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Editor’s Introduction……………………………………………….……………………………3 Introducing the Judges…………………………………………………………………………4 The Judgement……………………………………………………………………………………6 Don’t Go, Darling Boy…………………………………………………………………………..10 The Eye of The Beholder: Omission and Suggestion in Short Fiction……………….29 Jukebox Interview: Andrew Hanson………………………………………………………....33 The Mother………………………………………………………………………………………...36 Sanctuary………………………………………………………………………………………….46 Never Stop………………………………………………………………………………………….59 Rules of the Altar…………………………………………………………………………………79 Ticket to Anywhere……………………………………………………………………………….93 An Infamous Ending…………………………………………………………………………….103 Our Contributors…………………………………………………………………………………115
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THE RED LINE Hello Readers, and welcome to the long-anticipated Issue Thirteen! The ‘Conflict’ competition was our most popular to date, with about one hundred and thirty submissions to sift through. We were prepared for success though, and alongside Mark and Tamara we now have Philippa Holloway joining us on the reading front, otherwise our commitment to have every story read by two people would have been in serious jeopardy. Between us all we managed to hone the selection down to seven entries to pass over to our judges—all of those stories are laid out for your perusal and delight on the following pages. We couldn’t really not include David Frankel’s excellent article on withholding information in short-story writing, and a new feature where we have a set of numbered interview questions which our chosen author then selects blindly from. For the inaugural ‘Jukebox Interview’ we have the courageous Andrew Hanson, whose story ‘The Mother’ follows his replies. But up-front, of course, we have the judgement, this month from a reading group based in Moscow, Russia. A big thanks to Grace, Athena, Katrin, Jen, and Fran, helping us to keep it real with some genuine input from bona fide readers. So that’s it. Turn the page and dive right in. Best Wishes
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We are a small book club in Moscow which started out as the brainchild of two book-lovers who wanted to make sure they met up regularly despite living at distant corners of the city. Since then itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s become a group of friends who meet up once a month not only to discuss literature but also to enjoy Moscow life: from going to the banya to beat each other with oak branches to ice-skating in Gorky Park and of course, getting together when someone has managed to sneak some real cheese into Russia despite government sanctions. Our reading taste is broad, taking in Russian works by Zamyatin and Nabokov, debating the latest Ian McEwan or checking out the hype around bestsellers such as Muriel Barberyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In our group there are journalists, English teachers, writers and bloggers from England, Germany, Ireland and the U.S. Naturally we all have different tastes, ideas and points of view, which always makes for good discussion, and this short story competition was no exception. We really enjoyed reading and reviewing the short stories for Red Line and debating the merits of each entry until we had our winner. Given the quality of the stories, this was not an easy task, and
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we'd like to thank Red Line magazine for inviting us to be judges and providing us with some great new reading material.
Left to right front 3 : Grace, Athena and Katrin. Back 2: Jen and Fran
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The winning story is: Don't Go Darling Boy. We liked the range of perspective and narrators. We thought there were really interesting parallels between the mother and son despite their different positions. For examples, the secrets they felt they needed to keep from others. It is more complex than your average hero story or tragedy, and therefore felt like a fresh new perspective. The plot developed in a gradual way revealing parts in a way that made it really interesting to read. We thought the language was clear and clean yet had a playfulness which added to the atmosphere but didn't grate on or distract the reader. One criticism: work on punctuation. Our next runner up is: The Mother. The set-up and plot was really interesting and made us all want to read more. In fact, one small criticism was that the ending was a
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little abrupt and left us wanting. The conflict in the story seemed to escalate very quickly and some of us felt it needed a bit resolution to it. We liked the general theme of a the self-development of a young boy in a country with a fractured identity and difficult past. It offered a window into a world that we didn't know a lot about which was a plus for us. We liked that the central character was a young man coming to terms with his past, present and future, and felt this was developed well in the story. Second runner-up: Sanctuary. We liked the themes of safety vs chaos, guilt vs excitement. Lots of interesting topics were raised in this short story. There was some really nice use of language, we particularly liked "as naked as a snowman", but felt there were a few cliche phrases such as "Mona Lisa smile" that have been a bit over-used.
One criticism was that the change of perspective was sometimes offputting and served no purpose and turned out to be a distraction to the reader. The feedback for the rest of the stories follows. Never Stop. Good pace, gripping and the story that could be most described as a page-turner. Good voice, had a genuine feel. Easiest read. Really liked the language on occasion, for example: "quiet as a library". Some criticisms:
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There was a bit of discrepancy between perspectives and the narrator. For example, the players were outside listening in yet the narrator then goes on to describe how they saw everything. Lots of typos. Perhaps the premise was not the most original. Rules of the Altar. Some of the writing was excellent and it had a very convincing atmosphere. We liked some of the unexpected twists and sharp moments such as the blood in the orange juice. However there were a few criticisms: The brackets didn't seem to serve a purpose because alongside those in the brackets, the narrator mentioned flashbacks and past memories at other points in the story and we felt that there were too many temporal layers to the story which left the reader a bit overwhelmed.
The quotations from poems were felt to stick out a bit too sorely and not blend into the story or lead anywhere particularly. Ticket to Anywhere. The tramp character was original and unexpected, we didn't know what his motivation was which lent the story an surprising and intriguing turn. At the same time though, we didn't fully understand his purpose in the story.
However unfortunately we felt that parts of the story were quite unbelievable, for example being able to avoid taking the pills and the escape in general, while in a hospital with a fair amount of surveillance. In general we felt that this was a scene that has been explored before a number of times and there wasn't any particularly new or fresh ideas gained from reading the story.
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There were a fair number of typos too. The Infamous Ending. I'm sorry to say that this story was the least favourite of the group because we also felt that this was a theme that has been explored and written about by numerous authors, therefore we didn't get anything new from this story. In fact we felt the story contained a lot of cliche ideas and was overly poetic about the nature of suicide and depression, leaving us with the feeling that it wasn't very genuine. The story seemed to present an image of depression that stayed within the confines of well-worn ideas. There were a few basic mistakes in the narrative, shifting from 'he' to 'it' to describe the same object (the owl, I think, in this case). The shifts in time and tense were felt to not be very effective, more of a confusion and distraction.
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Don’t go, darling boy By Sophie Petit-Zeman
Helmand Province, Afghanistan Ben walks through the dusty beige dawn of Forward Operating Base Disto and wonders how he’ll feel when this place is no longer home. In just two days he’ll be gone, airlifted out to Camp Bastion, the obligatory 48 hours decompression in Cyprus, and back to England. And as each day brings it closer, home has never felt so far away. Rounding the corner where the loos make a rudimentary separation between the British and Afghan soldiers, Ben kicks a lump of rock, watches as it scuds across the sand and hits a door, the only door left, on one of the cubicles. Most of his men are still asleep, some on camp beds under mosquito nets, others slumped awkwardly against the Hesco barriers. When they set up camp here six
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months ago, in the shattered ruins of a school, the barriers were flat-packed hessian meshes. They’d dragged them around, filled them with sand and gravel, stacked them high, topped them with razor wire and Ben had pushed the corners of a union jack into the mesh, where it still hangs, threadbare and filthy. A blue tattoo – “mum, dad, gran” in a heart shape - rises and falls on the heaving chest of one sleeping solider. Alongside him, half awake, staring ahead and shrouded in a stench of urine, a young lad, Mark, just 18, clutches a scrap of bandage torn from his ankle. A third snores in great shuddering gasps, sweat trickling down his neck while two flies buzz above his stomach. Next to the radio hut a scrawny chicken sits in a makeshift cage. Caught as he crossed the road outside the camp, there’s a plan to roast him. One of the men asked his mum to send dried bread sauce in her next parcel, but the bird’s innocent determination, the way it pecks and struts and lives, against so many odds, has long made Ben hope the men will spare him even if the sauce arrives. Most of the Afghan soldiers are already awake, huddled, smoking in groups of three or four. As Ben makes his way past they look up, wave, nod, grin. After
six months and essential communication through an interpreter they’ve all but given up trying anything more. Ben has overall control of Disto, but the Afghans also have their own commander, a vast man with a drooping moustache who smells of stale sweat and tobacco and never patrols. “I stay behind” so he told Ben “to pray for the safe return of my men.”
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Some of these men Ben instinctively liked from the start. The self-possessed few who, in quiet moments, sit alone and read. Or the one who always smiles and enthusiastically offers Ben cigarettes as if it would be rude not to, even though he always refuses. And then there was Babur. Small, dark, quiet, bird-like Babur who bled to death
in Ben’s arms after stepping forward to talk to two young girls who came to Disto’s gates, explosives strapped to their waists, detonated, probably by their parents, from a safe distance away. Under blistering sun on Disto’s hot floor, cradling what was left of Babur, Ben’s exhausted mind was washed by jumbled memories. Aged about five, watching his grandmother scrape dried blood from an injured dog’s ear, asking how she could bear to do it. Turning his back, shielding his face with his arm as the dog shook itself vigorously on the huge kitchen table, spraying Ben with water and suds as his grandmother said, wiping her hands on her apron, “Ah little Benjy, you’ll see - you get fond of anything you have to look after.” Only that day in Disto, as Babur grew limp and cold across Ben’s knees, did his
grandmother’s unconditional tenderness make total sense. But much else had passed since Babur; the unbearable sights, sounds and smells of battle that had to be shoved to the back of Ben’s mind, along with the intermittent gut-wrenching agony of being scared and far from home. And now, with just 48 hours left in which one wrong choice could make this
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place his grave, Ben must decide which of the Afghans he can’t take on patrol because they’re too stoned, and whether Mark, the sapper with the bad ankle, is OK to come. His ankle will be fine, but Ben knows he’s barely slept recently and peed into his boxer shorts when he has. *
England, UK Could I have stopped you going? We’re sitting round the wooden table at the end of the garden, chatting with your father, brother and sister. The sun’s still high in the early evening of midsummer middle England, a hot air balloon, almost stationary on the horizon where the woods meet a lake, decorates our patch of sky. You’re holding a bottle of Stella in a tanned hand, the yellow and purple rubber wristband that declares support for your regiment strangely effeminate against your now olive skin. But, like the rest of us – even your fashion goddess 17 year old sister - you never take it off. If you’d told me a year ago I’d go to work, run clinics, sit in meetings, with a bit of rubber around my wrist, I’d have laughed. Indeed, the first time you saw it, you laughed, and said “God mum, wouldn’t have thought you’d be seen dead in one of those.” And when not even your brother, always ready to quip, quipped at that, I knew this was serious.
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You look so well. Months spent training outside, your hair cut today, neat and short on the eve of deployment. As you talk, a trickle of condensation runs down the outside of the beer bottle, you flick your finger to shake it off and reach for a handful of crisps in the bowl on the table. I watch so hard to take everything in, hoping that capturing you like this will keep you safe. Two scratches on your forearm, a neat point of hair at the nape of your neck, threads of white cotton hanging down from your frayed T-shirt sleeve, your deck shoes with holes in the seams from many a good holiday, your shorts, too big for you now, held tight by a thick leather belt with a chunky buckle. Your mouth and your smile and your beautiful eyes, your filled-out chest that was still childlike even last summer. And your laughter. Still, today, you laugh.
The pathetically small bag of all you can take with you waits by the front door. A green plastic shaving mug we bought in Homebase, your iPOD, the phone you won’t be allowed to use, a small tube of suncream and the Raybans your sister teased you for buying. Your car keys, safely in the kitchen drawer, help me. Knowing that there they’ll stay until you’re back, take them from the drawer, swing them by the shock of orange hair on the plastic troll keyring and tell me about your plans for the weekend. Strong mum. Mum the doctor. Mum the cool one. Jack, your dad who relies on me for so much, takes the top off another bottle, hands it to you. Everyone’s be-
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having so normally and a great wave of panic hits as I wonder whether Jack thinks I’ve got a plan. It was so different when all we had to do was watch you parade in shiny shoes and drink champagne in the barracks on sunny London afternoons. Public school camaraderie in adult clothing. Before the word Afghanistan was spoken, long before departure dates were known. Now all I can think is that I’m letting my child go to a bullet that will rip through your heart and you’ll choke to death on sand and blood and sweat halfway across the world in a war no-one seems to understand. Even today I’m still wondering whether, if I just told you not to go, would you stay? You’d think I’d gone mad, and maybe I have? Mad enough to think about putting something in your meals, make you just ill enough not to go, or drive my car into you and break your ankle. I’ve pictured the aftermath: no ambulance – I’d be able to help you into the passenger seat, talk to you, hold your hand, reassure you there will be other chances. “I feel dreadful my darling, just can’t see how my foot slipped…oh look, there’s something squashed on the
sole of my shoe that must have got onto the pedal.” And by the time we’ve drawn up outside the Royal General Hospital and I step out of the car, flick a piece of apple that wasn’t there from my shoe, I know I’ve stopped you going. But I feel like a madwoman not a mother. *
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And so you went. You’ve gone and I could have stopped you and I didn’t and I’m very scared about what I haven’t done. On the radio today I heard a dead soldier’s mother say she never imagined anything would happen to her son. I never imagine anything else. Does everyone feel so differently from me? She said, too, that she hopes his death won’t put us off the campaign. Every time I hear that we have to keep sending people out because not to would betray those who have died, I want to ask a bereaved parent whether each new death lessens their pain? Where’s Harry Patch when we need him? Shrunken man so full of memories who told us that war is organised murder yet sat in your medals while we took your photograph and took you as our hero. Why did you let us, when people like
you could have made the space between the dust, heat and grit of Helmand and my Ben, and now the last of you is gone? * As I walked back to the station after work through Green Park, I had another of those awful strands of thought that I can’t share. Like when I used to wonder
whether I could injure you and make you stay. Is all this our fault? I don’t mean the war, but you being part of it. Did we shelter you so hard, push such convincing bundles of privilege and well-meaning deceit (we’d call it love and maybe we’d be right?) your way, that you ended up with an unshakeable sense of security coursing with testosterone through your young
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and healthy veins and think that’s all it takes to make an invincible man of you? Money worries, my cancer scare. “Why tell the children?” Jack and I colluded, “it may all be fine.” Jack’s infidelity. All we kept from you because that’s what loving parents do. Because it was our job to provide – contra mundum – solid foundations. Would it have been better if we’d come clean about the murky bits? Would you be better off now if we’d been honest then? And I’m back to when Lucy was six and every night she’d dress her dolls in wedding clothes, using that old model castle of yours as a honeymoon hotel, and I found out about Jack and Esther. Beautiful auburn-haired Esther who smelt of musk and wore flowing skirts with long boots, chiming bangles and necklaces of huge brightly coloured wooden beads. Gorgeous, predictable Esther. Jack’s colleague, who was sweet to me and worshipped Jack and made Jack feel how he liked to feel, especially at the filmmakers’ meeting in Amsterdam, while I worked one night in three on call in casualty and clung by my fingernails to my sanity and to my three young children and to being Jack’s wife.
I’d cook supper and then sit with Lucy on the kitchen floor while her dolls said their vows. “He tells her ‘forever and ever’ and she says ‘I love you all the world’ and then we have cake” and dig my fingers into the gaps between the squares of seagrass matting wondering when I’d hear Jack’s key in the door, and what he’d say?
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And as I handed Lucy a tiny hoop of foil fashioned into a wedding ring at her request, and she grasped it in her chubby fingers, laid it to rest on a pink cushion made from a matchbox, I wondered whether she’d be better off if she knew. If she knew that, yes, one day her prince will surely come, and there will be cake, and it may be pink. But I really will understand if she needs to talk when that same prince shags his secretary on the day Lucy finds she’s got a breast lump. And so today, my darling Ben, so many years after all that, sitting on a bench in Green Park with tears streaming down my face, I think this about you. I think our motives have only ever been pure. So sure that if we filled our children’s world with castles and rings, cushions and cake, we’d make it the one we once thought we’d have. But is any of it ever so true, so truly safe? Or did we get you into this mess because we made you trust us, we, your parents, chose to deceive you, never quite tell it like it is, so as I write you’re dying on a Sangin street with a look of surprised betrayal on your gorgeous face?
