By Catherine Arra
I meet her on the stairs between the deck and the backyard.
“I’m okay,” she says, pushing past me to hurl the dingy contents of a cleaning bucket from the edge of the last step.
“Are you finished with the floor?”
“No,” she blurts with the same teary quiver I had heard over the phone and that prompted me to go to her. “I need clean water,” she says. “I can’t get all the dirt up. Spots just stick there. Dirty, just filthy, my whole house. Everything.” Then her tears come.
“I’ll do it,” I say, reaching for the bucket, but she whips it away, snarling I think, and clutches it to her stomach.
“No, I want to. Let me do it. You didn’t have to come over. I’m all right, really.”
She climbs past me, pushes open the screen door and steps into the kitchen. I hear tap water running and smell ammonia. I wait until she resumes her work. I walk to the open door and sit on the threshold. She’s on her knees, crouched under the kitchen table, dipping a rag into a steaming bucket. I can see where she had interrupted her work to get fresh water. The floor is soiled, but far from filthy. I say nothing while she cries and wipes, cries and dips, cries and wrings.
I think about her husband, not my father, but the man for whom she left my father, probably asleep in the bedroom. His illness doesn’t allow him the mobility or awareness to know what she does when she isn’t tending him. All he knows is his fight and his reason for fighting. Her.
I say nothing until she pauses to drag the bucket to the next section of tile. Her crying yields to a concentration to task.
“Don’t you have a mop?” I ask.
“Yes, but it doesn’t come clean with a mop. Not when it’s this bad. And my windows haven’t been washed yet either. Here it is June, and the windows are awful.”
“I’ll do your windows Saturday.”
“No. You have your own house to worry about.”
“I don’t worry about my house. I worry about you.”
“Don’t. I’m okay. It’s just that I don’t have enough time anymore. I have to take care of him. Every day. Bathe him, take him for his treatments and change his morphine patch because the pain is so bad you know. And he has to eat. I have to make things he likes to eat – to build tissue. The treatments destroy so much tissue and his appetite; it’s ruined. He’s down to 142 pounds, and he can’t hold food. I have to do it or he’ll…he’ll just…”
A fierceness works its way into her strokes. Water slushes and spits.
“I can’t imagine,” she mutters, crying again. “I can’t imagine what I’ll do if…”
She’s reeling in circles now, whipping the cloth and her body about until her foot accidently catches the bucket and topples it. Sudsy, lemon ammonia water wails across the floor, splays onto the hardwood. The catastrophe stills her. For a moment her face is featureless, only smooth, creamy flesh. Then it moves in slow ripples, wrinkling into itself fold after fold until she lets go of a howl that reels me in, crawling, sliding, groping in the murky mess until I collide with her. Grabbing her misery, I hold it and hold it, rocking her and rocking her.
Catherine Arra is the author of "Slamming & Splitting" (Red Ochre Press 2014), "Loving from the Backbone" (Flutter Press 2015) and forthcoming in 2017, "Tales of Intrigue & Plumage" (FutureCycle Press). A former English and writing teacher, Arra lives in upstate New York. You can find more about her here.
* * *
By Marle Baleo
I meet Francesca in the parking lot of McDonald’s in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Her razor-thin eyebrows and metallic blue eye-shadow keep me captivated at length. Francesca is nineteen like me. She is stocky and small, and her hair sticks to her forehead in oily dark strands. I detect a hint of a dye job but with the parking lights you really can’t be sure. She tells me she is leaving Mount Vernon because the guy she met on MySpace hasn’t worked out. He was a jerk, and treated her like a slave. Like I’m his fucking maid or some shit, you know? She asks. Francesca says I shit you not, a lot. She has been married before. Her marriage lasted five years. Francesca is the only other to me right now, and by virtue of that, she is the whole world. I have been floating on a large and silent ocean, traveling alone, not speaking to anyone for more than ten seconds in days. But now Francesca and I have washed up on the same shore. I offer to buy her a milkshake. Dragging my heavy red suitcase, I follow her into the bright restaurant. We sit down, facing each other, and sip on our milkshakes. I try to tell Francesca about my own problems but she doesn’t listen. I need someone to appease me but it’s not Francesca. I secretly subscribe to the theory that one should only get their advice from strangers, and that if a sign were to come of what the future will hold, it would come through something like this tête à tête with Francesca. (This was not true here.)
Francesca talks about what it is like being Mexican, and how she wants to be considered white because she is half white. She talks about the men in her family, who are all jerks. She talks about Myspace Jerk and his family and how he was a lazy ass with no ambition who only used her for sex and videogames. I think of my own girlfriend who is not here in this freezing parking lot and then I think of how my girlfriend is probably going to dump me soon and about how I’ve known it for a while and I wonder what I thought I’d accomplish by going MIA and why I thought I could possibly find myself and the purpose of my life and a solution to all my non-existent yet intolerable problems in a string of parking lots and Greyhounds. I suck on the straw but nothing comes.
