he had first gotten that cursed necklace from that witchdoctor.” “Jim, that damned thing wasn’t, isn’t, cursed!” “Then why are we going to dig up his grave to get it?” “Because it might be worth something.” “But it wasn’t three years ago? It killed Finny, Glen.” “God damn it, Jim!” Glen exclaimed, slamming his hand on the wheel. “Finny died in a fucking car accident six months ago. That necklace had nothing to do with it.” “It made him go crazy. You know it did. You knew him better than me, and even I noticed a change after he had it for a few

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weeks.” Glen was silent for a bit. Then he began slowly. “Phineus… was always odd. He was always willing to believe that there was magic in the world, spirits, and charmed objects. Sure, he found a few things over the years that were quite valuable to some people, so I let him do his thing, looking for objects of superstition. It was the only way to keep him around. I think the guilt just got to him once he kept a part of our collections around. He was a good guy, always was. It was hard to convince him to become a collector with me.” “Because it was stealing, not collecting.” Glen clenched his teeth and exhaled deeply. “Whatever. He stuck with it. Finally, he snapped, believing that Esther had warned him of such an event. I never entertained the idea, and when he disappeared, I was upset, but I never blamed that damn necklace.” “You didn’t think it odd that he never once tried to contact us again? We found about his death a month later, and we weren’t even told where he was buried, and now we’re going to disturb his grave and dig up an object that suddenly you believe has some value?” Glen took a long drag. “Jim, I know what you’re thinking, and this feels wrong to me, too, but we’ve been broke for awhile, and I found an offer for a few grand for this thing. It’s someone’s long lost heirloom and they want it back; not for a good luck charm, but for family nostalgia or some shit.” “And who knows if that’s actually true. And what if he’s not buried with it. What then? Do we harangue his dying mother?” “It’ll be there, Jim. Trust me. Finny probably died with it clutched in his hands.” The stars littered the night sky, and the bright sliver of moon smiled down at the two men as they pulled into a small cemetery and hid their vehicle behind a thick line of hedges and trees. Jim looked around. “This is an odd place to be buried. Where

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the hell is the church, or the houses? The nearest town is thirty minutes away.” Glen opened the back of the truck’s cab and pulled out two flashlights and two shovels. “Come on,” he said, and led the way towards the newer graves in the back of the cemetery. Finny’s grave was marked by a dull grey stone, mottled with weathering, and looked like it was put up years before. It was hard to see beneath the shadows of the tall oak trees that lined the cemetery’s border. The grass was covered in dew, and the wind ruffled the leaves, exposing the silvery undersides that shimmered in the moonlight. Glen put the flashlights on the ground by the headstone and handed a shovel to Jim. “Dig in!” Jim took the shovel, and the two started to dig. After a couple hours, Jim’s shovel hit the casket. His gut pulled tight in excitement and uneasiness. They were almost done. Glen whooped and began scraping the remaining dirt away and digging more around the edges of the coffin. Jim halted Glen. “Glen, it’s just wood.” “So?” “So, don’t you find that odd? It’s not some fancy shiny mahogany coffin. Why is it just old splintered wood?” Glen shrugged. “I dunno. Lucky for us, I guess. Makes it much easier to open,” and with that he continued to move dirt furiously to get into Finny’s casket. Jim took a break and looked at the headstone: Phineus Jacobson 1973-1999 “May he now escape the demons that plague his soul” “Glen, did you read his marker?” Glen stood up and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “What does it say?” Jim pointed to it, and Glen squinted to read it. “Huh.” “A bit odd, don’t you think?” Jim asked.

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Glen shrugged. “Who knows why people put the things they do on graves. Help me open this.” The two men put their shovel blades between the casket lid and pushed down on the handles. After a few jiggles and hard pushes, the cheap lock snapped and the lid was loose. Glen reached down to pull the lid all the way off. Slowly, he started to slide the cover off the casket, slowly the insides could be seen, and slowly Glen and Jim realized the coffin did not contain a body. “What the…?” Glen murmured. Then he threw the cover off. “Empty!” He stomped the ground. “God damn it!” “Wait, Glen. There’s something else in the coffin.” Jim reached down and pulled out a small wooden box with symbols painted on it, ones similar to the one on the amulet. “Look at these markings. They’re all over the box. What do you think they are?” Glen shook his head. “I don’t know, but something was painted on the coffin cover, too, look.” The underside of the lid was showing from where Glen had thrown it. “Do you think the amulet is inside the box?” Glen wondered as he took it from Jim. “Probably. But where’s Fin?” “I don’t know. Who would have set this all up?” “You think he did?” Jim asked. “Maybe. Let’s open up the box and see if it’s really there.” As Glen began working on the box, a large shape hurtled from the trees and tackled Glen. The box flew out of his hands and the two beings began to wrestle. The thing that had attacked Glen was a man, Jim could tell, but a feral, deranged man. Jim grabbed a shovel to hit the attacker with, but the risk of hitting Glen instead was far too great. Glen tried to push the man away as he was clawed and raked by the man’s long nails. Jim grabbed the box and yelled at the attacker. “Hey! Is this what you want?” The wrestling stopped as the man looked up at Jim from the ground, his matted hair covering most of his face. He stood slowly and took a step towards Jim who took a small step back.