* I love you love you love you my darling boy. God I miss you, mooching about, leaving sweatshirts and shoes everywhere and losing your phone and books and anything losable. I found a rugby sock last night shoved behind the cushion of the armchair by
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the television. It must have been there for ages. I pulled it out and sat silently picking at the flecks of mud that coated it until there was mud scattered on my skirt and the chair and the floor. I picked until the phone rang and the lump formed at once in my throat as it does each time I answer in case it isn’t you. You couldn’t say where you were and I clutched the receiver as if that way I could hold you and I didn’t say much because what I wanted to say was “Thank God you’re alive; every minute of every day I wonder if you are and can you please say something to carry me through the days until you next call because if I hear ‘OK then mum, bye, love you’ I won’t be able to breathe when I put the phone down?” So I just listened, and when I knew you really had to go, I asked “Did you get the parcel with the fruit gums and the mustard?” * At the weekend I bustled around and at one point thought how awful if Jack, your siblings, watch me pull food in and out of the fridge, the oven, make meals, and think I’ve forgotten you. But then I decided it’s best if they think I’m
coping well and so to prove it I made a cake while they were out walking. After I’d stopped crying when I went to move the mess of shoes and scarves they’d left lying by the back door and saw your wellington boots shoved in the corner. We’d been to church in the morning. Jack has faith, I don’t, and I’ve always written off his religious life as endearing, deeply entrenched, parental-fear-
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induced, stick a tenner in the plate and all will be well, superstitious, habit. But because Jack thinks prayer will help and the nice Irish priest who mentions you in despatches thinks so too, I pray. Every Sunday, pushing aside the sense of guilt that asking for something now is wrong because I haven’t done decades of legwork before, I pray for tomorrow. And feel worthy for not pointing out to Jack that the bible doesn’t say pray for those at war, it says beat swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. It would seem oddly academic to argue the bible’s case now, if what Jack thinks will help is prayer. But while I waited for him at the back of the church (he takes ages to get out because so many people he’s only ever nodded at across the pews want to shake his hand, will you safely home) I heard what they were saying. And it made me feel sick for those who don’t make it back. “Ah, we put our trust in God for his safe-homecoming….” “God speed Ben’s return.” It was as if they all knew that God (look, I even capitalise him, deference to my new best friend) chooses to protect some, while the others had no God speed due to them. If a dead one’s yours it must be hard to know that the almighty brings the deserving safely home.
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* The weekend slid into the week, and a conference I’d agreed to speak at in what I now think of as a different life: life before we knew you were going. “….so, in summary” I took a deep breath and looked out across the packed conference hall, amazed I’d managed to get this far. “In summary, I’m delighted that we are recruiting the first patients into the trial across twelve centres. International collaboration on an unparalleled scale. “This complex form of cancer remains deeply distressing for sufferers and their families. While of course Astrosim may not be a cure, this trial keeps us true to a pivotal tenet of modern medicine: that treatment must be based not on hunches, but on firm evidence for what works. Our patients’ lives are too important for anything else to be acceptable, to them, or to us. Thank you.” The applause began over my last words and died away as fast, replaced by a rising murmur of conversation among 300 delegates trying to agree the best places to while away a London evening. Giovanni, graceful, distinguished, Professor Dabro, our Italian collaborator, bounded onto the stage from his front row seat. “All so good” he shook my hand, clutched my shoulders, his gentle, beautiful, lilting voice excited and happy. “So good now we are starting. We go to drink with our friends?” “Thank you – yes, yes it is good news, very exciting.”
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“Come – we go – that nice wine bar, the one with the tree?” “Ah yes, the Vine Time” my heart sank at the thought of going back there, today. A place where indeed we had a fine time, planning this study, in that other life I once had. “Lovely, yes.” I stooped to gather my bag and briefcase, aware of Giovanni’s amiable impatience, keen to celebrate. Linking his arm through mine, he led me past the stragglers in the hall, most having made a quick exit to bars and restaurants in the surrounding streets. “They said they’d wait for us” he said “Wait with wine, of course.” I knew there was no way out, no way home just yet. I could let them all chat, have a drink, and go. Half a dozen members of the team had secured a large table in the bar’s basement, and were indeed waiting, as if ready to pounce, on bottles, plates of olives and small cubes of cheese. I slid into a seat at the end, on the corner, thinking it would be easy to make a discrete exit. Giovanni pulled up a chair beside me, blocking my escape.
“Red or white?” Chris, my registrar, a bottle in each hand, leant across the table towards me. “White, thanks, great.” I held a glass out to him which he filled to the brim. “Lovely – thanks Chris. And cheers - well done.” I raised my glass, smiled at him, at Giovanni, took a large sip of wine and leant my head back against the
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wall as the cold clear liquid gently uncoupled my synapses. Wishing I could stay like that until I could leave, I sat up, smiled, looked around. With the exception of Giovanni, who had left himself too far from the others to be easily engaged in conversation, they had all quickly huddled around the table, leaning forward, chatting excitedly in a mood that felt very far from my own. “Your son…” Giovanni’s words echoed my thoughts “your son – he’s home soon I think?” I was touched that he’d remembered. “Yes – yes he is.” I didn’t want to say it, but added “Just a few days now.” “You must be so proud, happy.” I wondered whether Giovanni would understand that the last days had run in my head like a film reel of families who get this far, let joy at the imminent return seep through, and then their doorbell rings at suppertime. And whether he’d understand the rest. “If I’m honest Giovanni, I’m scared. I just want him back.” “Of course – of course. But what he has done, such a good thing.” Could he sense my disquiet? “Giovanni, I need to ask you” Suddenly the question felt urgent “I just stood in that lecture hall telling 300 doctors that human life is too precious to treat illness based on hunches, yet halfway across the world my boy is fighting and killing
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on no more than a hunch that it’ll help. If, if war were a medical intervention, do you think we’d get it past the ethics committee? Get approval to go on shoving our children into battle on a hunch it just might work?” Giovanni looked at the floor, at me. I couldn’t tell whether he was formulating a reply or simply had nothing to say, so I went on. “Hundreds of thousands of babies died because we believed Dr Spock when he said they must sleep on their fronts. The evidence it was killing them was there but no-one saw it, for so long no-one asked the right question. “The shoes, spectacles, hair and battered leather suitcases in Auschwitz and the million people who perished there are meant to show us we got it right, were right to fight. But why? Why do years of conflict while families were ripped up
in gas chambers make us so sure we couldn’t have spared lives some other way? “Spock, his certainty, and all those dead babies. Churchill, who led us through that war and then said, in some kind of epiphany so few ever quote, a decade after it was over, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ If he’d jawjawed more, might fewer soldiers have gone to their deaths, fewer children to the gas chambers?” “Jaw-jaw…?” Giovanni looked quizzical and I felt suddenly cross that he seemed more concerned about an English colloquialism than about the rest. I rummaged in my case and pulled out an article quoting a Taliban leader. I’d
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underlined a sentence where he said he likes more troops going out because ‘….more targets for us, so it’s good.’ “Look” I said, pushing the paper at Giovanni, pointing at the underlined sentence, and further down the page “Look here, too, a military strategist who presumably knows a thing or two even if I don’t saying what unites otherwise disparate and fractured terror groups is our troops, the common enemy.” Suddenly I could no longer be the model of a modern major general that I’d been in the lecture hall, that I’d been at home for the last 6 months, that I’d been in my head for what seemed an eternity. “There isn’t one angle of all this I haven’t thought about, one dead soldier or their mother I don’t fear I’ll betray by saying it. We can’t do the clinical trial for
war, yet we know it’s a treatment that always kills. Harry Patch’s organised murder. Time and again we believe propaganda about bravery, yet look in any pub on a Saturday night when alcohol has stripped our behaviour bare. We make war because we’re animals, hard-wired to fight, however much we dress it up in poppies for our fallen heroes.” As Giovanni slid my glass aside on the table and took my hand I sensed unease among our colleagues. But more than that, looking hard at Giovanni’s eyes, I felt a sudden deep fear that he thought I was right, my darling Ben. That he too thought I should never have let you go. *
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Helmand Province, Afghanistan “What the fuck……..what……fuck….Sir.” They never lose the deference. The bang shakes the ground and Ben just wants to count five men and get them and himself back to Disto. Jonty and Mark are alongside him, Mark very close, shaking, and Baz must be OK as he’d yelled from behind. The bend in the road and a cloud of yellow dust obscured anything in front. One of the two ahead had the backpack with the jammer that’s meant to block signals from the detonators. Common sense dictates that Ben shouldn’t take one more step forward but turn back along the short stretch of road it has taken them a morning to walk. But beyond common sense, Ben knows you never leave anyone behind. There’s an L-shape of broken wall just behind him, once part of a building. They’d checked it when they passed and he’d hoped never to need its shelter. “Baz, stay there. Jont, Mark, get back, back there behind the wall. Keep down, keep still, keep watch.” “Sir…Sir, can I….I’ll come with you…” Mark’s voice trembles, his face white
below the grime, his eyes beseeching Ben not to leave him. “Shut…shut up…no…” gentler, looking hard at Mark “I’m going alone. And if you hear another one, get the hell back to Disto.” Ben knows this is his journey, knows nothing will absolve or punish him
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enough if he’s messed up, let them go on and it was the wrong call. And he wants Mark, especially, just to sit. As he rounds the corner, there’s no doubt. An uncompromising stillness, two wet, red bundles, two backpacks, two guns. A tangled mess of cloth, hair, skin, blood and metal. He waits hours until they collect the bodies. No man is left behind, although some say precious helicopter trips used to retrieve corpses makes little sense. * Ben checks his watch. 6am, his last day at Disto. He’s not slept, and now he must rally his troops for the last time. He musn’t think about the two lost yesterday, but once more tell Mark to change his underpants. Pushing himself upright from the metal sheet he’s been leaning against, watching the sun rise, he winces as he feels where it’s been digging into his shoulder, unnoticed until now. Walking slowly back to where his helmet, gun and backpack lie in wait, he thinks about his mum. He’s kept all the horrors from her, he’ll go on protect-
ing her once he’s home, that much is sure, and he’ll probably never ask her the question that’s been pressing ever more insistently at his brain: “why did you let me go?”
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Sophie Petit-Zelman works in healthcare, specialising in medicine and social care communications and strategy. She also advises a theatre company, which works mainly with young people on complex ethical issues in science and medicine and has, over the years, worked as a journalist for numerous lay and professional publications. She has a PhD (London's Kings College Hospital, investigating brain cell death in motor neurone disease - long before Eddie Redmayne made the disease famous), appears from time to time on TV and radio and has written two books: Doctor, Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Wrong? Making the NHS human again (Routledge, 2005) and How to be an Even Better Chair (Pearson, 2006). She is a stepmother to an exsoldier who served in Afghanistan.
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The Eye of The Beholder This month, writer David Frankel takes a look at how great short stories use omission and suggestion to build their worlds and characters:
In the short story there is no slack. Everything is a clue – a glimpse that hints at something larger. Often, a great deal of the plot is implied and this intensity requires more of the reader. It is a world in which it is impossible to be a passive consumer. Graham Greene once advised that writers should ‘keep in mind the question the
reader is asking.’ For writers of short stories this is doubly important. The tools of omission and implication are not only necessary because of the obvious constraints of length, but can be instrumental in providing the intrigue that keeps the reader involved. This can be especially effective at the beginning of a story where omitting backstory can engage the reader immediately, drawing them into a ‘live’ situation and prompting them to ask questions: why is this happening and what happens next? Hemingway was a master of this. In many of his stories (two that spring to mind are ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants’) we are pitched straight into the action mid-situation. Description is pared down to a
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minimum and dialogue is sharp. ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ opens midconversation .We read on, at least to begin with, in order to discover who is speaking, and what is going on: ‘“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.” “Is it really?” “Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.” “Don’t! Please don’t.” “Look at them,” he said. “Now is it the sight or is it the scent that brings them like that?” The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.’ In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the subject of the story (an unwanted pregnancy and prospective abortion) is never made explicit. This story is a particular moment in time, convincingly rendered with sparse but vivid detail and dialogue that makes no attempt to explain what is occurring for the benefit an observer. The real theme is implied subtly. This has the effect of turning the readers into eavesdroppers as the protagonists skirt around the issue. It is our nosi-
ness that makes us listen. I often think of a short story like a low-budget film where characterisation and a limited number of sets are all that the director has to evoke a whole off-screen universe. As though we are watching the protagonists through a single camera lens, and from that limited observation we must form an idea of the rest of their
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lives, projecting out into the world. A great example of this is ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson. It is a collection of stories about people ‘passing through’, all seemingly at the end of a particular chapter in their life, or at the beginning of one. The collection follows an unnamed narrator through a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, each with some-
one we will never meet again. Because of this, every action they take, every word they speak gains more weight. These glimpses become the evidence on which we will build our impression not only of them but also of the narrators world. Even more so than Hemingway, Johnson’s stories pitch the reader in midsituation, forcing them to piece together what is happening. Unlike Hemingway, Johnson keeps the reader off-balance, never quite giving them all the information they need about the situations the narrator describes. The reader is prompted to imagine scenes that have happened off-screen, as in the story ‘Two Men’. It begins, ‘I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light.’ What this ‘misunderstanding’ might be is never made clear. Nor, strangely, do we meet the second man promised by the title and the opening paragraph. This
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feeling that we are not quite being let in on everything makes us want to know more. His endings cut off mid-action too, as if the author is afraid to write what happens next, or the narrator too ashamed to tell. ‘Two Men’, for example, ends with the narrator in pursuit of an adversary. After breaking into the man’s flat he finds that his quarry has escaped and in the final scene he holds a gun to the
head of a woman he finds there: ‘I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down into the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone. The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug. “He’s really not here,” she said. I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.’ It is a powerful ending precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. A short story often works best when it signifies something bigger, when it asks us to imagine the shadow cast by what has happened on the page. In doing this, the short can get away with something that a novel rarely can – it can leave a question hanging, a life unexplored, an idea unresolved, inviting us to extrapolate from what we have read. In the hands of a skillful writer this gives short stories the ability to haunt the reader long after they have been read. David Frankel is a writer and artist. His stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine and Lightship Anthology. His work has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, the Fish Memoir Prize.www.davidfrankel.co.uk
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JUKEBOX INTERVIEW ANDREW HANSON
Andrew Hanson’s story ‘The Mother’ was short-listed for the ‘Conflict’ issue. Since he was hanging about on the site we asked him if he’d be our guinea pig for the inaugural Jukebox Interview. We had twenty-two questions, ranging from serious to playful to downright surreal. We asked Andrew to pick six num-
bers between one and twenty-two without seeing what the questions were, then asked him to reply. Here’s what happened… 3. What’s the best idea you’ve had that you didn’t follow up on? I’ve always tried to follow up good ideas. If you don’t follow an idea up, it probably didn’t seem to be a good idea at the time. When I look at my past, it all seems horribly inevitable. Yet this leaves no space for free will, which is worse. How about radioactive dog food? There has to be some way of tracing owners who don’t clear up after their dogs. Then again, perhaps I should stick to writing. 5. You leave Alice Munro, George Saunders, Jeannette Winterson, Salman
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Rushdie, and Ian McEwan alone in a room with your favourite chocolate bar. Is it there when you get back? If not, who’s taken it? What do you do? My favourite chocolate bar is a raisin and biscuit Yorkie. This may say ‘It’s not for girls’ on the wrapper, an example of casual sexism I have always managed
to overlook. So I don’t see Winterson eating it, especially not with her upmarket deli in Spitalfields, but I think she might well have something to say about it. McEwan would not eat it–his protagonists are generally too high-minded to steal a chocolate bar, and let’s face it some of them seem to be moulded on him –but he would know who had. Yet there would be no room for scheming, as Salman Rushdie would have eaten it, and would gleefully tell me how much he had enjoyed doing so. In return I would ask him for some chutney, which I could then consume, and experience his bottled memory of eating the chocolate bar. So often us writers have to live vicariously. 7. How did the theme inspire your story? Well conflict, at least in a dialectical sense, is everywhere. *Strokes chin* In
truth, conflict is almost a necessity for a short story. I wanted to write something about the Bosnian wars, so that we don’t forget these crimes which happened in Europe, at the end of the Twentieth century, crimes that should not be forgotten, and which we thought we would never see in Europe again. 13. Have you ever stolen anything? What was it?