I ask Francesca if she’s alone now and she says yes but it won’t be long because I always end up with one asshole or another. I nod.
Later, we stand alone in the parking lot in silence, and then other people join us, waiting for the bus, but no one speaks. I can’t feel my toes inside my Chucks and Francesca and I are both aware that our private window of connivance has closed. We stand outside for over an hour, our eyes squinted, counting cars, trying not to blink, waiting for our Greyhound to appear. I am so cold in my hoodie that I am shaken by painful shivers, something like one every 20 seconds, I try to contain them but find I can’t, and it displeases me. Sometimes when you wait too long like this and there is still a hint of color near the horizon you forget about your life, about time and your physical limits, and in my case this almost applies, but I still know I have feet, because I can’t feel them. After some time - could be thirty minutes, could be three hours - the bus is there.
We sit in the dark, the loneliest people in the nation maybe. No one talks to anyone.
I see Francesca’s head, in front of me, bobbing as we drive through the night and to St. Louis. She is asleep. We near the city from the east, and the Arch appears on the other side of the river, small and shiny then bigger and tall and incredibly thin and then I remember how tiny the egg-shaped elevators are and how small the windows are on top and how wide the sunset looks from there and I am sorry that it is nighttime.
Later on, I walk through the hall of the Greyhound station, trying to find the exit and a taxi to take me home. Francesca is there, standing in line, trying to buy another ticket to go to some city in Ohio. It could be Cleveland, or anywhere else. I wave at her and she nods back, her eyelids a flash of purplish blue.
Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Litro Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Five 2 One Magazine, and Eunoia Review.
* * *
By Brie Elizabeth
Steven Hobart’s mug shot for over fifty counts of child porn possession and distribution should have said it all: his long nappy hair, his bloodshot eyes, his shirt that read “Don’t Look Now.” Somehow, though, it still came across as shocking. I remembered him being the mild, well-mannered boy who shared his pencils and crayons. Then, years later, in high school, the insightful pot- head who shared his speculations on life.
“Do you think it’s possible to get high in the middle of the day when you’re not even smoking?” He exhaled a puffy stream of smoke as we sat next to each other in the outskirts of an isolated track field of the local prep school somewhere between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. on a weekend.
“I’m not sure how to answer that question,” I responded carefully. The stars were particularly bright and scattered, the way they only seemed to be in the summer, freeing yet lonely. The crickets had a way of drawing more attention to the ever-present silence. Sometimes other teenagers would hang out on the premises, tightly packed together with their hoodies and cheap beer, but not that night.
“You were the only one who never picked on me in middle school. Did you know that?”
I stared at him blankly, the only thing I could do after smoking two shared joints. His eyes appeared glazed over from the drugs but also hinted a touch of sadness that went much deeper. An image of his slender body slamming against the wire-rimmed schoolyard fence flickered somewhere in my memory.
“What do you think sinning is?” I asked, inhaling deeply. It was a rare occasion that we were together on our own. Our mutual friends had darted off somewhere in-between the closed gymnasium and the parking lot.
If you sin, you will know it because you will wake up in your grave alive; our first grade nun teacher, Sister Carol, had told us.
“Sin? Sin!” He was giggling, which made me want to giggle. We both reminisced about Sister Carol until our giggles turned into those choked-out, exasperated laughs that usually only happen during childhood.
I noticed two silhouettes of people stumbling towards us in the distance at a slow pace and barely audible tone. There was something else, too, a buzzing siren of some sort. Still laughing lightly, I cleared my throat and asked, “Did you hear that?”
Steven Hobart looked un-perplexed and only grunted in response as he was laying in the fetal position playing with a piece of grass.
As the shadows turned into the recognizable figures of our friends, I noticed that Mia fell, followed by a shriek of laughter. Jerry followed her lead and disappeared beneath the long stems of grass. The content of their speech was still inaudible, but their voices echoed regardless. The buzzing became louder. The summer sweat on my leg felt a little colder. My mouth felt parched and raw. No one else could hear it. Was it coming from somewhere within my body?
He rolled over slowly so that he faced me, his shut eyes morphed into two pairs of crescent moons with streaks of red sunlight. “There isn’t anything there,” he said. “You are just high.” He had one of those believable smiles. I felt a sharp burn from my dwindling joint.
By the time our friends were standing in front of us, I had fallen into a type of trance-like sleep. Their presence seemed foreign. They were wildly speaking in high-pitched tones, the way I had imagined they sounded several feet away.
“You will never guess what we did,” Mia stated, her pupils abnormally dilated. I couldn’t tell whether she was excited, petrified, or a cross somewhere in between the two. Jerry was shaking Steven ferociously.