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Glen scurried away and reached for a shovel. The attacker took another step towards Jim and flicked his head, dispersing his hair. The man’s face shown in the moonlight, and Jim gasped as the man staggered another step closer. He licked his lips and began reaching for the box. Jim shook his head disbelieving. Glen approached from behind the attacker, shovel at the ready. Jim screamed, “NO!” as the man readied to spring. Glen swung the shovel at the man’s head, and the metal hit the skull with a thick thump, the bone instantly fractured, the back of the head bashed in. The man collapsed, and Jim hurried to his side. “Finny,” he whispered. Glen dropped the shovel when he saw the man’s face. “No. No, it can’t be!” “You killed him,” Jim whispered. “I didn’t. He jumped us, man. I couldn’t see his face! Fucking shit. Fuck...” Glen’s words melted into nothingness as Jim sat quietly, his face pale, pained and confused, seeing nothing. “What are we gonna do, man?” Glen said. “What?” “Fuck, Jim! I just killed Finny! What the fuck are we gonna do?” “I—I don’t know. Perhaps we should call—” “Fuck no! We’re not calling anybody. We gotta bury him.” “What? Glen. We can’t—” “Everyone thought he was dead anyway! No one has to know about this, and dammit, Jim, no one’s ever going to find out.” Jim watched stunned as Glen walked over to Finny and grabbed his arms to haul him to the grave. “Are you going to help me or what?” “Glen, we can’t just bury him.” “Well, what the fuck else are we to do?” “I can’t believe you killed—” “Shut up!” Glen lunged at Jim and punched him in the face. Jim staggered back, and Glen grabbed his jacket and shook Jim. “Shut the fuck up, okay? I killed Finny! I know! But we gotta

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deal with it, okay?” Glen released Jim and turned away. Quietly, he said. “Just help me bury him okay? Let’s put him to rest the best we can. What’s done is done.” Jim bent down to grab Finny’s feet, and Glen readied himself at their friend’s arms. Jim could not ignore the pool of blood that had formed beneath Finny’s shattered skull. He felt sick as they placed him in the old wooden box beneath the headstone. While Glen began to shovel dirt over the coffin, Jim went to some bushes and threw up until he was dry heaving. When he was done, he saw that the box Finny had tried to retrieve was still lying on the ground where Jim had dropped it. “Glen,” Jim said. “We should bury this with Finny.” Glen took the box but hesitated as he held it over the grave. “No,” he said. “I’m going to keep it.” “What? But it was important to him! He just attacked us over it!” “It doesn’t matter.” “Don’t tell me you’re going to sell it. Christ, Glen! You can’t sell it. It—” “I’m going to keep it! To remind me of him.” “Glen, I don’t think you should. All the trouble it’s caused...” “Enough with that superstitious bull shit! It’s just a necklace. Help me with this dirt so we can get the fuck out of here.” “Just don’t open the box, okay?” Glen and Jim didn’t speak much on the way home, each lost in their own grief and anxiety. By the time the shock had worn off and Phineus had been put to rest, for real, the sun had begun to rise. Glen had opened the box despite Jim’s disapproval, and placed the amulet around his own neck. Jim insisted on keeping the box. They drove almost an hour to a small rundown motel and got a room. Glen passed out immediately, but Jim lay awake, still wondering why Phineus was at the cemetery and had attacked them. He must have been watching for a while. Was he keeping