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The hearts of Solihull at the egg and spoon race 1985, when, on seeing a competitor’s egg go rolling down a drain, I stopped to offer her my own. (This isn’t true. I’ve stolen many things, but nearly all of them have been biscuits.) 17. If you could write someone’s name after the next question mark, and they would immediately die, whose name would you write? A sadly hypothetical question. There are certainly times when I’ve been angry enough to write someone’s name in such a box, press enter and wait for them to disappear. What’s worse, I think most of us have been in that situation at some time or other. Facebook with an extermination option is probably not a good idea for the future of humanity, though when certain people you met at school got in touch, it would be a lot of fun… 19. Tell us a joke. Q. How did London’s top male escort agency get female agents’ pulses racing? A. They were nominated for the Man Booker prize. Andrew Hanson lives in south London, where he gives private tuition and suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. His first novel, 'Greenies', about climate change and environmental activism, is for sale on Amazon and Kindle. Fiction has to be an obtuse way to communicate about that odd phenomenon called the real world, but he enjoys it enormously.
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My name is Samir Sučić, I am nineteen years old and I'm studying journalism at Zagreb University. That's a weak-assed introduction. How's about, "Get the Sučić Sound only on FMJAM from Tuzla". Or, "This is Samir Sučić, reporting for Stari Grad from Copenhagen." Yeah. "From Copenhagen, where Bosnia have just won the Eurovision Song contest." Those are better. I'm in Tuzla now, on a damp spring morning, queuing at the bus station. Although it's only a quarter to seven Edo Maajka pops in my head-
phones; with luck I can blank out the five hour coach journey that will take me to Zagreb. Maajka is my hero; a Bosnian rapper whose stage name literally means, ‘The Mother’. As I approach the ticket kiosk, I slip my headphones around my neck and mute them. The guy in front of me has a bull neck filling the collar of a brown leather jacket. Beneath his buzz cut hair there's a cheesy snake tattoo. Most of the
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older guys around here have no style – this one probably gets wasted on 10% lager and then cries to power rock ballads. As he gets his wallet out to pay, a departing coach blasts its horn, just a few yards from us. The guy's wallet hits the floor, and contents slew out over the concrete. A family photo, some plastic store cards and a fabric badge. It's a shoulder patch, still sprouting a few threads where it's been cut from a uniform. I lean forward. A double headed white eagle, with a red cross at the centre, and beneath in Cyrillic, Beli Orlovi, 1st Battalion. Now you can't be a serious journalism student without knowing a bit of history. At least, not with my background. In amongst this man's supermarket loyalty points and schmaltzy photos, a bit of cloth that means some bad, bad shit. I look away, wait, and pay for my ticket. Suddenly my heart is going and everything has that extra-real feeling, like everything around you is super-solid and closing in. I don't mean I'm paranoid, simply awake. Very awake. But I'm also curious. This man was a White Eagle, a Serb paramilitary during the war, and let's just say that Serb paramilitaries have a special place in my family. For a start, we would not call them paramilitaries – that's official-speak. There's a lot of things I would call them, most of which a journalist can't broadcast. I'm a Bosnian Muslim, though I speak Bosnian and Serbian – my aunt taught me Serbian from the age of five. Her husband is a Serb, and for the record, he's a great guy. So, you see how the land lies. Headphones back on, I play an old list I've had since I was fourteen. I don't so much hear it as feel it, my body knows it as well as I do. Mr Bull Neck walks onto the coach ahead of me, and goes to sit in the centre of the back seat, placing his holdall beside him. He's wearing a Scorpions T-shirt – as in the rock band, nothing sinister, not that you’d advertise it if it were. Scorpions, eagles, tigers, they all have violent associations in this part of the world. Unsuspecting predatory animals that have been co-opted by homicidal maniacs. I tell you,
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naming a sports team in Bosnia can be difficult. Anyhow, I guessed the bloke's musical taste about right. I approach involuntarily, like I'm standing on an escalator, and sit one row ahead, on the aisle. I'm going to do something, but I haven't worked it out yet. The guy is watching everyone get onto the coach, with an air of boredom that's too tired to contain aggression. He has jowls and a beer belly, that jacket is worn, and overall I'd say he looks pretty washed up. I face forward and wait for the coach to get moving.
After twenty minutes of apartment blocks and derelict industrial areas, the coach leaves the city and heads north. I pull a packet of Plazma biscuits out of my bag. Plazma are mega-sweet calorie bombs, and most people who grow up in Serbia become addicted to them in childhood. I munch one, then glance over my shoulder and offer a biscuit to Mr White Eagle. He moves to take one with a slowness that suggests stupidity, but perhaps it's just the hour. "Are you heading to Zagreb?" I ask him in Serbian. It's a safe bet â&#x20AC;&#x201C; nearly
everyone on this coach is. "Yeah, Zagreb. And you?" "The same." I try to look nonchalant. "What for?" "I'm studying journalism there." "Journalism!" He smiles.
"I want to be a music journalist. Hip-hop, rock, Eurovision, you name it. Did you watch the Eurovision finals?" He nods. "Yeah, some good songs. I thought it was wrong those Russian girls got booed. And there was no Serbian entry. Except for Montenegro, some joke, no one calls that a country. It's just another part of Serbia." I feel I'd better change tack.
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"Did you see the Polish entry?" I wink and run my tongue over my lip. "Yeah, not bad, I bet they got the vote of young guys like you. And perhaps older guys like me!" He chuckles. "Shame it got won by that poofter…" I'm not a gay-hater, but talking to a guy like this, it's too easy. "Yeah, what can you do, the whole continent is bent." "Do you hear the Patriarch say that's why we've been flooded? The biblical deluge because a gay man won Eurovision?" "God is angry." He gives me a hard stare and my neck prickles. Then we both start laughing. "You must not join the wild side!" I make jazz hands and laugh too much. "That was what they said, huh…" I nod and for a while we fall silent. Pale rays of sun reach through cracks in
the cloud like torch beams. The first stop on our route is Srebrenik, a small town in the mountains. As we approach, the outline of the medieval fortress is silhouetted against the skyline. I shift to the back seat and point out the window. The guy looks at me, leans, and then nods. I whisper to him, "Biggest castle in Bosnia. Overrun by Balija. We did it in history at school." "So now you're a tour guide?" He half smiles. Perhaps I'm pushing it. "Just saying." I look a little offended, but stay on the back seat. Balija is a racist term for Bosnian Muslims, but not so strong as to stick out. After leaving Srebrenik, the sun comes through properly and the bus starts to warm. While I'm still nodding cautiously to my music, the guy slips his jacket off and flexes. Tattoed on his forearm there's a skull and cross bones surrounded by flames, with the words “freedom or death” underneath. On the upper arm, underneath
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the sleeve of his T-shirt, is the word “Chetnik”. This is a word for Serb freedom fighter, gangster, terrorist, from the Second World War to this day: one of them. I feel full of untapped potential; whether it's the early morning sun, a sugar buzz, or the start of a new term I don't know. And now that I've started work on this meathead I'm not going to stop. "You fought in the wars?" "What if I did?"
I shrug. "It's my Dad's generation. I just hear the stories. As a journalist, you know, I think there's a lot that doesn't get said. Things that we are not allowed to say." I look around conspiratorially. Without warning a fleshy hand grabs the back of my neck, a strong grip over my blood vessels. He brings his face inches away from mine, a miasma of onion breath and shaving soap hanging in the air. His eyes are leaden. "You're a good kid, but you should be careful. You think life is a game, some theme park to play in. Well it's not." He releases his hold as another passenger further down the bus catches sight of us. "Yeah, sure. I mean respect, you know." "Thanks," he says emptily. "You must have seen some shit?" "Yeah." He smiles like I'm an eleven-year-old waiting in the dinner queue next to the school sports champion. "I've seen some sights. I've seen people starving to death." He pauses. "Well in hindsight, we could have organised our Christmas dinner better!" Laughing and leaning back, he evidently expects the conversation to end here. My breakfast has come back up, acid burning in my throat. To hear a survivor make that joke, that shows courage. But to hear him, one of the men who rounded people up… I manage a fake grin and look away.
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"What's your name?" he says. "Milan," I lie. A Serb name. "Milan, this is what you should write. I myself, and my brothers, we did what we could for our country. We would have done more, but we were stopped by the Americans, the British, The Hague. The job was never finished; I suppose it never is. And what thanks do we get? I mean look at me, I don't even have a car, I'm taking the bus to my daughter's wedding!" He chuckles and rubs his jaw. A blueish, fleshy jaw, the pallid skin like congealed wax. "Your daughter is getting married in Zagreb?" "Yeah, so what?" "She's marrying a Croat, isn't she?" His eyes flash and he pauses. My insides freeze. "Yeah, and a right arsehole he is too!" He laughs. I smile. "What's your name?" "Borislav. Now go back to your shitty hip-hop, it's nine in the morning and I'm short on sleep." He puts a paw on my shoulder and shoves me away. I lean against the window, my mind fizzing, yet powerless to act. My shitty hiphop? Maajka, the Mother, the man who made the group Defence, the force in Disciplinary Commission? Well, I guess I've had the volume up, Mr Lame Rock Ballad.
We're in lower, flatter country now, having just passed through Orasje, and cross the bridge over the River Sava, a wide, expressionless expanse of water which marks the border with Croatia. A band of water, mud and silt, and suddenly a different tribe is in charge, minority and majority are reversed, and the
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colours of history are flipped like those on a photographic negative. I know that I'm special. I can see both images, when I want to, my mother a Bosnian Muslim, my uncle by marriage a Serb, my father, well, a work in progress.
Stuck at traffic lights near a place called Zupanja, the coach snarls and shakes as we pull away. We lose speed, over-rev, and then attempt to reach second gear, which produces juddering convulsions as though the mechanical beast beneath us were mounting its mate. There's a harsh, high sound, which cuts out as the driver disengages and pulls over. In the momentary silence people exchange glances, and then there are groans and raised eyes. Mr Freedom or Death looks around angrily as traffic streams past while we sit in the lay-by. I give him an angry-in-sympathy look. The temperature rises as the sun gets to work on steaming us alive inside the coach, but a few minutes later the driver opens the bus doors. There is a hissing sound and a taste of cool air. "I've got some roll ups," I say and incline my head outside. "Let's get out of this piece of shit." I walk down the aisle, and he shrugs and follows. We climb to the top of the grassy bank behind the lay-by, and I start to fiddle with tobacco and cigarette paper. We're looking out over farmland, red tiled roofs, church spires and jumbled woodlands receding to a hazy horizon. "Will you be late for the wedding?" I ask, handing Borislav a slightly wonky smoke. "It's tomorrow. Beautiful country, isn't it?" I look around as though I hadn't noticed. "Yeah, I guess it is." "It is." We both take a drag simultaneously. "So your Dad fought in the war?" he asks. "Yes. I mean, he doesn't like to talk about it," I add. Boris nods and gives
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me a searching look. You see, here's the thing: I've never met my father. My mother, and my aunt, they were both raped in 1994. Two teenage sisters, taken from their home at gunpoint, their parents told that they were needed to 'help identify some Muslim youths being held at the police station'. They were kept there for fortyeight hours. Two black days at the centre of my existence. By the time my mother realised she was pregnant it was already quite late, and finding a safe place to have an abortion was not easy. This I overheard one evening when we visited my great-grandparents, who hadn't seen their granddaughter in nearly a decade. By that time, my aunt had burnt the rulebook by marrying a nonMuslim Serb, while my mother had become submissive, depressive, a shadow of a hanger-on, a cleaner, a washer-upper, a spirit of uncertain strength who kept a steady routine of prayer and little else. Boris puts a hand on my shoulder. "Heroes don't talk about it, mostly. You should be proud. Don't ever believe any shit you hear â&#x20AC;&#x201C; we did what had to be done." "I know. I'm sure." My mother was always scared I would turn into one of them. Like some kind of action hero metamorphosis, one day I would become that other. Well-adjusted teen eats a Serbian biscuit, froths at the mouth and is now part of the raping zombie horde. Only they weren't zombies, they were systematic. When her sister married a Serb, my mother tried to move away and live on her own, not that it worked out. I watch the cars in the distance approach along the road, pass us, and then fade to dots again. I can tell I'm going too quiet. "Ach, these shoes are paining me," says Boris. He is wearing formal black leather shoes, which look as though they've recently been shined. For the wedding, I suppose. After unlacing them carefully, he pulls them off by the heel. "Any chance of another fag?" he says. I hand him the packet. "You should
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have another one too," he says, "it will kill the smell of my socks!" He chuckles, convivial wrinkles puckering around his eyes, a flash of colour in his cheeks. "Serb socks don't smell," I say automatically. "Eh?" He gives me an odd look as his pudgy fingers prod the tobacco into place. Funny, I had forgotten that. My mother and aunt, doing the washing one day, stopping at an instant, giggling, then crying, then crying hysterically and holding each other, sat on the floor and rocking from side to side. My mother repeating the same comic line, Serb socks don't smell. I was still a child, and I asked my aunt later what had happened. We were once blindfolded with socks, she had told me, and we gagged on the stench. Then I suspect she managed some distraction. "I'm a Bosniak," I say. "I am a Bosnian Muslim." "What's your malfunction? Hah, very funny, you dumb kid, you don't joke about these things. You speak Serbian. You're a Serb." "And you're an ignorant pig," I say in Bosnian, before switching back to Serb. He will have understood enough. "My mother is a Muslim. My father was a man like you. Do you understand? That is why I have never met him. You were in the White Eagles, you were one of them." I'm standing up now. He is staring at me in revulsion, motionless; tobacco and cigarette paper eddy in the breeze. "I saw your shoulder patch, you idiot. I know. And I know the things you did." I am weightless, unassailable. My stare is a laser. "It's just a badge. You don't know anything." "Oh, I know it all. 'I wasn't there, it didn't happen, people have lied, perhaps the neighbours went on a long holiday, oh and those women were whores, and yes, all of this is Serbia.' Or it was, in the fifteenth century, or some shit like that."
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"You're a kid, you weren't there, you can remember nothing!" "For everything that you have done, there is someone who remembers." "Maybe your mother screwed around, that's why you have no dad." He stands slowly, but can't bear to look at me. I spit in his face, turn, and stride down the slope, my back tense as a board, my shoulders hunched, my neck expecting a heavy blow. But none comes. Other passengers have come out of the
coach, and are sitting a few metres away. Before I reach them I spin around, and shout: "You lost, Chetnik! And you will always lose. We are stronger than you!" I tap the side of my head. Now people are looking. Boris starts to trot down the slope, aggressively at first, fists raised. But halfway down he loses steam and stops, glowering like a cornered animal. Then he turns, puts his hands in his pockets, and trudges back up the bank, to retrieve his shoes.
As we wait for a replacement coach, I sing an Edo Maajka lyric to myself. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s about how war and betrayal can never destroy your root, your link to the land: like the basement of a house after shelling it remains, it cannot be broken. Like the Sava River, it is eternal. I have sung these lyrics before, but for the first time in my life I have lived them, I believe them. I am not half a man: I have two mothers. I am grounded and whole, and nothing can change that.