“We need to go, man. Did you hear me? We need to fucking go, NOW!” Steven laughed and Mia laughed in that nervous kind of I have no idea what is going on and I am scared shitless type of way, but I kind of like it. The alarm system coming from the school was now fully distinct as the police car pulled into the parking lot. My stomach slowly dropped. Steven slowly met my gaze, telling me what we needed to do.
I had never been a good runner.
I folded up the newspaper and tossed it into the wastebasket, ready to return to court.
Luckily, I had always been a good liar.
Brie Elizabeth works as a social worker and a mental health therapist with diverse populations in the city of Philadelphia. She also studied journalism at Temple University during which time she was published in several newspapers. Having put the pen down since her college days, Brie is in the process of reviving her love for writing.
* * *
The Last Run
By Kunwer Faran
The door has no knob on the inside. It is closing by itself. The door shuts and disappears.
Waqar feels exhausted. “ESCAPE”. He stares at these words written in front of him. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is. It looks like a bad place though. Under the bold word he reads “You have fifteen minutes”. He looks at his watch. It’s a stopwatch, showing 14:30...14:29. He tries to open the door in front of him. It’s locked. The room has nothing in it. Just walls and this one door in front of him with a keyhole. He quickly spots a small hole at one corner and finds a key in it. He tries to unlock the door. It works. He runs out into the dark corridor. A small green smudge of a light is in sight.
It’s a neon “EXIT” sign. He looks at the watch. 12:30. It took him only two minutes. Running with a victory smile on his face he bumps into a shadow. No! a thin girl, in her twenties maybe. She seems week, he can overpower her if she tries to restrain him. She doesn’t. All she says while picking up her papers is “Take the elevator. You’ll get down faster”. He figures her lie out rather quickly. She cannot restrain him, her best option is to trap him in the elevator. No time to deal with her. He dashes towards the staircase. 12:00.
The nurse must be rushing for backup and he has only 12 minutes to escape. As he climbs down, his thoughts are hijacked by images of a kid.
The kid could not be more than 4. A man in an overcoat is standing tall, casting his shadow on the kid. He curls his fingers around the child’s neck and raises her in the air. The kid dies.
He must have climbed down at least 5 floors. 11 minutes on the watch. As expected, he hears footsteps. They are just a minute behind. His thoughts kick back in with the background noise of the footsteps.
Another kid. She is a little older. 10 maybe. Laying on the ground. The little clothes that are left on her body are drenched in blood. The same man is sitting next to her with a long dagger in his hand. She is begging him to kill her, he does her the favour.
10 minutes. Looks like the end of the staircase. A parking lot. It could be huge, a car might take him out faster. He tries to open the first car. The footsteps get louder. Maybe 3 floors away, 40 seconds or less at best. No use trying to open the car, he dashes towards the best direction he thinks could be the exit.
As he runs, he realizes the place is awfully cold. Not as cold as the night when he saw that young kid running from someone. The man in the overcoat was after this kid. The kid wasn’t running very fast. He could have easily caught him. He didn’t, he was enjoying the chase. Not for long though. Soon he pulls out a gun and shoots the kid in the back.
Waqar reaches a garage door. Looks like the entrance to this parking lot. That’s it. Just this last hurdle and he is out. He still has 5 minutes on the watch but his captors will reach him within 40 seconds. There is a keypad next to the door and the screen shows you need only two numbers. Still a lot of possible combinations. He quickly notices that because of the cold there is a thin layer of frost on every key of the pad but two. “3” and “9”. These must be the two numbers to open the door. Only 4 possible combinations. Can he risk to enter the wrong combination though? The footsteps approach closer. No time to think he presses “93”. Nothing happens. “33”. Nothing. “39”. That’s it. The door starts to open. The footsteps, instead of getting closer now appear to be fading away. He was expecting an open sky but gets into another room with two doors. Their signs read “Freedom” and “Purpose” 4 minutes on the watch. As he approaches freedom, a voice interrupts him.
“You have lost your ability to remember beyond 15 minutes. If you go for freedom, you will remember everything. You will however also remember what you have done”. The voice turns into a video. A man in the overcoat is leaning on a kid. He pulls a dagger out from a kid’s back and looks himself in the mirror. Waqar could never see the face of the man in the overcoat in his flashbacks. It was always dark, blurred. It was him. He had killed and raped all those children and god knows how many. He remembers it all. He did kill them all. The voice continues.
“If you choose freedom, you will have to live with the guilt of killing all those children. You will remember each life that you took. You will remember all the details of your gruesome murders. You will live but with no purpose in life. If you choose purpose. You will be stuck in this endless loop. You will not have any other life but this. You will still always have a purpose. You have 2 minutes to decide. Choose wisely or we will choose for you. After 30 seconds of overwhelming remorse and confusion he turns the knob and enters the room. 1 minute left on the watch.
The door has no knob on the inside. It is closing by itself. The door shuts and disappears.
“Subject 87. Day 346. Run 19.