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watch over his own grave? How had he faked his own death? What did the symbols on the box mean? And if anyone found out what happened, could Glen and Jim be tried for murder if the victim was already dead in all public records? After the incident at the cemetery, Glen and Jim spoke rarely to one another. They suddenly found a lot of work to do, a lot of things eligible for collection. The stroke of luck was not missed by Jim who believed it had to do with the amulet Glen wore every day around his neck. He of course wouldn’t admit to anything so ridiculous as a good luck charm. “I’m wearing it to honour Phineus,” Glen told Jim one day. “It would have been honourable to bury it with Phineus, don’t you think Glen?” “Fuck off.” That was how most of their conversations ended. Jim kept his distance from Glen, and Glen kept entirely to himself unless they were going out on a collection. Glen felt different from before. He knew Jim was right, he felt a thief; he had stolen the one thing Finny had cared for the most in the world. Glen had killed him because of it. One night, two months after Phineus’s death, while Jim was sifting through paperwork on a bed in a motel room, Glen toyed with the amulet about his neck, fingering each engraving and rubbing the dull black stone. “Jim. What’s happening to me?” Jim kept rummaging through the papers. “What do you mean?” “I just feel...terrible.” Jim sighed and stopped working. There were so many things he wanted to say to Glen’s comment. So many reasons he could think of that would explain why Glen felt so terrible, but he held his tongue. “Despite our recent success of all the things we’ve been able to collect, I feel like there is a heavy weight wrapped around my

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neck that pulls me further and further down.” Jim jerked his head at Glen’s neck. “Perhaps it’s the amulet.” Glen snorted. “This piece of shit?” Jim shrugged. “We could take a road trip to my hometown and visit Old Lady Esther. She’d have an answer. Would probably know what happened to Finny.” “Fuck, Jim! Phineus was just obsessed, and it drove him to insanity. He was imbalanced, always had been!” “Oh, really? Was he imbalanced when you went to school together or when you found him to make him a collector? Phineus was fine until he found that damn amulet! The same fucking thing that you’re wearing right now. It’s dangerous, Glen. Please, I beg you, give it up. Let’s take it back to that witchdoctor. She can destroy it.” “No!” Glen yelled and turned on Jim, his body tense: fists clenched, nostrils flaring and eyes flashing. “I’m! Fine!” He stormed over to his stuff and started packing. “And since when have you stopped calling him Finny?” “Fuck off.” And Glen left. One month later, Glen stumbled into Jim’s apartment. Jim thought he smelled like he hadn’t showered since the last time they saw each other. Glen’s eyes were glassy and dark circles surrounded the sallow skin around his eyes. “Christ, Glen,” Jim said. He took Glen to the bathroom and convinced him to bathe. Jim couldn’t help but notice the amulet still hanging around Glen’s neck. The stone, usually dull, now shimmered with life. That night, Jim stole Glen’s amulet and left a note saying he made sure there was enough food for Glen for a few days, but he didn’t know if we would ever be back, and Glen should take care. Old Lady Esther’s home hadn’t seemed to change since Jim had left the town three years before. The walk was littered with overgrown weeds, the yard filled with quack grass and burdock.

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The house leaned on rotten wooden stilts, the windows intact but yellowed with decades of grime. The door opened for Jim as he approached the step, and a soft voice called sweetly from within, “Come in, boy.” Jim ducked inside and shut the door. The smell of fresh herbs and dried flowers met his nostrils, and a warm fire and several lamps emitted a soft light in the small home. Old Lady Esther was sitting at a table, arranging dried plants. Jim was taken aback. One wall was an entire bookshelf, and pictures of what he assumed to be Esther’s family, decorated the shelves. There were no bones hanging from the ceiling and jars of toes lining a fireplace. There were no dusty cobwebs, nor crystal balls. Esther sat comfortably in yoga pants and a baggy sweater. She smiled at Jim. “You have a question for me.” Jim tried to hide his surprise. “Um, yes. Do you remember a good luck charm you sold a few years back? An amulet with—” “I remember.” “What can you tell me about it?” “It is designed to do good, and it can, and it will, if the keeper is at peace with himself. If one is, say guilty about a terrible deed or uncertain about his life, it can consume and trap the mind and soul in indescribable torment. The effects depend on the individual.” “Why, how does it do that?” “Everything hangs in a delicate balance in this world. The amulet holds the power to create the absolute best thing for anyone who keeps it. However, that ability, if offset by a negative energy, causes the keeper to feel a great burden, to become attached to the object and its power in an obsessive way.” “Can anyone use the amulet without going crazy?” “That amulet has often been linked to tragedy, but it has done equal amounts of good during its existence.” Both were silent for a few moments. “Can I help you with anything else?” Jim shook his head. Esther smiled. “Good. Let me see you out then.” As he stepped out the door, Esther said, “Be careful, boy.”