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Sanctuary Alex Poppe Prelude His plastic elastic waistband solves the mystery of boxers or briefs. I know it’s wrong to stare, but I haven’t seen a cut up six-pack in forever. I don’t expect to see it volunteering at the Domiz refugee camp while my compatriots sleep off
last night’s decadence an alternate reality away. This Frenchman and I have been assigned to map the camp, and so for the next four hectares I’m not going to wonder where his adventure trail leads every time his hipbone winks from beneath his shrunken tee. A bead of glistening sweat teases his belly button rim. I imagine lapping that bead with my tongue, like rescuing tequila salt from a cocktail glass. Sunlight toasts skin to honey as Frenchie hands me a GPS to record the locations of shops, community water points, and public latrines for UNHCR. I pretend not to know how to punch in coordinates so he’ll show me, and I can soak up that much more of his animal warmth. Despite the cholera outbreak, kids run barefoot along rushing brown rivulets flowing from the privies to serenade us with ‘hellooo’ and ‘what’s-yourname’ before scampering off in a one-sided game of hide and seek. Cheeks flushed rosy, fringe matted to foreheads, eyes backlit with delight, they run circles around our progress. Every day is a holiday, for there is no school at camp, just a history lesson when six-year-old Kurds and Arabs chase each other, brandishing rubber rifles against awkwardly thrown punches. Turning tears into giggles, fathers air evac their toy soldiers to the lofty safety of piggybacks. I snatch the moment with my iPhone. A suctioning splat interrupts the impromptu photo shoot. Frenchie has slipped into molten chocolate batter splatter surrounding latrine number eight in hectare two. Comparing my open toe sandals to his heavily fortified work
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boots, I bless that it’s him and not me, and tell him it’s just mud he’s steeped in. My shoulder provides some ballast. As his fingers brush my clavicle, I imagine there’s a woman somewhere who will bathe this day away. Shampoo his thick blond curls, suds up his long rower’s torso, and follow his adventure trail as it snakes south across the wide flat plain of his tanned pelvis. Maybe she climbs in with him, flesh molding flesh. My own man, whom God knows I’ve tried, yet we try again, waits in another government compound for me to provide “morale, welfare, and recreation” when I make it back from this improvised city. He, bar-
rel-chested with jet surfer hair, surfeited by the comforts of the State Department, will have made a plate of food for me from the chow hall. The line outside the barber’s wraps around the dry goods store, portable shop 18 in hectare 3. Sweet black tea flows among the waiting clientele whose cheeks and chins have grown devout from the sporadic running water. Children stare at my blue eyes and Frenchie’s fair waves while their fathers offer us packaged cakes and penny candies. In return, our iodine tablets rain like laugh-
ing confetti. With a stick, I etch hopscotch into the grassy dirt and soon the children and I are bouncing like stovetop popcorn. We finish the final hectare as the dusky call to prayer sounds. Sunlight plays tricks with the sandy dirt, turning dust motes into sprite fairies. Exhausted, exhilarated, and needing to pee, we make our way through a sea of mosque bound Syrian-Kurdish refugees readying to celebrate Eid al-Ahad, the Feast of Sacrifice. It has been no sacrifice to survey this camp, daydream about his stomach, and relish the sweet goodness of these kids whose lives have been shredded. Our car winds through mud green mountains and nine check points back to the civilized wilds of U.S. Consulate compound. At security, I surrender my iPhone and passport before a knowing Kurdish grandmother quickly squeezes my padded bra during a security pat-down and smiles at Barrel Chest when he collects me at the State Department gate. We’ve done this dance before. I bury my head in the warmth and breadth of his flannel. In the middle of this compound,
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hidden inside this invisible nation, he smells like home. *** Fugue Kayla was pairing black socks when she heard about the beheading. She matched and rolled as broad American vowels painted pictures via her computer speakers. An assembly line of black cotton balls piled over the greasy fingerprints along the living room table. Later, when Pierre’s name clicks, lunch revisits her mouth.
She walks in concentric circles on the hardwood, flicking her wrists as if her hands were wet. She’d kill for a smoke. In the schoolyard across the street, children shriek above the tram traffic on Hlavni mesto Praha. The words of their singsong game escape her. Should have started those Czech lessons months ago, she distracts herself. Should have learned a few words every day. She flicks her wrists harder. Her chunky cuffs chafe her skin. She should call someone. As if a photograph could make sense of a moment, she opens her Mac-
Book to find a picture of the team that mapped the Domiz refugee camp for United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees. Being based in Ankawa with the Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation had made it easy for her to volunteer with other non-governmental organizations in Iraq. Pierre had been on loan to the Iraqi office too, in between his assignments in Kabul and Islamabad. In the picture, his elbow rests on her shoulder, she unrecognizable in a T-shirt and baseball cap, while the wind plays electric static with his hair. Don’t think about some militant’s kid holding up Pierre’s head by its blond curls for a publicity photo while the rest of his body lies on some bare hill. She bites back another acidic esophageal invader. She needs to get a grip. She left that life a long time ago. ‘Can I call you back?’ Marek’s voice sounds muffled. When did she dial his number? ‘They beheaded an aid worker near the Iraqi-Syrian border.’ Kayla swallows a burp which pushes back as tears. Now they fall.
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‘What?’ ‘I worked with the guy in Domiz before I moved here.’ A life divides into here and before here. ‘His name was Pierre,’ she needs to pause. ‘Oh baby, I’m sorry.’ ‘Yeah. I worked with him only once, but he was—’ ‘Aren’t you glad you’re here? I am so happy you’re safe.’ Marek’s comment is heart-felt but a little tone deaf. Kayla stares at the photo on her computer screen. Rain starts to nag the window panes. ‘Honey?’ Her silence has several levels to it. ‘Sorry, I know you’re busy.’ Kayla clicks through pictures of brown girls and blue skies. ‘I’ll let you go. The laundry’s done and I’ll leave you dinner before I go to work.’ * Twenty-six months earlier Kayla met ten-year old Sarah, her first solo case at
the women’s shelter in Ankawa, a Christian city in Kurdish Iraq. Still green, Kayla gawked at Sarah’s old woman eyes when she saw them. Kayla asked small questions and Sarah didn’t answer them. Some ice breaker. Under the static noise of silence, they spent the next half hour drawing with the colored markers Kayla had bought from a mega mall a few kilometers away. Sarah drew angry lines. In the following days, between budget meetings and field visits, Kayla stopped by the shelter. When Kayla brought chocolate bars, Sarah didn’t eat them. When Kayla brought new clothes, Sarah didn’t try them on. But when Kayla brought markers, Sarah drew. Her angry lines took shape. A house with missing walls. Faceless women lying on the ground. Sliced dogs. Fallen trees. Burnt grass. A gigantic shadow man hung in the upper corner of every picture. There were thirty minutes of silence save pen transfiguring paper. The next time Kayla visited Sarah she brought one large blank poster
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board. ‘We draw together?’ Kayla maximized her hobbled Arabic. Those weekly lessons were starting to pay off. Sarah blinked her owl eyes and handed Kayla a marker the color of cue chalk. Sarah drew on the bottom half of the poster board while Kayla drew on the top. Sometimes their arms touched and Sarah would take two steps away. She drew that wall-less house again. ‘Is this your home?’ Sarah’s nod was tiny. ‘Where are the walls?’ Sarah put her marker down and stood in front of her drawing. She seemed ready to crawl inside it. Kayla put her marker down and kneeled so they were the same height, and waited for Sarah to face her. These things took the time they took. When Sarah turned to her, Kayla kept her hands at her sides and relaxed her mouth. She looked directly into Sarah’s eyes. A moment of soul silence. Sarah’s stomach moved in and out with her breath. Kayla matched its
rhythm. Soon they were breathing together. Sarah’s granny irises quivered and shrunk. Her breath quickened and fled into her shoulders. ‘Stay with me.’ Kayla placed her hands on Sarah’s sides, just below her ribcage. ‘Breathe where my hands are.’ Kayla hummed a gentle song. Salty water ran down Sarah’s cheeks. Slowly, Sarah’s breath moved Kayla’s hands out and in like an accordion. The color returned to Sarah’s eyes. When she spoke, both words warbled. ‘Walls bad.’ Kayla’s hands reached around Sarah’s back. Sarah let her. This is a beginning, Kayla thought. * A half-hearted rain blows sideways under Kayla’s umbrella as she heads for
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the language school. Like most expats in Bohemia, Kayla teaches English to the city’s elite. It’s a far cry from conducting healing workshops for victims of trauma and gender-based violence. One student materializes. His book does not. Kayla drills him on past tense verb constructions. The irregular eludes him. Looking at the saliva stalactite beading her student’s mouth, Kayla blinks three times to make him disappear. No such goddamn luck. They move on to conversation. All talk is small. This is worse than church, Kayla thinks. The clock’s tick is either slow or fast, depending. The student marvels at the time and thanks her for the lesson. Her return smile is a nose wrinkle. When Kayla exits the school, the moon looks tea stained. In the blue dark, Kayla walks to the gym. She couldn’t go to the gym in Ankawa unless she wanted to be stared at or frozen in some stranger’s smart phone. Up three flights, past reception, into the locker room and onto the weight room floor without a word exchanged. The free weight area smells of steroid-fuelled sweat. An inked-tank of a man squats and grunts in the corner. His sleeves are shiny. As Kayla benches, Pierre’s face hovers in the stale air above her. She finishes the set eyes shut, but she can’t escape her thoughts. While she decline presses, she hears him making fun of her open-toe sandals moments before he slips into latrine shit. During incline flies, he marvels at the kindness of civilians in Islamabad, where he can’t wait to return. She bashes the weights together to make it stop. She can’t curse him back to life.
Her eyes leak, sliming her neck. She racks her weights, changes her clothes, passes through reception, and rides the elevator down. She exits. The foot traffic on the streets is anorexic. The only sound is the hollow whack of her wooden heels tramping the sidewalk. * When the Kurdish music started, Anu thwacked the middle finger of his right hand into the cup of his left, making a loud hollow sound. As much as Kayla
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tried, she couldn’t master his sonic snap. Together they sat in a private booth in Sky Bar, the expat haven, with his entrepreneur cousin from Dubai and a rumored hit man for a certain political party. Powdery watermelon tobacco smoke laced the air. Kayla didn’t believe that the man who looked like a Sopranos extra was an actual government assassin, but security had let him bypass gun-check with a pistol packed into each pocket of his double-breasted suit. He told her he was finishing his law degree at the University of Kurdistan. A few tables away the mayor’s son was holding court with the Lebanese
party contingency and a bunch of British and American teachers mooching free drinks. Two Iraqi prostitutes were seated at the bar eyeing carelessly laid change. Kurdistan’s first female arms dealer nodded to Kayla from her vantage point near the door. Kayla knew her from parties at The Edge, the dumpy nightspot inside the US Consulate Compound where Kayla’s boyfriend worked. As a security guard for DynCorp, he wasn’t allowed to leave the three block piece of Americana inside the Kurdish heartland. Kayla nodded back as
Anu patted her elbow to pass her a shisha pipe, mouth tip angled away. He was particular about hookah etiquette. The icy orange flavor complimented the French white chilling in her glass. Today had been a good day. Although a long, bubbling sound accompanied Kayla’s next inhale, Sarah’s slow-cooked words were what filled Kayla’s ears. Walls stuck you in when they came…hiding in the garden was lonely… rifles are louder than jump ropes…a house burns inside out. Kayla drained her glass and Anu quickly refilled it. He liked a drunk galpal. All around her, KBR contractors, oil and gas execs, diplomatic personnel, expat teachers and NGO staffers drank, smoked, and danced in a prelude to picking up. Ankawa was a truth prism so what happened there didn’t count. ‘C’mon babe, let’s dance,’ Anu pulled her onto a makeshift dance floor between some linen covered tables. ‘I want to show you off.’ As the Advisor for Christian Affairs to the Kurdistan Regional Government, he knew everyone
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important in the room. He used Kayla to meet the fresh female expats in Ankawa. He spun her into some blond freelance travel writers Kayla knew from Bouba, a popular Lebanese restaurant near Two Side Road, and after introductions, immediately began chatting them up. Kayla checked her watch and left him to it. Tomorrow’s start was early. Stopping to hug some teachers from the Turkish school, Kayla made her way through the sweating crowd to the exit. The hyacinth air was cool and dry against her skin. She stepped onto One Hundred Meter Road and approached the line of cabs waiting under new trees with old leaves. She negotiated a price and climbed in the back, sitting beyond the reach of the driver. She had never felt so alive. * Kayla checks the clock for the sixth time in two hours. Her face reflects a solicitously polite expression. She has spoken eight words since their arrival at Marek’s parents’ apartment. Around the table are aunts and uncles, whom
Kayla has never met, and Marek’s nine-year-old daughter, whose default mode is to blank Kayla. All words are Czech. None are volleyed in Kayla’s direction. She receives no eye contact as she tracks the conversation ricocheting around the table. She feels erased. Kayla consults the clock. If she were in Ankawa, Sunday would be a working day. Right now she would be packing up her desk at the Kvinna office and heading into the vanilla light on her way to the shelter. There she would sit with Sarah whose face hides and shows her
inner song. Marek’s hand feels clammy in her own. She shakes if off and wipes her palm on her leg under the table. Her right foot has fallen asleep. Marek glances at the disturbed air between them and returns to what he was saying. Kayla studies his profile: cheekbones that could cut glass, rose-hued skin, the expanse of space between his nose and upper lip. Sometimes his face looks like a stranger’s. Kayla’s eyes liquefy. When Marek’s hand finds her upper back,
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Kayla squirms. ‘Having a good time?’ He bends his voice to her ear. ‘Mm-hm.’ Kayla has become a photograph of herself. Her mind goes on a walkabout. Stepping around this morning’s altercation, Kayla hopscotches through the minefield of the past months. You drink too much. You’re never home. You always criticize my daughter. She leapfrogs over jealousy and screaming matches and lockouts, and detours into the moment they first met, when she was on a weekend getaway in Prague. Side by side gallery hopping,
Marek studied the art and Kayla studied Marek. His flushed portrait made her feel shy. Sitting in a cocktail bar, they shared the fiction of their lives. The characters drinking rose hip and hibiscus highballs fell a little in love with each other, and that love took hold in the real selves too, during thousands of Skype minutes binding The Czech Republic to Iraq. Then they had that weekend in Turkey. An unfocused excitement hung in the air. In her mind’s eye, Kayla lingers in their hotel room, replaying that first feathery kiss. His breath
in the valley of her palm. It is a moment she would sit out eternity in if she could. Declarations followed. An invitation extended. A resignation letter accepted in Iraq. Now they rarely sleep in the same bed. ‘Where are you?’ Marek looks at her like a cat looks at a dog. ‘Nowhere. Rummaging for a thought.’ ‘What about?’ Kayla holds up her empty hand. ‘It slipped through.’ She reaches for her wine glass. ‘Maybe you should slow down. Why don’t you eat something?’ Marek’s voice contains no suggestion. Kayla sharpens each word before invisibly shouting back a suggestion of her own. ‘Of course.’ She puts down her glass. The wine tastes like a saddle. A long moment of not breathing. She picks up her fork and stabs the schnitzel, joining the symphony of cutlery. Soon enough, it will be time to go.
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* Four pairs of hands dived for the pizza as it arrived to the table inside O’Cafe, off Ankawa’s main road. Teeth and tongues negotiate wallops of dough and cheese. ‘Do you think he’ll do it?’ Gina had mastered the art of talking with her mouth full. Kayla took a long pull of beer. Anu thought of women as background decoration. ‘I can ask. He should probably stop frequenting brothels if he’s going to support a Yes A ll Women conference.’ Three heads listened as if Kayla were giving directions. ‘Kidding. Did you know there are over eighty brothels in Ankawa alone?’ Privately she wondered what do-si-do it would take to persuade Anu to support the conference. Smart people were not always decent. She pictured the shadow girls rescued to the shelter, tracking her movements as she gathered testimonies from bed to bed. Having a top government advisor support their conference probably wouldn’t provoke
new legislation, but it might net them a few more dinar. ‘How was Domiz?’ Sophie adjusted the hipster hat covering her hangover hair. ‘Good. I’m really glad I went, although I’m not sure how useful the information will be once it gets to UNHCR. The situation on the ground is that fluid. Pierre said that the cholera outbreak is the least of it. There has to be— ’ Kayla scrolled through her expressions and settled on artless. ‘What?’ ‘That’s the fourth time you’ve mentioned Pierre in thirty minutes. Is this the start of greeting card love? Who is he?’ Katy’s twang was pure Texan. ‘Why have I never met him on the party circuit?’ Gina liked to meet everyone that Kayla knew. ‘Have you forgotten, young Katy, I have a boyfriend who may not take kindly to this kind of flagrant presumption?’ Kayla’s face flushed. Her emotions were as naked as a snowman.