The subject can take up to 20 runs today before his body collapses and he is unable to run physically. Results consistently show that guilt can be artificially induced by fabricating memories. Subject is ready for the last run of the day”.
Kunwer Faran is from Abbottabad, a small town in Pakistan. "The Last Run" is his first publication, but he has been writing since he learned how to. Anything he writes is inspired from incidents of his life or the lives he has observed. As he likes to put it. "I write my heart out".
* * *
The Queen of The Netherlands
By Jennifer Harvey
The Queen of The Netherlands has lost her shoes.
She woke that morning with an unquenchable desire to see the sea, and asked to be driven to Scheveningen.
The security cohort knew better than to suggest a different excursion, something a little less taxing logistically, because it is not often the Queen of The Netherlands makes such a request. So they drove her to the beach, and maintained a discrete distance as she strolled along.
It was a blustery morning, the sky dappled and grey, the waves whipping up a dirty yellow foam. A bubble of froth lifted from the shore and wafted down the beach, dancing in the air, and she felt her feet itch, the memory of a tango twitching in her toes. She wanted to dance with someone, barefoot on the sand.
But the beach was empty save for a few vague figures on the horizon, unreachable, untouchable.
‘Always out of reach,’ she thought. She started to wonder how this distance arose, then remembered the security cohort and sighed.
Beneath the pier, the Queen sat a while and removed her shoes - hand tooled brogues of pale cream leather, that had filled with sand and caused a blister.
‘The women of the House of Orange have always had delicate skin,’ she thought, as she listened to the waves and picked at the bubble of skin forming at her heel.
‘Seven thousand miles,’ she mused, ‘from here to Buenos Aires. An unwalkable distance. But if I danced across the ocean, perhaps the distance would seem less.’
And in a daze of salty nostalgia, she picked herself up and started to walk, left her shoes in the sand, to be caught by the tide and washed away on a journey of seven thousand miles.
Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now based in Amsterdam. Her writing has been published in various publications in the US and the UK. You can find out more here or follow her on Twitter @JenAnneHarvey
* * *
Mono No Aware
By Penn House
I always look at other women's hands, their thin fingers and polished nails. I feel the callus on my middle finger with my thumb. Some people possess beauty while some of us create it.
I kept walking to the shore, leaving footprints on the wet sand, running back, I watched how the tides washed them all away. He was walking further to the deeper part of the sea, walking further and further away from me. They said that the tides were caused by the attraction of the moon and the sun. I was the moon and he was the sun. I watched him set, like the warm orange streak of light that made the water glitter. It was beautiful. He was beautiful.
The leaves rustled in the wind like fluttering papers, I wondered how many pages did we still have. He hummed, wordless like the sound of a solitary bird soaring across the distant sky. His eyes were staring into the blank space above us. I held his hand. We were running out of ink and stars. It wasn't beautiful. I wasn't beautiful.
I watched the clouds move and scatter. One day, these same clouds will be above his head. I cried. I envied the rain that would fall on his skin.
She must have softer hand that would perfectly fit his. I feel the callus on my middle finger with my thumb. Some people possess beauty while some of us create it.
Penn House is a freelance writer from a small historical but an unknown town in the Philippines. She has a poetry collection published by Eastlit Magazine and a prose that will soon appear on Fiction Southeast.
* * *
Ear of the Beholder
By James Landwehr
Rock music was always a big part of our family. The older siblings listened to the Beatles, Zeppelin and The Doors and subsequently passed down their musical influences to us younger kids. Most of us owned record players or stereos at one time or another growing up in the 70’s. These units varied in quality from very cheap plastic phonographs with a built-in speaker, to the “Hi Fidelity” stereo from Montgomery Wards that mom gave us as a family gift one year. The Sony Walkmans of the eighties were still years away and iPods were so inconceivable that they weren’t even a crackpot thought. Nope. This was the era of albums, eight tracks and cassette tapes. Albums that skipped and popped, eight tracks that switched channels mid-song and tapes that were occasionally chewed by a hungry cassette player. Listening to music was still an imperfect science.
There was one particular phonograph of mine that was eventually passed down to Rob when I got my first stereo. It was low-fidelity in every sense of the term, driven by a tinny, monaural speaker and a stylus that had all the engineering of a railroad spike and sounded like one when dragged over a record. With his hearing loss, Rob was no audiophile. He listened for pure pleasure and wasn’t concerned with the proper mix of bass, treble, and mid-range. Even with his hearing aids, in order to hear the lyrics, he had to turn it up very loud. This volume brought forth what little bass the underpowered phonograph was capable of, but also served as the foundation of his listening enjoyment. He once explained to me how important the percussion section is to a deaf person. They like to feel their music, have it touch them, have it move them. It was always educational when Rob took me into the deaf world, deaf culture. My hearing world was myopic at best, and growing up with him helped broaden my perspective.