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Before he could ask what she meant, the door had already been shut behind him. Jim shook his head and walked to his truck. Once inside, he took the amulet out from the glovebox. It felt heavy and warm in his hand, but as he thought about Finny, lying dead in a foresaken cemetery, and Glen, tormented by the memories of that terrible night, the warm metal turned icy cold and seemed to burn his skin. “Ah!” Jim dropped the charm on the floor. He looked at the cool, dull black stone and picked it up carefully by the metal chain. He set it on the seat and drove off. Outside of town there was a bridge. Jim pulled his truck over as far as he could on the side of the road and walked up to the edge. He balled up the amulet in his hand. He sighed, thinking about all the trouble the amulet had caused. Despite Esther’s belief in its ability to work wonders, Jim had only seen its evil effects. In a burst of rage and frustration, he threw the necklace out as far as he could into the water. Without looking back, he hopped into his truck and drove away, away from everything that stood for his life as a collector.

. .

Fern Bryar on Short Stories: “The short story. For me, I used to think this form was too restricting, too short for whatever I wanted to accomplish. Writing short stories are challenging for me. When I come up with a plot, I think carefully about where I want it to go while still keeping in mind the page count. I beleive I have managed to work around the personal stigmas I’ve developed over time about short stories. I still enjoy novel writing more, but now, I try to write short stories. And as with flash fiction, they’re the perfect way to grow in a different way with my writing.”

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Nonfiction


P u r a

M

V i d a

y plane landed in San Jose, Costa Rica. In my beloved window seat, I had watched the land change from blue, to green, to brown and white, to finally a close-up on a city teeming with life foreign to my own. Within the first few minutes I spent off the plane, I knew the next week was going to be one I would not forget and one far different from what I had anticipated. Bright colours fed my thirsting eyes. The walls held murals of toucans, sloths, frogs, monkeys, and iguanas. Inhabiting these still frames of wonder, the animals imitated their living counterparts and celebrated with the sounds of their true home that emanated from hidden speakers. The rush of a distant waterfall, the chirp of a macaw, the roar of a howler monkey (which is quite scary in real life), and the song of a cicada passed through the crowd, creating excitement and preparing all who stood in the Customs line for the beauty that awaited them outside. As I stood in line, waiting to be interrogated about my motives for participating in an innocent Spanish Club trip, I noticed two words painted in bright yellow letters, twisting amoungst the jungle vines of another mural, Pura Vida. Something “life” was all I could interpret. I didn’t know that much Spanish. Enough, I figured, to get me thorough a week of exploration in a foreign country where we were “supposed” to practice our Spanish, but I figured I wouldn’t really need to when I was going to places designed for foreign tourists. But there was something about these two words that stuck me. As I moved along towards the Questioning Counter, I noticed the words were everywhere: on advertisements for beer (especially beer), food, transportation, and general merchandise. Pura Vida. What kind of life? Finally my turn came for interrogation; it wasn’t that bad. My trip was summarized easily: a one-week stay, three days with a host family, each day full of excitement and travel. Nothing too suspicious, so I was allowed to go on my way.

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Our tour bus was teal and decorated with the same jungle animals that crawled, climbed, and circled their way around the airport, and also on the bus, I saw Pura Vida. I was determined to find out what those words meant. I didn’t have long to wait. Our tour guide, Hector, was quite charming. At least, all of us girls thought so. But in the net week we discovered he already had numerous girlfriends throughout the country and was quite the traveler and handyman. He could fix broken buses, tame “cocodriles” and poison frogs, give river-boat and jungle-walk tours, organize seeing an imaginary tapir with our horse guides, salsa like a pro, make inspirational speeches, and he knew his coffee. His accent was thick, and he was encouraged by our cruel teachers to speak in Spanish while on the bus. At times it was difficult to understand exactly what he told us of where we were going and what we were to see and do. Sometimes he gave us advice, and I was terrified when I was unable to fully comprehend his every direction. From the airport, our bus took us on an extremely bumpy ride to meet (hug and kiss) our host mothers. I was excited, scared, and nervous, knowing we were on our way to live with our host families and be submerged in a foreign culture with only one other person who spoke our native language. I realized that my three years of studying would hardly be enough to truly communicate with my host family. At first I proved myself correct. I spent the first few days nodding, smiling, saying only sí, un pocito, no sé, más despacio por favor, and using the universal language of confused facial expressions. But after a few days of practice, my rooming partner and I were able to truly converse with our family. It was a new experience, and I decided I was going to take some risks, try new things, speak a new language, and live by Costa Rica’s national, historic phrase, Pura Vida, or as our beloved Hector told us on the bus (in English) it meant, “pure life.” I would start with that.