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Katy put her hand to Kayla’s cheek. ‘Nice try but your body is ahead of your brain.’ ‘You haven’t met him because he isn’t based here. And you probably won’t because he left for Islamabad today.’ Sophie lit a cigarette. ‘That doesn’t account for last night.’ Kayla smiled her Mona Lisa smile as she lit one of Sophie’s cigarettes too. * Sarah now had a catalogue of smiles. Her confident smile stretched her cheeks when she said her multiplication tables. Her shy smile peeked out when she helped bake ka’ak bi ma’moul cookies and grew to a grin when she ate a few hot from the oven, ground dates catching between her teeth. Kayla was enjoying Sarah’s loopy smile as they hung some of her new drawings above her bed. After six months of living at the shelter, Sarah had regained some weight. The frequency and intensity of her nightmares had lessened. She was ready to return
to school, she said. She wanted to become a doctor. Her smile was solemn when she said that. Kayla counted the dust bunnies under the neighboring bunk. False hope hurt like a broken heart. The free schools around Ankawa didn’t offer instruction in Arabic and most Syrian refugees didn’t speak Kurdish. Kayla had scrabbled together a ragtag tutor program from her network of friends, but the NGO community was stretched thin. Sarah was a lucky one. Her garden fort had hidden her. She’d survived a fire that consumed her family, and fighters that consumed her village. Insurgents hadn’t stolen her and nobody had auctioned her at a slave market. Kayla’s blood boiled. Who knew how long this sanctuary would last? Everywhere people needed money, and Baghdad had turned off the Kurdish tap. Some of the locals viewed the shelter as haram and preferred its inhabitants below ground. Sarah could be forced into early marriage for protection. She wouldn’t get to finish school. A whole life would be lost.
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Kayla ignored the guilt compressing her conscience. She had learned to live in the world and so too would Sarah. Extended family might be found and Sarah would get out. In the end, that’s what people did. The insurgents weren’t on Ankawa’s doorstep but they were canvasing the neighborhood. Marek had invited her to Bohemia. Indefinitely. She remembered their lying together like interlocking puzzle pieces and she wanted to go. Then she thought of all her Sarahs, and she wanted to stay. Her heart blistered. It wasn’t easy to leave love. Sarah tugged on Kayla’s sleeve. Kayla had been smoothing a picture taped to the wall for several moments. ‘There. Perfect.’ ‘Are you ok?’ Twin shadows clouded Sarah’s ancient eyes. ‘Sure.’ As if a single word could satisfy such a question. * ‘Is this ok?’ Marek’s skin feels warm beneath Kayla’s. ‘Mm-hmm.’ The evening has taken an unexpected turn. A conjugal flicker of hope. His bed or hers? But now her actions are functional. How can she tell him that all her ghosts have trailed him under the blankets? They curl into her side. Kayla remembers the weight of a bony elbow pressing into her shoulder while they smiled like ventriloquist dummies for the camera. Pierre was taken months later, after delivering tents to a refugee camp. Kayla can’t think about what happened next. She turns her face into the crook of Marek’s neck. ‘Why are you stopping?’
‘You’re not here.’ ‘Yes I am,’ Kayla lies. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Here.’ She lies again. The first lie makes the second one easier. ‘Kayla, I know you. You look like you’re listening to a far-off sound. Tell me.’ Jealousy and fear knock it out across Marek’s face with no real winner. Kayla’s sense of presence abandons her. She is back in the shelter, arriv-
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ing to tell Sarah goodbye. In her bag is a bribe of colored pencils and water colors and drawing paper. Forgive me for leaving. Kayla is too late. At age eleven, Sarah has become a wife and left the shelter. Kayla knows ugly words don’t drive away sadness. She checks her verbal line up. ‘My life here is small.’ It is the truest thing she can say. Marek’s face empties. ‘I get only one.’ Kayla can’t bridge the space between them. ‘Do you still love me?’ Marek’s voice is skinny in the dark. ‘Of course I love you.’ The quicksand of language. Whatever love is, it is its opposite too.
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Never Stop Sean Gorman
“I’ll never stop,” he told them. “I’ve been at this since the eighties, and I’m damn sure not changing for you. Now or ever!” That’s what Coach Jim Fletcher told them every time. Barstow was a powerhouse in high school football for decades with Coach Fletcher at the helm. And every time some new pissant administrator or principle or superintendent came along and tried to put his stamp on the program, Coach pointed at the trophy case and dared them to interfere. Barstow was nothing more than a bathroom break on the way to Vegas before Coach. Fletcher turned us into a relevant
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commodity—the biggest football cash cow in the southern California desert. To mess with Coach was career suicide. Coach was the face of our small town throughout the eighties and nineties and into the new millennium—the perennial competitor. Other teams sent scouts to our games in order to game-plan specifically against him. Coach got sick for a whole month once. Rumors churned about someone from our biggest rival— Victorville—poisoning him. It wasn’t true, of course. Coach had to make a statement in the paper assuring everyone that he’d be okay. I’d never seen the town so upset. The anxiety was ubiquitous. We lost all of our games that month without him. That was several years before I joined the team as a freshman linebacker in 2002.
I grew up in Barstow and lived here most of my life, eventually joining a law firm downtown about fifteen years after Coach’s heyday. I was born in the late eighties and knew Coach Fletcher’s idiosyncrasies (chewing his nails down to nothing; only praying in stadiums) before my own mother’s. His likeness was plastered everywhere. Just about every local billboard and television commercial featured him. They even occasionally mentioned him on ESPN. Barstow erected Coach’s statue outside of the stadium after he won our eighteenth straight championship in 2004. Recruits commuted for miles to play for him. College scouts offered him head coach and coordinator positions annually, which he always refused. And why take them? Coach Fletcher was the highest paid faculty member in Barstow. Outside of school, the inescapable living leg-
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end had his hands in everything. His economic ties to Barstow netted him more than his salary. Moreover, Coach was born and raised here. His entire family lived here. And everything was placed at his feet for free in hopes that Fletcher would help promote your business (or simply know your name). Barstow rested in Vegas’ shadow, but Fletcher gave us a powerful identity. He was our impetus. But as the wins amassed, ever larger grew the elephant in the room. It all changed with Mr. Maxey. He was our new principal that year. Maxey was fresh from the military and didn’t give two shits about history or tradition. He was a hothead just like Coach. Our team called him “Maxey Pad” behind his back. He found out about the nickname (I have no idea how), gathered the team together and threatened to end our season if we didn’t tell him who started it.
The fullback agreed to take the fall. He was suspended from the team for the rest of the 2005 season. When we found out about Maxey becoming our new principal, Coach said he was looking forward to it. “We need more disciplinarians,” he said. “Like me.” But they clashed from the start. Maxey came into the locker room on his first day as principal. No greeting or anything, he just marched in amidst one of our meetings, gave Coach a glare and sat down in Coach’s office. Coach chuckled. “Take ten, guys,” Coach said and joined Maxey in the office, shutting the door. The locker room was silent. Coach’s office had windows on all sides, and
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we watched and listened with intent. All fifty of us, quiet as a library, leaning our ears and eyes into that room. We may not have wanted to admit it at the time, but I think we all felt it—change had arrived. They didn’t shake hands. We heard the whole thing. Maxey told Coach that he was putting a stop to the “circus” that was our football program. He said that we were operating above the law. He said he knew about the coaches throwing parties for the team with booze after wins. He said he knew about the aggressive and borderline unethical recruiting. He knew everything. But Maxey’s biggest emphasis was on Coach himself. “I know about the gambling,” he said. Coach stiffened. His eyes widened. The grooves in his face pulsed and boiled all over. “You listen to me,” Coach said. “I don’t care what you think you know or what dipshit military academy you come from. I’ve been digging my way through these trenches before you were a goddamn sperm. You really think you’re the first young big shot to take me aside and try to lay down the law?
I’ve ruined them all. I am Barstow. And if you ever threaten me, my family’s livelihood or my team again, I’ll personally play Taps while you fold a flag over the coffin of your late career. Get out.” It snowballed. Everyone in town knew the rumor about Coach’s gambling
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and turned a blind eye. Hell, it was legal a few hours up the freeway. But he had amassed a small fortune during his tenure by betting on Barstow (and betting on everything else). And he stopped hiding it after a while. Coach always talked about the spread. It was the one topic that arose a consistently passionate, honest response from him. Coach would talk WNBA with you if he had a vested interest in a particular line. He hated the spread because “You can only score so many points.” I don’t think he ever bet against us. But a shift occurred. Coach hadn’t lost a game in two years, but things felt different my sophomore and junior seasons: Coach ran up the scores until the other teams quit. He took the best players from all schools in the area in order to hammer the opposition into bits. Coach was ruthless. Schools didn’t want to play us an-
ymore. After a while, it became obvious that he wasn’t just coaching against the other team, he was crippling their rosters months in advance like a college coach. Fletcher would poach kids from cities away, sometimes convincing their parents to move to Barstow. And parents would do it and commute to work if they had to because we were royalty. More often than not, playing for Coach Fletcher was your way out of the hood. He sent more recruits to college and the NFL than anyone. Hell, I would’ve never gotten my scholarship to USC without the exposure Coach provided. Sure, the gambling unnerved some of the affluent, white parents, but it was relegated to gossip and nothing more. Barstow’s marriage to Fletcher necessitated the dilution of truth. Denial begat victory, fogging over any reason to raise questions. We kept winning, and so
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did Coach. But then we lost that first game in 2005 and everything spiraled. We lost our opening game just days after Mr. Maxey’s meeting with Coach. And we didn’t just lose: we were destroyed in our own house by Palmdale High. And they sucked. They always sucked. But they had this new quarterback who outran our entire team. He was amazing—we drop back into coverage, he gashes us for a first down run; we blitz him, he shoots a perfect bullet to his receiver; we spy him, he dumps it off to the running back at the last second for a big gain. This guy brought it, and we didn’t have an answer. Neither did Coach. 45-14 was the final (because Coach wouldn’t kick field goals). Barstow booed us off the field as we huffed into the locker room. We had never been booed before let alone by our own fans (further, I actually had a pretty good game with seven tackles and a forced fumble). The grass trembled as Coach stormed off the field and into the tunnel. It smelled like feet and men inside the locker room, the thick stench surging toward Mars. We stood with our hands on our hips, completely gassed and panting like sick dogs. Some of the cornerbacks threw up. That Palmdale quarterback didn’t just gash us, he made us his collective bitch. Someone mentioned that he was a transfer from Texas. “Fuck Texas!” Coach screamed, flipping a table. A defensive end punched his own locker, denting it. The kicker cried. Coach was too pissed to address us for any sort of post-game pep talk. “It’s just one game, guys,” Davis said. He was my best friend and our quar-
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terback. Davis tried to put a positive spin on things, but he was crazy: we lost to a traditionally bad school. That was it. Humiliating. I hung around to listen in on the coaches’ meeting. Coach Fletcher sat in his office, bitching out his offensive and defensive coordinators for a half hour. They argued about play-calling, penalties, substitutions, blown calls—every aspect of the game was dissected and relived and scrutinized. But we were embarrassed that night. There were no analytical answers to be found, no subtle adjustments to help us retool for the next game. So their frustrations eventually boiled over, spilling into the personal. “Goddammit, Jim,” the defensive coordinator said, “maybe we would’ve been in this game if you weren’t trying to hit a home run on every play. You can’t coach to cover the spread anymore!” “I do not coach to cover the spread!” Fletcher said, glaring at his insubordinates. “Look,” the offensive coordinator chimed in, “you made Davis throw a fifty-yard bomb on third and inches when we were down by twenty four. It’s no
secret that we were thirty-point favorites tonight. You could do this back in the day, but we need to play to win from here on out. These other teams aren’t a bunch of lollipops anymore.” “It’s either that,” the defensive coordinator said, “or maybe just stop betting for a while, Jim. I mean, haven’t you made enough money? At this point,
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it’s just an addiction.” “What is this, a fucking intervention?” Fletcher said. “Do you guys even understand what I’m going through right now? I’ve been cutting my teeth on this shit since you two were goddamn embryos, but we lose one game in years and suddenly I have an addiction? No, we lost because you guys can’t adjust your playbooks on the fly when Palmdale shows off their version of Troyfucking-Aikman. To Hell with both of you for trying to throw me under the bus when you guys drive up to Vegas every month and do the exact same shit! You two know better than anyone that it’s not an addiction. If anything, it’s fuel. And I’ll never stop. So just mind your own fucking business!” There were no parties in town that weekend. Those only came with the wins, which we took for granted up to that point. The big wins were the sweetest. We were used to blowing teams out, and so was Coach. And, unlike Barstow’s previous coaches, he didn’t shrug off the losses. The losses stung into the next season. And the next. Rival coaches hated him because he eventually made you pay if you got the best of him. Coach pushed us extra hard at
practice the next week—he always did after a loss. But this time was different. Now he made us pay. There was an air of desperation surrounding him. He snarled at us from the sideline even when we executed perfectly. There were no breaks. A couple of guys passed out. I was so worn out by Friday, I didn’t
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care anymore. No one did. And Lancaster High rolled us by three touchdowns in their house. Lancaster cheered us off the field. “Maybe I should start the junior varsity team!” Coach yelled after the game. Everyone stared at the floor, tearing gasps of breath from the heavy, stale air of the locker room. “What’s it gonna take?” Coach said. “Who’s gonna step up?” His rhetoric was uninspiring and cliché. We didn’t want to tune him out, but we just couldn’t see the legend in that barking dog. There was a growing sentiment amongst the team that the losses to Palmdale and Lancaster were a long time coming. The other teams hated us, and it showed. They used to joke with us and talk smack during games, but all of that was gone. Now our opponents were focused and calculated. The Palmdale players wouldn’t even shake our hands after crushing us. And it was clear that other teams were scouting us. Lancaster knew what plays we were running before our center snapped the ball. Their defense crashed our line on every run play and knew exactly when to back off for passing plays. They even predicted when we’d call a flea flicker. Everyone was gunning for us that year.
The scouting allowed rival coaches to fluster Coach and then counter and exploit his rash, aggressive play-calling. And instead of keeping his cool and adjusting, Coach stubbornly stuck to what always worked in the past. “I still believe,” Davis said after the game against Lancaster.
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“Is that the booze talking?” I said. Davis and I drank Vodka in his room, unbeknownst to his parents. I didn’t really like it, but it was all we could barter from Davis’ older brother. “Naw, I just feel like it’s our fault. The guy’s a hero, and we’re his first losing team in years.” “We’re only 0-2,” I said. “Lot of season left. Plus, I was on the team last year, you weren’t—the play-calling has changed. Coach is different this year.” “I can tell,” Davis said. “I’ve been watching Coach forever. He always gets mad, sure, but you always knew he was in control. Now it’s like Coach gets desperate and chases the win instead of letting it come to him.” “Then you need to start running audibles,” I said. Davis’ eyes lit up with the notion of such insolence. “And lose my starting job? No, thank you.” “Not if it wins games. The next time Coach sets up a play that you know won’t work, switch to something else. If we win, he’ll have to love it. He’ll probably respect you for it too.” Davis looked away in thought for a moment, fixing his gaze upon a massive poster of Coach Fletcher taped across his wall. The image of Fletcher was humongous, dwarfing the paper likenesses of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on each side. It was taken from a picture of Coach in his younger days, screaming at an official over a blown call in the 1998 state championship game. Coach
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wore his trademark red and gold windbreaker with matching gym pants. That was Coach’s only outfit—even on trips to Vegas in December. “I don’t know, man,” Davis said.
“Let’s ask him ourselves,” I said, addressing Fletcher’s poster likeness. “What do you think, Coach? Should we opt out of your dumb plays?” Fletcher scowled back, enraged. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” The following Monday, I was sitting in my business prep class when the loudspeaker in our room beeped. “LaTroy Johnson, please report to Mr. Maxey’s office. LaTroy Johnson.”
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“LaTroy Johnson, please prepare your balls for busting,” Davis mimed, laughing behind me. “Shit,” I said. “What does Maxey Pad want? I didn’t do anything.” I made my way down the hall toward Maxey’s office at the front of the school. I saw James, our running back, leaving Maxey’s office and heading back to class, but he didn’t notice me. I knocked on Maxey’s door and entered. “LaTroy, thanks for coming. Have a seat.” “Okay,” I said. Maxey’s office was pristine compared to Fletcher’s. Everything was ordered and tidy with no personal touches of style at all. Coach’s desk was covered with playbooks, statistics, scouting information and bobbleheads. Maxey’s order seemed impersonal and cold. I sat down across from him, attempting to seem as innocuous as possible. Maxey sat motionless, staring at me. I looked away. “First off, congratulations on your scholarship,” Maxey said. “USC is an impressive school.” “Thanks,” I said. “Any idea what degree you’ll be working toward?” “Uh, no sir. I figure I’ll head to the pros after a few years.” Maxey frowned. “Yes, well, your teachers say you’ve mentioned law school.”