He never had a lot of his own music. As a kid, I think he only had three 45 RPM records to his name. One of them was Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, which he bought to aid in practicing the sign language lyrics for the song. His high school had a program called the Theatre for the Deaf. This troupe put together a series of skits that were performed alongside various songs signed by the kids. Most of the kids were hard of hearing, so they relied on audible cues and pauses as well as great direction from their instructor in order to synchronize correctly.
In preparation for the production, he played the songs over and over and over again in his bedroom. The tinny nature of the phonograph speaker and the volume at which it was played made it impossible to escape if you were upstairs. Kenny’s constant drawl and drone about the difference between holding up and folding up became the soundtrack to Rob and the rest of our lives. The repetition, day after day, began to wear us siblings down. It is not the world’s most uplifting song. Kenny’s declaration mid-song that, “the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep” actually became kind of appealing. At least it would free us from the ongoing indecision of the conflicted Gambler.
But we were patient. Mom reminded us that Rob’s hearing loss was as much a part of the family as he was. She continually told us that we needed to cut him some slack on the one song he really seemed to love. In line with Kenny himself, mom was telling us that we needed to know when to hold up, as the song goes. Besides, we were all expecting the obsession with the song to end once the production was over. Of course, we were wrong. He continued playing the song for months after the play was over but we all just rolled with it.
The same thing happened with another song that Rob had on a 45 RPM record, namely, Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Rob landed the lead in another skit by the Theater for the Deaf, and he made it his goal to nail the song. Behind the closed door, the phonograph spun and spun endlessly as Billy sang of tonic and gin as Rob waved his hands and contorted his fingers in synchronic elegant magnificence. He was in his element when he was signing. When he crossed over into the world of song, of lyrical-sign, he immersed himself in a place of well-being and familiarity. The sadness of the tune was overshadowed by the joy it brought to him whenever he played and signed it. Between the music of Joel and Rogers, it seemed that the plight of drinkers and gamblers set to music held a special place in Rob’s heart.
Rob was a raging extrovert who also happened to love the spotlight. Because of this, when the time came to put on his production at the high school, he blew it out of the water. My mother, my sister Pat and I all went and watched he and his colleagues captivate the audience that night. During it, I saw how all the preparation that we had endured over the weeks prior was finally paying off. As the gambler, he stood there in the spotlight in his cowboy hat with his Hollywood good looks and signed the song flawlessly. He had a natural stage presence and brought his best performance. There were several instances during the performance that tears welled up for me. He made me so stinking proud I wanted to stand up and say, “Yeah! That’s my brother up there!” It was a stark reminder of how petty my grievances about the phonograph were. This was Rob’s moment to shine, and he nailed it.
Jim has a book-length memoir, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir, and two poetry collections, Written Life and Reciting From Memory. His nonfiction has been published in Main Street Rag, Sundown Press and others. His poetry has been published in many different journals. Jim currently resides in Wisconsin. For more information, visit here.
* * *
By Melvin Litton
The player was a decadent man, not in any grand way, but caustic, aloof, of anomalous dress and manner. Tall, of grayish-blonde hair, with pallid flesh and silky hands, still sported a formal black coat and tie in the age of shoddy denim. Kept a silver flask in his breast pocket; let others swill their beer while he took a sip of brandy to savor then slowly lick his lips. No longer young, yet wide awake, out carousing well past midnight, shrewd and cynically aware of his surroundings and his odd placement there – a tawdry country bar off a back street in Music City, and he a philharmonic musician. But he and the owner are old friends, both twice divorced, so he drops in on occasion for a post-concert drink, to savor the contrast, the hoot and laughter and flip swagger of the young crowd…
A young Cajun of shaggy black mane and grimy clothes brushes past, rude, insolent, a new star on the scene – “A fiddler,” his owner-friend by faint apology explains; “Y’know, in high demand. Does session work most every day.”
The player’s eyes harden as he juts out a jeweled hand, catches the Cajun by the sleeve and says, “Hey buddy, I’m a player too. Hear me? I play too, dammit!” The Cajun scowls and jerks his arm away. The player laughs it off, “Oh yeah, you bet…thinks he’s hot stuff alright. Struttin’, young, cocky. Hell, let ‘im have his day. Every swinging dick has his day. But he’ll learn. Fiddlers in this town are thick as thieves in hell. Fiddlers!” Again he laughs.
Trombone was his ax. Brass. The blast of horns above a sea of strings. The horn was a manly instrument, like an erection, stiff and proud. Or a weapon, ever dominant. And playing got him off, like killing.