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R o c k S i t and S a n d a l L o s s / L o o s i n g F o o t Rock Sit

O

and

Sandal Loss

ne never truly knows what will happen to them on any given day. I remember the day I was going to go tubing down a river with my sister and her boyfriend, but for some reason we didn’t leave on time and had to turn around and head back to their apartment. My sister and I then planned on tubing down the river behind the building, where there was no set time to enjoy a perfect summer day, although “enjoy” may not be the right word. Now, it is an enjoyable memory, but that day was filled with surprises and silliness: a tortuous twenty minute walk (that was “not going to take more than ten”) through brambles, weeds, and barbed wire; a wicker cooler packed with food; a rock we sat on for hours; a lost sandal; being surrounded by crawfish; and the simple realization that our day simply did not pan out as expected. The rock sit is as good a place to start with as any. The body floaties, which we decided not to use but were too lazy to take back to shore, sat behind us on the rock. Our cooler—a small fabric-lined, wicker chest—filled with necessary water, onions and cheese, dill and BBQ flavoured sunflower seeds, cell phones, and a camera, rested between us. It was soon clear that it was not a cooler for river floating. Nonetheless, we settled down on a wide rock in the middle of the river, dangled our feet in the cool, gentle flowing river, and were soon surrounded by an army of crawfish. During hiatuses of story exchanging, we giggled, thinking about the silliness of our excursion. The walk had been terrible, even with an attempt on my part to pass the time by singing

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Grandmother Willow’s “Listen to Your Heart” bit from Pocahontas. The stiff-as-straw grass seemed to poke through our flip-flops, and the five-foot, spittlebug infested weeds twice disrupted our pricker-filled forest path. We took turns carrying the blown-up floaties and the wicker cooler—both tasks harder than one would think: the floaties were cheap and thin, susceptible to damage from wild growth, and the cooler was just a heavy nuisance. We were not looking forward to walking back. Honestly, we weren’t really sure how straight of a trail we had taken to get to the rock, which became more heavily surrounded by creeping crawfish with every passing minute. “They don’t like the dill flavoured sunflower seeds, either,” my sister pointed out. We had eaten all the BBQ ones and were trying to get through the dill, but we both decided the flavour was utterly disgusting. The cheese and onions had been scarfed up by my sister within moments after settling on the rock, which was honestly fine by me. We watched as crawfish after crawfish stalked the seed casings we spat into the water, snatching them in their mouths, just to spit them back out. They never learned, but they remained in a head-on army formation around our rock, tactically keeping us from leaving our rocky haven. “Hey!” a man’s voice called out from behind us. Despite our efforts to go on a river adventure in the wild woods of Waupaca, we were not alone. From our rock, we could see two houses, and behind us, an older man and a young boy were playing with a soccer ball in one yard. Unfortunately, the ball had flown past the man’s hands, landed in the river, caught the current, and began to float away. My sister looked at me. I looked at my sister. We looked at the ball as it drew nearer to our rock. We glanced back at the man and then down at the crawfish stationed in their pods. “Can you grab the ball, please?” the man called to us. My sister pulled the “you’re closer” on me, and I took a deep breath and jumped into the water and into the army of river crustaceans. A couple times I almost had the ball in my grasp,

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but being short in deep water makes maneuvering difficult. The bottom was rocky, and my sandals were barely staying on. After awhile, one gave up trying and slipped off. The ball floated on and stopped to rest in the limbs of a fallen tree. My beloved black and white polka dotted sandal started to float away. I turned to my sister, mouth hanging open as I pointed to my upside down flip flop, now some five feet away from me. “Get the ball!” she yelled at me, almost angrily. “I need my sandal!” I called back. “Just get the ball,” she demanded impatiently. So I just got the ball, waded back to the rock one-sandaled, almost threw the ball to the man, thought better of it, and walked it over to him (who only said “thanks” and gave no condolences for my lost sandal). I was mildly upset about my sandal loss, and my sister and I almost decided to use the floaties—only used thus far as walking burdens and photo props—to go searching for my flip-flop and float like we originally had set out to do. We spent nearly forty minutes debating if it made more sense to float and get picked up at a bridge (but then my sister’s boyfriend would have to come down to get the cooler and then drive to the bridge) or to have shoes brought down to us (but then her boyfriend would have to find exactly where we were) or if I should just walk back without a sandal. We realized finding my sandal would probably never happen, so we decided to head back. We packed up our cooler, said good-bye to our rock, glanced cautiously about for the crawfish, and commenced trekking back—one sandaled—although my sister insisted upon being fair and shared the walking-with-onesandal ordeal. Sometimes I really wonder what happened to my black polka dotted sandal…The one that remained, I made into a birthday gift for my sister: a crafty memoir of a spontaneous, sisterly excursion of a strangely wonderful rock sit and sandal loss.