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“You talked to my teachers?” I said. “Of course. I want to get to know all my students, especially the most talented ones. According to your teachers, you’re more than just an athlete. Athletics are great, of course. I just want you to know that you have options outside of football.” “Okay,” I said. There was an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. “Listen,” Maxey said after a beat, “I want to talk to you about Coach Fletcher.” “About Coach?” “Yes. You’ve been on the team for a while. I just want some perspective: does Coach Fletcher seem—I don’t know—different to you?” I froze. I realized that Maxey didn’t care about me at all. It was all part of his probe, and I owed my scholarship to Coach Fletcher. I thought carefully about how to answer. “Uh, well, naw. Coach is Coach, you know. He wants to win.” Maxey looked away and rolled his eyes, displeased by my vagueness. “Yes, well, the general consensus amongst your teammates is that there’s been an obvious change in Coach Fletcher’s demeanor and attitude toward the team. I’m talking to the whole team because I want all of you to know that I will personally make sure you guys are safe and being watched carefully. And I want you to talk to me personally if you ever feel verbally abused or exploited.”
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He emphasized “exploited.” It was the first time I had even thought about it. Up to that point, it was just how Coach and the team always operated. It was then I realized that Coach was in trouble. “Sure, thanks for looking out,” I lied. “Better get back to class.” I rose from my seat. “LaTroy,” Maxey said, “just remember, you guys don’t have anything to worry about. I’ll be watching.” Maxey gave a knowing grin. I should’ve warned Coach, but looking back, I don’t think it would’ve done any good. The third week of practice was great. Coach tried to threaten us by giving extra reps to our backups. He said he was weeding out the riff raff. But he was inadvertently giving us some much needed rest. The starters received extensive breaks and none of the backups looked good enough to usurp any of our positions. After practice, Davis stayed and worked on a few audibles with the offense. No one told Coach. The game on Friday against San Bernardino High was the toughest yet. San Bernardino was notorious for running the ball down the throats of their oppo-
nents. We knew we were in for a physical dogfight. We were favored by ten points, and we lead by nine with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. San Bernardino was out of timeouts, and we had the ball at midfield. All Davis had to do was kneel the ball and the game was over. Coach dialed up a deep passing play.
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“Are you serious?” Davis said to Coach on the sidelines. “Yes, I’m serious!” Coach said. “Get your ass out there!” Davis mumbled an inaudible expletive and jogged out to meet the rest of the offense. He crouched under center, looked back at Fletcher, smirked and knelt the ball. Our fans roared in celebration of their first win of the season.
“Shit!” Coach screamed. I had never been so scared of Coach Fletcher than after that win. He glared daggers at Davis from the sidelines, menacing him all the way into the locker room. Davis smiled and waved to the crowd, avoiding eye contact with Coach before reluctantly jogging into the locker room as well. The whole team congratulated Davis, tapping him on the helmet and ass. Coach waited for the celebration to die down before erupting. “Are you trying to fucking kill me?” Coach screamed. “Do you want to coach the team, Davis? Do you?” “But Coach, we won,” Davis said, fumbling his words, attempting to make sense of Fletcher’s rage. “Did we?” Coach said. “Because last I checked, we dropped our first two games to nobodies! Then we only win our first game by single digits! Do you really think that’s going to convince anyone that we’re a championship caliber team?”
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“Uh, I…” “The answer is fucking ‘no’, Davis! The next time I tell you to run up the score, you run up the damn score! Actually, don’t worry about it. You’re not the starter anymore!” A collective gasp billowed throughout the locker room. Everyone stared at Fletcher in disbelief. Davis was reduced to tears. It was too far. “Coach,” I said, “he won us the game. You can’t bench him because we didn’t cover your stupid spread.” “I agree,” said Mr. Maxey. He had followed us in and heard the whole thing. “Benching a kid because of your degenerate gambling? You’re fired, Fletcher. You’re no longer welcome at this facility or this school. Leave or I’ll have you removed by the police!” To say Coach Fletcher had to be removed is an understatement. The earth stopped rotating for a moment in order to behold Fletcher’s apoplectic fury. His head swiveled toward Maxey in slow motion. Fletcher lowered his head like a bull and gnashed his teeth. He pounced on Maxey in an instant, punching him in
the nose and stomach. Maxey lunged into Coach’s abdomen, and they both tumbled onto the cold, concrete floor. Coach’s fists whirled into Maxey’s body, but Maxey displayed his military prowess and youthful advantage by absorbing the blows and forcing Fletcher into a chokehold on the ground. A few linemen separated them long enough for the police to intervene. When they tried handcuffing
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Fletcher, he cried out and grabbed his stomach. Then he lost consciousness. Coach Fletcher was fired and banned from all of our games. He couldn’t even spectate, but only because he would spend the rest of his short life in a hospital bed. Maxey dropped all charges when it was revealed that Coach Fletcher had been battling stomach cancer for the past year. Coach learned about his diagnosis immediately after the 2004 championship game and hid it from everyone except his wife and kids. His first treatments came immediately after diagnosis and were deemed successful. Fletcher then decided to finally take a college coaching position in order to pay for his treatment, but by that time, the well was dry. One by one, schools shot him down. Their reasons varied, but the general consensus was that Coach’s name had cooled. It was bull-
shit. The truth was that no one wanted to hire a dying coach (Coach couldn’t exactly hide his sickly appearance during interviews). Despite Coach’s gradual, healthy gain in weight during the off-season, his remission failed. The tumors in Coach’s stomach returned at the beginning of the 2005 season. Apparently Fletcher gambled away most of his fortune over the years before his diagnosis, and he refused to borrow money. Coach’s pride had never been forced to take a backseat because he always bet on himself and won. So he sold all of his remaining financial assets in Barstow and decided to gamble big on the team every week in 2005. Barstow was ambivalent, unsure whether to mourn or tear down Fletcher’s statue à la Stalin or Saddam Hussein or Joe
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Paterno. Some parents were outraged that Coach had been exploiting and profiting off the kids and the team for decades, regardless of his medical issues. But most everyone was sympathetic, myself included. I didn’t feel exploited—none of us did. It was time for Barstow to return the favor. The team campaigned for Coach’s reinstatement. We helped raise money by having car washes and bake sales. We also tried drumming up goodwill and donations through local advertising. When that failed, we threatened to forfeit the rest of our season if something wasn’t done. The school board backed down and changed Coach’s dismissal to a suspension so he could retain health coverage through the school. And many of Barstow’s elite—whose businesses thrived thanks in part to Fletcher and the team—pooled their money and created a charity that was so successful, it paid for all medical costs not covered by insurance. Davis and I visited Coach a few times in the hospital throughout the season. His weight had plummeted. Coach was bald from head to toe from the newest rounds of chemo. I remember seeing him, completely shocked that I hadn’t noticed the hair loss before. But Coach was slick. He wore hats and sunglasses and long sleeves (even during summer training camp) after his first treatments. And he was always clean shaven. “LaTroy, Davis—good to see you,” Coach said during our final visit, struggling to shift his head toward us. He looked awful. His mouth was covered in
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sores, his hands and ankles were completely swollen and he must’ve been down to ninety pounds. The hospital bed practically swallowed him. “I’ve been watching you guys play on the local TV replays. I’m so proud of both of you—and the team.” “Thanks, Coach,” Davis said. “When you gonna get out of here and get back on the field, Coach?” I said. “Soon, son. Soon,” he said. “It’s weird not being out there with ya’ll. That last game was a barnburner. Who taught you to run the option like that, Davis? You were amazing.” “You did, Coach,” Davis said. “I’ve been studying your old game tapes. Here, I brought you the game ball—got the whole team to sign it. We know you can beat this thing.” Coach’s face melted. A rogue tear escaped his eye, then quickly fled from view. Coach summoned what little strength he still possessed, lifted his arm and accepted Davis’ gift. He rotated the ball in his hands, examining every signature, every personal message. A moment later, the familiar stern, obstinate glower re-
turned. Coach squared his jaw, lowered his brow, and glared out the hospital window—his face chiseled from stone once again. “Don’t you boys worry,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of things come my way that intended to do me harm, threatened to take me down. I’ve wrecked them all. This will be no different. I won’t let cancer kill me. I won’t. I’ll fight these cunts
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in my belly until they beg to be cut out! And if they come back, I’ll fuck ’em again! They’ll rue the day they fucked with Jim Fletcher. Mark my words— cancer can’t kill me. Fuck cancer!” The team carried on and made it to the playoffs that year. We learned of Coach’s death after we won our first playoff game. In the end, cancer couldn’t kill Coach. It was the chemo. The air went out. No one spoke. Barstow swooned outside the locker room. We all sat, staring at the floor in silence, listening to the roar of the fans outside. All they could see through their prism of fandom was that they were winners once again. Davis stood. “I’m not going to dedicate this win to Coach,” Davis said, doing his best to keep composure, “because one playoff win isn’t good enough. He meant too
much to this team and this city to be given one dedication. No, we’ll honor him the only way we’ve been taught, the only way we know. By being brutal. By being ruthless. By beating the ever-living shit out of everyone in our way until we take another championship. I’ll never fucking quit! Because would Coach be satisfied by one playoff win?” “No!” we screamed. “What would he say then?” “Never fucking stop!”
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Rules of the Altar Nasim Mansuri
(He was sick.) /I suppose there is peace to be found
in the morning orange juice, and the sandwiches I owe you/ The morning begins with white sunlight pushing through the thin curtains beside the bed, and her eyes strain to adjust, her mind oddly lucid despite the early hour. It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday, and his hand is curved slightly against the
skin of her bare thigh where her nightgown has ridden up and bunched around her hips. She can feel his chest rising and falling behind her, and she tenses slightly against the softness of the pillow at her cheek–powder blue: the set his mother gifted them on their wedding day (it’s no mistake she picked them)–, focusing on the bright yellow display of the clock on the bedside table. The num-
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bers are flashing colors that penetrate her brain and remain there even as she scans the dimly lit room. There is something irreverent about leaving bed like this, when her legs are warm against his skin beneath the blue cotton sheets, and the quiet neighborhood carries on outside without so much as a whisper and the occasional birdsong. But the room is still and her eyes are wide open and the numbers on the clock spell out seven-zero-zero and if one of them changes she feels as if her heart might seize up and she will never, ever, ever leave, noâ&#x20AC;&#x201C; His hand slides off her leg as she moves, and there is no sleep to rub from her eyes as she stops at the edge of the mattress. The golden band on his finger has left an imprint on her skin, and she can clearly make out the lines where the
blood has evacuated and left a pale, white shape on her thigh. She draws a finger over it lightly, and turns to look at him. Her husband is tall, stretched out in the bed, his chest partially covered by the sheets. The stubble on his jaw is roughness against smooth skin, his eyelids blocking the enigmatic dark eyes that embraced her so completely over the last many, many years. She had only told him once how much she loved his eyes, and she had never explained in detailâ&#x20AC;Ś how the light could change their color and sometimes, when he sat by the window and looked up as she stood above him, she could see the blue, blue sky reflected in them like an endless ocean, refreshing, embracing,
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eternal. (She shuddered.) (It was better that he slept. He was sick.) Quietly, she stands up and leaves him alone in the bed. And in the dim morning light, filtered through the curtains, he is a painting of light watercolor–a man
in a sea of blue. The hallway is cool, but it is summer and the chill is a relief from the overwhelming sunlight that lurks outside. She relishes in stepping into the sunlit patches on the floor, where the sun invades through the square holes of the windows. The furniture is a background haze of azure and cobalt, blended seamlessly behind the floating particles of dust that seem to ignite in the rays of light. She makes her way through the house, and the living room melds into the palelooking kitchen. A dog barks in the distance–the violets on the porch, barely visible through a gap in the grey curtains, tremble slightly. (It was the sort of house one would start a family in, he had said in his most objective tone when they had first found it, and the way he had smiled had made
her smile.) (He was right. In the back yard there was a rose bush with large roses of vibrant, violent yellow.) /If you say to me “I love you” it will be to me a breeze
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and you–and I–and we–will swallow down the reeking emptiness of Something/ The cold air of the fridge collides with her skin and she ignores the sensation, removing the ingredients she already knows by heart in the order she has learned over the years–the order she recited to herself the night before, the order that makes her find peace in the soft slide of the knife against the banana’s flesh, the aesthetic satisfaction found in the evenly sliced cuts. (He liked sandwiches with Nutella and slices of banana; four slices, evenly spaced out. One spoonful of Nutella on either slice of bread, evenly spread. White bread. The bananas were bright yellow against darkness.) (It had been a week since she had known that there was no cure to his disease.) She dips the spoon into the dark depths of the jar and methodically coats the emptiness of the bread with the sickly brown paste. She sets the small circles in between the bread. They disappear into it. Oranges are piled over each other on the counter, large and round and healthy; he bought them the day before while she was at work. They are meant for orange juice. They are meant for her to make juice for breakfast. They are lovely. (She revealed the bright, splintered interior of the fruit as she sliced it open, like a million vulnerable rocks of amber–breakable, broken, their beauty exposed.)
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(In one swift movement, her fingers constricted them, and juice dripped down her hands into the glass. He didn’t like sugar. The sunlight filtered through the falling drops and looked yellow against the counter. She pressed harder and the rind became an empty shell.) The discarded fruits’ skin is piled at her elbow as she unrelentingly cuts through the third fruit. Her hand slips and the knife slides into her fourth finger, the sharp blade finding human skin and swiftly invading. Orange is the product of red and yellow. She squeezes the juice out and watches the red flow into the glass along with the orange fluid, mixing, dissolving and finally disappearing. Lines of red stick to the creases in her skin. Her muscles have tensed up and the pain bites like
poison, but it only pierces the surface. She lets it hurt. It is, in some strange, distant cell in her brain, a piece of art– bursting, fiery pain against the frigid blue. (There had been signs, of course; symptoms that she only recognized once it was too late.)
When he smiled, his pupils would dilate ever so slightly, and she could see explosions of fire fusing with the grey and injecting amber intensity into his gaze. He would laugh into her hair, and if she looked up, she would see the fire projected against the night sky–his mouth would whisper the same truths, but not with the same eloquence.
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She throws the rinds into the trash. They fall to the bottom with a hollow sound. (The sickness had invaded his veins with slow yellow needles that wove themselves into his clothing, his skin, his breath, his heart. She came to notice them only after they had already brushed against her, only after he already lay sleeping in their bed and she lay sleepless beside him. It had reached his lungs and made him breathe differently; clutched at his brain and made him say words he didn’t mean–untruths, lies. He had lied.) (He was sick.) The juice is served in a crystal glass and the sandwich placed on a plate with a napkin beneath it, set perfectly as a diamond in a ceramic circle. Rather like
her engagement ring, she muses; the stone glints, smeared slightly with red. The red feels strange inside the blue house. She leaves the food on the bedside table, just a few inches from the edge, positioned almost artistically. The sunlight throws a golden shadow on the ocean of sheets around him. She makes her way to the bathroom.
The mirror reflects a thin creature with wide eyes bruised from multiple sleepless nights; yet she feels perfectly fine. It accentuates every dark shadow and every pore, her flaws blatant and undeniable… that small blemish on her shoulder he used to kiss, that previously unnoticed mark on her chin. If she turns, the scars on the nape of her neck where she has scratched her skin raw
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will scream out and she will lose herself again. /and I will kiss you like your back is made of feathers and maybe you’ll soar, through my lungs enabled/ Biting down hard on her lip and closing her eyes, she focuses on the silence surrounding her, fighting down the nausea that builds in her stomach and the shaking that shatters through her fingertips. It isn’t real: not anymore. The last time she vomited was three days ago, and then she dismissed it with annoyance, not knowing that she would miss it every second from that morning onwards, once she realized what the loss truly implied. She presses her hands to her stomach and feels the hollowness beneath her ribcage, the soft slide of the smooth fabric against her skin, the weak flesh where her pulse trembles and contracts in the newfound emptiness. The acid that is building at the back of her throat is fake, false; just another symptom of the sickness that has started to seep from his bones into hers. (When she thought about it now, it was clear that the signs had been present for over a year: the strange hours he kept, the unwillingness to express his feel-
ings or to say where he had gone and with whom. She had learned to dismiss the nagging doubts that bit at the back of her mind, the voice that whispered something’s not right, something’s not right, dismissing herself as paranoid, because this was her husband, she should feel guilty for doubting, for feeling so uncomfortable when he looked at her and when she could feel that coldness gripping
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him from within…) He was injected with yellow needles that started to show in his eyes, sickly, angry colors that twisted his face, that rendered him blind to the effort she had put into work and into their home–the cooking, the cleaning, her own systematic dismissal of the truth–; the yellow lines had invaded him through drinks and through skin, while she had kept herself on her toes, doubled over with exhaustion in an effort to stop herself from looking, from questioning, shaking uncontrollably as she berated herself for not being there, for not being more, for not being enough. She shakily runs her fingers lightly against the scratches on the nape of her neck, the small particles of coagulated blood rough and invasive, and then pulls
her hair down from the unruly bun. It falls in a tangled cascade that catches in her splintered fingernails and torn cuticles, and she brushes it and puts it back up; it’s somewhat reminiscent of the style she had it in on their wedding day. She finishes, lining her lips with deep red. She feels empty.