“I played machine gun in Korea,” he notes with a grin, if you can imagine a wolf speaking, muzzle shaved, teeth sharp and clean. “Killed ‘em by the score, the Chinks, as they ran and fell, wave after wave, bodies piling up to form a wall. And still they came, yeah…a screaming swarm, night after night…”
There he gazed, bullets like notes being played. Black notes. And he saw it all again each night he played. The massed audience, the hush, the applause. The agon and crescendo…lost in the thrall of death and music. The vast darkened hall, the dimming lights, the amorphous silhouettes, like a low brumal sky hanging over that far frozen land, alien and forlorn, ghostly, a crumpled shroud covering slopes and valleys, shell-blasted and bombed, the snow soiled and bloody, desolate, over-trodden, defecated on. Blackened trees, de-limbed, twisted, like mangled bodies littering the landscape, shards of their former selves as his machine gun waits still and quiet, anxious to play its ratty-tat-tat amidst the acrid scent of shell casings and cordite, the sharp metallic cold, the reek of human waste the only warmth, the fog of breath the only movement awaiting dawn or death. And each night out of that great silent space, they arose, a charging mass, thousands made one in menace like an angry mammoth raising its tusks to pierce the sky till the shriek of battle grew indistinguishable from the muted wind hurling snow to blind the gunner’s aim, but the machine gun played its notes by the thousands, inerrant and true, brilliant brass casings sent spinning above the flashing barrel, ejected as the nickel bolt ratchets home in rapid staccato bursts, tap-tap-tapping in manic fury a death waltz in triple time. And his enemy falls before him like supplicants in a dark massed heap that slowly turns white beneath the blanketing snow.
Likewise the music ends, the curtain falls, another audience left massed and silent as the player recedes into the seamless drift of haunted memories that drone into hours until he plays again and the music once more lifts the veil and fills the silence like a pure white opiate to sweeten the moment and ease the pain.
“Yeah, I’m a player. I play…” he says to no one in particular. By now weary, drunk, sullen. Losing his edge. That crystalline edge that could play or kill. Aging, tired, spent. Like a brass casing, a last note, awaiting the cold, the silence, the dead beneath the snow.
Melvin Litton is a retired carpenter and lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife Debra. His fiction will soon appear in Chiron Review and Floyd County Moonshine. He has two published novels: Geminga: Sword of the Shining Path; and I, Joaquin. He also writes/performs songs solo and with the Border Band. Check it out here.
* * *
Block Party Games
By Denise H. Long
With special permission from the homeowners’ association, wooden barricades were set up at either end of the block. The white and orange diagonal stripes created our own little hazard zone.
Balloons strung from mailboxes bounced in the late morning breeze. Picnic tables were set up near the cul-de-sac jutting off our block, where the bigger, better houses were. The plastic tablecloths lifted and fell as the DJ, Mr. Ryker from across the street, played Top 40 hits at a card table flanked by two enormous black speakers. Across from him, a bounce house shuddered as little kids catapulted inside against the red and yellow nylon.
We arrived late and nobody acted surprised. As we crossed the street, Dad draped his arm around Mom’s shoulders, clasping the upper arm of the sweater he insisted that she wear. We piled our plates with pasta salad, watermelon, and hot dogs. I sidled up to the dessert table, but Mom wrinkled her nose, her eyes falling to the slope of my 12-year-old stomach.
Dad started toward a table away from the rest, but Mom stopped him. Steve. Over here. They’ll make room. And people did.
Mom hung her sweater across the back of her chair. It’s so hot out here. Her voice to no one and everyone at the same time. Dad turned away.
After lunch, the games would begin. An egg toss. A three-legged race. A shoe scramble. In past years, we always sat out. But Dad had decided we should play this year. Another on the long list of changes he was trying to make.
We didn’t see the Valkyries arrive, but it made sense that they were there. The tables were set up near the end of their driveway after all. I caught Mr. Valkyrie eyeing us and knew they had thought just like us. They won’t show up this year. But we were all there. Smiling and laughing and waiting to see what would happen next.
And that’s when Mrs. Valkyrie threw an egg at my mother.
Dad and Mom partnered for the egg toss while I sat on the curb, shoving brownies into my mouth. About eight rounds in, I heard a shriek. Mom stood there, her own egg caught in her fist but the Valkyries’ egg was dripping from her head. A red welt flowered on her forehead where it had hit.
Mom lurched toward Mrs. Valkyrie.
Mr. Valkyrie stepped in front of his wife.
And Dad just stood, waiting for his egg to be thrown back, like the game wasn’t over.
Mrs. Valkyrie spewed a stream of horrible names at my mother, words I wouldn’t have thought Mrs. Valkyrie knew, and Dad pivoted toward her. As he approached, arms extended, I thought he might scoop her into his arms, kiss her, show Mr. Valkyrie things could go both ways. But he pushed past her and kept going. His legs rushing him past the bounce house and beyond, toward where the houses grew smaller and the yards were made of more dirt than grass.
I stood and brushed the crumbs from my lap. Mom came at me, clutching thick green rope in her hands. The egg had started to harden into crusted streaks in her hair, and as she leaned over to tie my leg to hers, I touched her hair to see if it was still wet.