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Losing Foot

I

have been stuck in a dam of brambles for nearly two years. Since I was first caught by this tangle of dead wood, I have felt sickened and saddened by a heavy loneliness. The water creatures scurry by each day, never stopping to try to make conversation, as if I am this inanimate thing with no purpose. The bugs use me only to rest their weary wings. They too, ignore me. Had they met me in my glory days, they would have feared me and my Foot as we squashed the little pests. The only things that keep me company are my memories. Just the last one, really: the cause of my predicament. Although, however frustrating my life is now, the day I was lost makes everything seem a bit better. It was an adventure I will never forget. I thought I was going to go on a river-tubing trip, but it was not to be. My foot’s sister had this brilliant (and I mean that in a strictly sarcastic sense) idea to go float on this other river behind her “apitment” or something like that. Well, Foot agreed for some crazy reason, and we were off. At first I was quite disappointed in Foot’s decision. My kind is not made for such rigorous stepping and rough terrain. Tough, sharp, dagger-like blades of grass tried to slice trough my sole. Then I was scraped lightly against rusted barbs. The forest floor was pretty gentle. Sometimes I had to curve around a log, but I’m flexible, and it felt good to stretch a bit. But, oh, the weeds were the worst! Foot pushed and pushed me through those stalks of filth, and I became slimy from bug spittle. I was overheated after that trek, and I must admit that although I am no water shoe, I did enjoy the refreshing river water flowing past, over, and through my fibers. I led Foot over the rocky bottom and dangled freely from Foot’s toes as it sat on a rock. Below me a beautiful group of crawfish gathered, studying the movement above them, excited for the tasty litter Foot and Sister threw into the water. Suddenly, Foot pulled me close and then we were displacing the poor crawfish. Foot seemed to be in some sort of hurry, and

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as I had been in such a reverie, I was having trouble clinging to Foot. The current seemed stronger than before, and I guessed we were in deeper water. It was really murky, and I couldn’t see every stone. Here I regret to say, I was not a good sandal. Foot slipped a few times, and on one of these slips, I lost my grip. I slid off, and the river grabbed me. I couldn’t see anything, and the river bottom sped by below me. I don’t know how long I floated. The river is always dark once one is looking down. I couldn’t count the suns. At times I bumped into rocks, into fallen trees, and finally, where I am now, a pile of brambles. Thankfully I am still in one piece and surprisingly upright, although I worry how Foot survived without me. I do not dream of rescue, but I do hope that it believes I tried to stay on. However much I dream, I fear I shall never know anything more than of what I remember of losing Foot and of where I now rest, forlorn yet free.

. .

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T i m e for G o o d - b y e s

E

xpect the unexpected, and don’t take things for granted. I have always tried to follow the words of those two ideas. Things that are expected never come as anticipated and things taken for granted rarely last. When I was younger and had to wait for the school bus, I would try not to expect it to come around a bend so it would arrive more quickly. I never took for granted how much candy or soda was available. I ate and drank sparingly, was never wasteful, and I never took the last of anything, preparing myself for a later disappointment. Somehow I think I may have misinterpreted the importance and relevance these phrases were meant to have in life. My mother made it a point to always say good-bye to everyone in the house before she left to work in the morning, and that has been carried onto everyone. My family says good-bye any time anyone leaves the house and even good nights and good mornings are part of our daily routines. At family gatherings, saying goodbye takes about an hour, sometimes longer. As a child I learned quickly that when I asked my mom if we could leave soon and she’d say, “Yes, just let me say good-bye to everyone,” what she really meant was, “In a couple hours. I have to say good-bye and in the meantime share a few more stories with everyone.” Now being older, I just smile at my younger cousins when they trudge wearily and dramatically over to their moms, arms sagging ape-like, mouths drooped in a frown, and eyes half-closed from exaggerated tiredness. They start by just rasping out, “Mom?” Then a little louder, clearer, two-syllabic, “Mah-om?” Again in their normal voice, but more sharply, “Mom!” By then Mom is annoyed and turns to them, “What!” Sigh, and the dreaded question asked as sweetly as possible, “Can we go now?”