(The pregnancy test had been a hunch, and a hunch that hadn’t been entirely hers. A coworker had made a joking remark as she retreated to the toilet for the second time on the second day in a row, and she had checked, if only to be sure she was wrong.) (The night before, he had slammed the door in her face and in a fit of anger,
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smashed an entire set of teacups onto the floor. She had spent hours painstakingly removing the shards of blue porcelain from the white carpet, crying silently, screaming silently, leaving the first few scratches on her neck that she came to regret later when he took her tenderly in his arms and kissed her, when he told her he loved her, when she smelled the toxic perfume of his sickness on his skin and was too afraid to believe it, because she knew it was not her perfume, because she knew it was too late for him to be coming back from work, because some part of her knew that he had been deflecting, that he was distracting her with petty arguments, that he was lying.) (Because she had known, in her heart. She had always known.) (He was sick.) The way the light hits her body makes her unhealthiness look strong, her collarbone jutting out with a fierceness she doesn’t remember seeing in a long time. Her jaw is set and her eyes look wider; perhaps because her eyelids have spent the night swollen from tears spilled on the sheets while he wasn’t looking. Not that he ever looks. Not that he has looked for years.
She steps back into the bedroom and stands still in the doorway, and his body is perfectly lined under the thin sheet that covers him. The orange juice, invisibly laced with blood, sits nonchalant beside the untouched sandwich. /I suppose there’s still something to be said about our rose scented-candles/
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The closet is on the opposite side of the room, its doors large. Her hands arenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t shaking anymore. The room is peaceful and deadly quiet, making her footsteps feel impossibly loud on the soft carpet as she approaches the smooth wood and takes hold of its handles. She pulls the doors open and the neatly ordered garments sit pressed and folded inside, just as her mother taught her to do when she was a young girl; now, their order would rival a professionalâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s work. She has arranged them by color and by type. She has only been doing so for the last few months, telling herself that maybe the stress work put on his shoulders could be somewhat mitigated if only his clothes were neatly ordered when he got up in the mornings. (But it all reeked of his sickness.) (The smell had gotten everywhere, sickly and venomous. It needed to be eliminated. Perhaps she had known where it came from for a long time, though she had spent long months wondering why she could not approach him without feeling like he was a stranger, why she was telling herself that there must be something wrong with her, that her senses must be impaired, that he was justified in his confusion when he questioned her, that she was responsible for the strangeness between them, for her discomfort when he touched her, for her restlessness when she went to sleep and dreamt of large trees running their branches through his hair and piercing his heart with brilliant splashes of yellow leaves.) (It was simple, really: eliminate contaminated objects.)
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She pulls out shirt after shirt, watching them tumble out of their careful folds, reduced to limp scraps of cloth drenched in his disease. She knows which ones they are. They fall in a crumpled heap on the carpet, tangling about her ankles, and she lets them. Some of her own clothes are laden with the contagion as well–they have touched him, they have lingered: there’s that red dress she wore to dinner that one time, when a woman’s remark had made her uncomfortable and he had merely laughed. There’s that black skirt she wore on her birthday only a few months ago, a birthday he had entirely forgotten. There’s that hat she wore to the beach some weeks back, when she had asked who was on the phone and he had lied, lied, lied to her face in a way that had made her know it was a lie, but she hadn’t questioned, had told herself it was nothing, had been
too afraid to know the truth. There’s that pink dress she wore that day in an attempt to remind him that she was beautiful, as if she had known. As if it was somehow her fault. (Because it was–no…no. No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t her fault.) The clothes fall to the floor until she might sit upon them if she wants: a vast,
sprawling mattress of its own, filthy and heavy with the weight of his sins. (There were the sheets that were on the bed that day she came back from work early, because she was pregnant, and what are we going to do, and she had stumbled into the house more quietly than she had intended and vomited in the bathroom, and run only to find the smell of his disease everywhere, the yel-
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low lines on his clothes, on their bed, on his chest, and there was his arm which had been hers and it was around someone who was not her, and there was that scar on the side of his neck which she had bookmarked, which had her name on it, but it was not hers, no, not anymore, not hers, not hers, and he was sick. He had been sick for so long and she had not noticed.) (He didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t see her. She retreated from the house and locked herself into a bathroom in a gas station and there was the purse she had used that day, too, the one she had put the pregnancy test into, the one she had clutched as her body was wrecked with spasms and she began to feel the agonizing and very real, very alarming pain â&#x20AC;Ś) She stacks the things around the bed like a fortress: clothes, sheets, shoes,
purses, even his toothbrush. They have all touched him, they have all been touched by him. It is all contaminated. Her skin is buzzing with the thrill of seeing it all out, exposed, as he lies in his painting of blue watercolor, coated in sheets, eyes shut to the world in the bliss of ignorance that she has injected him with just as he did with her. He is beautiful, and she loves him. But he is hers, and she is his, and this is how it works. A mere sickness will not separate them. (She hitched up her nightgown and crawled up beside him, and the large plastic container, gasoline swirling in its interior, was already in her hands. She balanced it between her knees and moved to retrieve the lighter that sat near the glass of orange juice. She wanted him to drink it; he should drink it.)
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(But no, he was asleep, a well-calculated dose of white sleeping pills rushing through his system with almost as much vehemence as the yellow needles she had come to recognize and despise. If his words were artificial, then his sleep would be artificialâ&#x20AC;&#x201C;and she would show him just how artificial her love was not.) (She could not cure him, otherwise.) He is smooth skin and a sleepy, lazy smile, traitorous lips, and beautiful eyes that hide behind closed eyelids, and hair of a texture she has memorized, and she loves him. (The liquid splashed against the interior of the container and she relished in the violent stench of the burning yellow liquid, its fumes hitting her nose and drawing a brutal pathway up to her brain, clearing and purifying her from the smell of his sickness, from that perfume, from that perfume that was not hers. There was a lot of gasoline: almost as much as the blood she had lost that day in the gas station bathroom when his betrayal had stolen from her the only chance to ever have someone to love more than she loved him, almost as much as the tears she had cried every day since. The liquid coated his body and came to rest in her every pore, and she spent the rest of it in swirls around their bodies, her hands on his chest as she moved a steady finger to the lighter and watched the flame rise. ) (The bed lit up like an altar.)
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/and maybe Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll keep all of your letters and blame all the shame on me, and maybe I am just too weak to live in ashes/ Someday, she often thought, they would both travel to Heaven together. And she would kiss him, and when she drew away she would look into his eyes and see the bright white light of angels reflected off his own angelic ones. And that would be more than enough. She sits back on her ankles at the corner of the bed and watches as he sleeps. The sun has risen higher in the sky and the room is losing its blue tones; the light is too bright for the curtains to contain, and the colors become more real, lined with the white hot splendor of the approaching noon. Their possessions, piled up around them, draw a map of their time together. He is the center. Her hands are empty. There is a lighter in the drawer where the breakfast is; breakfast she hopes he will eat as soon as he awakens. She rubs the smear of blood off of the diamond on her finger and sighs. Slowly, she gets up and begins to fold all the clothes again. It is better that he sleeps. He is sick. /I suppose there is warmth to be found in the agony of fire./ END
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A Ticket to Anywhere Zoe Leeds
Just watching her, twitching and drooling, makes my blood run cold. Her eyes are limp and lifeless: impossible to read. Is she looking at or through me? Am I seeing flickers of emotion or just spasms?
Either way it’s eerie; unnatural. She is almost inhuman; her age impossible to guess. She is grey and mottled: stick thin. There is a person in there somewhere, beyond the drug induced deadening of soul. I have to at least try to believe that. She is me in the future, if I don’t leave here soon. I hear my own voice scream in my head. ‘I have to escape. I have to get out NOW’. I look for an exit but even the ones with fire escape signs above them are double barred; locked. I am relatively new on the ward. How I came to be here is a bit of a blur and how long ago is unknown. It is more than just hours and I am unsure whether we have gone beyond days into weeks. I doubt it is months. I dribble a bit but I am not wasted and floppy. I regularly stare without seeing but I am not institu-
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tionalised and ruined beyond help, not like the mottled one; at least not yet. There is a small mercy. The drugs I am forced to take means I feel next to nothing. I sleep around the clock. I occasionally remember pieces of my former life; the life in which I had been feigning ‘normal’. I had known it wasn’t normal to hide away and cry a lot and obsess about death. I had been flirting with Anorexia and bulimia for a couple of years. I was hovering on ill but not quite diagnosable. While many of my peers obsessed over boyfriends I was contemplating running away and slitting my wrists; there wasn’t much common ground. I was isolated; lonely. My peculiar eating and sleeping habits meant I eventually passed out on the shop floor, regaining consciousness, bleeding, from where my head had hit the lami-
nated concrete. I think that must have been the tipping point, the place of no return. I certainly lost my job that day. The fainting, I suspect, is how I came to be detained. That’s what got me to A&E, where they rolled up my sleeves and found the fresh scars. “What happened?” they’d asked. “The rabbit,” was all I could think of to say. “What’s it got then, shark’s teeth?” said one of the nurses (herself in long sleeves). All I could do was laugh, funny though it wasn’t. I am locked away; in an actual prison now. The walls were previously invisible
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but there is no mistaking them here. They are not just mental clutter, they are physical matter. They don’t call it a prison, they call it a hospital. The rocking, jerking, drooling woman I saw is me and my future too. The thought gives me chills. I am just twenty years old; I am too young to be incarcerated for the rest of my life. I think I would prefer actual death than to be here for forever. It amounts to serving consecutive life sentences; whose life did I take? ‘MINE! And MINE! And MINE again …Can I not claim it back now?’ The decision to find a new path should be mine to take but they don’t share that view. I start pretending to swallow their pills but I won’t ingest their magicmedicinal powder. I empty the contents of the capsule into a pocket or sleeve or tissue or I stand by the bin and I empty them there. I swallow just the coating. They check my mouth but I raise no suspicion. I am learning my own kind of magic. I could become a magician; the loony bin is training me well. Rosie runs away first. She is quickly retrieved. The doors are re-locked. The smokers are cross, they are not allowed out. Some of them are underage but they are mental patients, smoking is acceptable behaviour (it’s screaming or shouting or showing any emotion that isn’t). Rosie and I are friends of sorts. We sometimes whisper in corners, at which point the shrink accuses us of having a suicide pact and threatens to permanently separate us. Until that moment we had no such pact …
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“But thanks Doc. That isn’t such a bad idea, given how miserable we both of us are. Any suggestions?” My back chat is “manipulative” and “schizophrenic”, even though I have no formal diagnosis. I think to myself, to his face, “It isn’t my fault you’re stupid, you know” but I probably say it aloud. I wake up eight hours later with an injection sore and no memory of what happened. They must have pinned me down and knocked me out (meaning a jab, not a fist …) and get their truth serum injected into me. I don’t know what I say under the influence but I am uncoordinated and groggy and my escape will not be tonight.
I bide my time. I wait. I wear a minimum of two layers of clothes at all times. Given I am on hunger strike and am always cold, wearing extra clothes is no hardship. There is a new absconder on the ward. One night he spies his chance and runs. Rosie is a split second behind him. He sprints left; she exits right. This is it. I
bolt straight ahead, before staff can lock doors. It is dark and I am charged with what I can only assume is adrenaline. I can hear staff flapping about behind me but I know I can outrun them. I already have. I run as though my life depends on it and when I am just beyond the grounds I dive into the marshy hedges and I stay there, statue still in wet mud, until staff have moved on elsewhere. I hard-
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ly dare to breathe, although my heart thumps in my throat. I hope they can’t hear it like I can. How long I remain there is unknown. I have no concept of time. I was removed from society and have been held in a capsule for however long. I have been off the planet; drugged to an otherworldly state of existence. I feel like something in a shell or an egg; an astronaut or an insect. The sky was dark when I left the ward and the sky is still dark now. I suddenly notice I am covered in mud and must shed my top layer. I do this and I bury the sodden bundle deep in those bushes. I scurry away. I don’t even know what day or month it is. I just know, in this moment of now, that I am cold but I am free. Where I am going is unknown. I don’t even know where I am. When it is tomor-
row and light, I will have to find out. Right now the streets are quiet and eerie. I am aimless but I don’t dare to stop. I have broken out of my shell but I still wear a shield. It is called insanity and it is guaranteed to keep most predators away. I have tools; I can shriek or rock or glaze my eyes if I must. The loony bin had taught me all of these things and it has taught me them well.
When light grows into morning and the world wakes up my bubble bursts. I am not exhilarated. I am exhausted and my feet ache. I don’t know where I’m going and I am cold to the core. The chill is biting my face, freezing my cheeks. I don’t know what the season or temperature is but I am not used to the outdoors
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and I have no body fat for warmth. The waking up world around me is initially too sleepy to notice me space travelling but when they fast forward a bit, I start getting some sideways looks. I flop onto a park bench and a tramp sits down next to me. I know he’s a tramp because he’s hairy and he smells. “I’ve been watching you” he slurs. “You’ve walked through this park four times this morning. You homeless?” I don’t know yet; it hadn’t occurred to me until he said it that I might be. “Maybe,” I say. He eyes me suspiciously. “You either are or you aren’t” “I’ve run away” “From what?” “Hospital” “Where?”
I shrug. He looks worried. “What were you in hospital for?” “Fainting”
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He looks at me, unsure. “Psychiatry. I ran away from the nut house” “Ah.” His concern dissipates and he rolls a cigarette then, as an after-thought, waves it at me. “Want one?” “I don’t smoke”
“Good thing too.” He puts it in his mouth and lights it. He inhales deeply and as he exhales his relief is tangible; it almost makes me wish I did smoke. He catches me staring and his eyes cheekily gleam. “Are you hungry?” he says. “No.” I laugh, despite myself. Nothing about it is funny but I just can’t stop. “How about thirsty?” he says. I want to trust him but I’m not sure I dare. My hysterics subside but still I say nothing. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll buy you a coffee” It should be the other way around. I should be buying him one but I am tired, cold, aimless and too lost to argue. I also don’t have any money. I forgot; I’m a nutcase these days. The Nutcase and The Tramp, it sure isn’t Disney. I trundle alongside him, not really caring if he does turn out to be an axe murderer leading me to woodland to chop me up. The thought planting it’s seed, I am almost surprised when we exit the park onto a busy street. I become a lost puppy at his
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heel. He opens the door to a small café and ushers me in. I sit. Two steaming cups of coffee are brought over. I am exhausted; I can’t even muster up the energy to care whether the milk is skimmed or full fat. I have walked many miles and I need something hot; even the anorexic part of my brain agrees. I feel the bite of un-cried tears but the tramp seems prepared for this. “So tell me. Where do you plan to go? What do you plan to do next?” I can’t give him an answer. I don’t even know where I am. “Do you think you might go back?” he says. “What, to the hospital?” “Yes. Or family?” “No! They’d sedate me for the next hundred years. I might never see sunlight again.” As I say it aloud, I know it to be true. “So what will you do?” All I can do is look sheepish and shrug.
“I could find you a sleeping bag, if you want,” he continues. “Sleep with me and the rats, if you’ve really nowhere else to go?” In this the moment of now, that is my best option. I am no longer an astronaut or an insect or a nutcase. I am the puppy he has adopted and I am walking to heel. It is almost a yelp. “Yes!”