When I pulled my hand away, she looped her arm with mine and, together on our three legs, we staggered back to our house, the pulpy sound of the speakers filling the air behind us.
Denise Howard Long’s short fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Journal of the Compressed Creative Arts, The Tishman Review, The Evansville Review, and elsewhere. Her short story "Recuerdos Olvidados" was runner-up for the Larry Brown Short Story Award, and her story "Where It's Buried" won Five on the Fifth's Annual Short Story Contest in 2016. Denise lives in Nebraska, with her husband and two young sons.
* * *
By Marlene Olin
If only he were cuter.
The first time I saw him, my index finger positively twitched. I pulled and yanked his picture in all directions-- stretching it, slimming it, adding a few Photoshop touches. But there was only so much material to work with. You know what I mean?
I confess. My photo wasn't exactly up-to-date either. The lady he was looking at was ten years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter. And since it was taken for my high school reunion, no expense was spared. The hair, the makeup, the tweezing, the waxing. If I were a house in one of those do-over shows, you would have run your fingers over my upholstery, oohed and aahed at the way my hardware shone in just the right light.
But Charlie was the fixer upper with a layer of dust on the ceiling fans and mildew in the basement. You know what I mean? A bagel at the back of his head screamed bald spot and no matter how much he tugged and looped the hair in front-- coiling it, spraying it, patting it-- there was absolutely no hiding the baby pink skin of his scalp.
And that nose? I've seen camels with smaller humps. It looked like someone had taken a normal nose and melted it, the tip hovering just above his lips, curving like a shark's fin. Who could maneuver around a nose like that? Not to mention the logistics when it came to buffing and polishing my floors. And some women really like their lower levels spic and span, you know what I mean?
If only he were taller.
I like a canopy, a roof over my head, the feeling that if we were attacked by muggers or terrorists that he could intimidate and overpower them with his sheer brawn.
I confess. In high school, they used to call me Stumpy. Cause I was short and squat. While some girls dreamt of Snow White, I was forever a dwarf. Dopey. Sleazy. Stumpy.
But he, of course, saw our respective heights in a different light. Standing, we lined up ear to ear, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. "We're like puzzle pieces," he said. "Look how we fit."
The night of our date had been unexpectedly cold. We ate dinner and sipped coffee. When we finished talking, we walked the streets. His breath came out in cumulus clouds, his cologne redolent of cloves. There were just millimeters between us. When he touched my hair, sparks flew. His fingers stuck like static cling.
If only he were richer.
Here. Take a look at this magazine. My McMansion's gonna have six bedrooms and six baths with a curvy wrought iron staircase leading right up to heaven's door. Every surface will be covered in marble, and every ceiling will have a crystal chandelier.
I confess. I love candles. They make me feel all warm and buttery like someone turned down the lights and turned up the heat. His apartment had candles. When he opened the door I felt like I had fallen into a black hole.
"Shit," he said. "They turned off the electric again." But then he took out his lighter and one by one the flames sizzled, the wicks dancing and gyrating in the dark. An orange yellow glow blanketed his hands, his arm, his face. Outside tree branches were naked, leaves were curling on the ground, a chill filled the air. But inside it was hot enough to make me sweat.
If only his eyes were blue.
I glanced around. Shadows danced along a couch. A shelf of books. A potted plant.
"It may not be much," he said, "but it's home."
Then all at once our gazes locked. Those big brown puppy dog eyes swallowed my hair, my dress, my shoes. Staring, gawking, gaping. When he looked at you, he drank you in.
"Jesus," he said, "you're shivering."
He must have thought I was cold. He ran his hands over my back and shoulders like he was smoothing out the wrinkles. Slowly he blew on my fingers one at a time.
"Tell me the truth," he said. "Am I what you expected?" He waited one or two seconds before he finished. "Because you're what I hoped for and more."
I ran like I was on fire. Down the stairs, through the lobby, out the double doors. He nipped at my heels--whimpering, moaning, sighing--but still I ran. Then waving my arm, I hailed the first taxi that came along. Heck I would have stepped in front of traffic, slammed into a hood, thrown myself under a bus. I needed air. I needed space. I needed to get away fast.
A week later I got the Hallmark card in the mail. The hokey kind with a curlicued font plus sparkling hearts and rainbows. As if Valentine's Day were any day of the week. I've kept it on my refrigerator so long that it's blotched with pizza sauce and grease from Chinese takeout. On the bottom, in chicken scratches, in handwriting so childish you wondered how he made it through high school and college, he wrote, "Did I do something wrong?"
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Poetica, Steam Ticket, The Examined Life, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.
* * *
Pick A Background
By Teresa Price
My mind wanders. The “thinker” is often pulled away from reality, for better or worse. Ironically, the latter words he actually told me verbatim once upon a time. I try to remind him as often as I can.