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The expected response, “Just let me finish telling this story (or saying good-bye, or this drink).” My cousins then try a vain attempt to receive a better response from their father. (Not so sweetly.) “Dad, can we go?” “Go ask your mom,” comes the wrong answer—but the expected—and so the child sulks away to go sit on a couch and look depressed. When I witness this, I try to help my cousins out. I’ve been in their predicament numerous times, but I’m happy my mom always made me wait. One should never take things for granted. Family is no exception. My mom grew up with ten siblings, so that side of my family is very large, and very close. Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving don’t merit enough time for family gatherings. No, we celebrate every birthday, and just about every other weekend simply for the sake of getting together. During football season, I rarely go a Sunday without seeing a few relatives (dressed in Packer gear, mind). Other Sundays I would meet up with half the family at my grandparents’ home—referred to hereafter as the Farm—for brunch after church. My grandparents were the wise and loving glue that kept everyone together, my aunts and uncles the friends and confidants, and my cousins extra siblings. For nearly my whole life I felt as if no pain or sadness could befall my family. We were perfect, we were one, but I’ve been told to expect the unexpected, and when the unexpected happened, I was not fully prepared for it. When I was thirteen, my grandfather was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a sickness of the lungs that had spawned from his years as a master welder. For me, he was just sick, as many old people become, for he was still Grandpa, still there, still alive. The next several years passed quickly, and Grandpa continued his active life. He helped keep the Farm running. He and Grandma planted a huge garden every year filed with corn, cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, peas, tomatoes, zucchini, and lots and lots of strawberries. Even after the diagnosis, he didn’t quit gardening. Grandpa made sure all of his children received their

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share of sweet corn, over-sized zucchini and cucumbers, and, with Grandma’s persistence, quarts and quarts of berries. At Easter, he still hid the hundreds of candy-filled eggs and lit off the firecrackers at the beginning of the hunt. At Christmas he still danced when Santa came over jingling his sleigh bells. After church he still drank his juices and coffee and ate his runny eggs with a heap of bacon and toast. Despite his illness, he was still Grandpa, still there, still alive. By my senior year of high school however, Grandpa had to quit gardening. Walking to get the mail was a strain, and he needed to use oxygen to help catch his breath. Later, simply to breathe. One could really blame the oxygen for Grandpa’s rapid downfall. For a man who had spent most of his life working from sun-up until sundown, the tubing was a chain, a sign of bondage for a house life he was never born to live. Unlike the days when Grandpa had organized family nights of swimming and ice cream and homemade pizza Sundays, holidays at the Farm were becoming quiet. He didn’t make it to many gatherings outside of the Farm, but he did come to my graduation party, enjoying the friends, family, fresh air, and my rice krispy treats. In the fall I started college, but there was already talk of the inevitable, and I could not believe it. I didn’t want to, but I realized that I had to accept the truth. Everyone must go at some point. I had already suffered through the deaths of two other grandparents years before, and I was no stranger to death of a family member on my mom’s side. I had gone to many funerals of elderly relatives. Some I had known well enough to share memories, others I had only met once or twice, or only knew by name or picture. They had been somebody’s wife, husband, mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, somebody’s dearest love, but never mine. They were close enough that at times I felt sadness, but never devastation. Every weekend spent at home I saw my family, especially my grandparents. Death was a whispered thought and an inescapable realization. I would become frustrated with my mom for always