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The tramp is called Rupert. When I am a little more confident and comfortable with him I call him “The bear”. He calls me “pumpkin”; he thinks I’m too thin. Together we wander, from town to town. Neither of us wants to stay static. For me it’s because I’m supposed to be detained under a mental health section and the police are legally obliged to still be looking to return me. I don’t want them to find me, not until the section has expired and I am fully free. Rupert’s reasons aren’t so clear. I ask all the time but he always avoids saying. His survival skills are good. I am learning strength and stamina and a discipline beyond self-starvation. I am learning them from him. He’s level headed when sober but he’s a very mean drunk. Sometimes I do won-
der about Rosie and this causes an ache somewhere deep inside me but as far as my family goes, I consider myself orphaned from the time we all ignored the fact I was borderline emaciated and talked about the weather instead. I’m not their daughter, they just had my bones.
Days pass in a blur. On windy wet nights we huddle together but don’t sleep well all the same. We are in a café, counting our pennies. Rupert takes them all, for his tobacco. The café owner, who has perhaps seen us a lot these last few days and knows we are homeless, has been listening in.
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He has taken against Rupert but gives me a smile and brings me hot chocolate. “It’s on the house, petal” he tells me. He brings Rupert nothing. I find Rupert again later but the bear is not pleased to see me. He is resentful of me now; the puppy’s a liability. The last thing I see is his angry and shouting face in mine then everything goes white and weightless and I am falling through time and space, to a place of no pain. I am back to the shop floor.
When I wake up I am in a hospital bed with an IV drip, a swollen face and bruised ribs. Rupert has disappeared and I know THEY will soon come for me. I can’t go back, this much I do know. I am recaptured but the journey isn’t over. I show no emotion; I am too shocked to feel anything at all. Rupert is gone; the bear won’t be back. It is just two weeks that I have been a traveller and free; my section is not null and void. I am plotting my escape. I have no belongings, just the knowing that I can survive. I will find and take my opportunity; I have done it before. There will be a moment hectic enough on the ward for me to disappear. This will follow a moment quiet enough to get a nurse to unhook me from my IV. I have even pickpocketed a visitor in advance of my plan. It is my train fare to somewhere to start over and start over I will. I wait. I watch. I blend and I blur. I am invisible now so that I can escape, unseen.
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An Infamous Ending Falconhead
Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Ernest Hemingway used a gun. Sylvia Plath used a gas oven. I am thinking about death now because the anti-anxiety pills have yet to take effect. I will begin to feel them within an hour, but I am aware that any number of horrors can happen within the length and breadth of one hour. I am in the room of â&#x20AC;&#x153;make-believe.â&#x20AC;? I call it so because it is the only place in the apartment where I can create, can make fiction believable. The room is no different than any other makeshift study where the author in residence can turn the workings of grey matter into some semi-tangible outcome. There are reams
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of paper stacked all around the desk at which I sit. Each ream is covered by a title page weighing down over each manuscript as though the words upon the pages threaten to wake, and rise like some undead being from below. All the reams teeter at the cliff of the desk, but keep from spilling over into what would look like some literary massacre by a sheer force of invisible cohesion. There are pens and inkwells and any manner of allusion to authorship also edging the cliff, which would, if one were to disturb the delicate balance that exists on the wooden terrain, all go toppling down with a result not unlike the reams of paper. The ink would run and seep into the carpet as though it were black, irretrievable blood. I picture the pens gathering on the carpet like the ribs of a carcass, and the vessel in which they presently stand falling and, upon hitting the floor, making a pirouette on one of its edges until it lost its footing then rolls to a stop somewhere in the shadow of the desk. Near the inkwell, there stands a young barn owl the length of my arm from my elbow to my wrist. He is still. He retains the hue of the surroundings from whence it cameâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;the hay, the leaves, the mice, which, I imagine, hung from that very beak that points down at me seemingly in vexation. He watches meâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;his eyes habitually aglow, as though it was I who did him the disservice of removing him from his natural habitat, as though it were I who rendered it inert and poised it in such an exhausting position. Yes, it is all around him, death, and the hour has no more than a quarter expired since I have taken the pills.
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Thomas Chatterton drank arsenic in water. Peg Entwistle jumped off the Hollywood sign. Jeanne Hébuterne leapt from a window, killing her and Modigliani’s unborn child.
Benzodiazepines are drugs. They are the most commonly prescribed and used anti-anxiety drugs on the market. They paralyze one’s nervous system. Their side effects are manifold. There is lethargy verging on inertness, disorientation, sexual dysfunction and slurred speech. Some users may experience impulsivity, or even violent tendencies. Over time, one’s neurological system can be thrown into a kind of misalignment that causes one’s limbs to involuntarily convulse with what’s called tardive dyskinesia. With dyskinesia, the user might go about repeatedly waving off an invisible fly even after one has ceased in taking the drug. But the drug is quick. In a state of inquietude, of non compos mentis, or in an irrational state of panic that leads one to think that this may be
one’s last day mortales vivere, the drug is superlative, and lasts for up to 10 hours, depending on the dosage. On the down side, once the drug has entered into one’s blood stream, and that blood has passed into the organ controlling the thought processes, one’s thoughts are stunned, rendered ineffectual, and made to inhabit some exhausting though useless pose amid the room in your head where
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all one’s anxieties teeter on the mass that is your brain.
“They are not as bad as all that,” says my drug dealer as he ushers me over the threshold outside his door.
“These pills are deadly,” I say in a kind of resigned protest as I wedge my foot between the door my dealer is trying to close and the wall. “They won’t kill you,” he responds, in way that sounds as though he has said this time out of mind before, “in fact, they give you back your life.”
I argue that they do, in fact, extinguish you—where it counts. I say they render me zombie-like, and kill my inability to create. I say something about being kept teetering on the cliff of paralysis and sums up my argument by using a metaphor involving a stuffed animal. But my dealer simply continues to smile as he hands me the prescriptions, one for anti-depressants and another for the “Benzos,” then asks me to refrain from calling him his drug-dealer.
Mark Rothko slashed his wrists, and, thinking it wasn’t enough, took an overdose of anti-depressants.
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After I leave his office, I go straight to the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions. The clerk says they will be ready in fifteen minutes, so I wait. I sit on the hard, cold plastic seat and think about drugs. I think about how hypocritical society is in the way it condemns street drugs but condones, even promotes psycho -pharmaceuticals. I cannot help itâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;I am in a store where drugs are sold legally. I stand up. I am on the cusp of running out of the pharmacy. I make to go but then something has stopped me. Instead I find myself roaming the isles counting dozens of over-the-counter medications. There are cough and cold medicines. There are sleeping aids. There are pain relievers. Each one designed to kill some part of youâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;your cough, your consciousness; your pain. I spill over into the cleaning agents and find another chain of agents specifically designed to kill somethingâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;germs. I peer further and find aerosols designed to kill household odors, allergens and insects. Further on, I follow the sign that reads Beauty Supply and find any number of potions designated to kill ugliness. An arm from across the pharmacy cash register waves me over. As I am paying the drugpusher behind the counter, I turn to my right and notice a row of boxes filled with pills meant to kill the unborn fetus just days after it was conceived. Just be-
fore I exit the pharmacy, I think of the entirety of drugs that lay behind me and how readily available they are to render the human animal into its own stiff version of the owl perched before me now. Yes, even in the most innocuous of places, in the facilities meant to stave off death, death has set up his own taxidermy lab.
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Queen Cleopatra induced an asp to bite her. Socrates drank hemlock. Seneca was ordered to pluck out a vein, but having no success, took poison.
I am still at my writing desk, still in the room of “make-believe.” It has been approximately twenty minutes since I’ve taken the pills, but they’ve yet to throw any measurable cerement over the acute awareness that death awaits man in every crevice of his mortal life. I am unutterably mindful of the oval clock that ticks on the far wall to my left. It gives the sound of a tisk rather than a tick, I notice, as though to say I am wasting its time more than my own. I am hyper-aware that I have written nothing this morning, and have the monstrosity of time spread before me until my lover returns home from work, enters the room of “makebelieve” and asks me, with a kiss, how my article on famous suicides is shaping up. He will say, “I hate to disturb you, but I wanted to make sure you’ve eaten
today.” “Too late—” I will say, “I’m already disturbed.” He will laugh that innocent but nervous laugh of his that says he is never quite sure how to take the jokes about my see-sawing mental equilibrium.
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Anna Karenina flung herself before a moving train. Ophelia took to the waters like a lily pad. Septimus Smith, fearing his incompetent psychiatrist, leapt from an open window.
Psychoanalysis is a form of scrying. It is the most frequently sought after treatment by those who seek self-awareness, solutions to innate or learned behavior deemed undesirable by any given society; and is meant to proffer a kind of emotional or mental solace. It is facilitated by a degreed psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or, at the least, a psychiatrist, who gives the patient less than an hour to unearth solutions or coping mechanisms for maladies such as depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, obsessiveness, emotional and mental disorders of which the list is too innumerable to name. The analyst will refer to a revered and weighty oracle entitled the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose and treat his patient. Thus, the opinions given tend to be educated conjectures that result in a prescription of more talk concerning the patientâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s past along with, in many cases, a side order of psycho-pharmaceutical drugs. Over time, the patient may become dependant on the opinion or, in some cases, the approval of his facilitator, and begin to neglect the connections in his personal life due to a false sense of relationship with his therapist, psychologist
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or psychiatrist. In the end, the patient is left deluded, not unlike one taken in by a roadside wizard, and left feeling unable to cope within the world outside the analyst’s office. Then, after years of inching toward what is referred to by headshrinkers as “progress,” the patient is left no wiser than before he began treatment, but, alas, with a great deal less money.
“Most intrusive thoughts can be controlled with a mere change of scenery,” exclaims Professor Marvel as he leads me, oh, so cordially, to his door. “Yes, a change of scenery ought to do the trick!” “A mere change in scenery?” I ask, as though the suggestion is too fathomless to conceive, as though to say that not even two kinds of mood affecting “tricks” seem to do the trick. “Yes,” Professor Marvel reiterates genuinely, “a change in scenery—going for a walk, sitting in the park, or calling up a friend to go and do something good for yourself!” But before he can close the door on me, I hold it with my foot so as to give some weary protest at the simplicity of his prescription. I argue that no matter where I am the thoughts are always with me, that the fear of death has permeated every aspect of my waking, and sleeping life; and that his solution of “a change” of atmosphere is as bogus as an optical illusion that can be shattered as easily as stepping
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off a curb too close to the oncoming traffic, or hearing some violent crime being described on the evening news, or being left for too long a time on my own. Yes, anything can trigger a whole spool of invasive and reoccurring thoughts, and taking the dealer’s drugs simply amounts to a different kind of death. But the therapist is not listening. He has shut off. He hands me his card with the date and time of our next session then asks me to refrain from calling him Professor Marvel.
Dorothy Parker would have killed herself had she the presence of mind to do so before the fist of a heart attack gripped her first.
The presence of mind—it is both the harbinger of good work and the portal for the dragon that is intrusive thoughts, I realize as I check the time, calculate the hours before my lover will be home, then take up pen and paper to write. It has been approximately thirty minutes since I’ve taken the pills, and I think it is time to take up the gauntlet before me. I settle my elbows as comforta-
bly as possible upon the wings of the desk, but I cannot seem to feel them. I look at the clock again, and the tisking seems louder. I try to focus on the moments between the moments—the span of time between each tisk—and realize that the tisk is not so much louder as it is more admonishing. I look at the barn owl. He is still still. His eyes take a brushstroke of light from the lamp at my
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right and dances with it. I look at his beak—that pointed finger, and wonder how many lives it has taken in its young age. I wonder how many mice parts the taxidermist removed from its little snowy body in order to hollow it out. I look at the empty page before me as though it were a headstone yet un-chiseled into by the hand of the engraver, and I think of the epitaph that shall read upon my own.
Léon Bovine hanged himself from a tree. Van Gogh put a bullet through his chest and lived for over a day afterward. Diane Arbus took pills, and, thinking it wasn’t enough, slashed her wrists.
The page is still wordless. Staring into it, I watch it soften under my gaze. I blink. I cannot seem to keep my eyes from drifting off the edges of the page. I set my hand to write, but the limb holding the pen feels weightier. As though it is stuffed with something other than bone—with, perhaps, a whole slew of fruits, vegetables and animals I’ve ingested to sustain myself over my years. I wonder how many animals the mortician will have to remove from my body in order to hollow—but I stop myself. I look at the clock. It has been forty-five minutes since I’ve taken the pills, I believe. I cannot be sure. The second hand seems to stop for too long a period of time, and the space between the moments seems to be widening into a dark, but lovely chasm. I squint my eyes at the face of the clock because I think it will help me hear the tisking more clearly. “Tisk…
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tisk…tisk…” it says. It is no longer admonishing. It is comforting. I cannot keep my face from molding into a fleshy grin because of it. I look back at the page. My mind seems to follow my movements—seems to register each gesture just after it has been executed. It has softened—the page. It no longer looks like a headstone, but rather a pillow. A pillow made of the softest down. I think of this pillow’s innards and all the bird’s wings that the pillow-maker used to stuff this beautiful, inviting cradle, and I wonder if, in fact, it’s filled with poppies. I have to sleep. I have to lay my head—now as heavy but as empty as a glass bubble, down upon the pillow filled with poppies.
Even Auntie Em, also known as Clara Blandick, induced sleep before leaving the farm for some less familiar terrain.
In her suicide note, she described how she is “about to make the great adventure,” but who’s to say the opportunity for that great journey hadn’t already passed her by? Who is to argue that if she had gone with Dorothy to see the
Wizard, he wouldn’t have given her that false sense of adventure as a replacement for what lie genuinely within her all along, as he did with Dorothy and the others? Yes, perhaps it is a sense of fulfillment that sustains us, is what keeps us going until what really sustains us can be found. Perhaps the belief that one is helping others genuinely is what sustains my drug-dealer, my drug-pusher and
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Dr. Marvel. Perhaps a belief that one is being helped is what sustains their patients. For others it may be the drugs, and others it may be writing. Yes, I think, to sustain—it is what we seek until we find the place, the thing, or the person who distracts us from what we fear, from what dangers us, from ourselves. My head is still upon the page. My head is still on the page that is a pillow, and the thought of my lover enters it—the thought of he who will be home soon. Of he, who will unlock the front door, place his keys on the table near the entryway door then call out my name. Of he who will say, “Honey, its me,” just before he raps on the door of “make-believe” and enters. He will enter and see that I have placed my head on the desk. He will think it endearing and go to smooth his hand on my head. He will kiss it. He will kiss the back of the head
that I have laid upon the desk, and he will look to see what I have written, but there will be nothing.
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OUR CONTRIBUTORS Alex Poppe is a teacher and creative instigator. A former actor/business consultant, she has worked in Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, Northern Iraq, The West Bank, Germany, and The United States. These places and their people inspire her work. When she is not being thrown from the back of food aid trucks or dining with pistol packing Kurdish hit men, she writes. Sean Gorman is a hungry (figuratively), new writer. He holds a BA in English from the University of Georgia and lives in Athens, GA with his wife and two large, dumb dogs. NASIM MANSURI is a high school graduate from Paraguay, currently volunteering in Israel before university. She spends most of her free time writing poetry, working on novels, and blogging about her struggles getting words to do her bidding. Zoe Leeds had her first poem published, at age 14, in 'First Time' magazine. Since then she has not pursued writing as more than a hobby. A fitness fanatic who raised a child young, she is still looking to find her place in society When not slaying dragons, Falconhead uses dragon’s blood to write poetry, short stories and plays. His work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal, Antiphon, FictionWeek Literary Review, Naugatuck River Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Wilde Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Thick Jam, Poetica Magazine, Camas: The Nature of The West, Thin Air Magazine, Glitterwolf, Whistling Fire, Two Hawks Quarterly, Rock & Sling, Adanna Literary Journal, Deltona Howl, and Green Wind Press’s “Words Fly Away” Anthology, among others, and is forthcoming in several more publications. For his poem “Man-Made God or Poem In Which The Hypochondriac Gets His Way” Emerge Literary Journal awarded him “runner-up” in their 2014 poetry contest saying, “this poet’s line breaks are simply masterful, creating a rhythm and sense of immediacy in the reader that leaves you almost breathless…” You can follow Falconhead on Twitter here & here: https://twitter.com/Falconheadlikes https://twitter.com/FalconheadStage
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