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bringing it up, telling me what else Grandpa had told her and how sick he was feeling. Grandma began to suffer, but she was the strongest of us all. Their marriage had lasted for 57 years, and their bond was welded together by a love only two soul mates truly understand. But I began to understand that taking things for granted was not a befitting statement. Time. Time should never be taken for granted, and I was finally realizing that my granted time was slipping away; half of the hourglass was almost gone, and this time it would never be flipped again. The last day of winter break I stopped by the Farm to say good-bye, to thank my grandparents for everything they had done for me. My hug was ten times more heartfelt and my smile more sweet. Somehow I knew. In the car I asked my mom why death was so hard to accept. Everyone dies, and every time it is difficult to bear. Today we are lucky to have such technology to keep people alive for so long. At the same time, I wondered if it was because life could be prolonged that death had become so hard to take, for the longer something remains, the more likely it appears that it will never truly cease to exist. Two weeks after break, I was at work pulling a double when I found out that my grandpa was in the hospital with no oxygen and no respirator. Remembering my last moment with him, I decided not to try to make the three-hour trip to the hospital that night (five or six hours for whomever came to get me). At work the hours crept by, each minute torturing my mind and my heart. Memories tried to conquer and displace my present thoughts, but I forced them back into the deepest cells of my mind. I needed to focus on homework and on the idea that I would have one less face to see at every family holiday. My eyes remained dry until I walked into my dorm room. The calls came at one thirty in the morning. First my dad, then my sister. I called my mom, told her I loved her, and said goodnight, and good-bye, just as she had always done. Trying to fall asleep that night, I had a satisfying revelation that Grandpa

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was at peace. I explained the feeling (via text) to my sister, and I was surprised to get a message back: “Weird, but must be true ‘cause I felt it too.” I knew it to be true, but it was not easy to accept the absence of such a beloved figure in my life, or as my younger cousin wrote in her endearing farewell letter, a “superman.” The next days spent with my grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins were harder and more uplifting than I had expected. Everything felt surreal, and I really cannot explain the myriad of emotions and thoughts that torpedoed through and around each other within me. A cloud of sadness shrouded my being, but it was not solely from the loss of one, but of the little bit lost by each family member. However, between bouts of mourning, bright rays of joy radiated through my grief; we were one family bound by an indescribable love. With my grandfather’s death it felt as if something I didn’t even know existed had died within me, and yet something else—hope perhaps—began to grow, wrapping its healing roots around the wound of emptiness. My family and I had expected the end of what we had all taken for granted: our time with a loved one. Sitting in church, I glanced at my family seated around me, and I understood the harsh reality that there would be many more deaths to suffer and grow through for the rest of my life. Perhaps each time it will become easier to say good-bye as it has become easier for me and my younger cousins to wait for our mothers to be ready to leave at each family gathering. However, perhaps a short “I love you” should replace every “good-bye.” Maybe by saying good-bye to people so often and seeing them another day creates an idea that a good-bye is never really for ever. I thought the same with life and death. Maybe people have become so comfortable with life that it’s often taken for granted, and death, while inevitable, remains unexpected and distant. Expect the unexpected, and don’t take things for granted. For years I have searched for a proper application of those words, their meaning always eluding me and leading me on different paths.

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Sometimes I feel it would have been better for me to truly live for the moment and eat the last bag of fruit snacks, but I believe I have finally grasped a deeper meaning. As life and death are part of each other, so too are what is unexpected and what is taken for granted. Accept the unexpected, and take joy in what is granted to you, until it is time for good-byes.

. .

Fern Bryar on Nonfiction: “I should really call this creative nonfiction, for while these stories are real, I tried to present them in a creative manner with a beginning, middle, and end. I have always wanted to be an author of fiction, but I also decided at an early age that I wanted to be a journalist, a job in which I would be able to write and travel, so I learned to tell true stories. However, newspaper stories can be restricting, and the idea of creative nonfiction stood out to me. These last stories of Confabulations were written before I had even heard the term ‘creative nonfiction,’ but I think they would still fit in the category. Every day is a story, and writing about one’s experiences can open up new doors. It’s one thing to create a character, but when the character is you, the tale carries with it a heavier weight of reality and raw emotion that I hope in turn affects others in a special way.”

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A b o u t F e r n

B r y a r

Fern Bryar will soon be graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in reporting and strategic communication. Throughout her life, Fern has written many stories, some long, some short, but is still working on being published officially. She enjoys creating her own collections and sharing them with friends and family. In her freetime she works with graphic design and recycled crafts. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


“My eyes open, and I quickly close them again...Everything around me is white, a bright blank expanse, like a burning field of ice-glazed snow, blinding me with sunlight...I am lost, my sanity questioned in a room of emptiness.” —from “Worthless”

. .

I

n this debut collection of writing, Fern Bryar brings you inspiring, heartwarming, riveting, heartwrenching, timeless, thrilling, masterful works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in this first and only edition of Confabulations.

cover art by G.M. Cottrill

Confabulations  

As a gift for my older sister, I put together a book of my creative writing under the pseudonym Fern Bryar. It was my first book I made with...

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