My “grandiose” reflections are interrupted as he decries from the kitchen. I am mid-thought, scrawling in a purple spiral notebook it took me fifteen minutes to unearth; all other pads, tablets, and ledgers filled with a four-year-old’s memoirs. My last notations are a hodgepodge, my pen unable to write through the amber paraffin wax hearts and curlicues displayed across the (incorrectly assumed “blank”) page.
“We need to get him off that thing!”
I am jarred into reality as I acknowledge first the opposer and then the offender. Admittedly, I am more alarmed by the latter. “When did he get that?” I wonder (privately…silently), although I assure the former, “He hasn’t had it very long.”
It could have been a true fabrication. I’m not exactly unsure.
I do wholeheartedly believe in limited exposure. My daughter could tell anyone mommy’s views on the television – “Your brain…it rots” – or, pushing, pulling, breathing, climbing on, above, below and/or in the general vicinity of hard surfaces for that matter – “Your head…it cracks open.”
The attentive parent is intrigued by the chosen application. It’s a sensory overloaded coloring activity – flashy, animated and melodious in an elevator sort-of-way. My son is disinterested with the current scene and peruses other options with an all-too-skilled swipe of the finger. “Pick a Background!” a woman’s voice insists with rollercoaster intonation. I’m interested in what she has to offer.
A pudgy finger scrolls through the choices for me— forest?...farm?...city skyscape?...mountainous road?...flowering meadow?...tropical beach. My mind lingers on the image as I turn toward the window. The cold, gray, depressingly lifeless Midwestern winter day stares back at me. My son chooses a simple black background. I try not to overanalyze the two-year-old decision.
I am already there – Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen. Senses are still keenly aware of the seduction and enticement… steamy, star-filled nights… lazy, carefree days under the sultry sun… gently lulling ocean waves lapping the shore… bottomless tropical beverage in hand.
“I want milk!”
A vision suspends with a new drink request. I appease the twelve-years-shy-of-sixteen-year-old’s demands before replacing toes in powdery white sand.
My short hem is blowing in the breeze as I meander, gradually making my way from the beach toward 5th Avenue. I stroll along the avenida, taking in the sights and smells – they both sober and intoxicate me. I purchase a hat from a vendor that brands me “tourist,” but I couldn’t care less. A fresh fruit stand lures me in. I quench my thirst with a heavenly elixir straight from the shell and grab a manzana for the jaunt.
I hear the refrigerator door open and the audible crinkling of an opening plastic bag. He has a piece of fruit. “You might want to wash that first,” I advise. He doesn’t hear? He doesn’t care? He doesn’t listen. He takes a bite (i.e., “risk”).
Additional culinary activity reaches my ear. Something is repeatedly contacting a wooden surface – a small patella? There is a pause, and then friction - hindquarters scooting along a smooth surface? Is something being dragged? Is that metal? It’s enough to warrant investigation.
For the umpteenth time in a 24-hour period I stand in amazement at the kitchen threshold. He was just there – he didn’t notice? He didn’t care. A small frame is happily perched on the counter, a jar filled with smashed bread in her palm. She grips a butter knife in opposite knuckles. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to get butter,” she reassures me.
“Thank goodness,” I internally quip as I dismantle the breakneck scene. “Honey, we don’t play with knives, and you shouldn’t get up there,” I caution. “What if you fell?”
“I know. My head…it cracks open,” she replies. I can’t think of anything further to discuss.
“Pick a background!” I hear the cheerful command again as I resume my position on the sofa. With a sigh I grab my plum pad and indigo pen. I take a dip.
The waters are even more crystal clear than the oasis of your dreams; refreshingly cool, providing perfect equatorial equilibrium. You stare in wonderment at the small fish swimming around your toes. Fortunately, you are more awestruck than frightened. You submerge your entire body once more and feel the ethereal sensation rush over you. You return to the white powder that now adheres to your soles. You have not a care in the world as you make your way to your waiting blanket, staking your claim on a small piece of paradise.
“We should probably get him a new one soon.”
Ah, my love calls to me again. I turn toward the point of reference. “I’ll just trim the loose strands and tie them off again,” I resolve. We can’t avoid it much longer, however. It’s quickly becoming a safety concern. I can’t fathom his parting ways with the beloved afghan. It has unquestionably “known” love; so tattered and frayed it can now easily transform a young boy into a super hero. The proof stands three-feet high in front of me with a mischievous grin.
“MOMMY! I’M ALL DONE!”
From down the hall a high-pitched, assertive young voice breaks through the scene.
The “muse” slowly rises from the seat of a wearing davenport. She considers the “blissful” chaos that surrounds her as she makes her way toward the lavatory. “Pick a background!” echoes behind her once more, on cue…
And without a moment’s hesitation, she chooses hers.
Teresa Price resides among the amber waves of rural Kansas. She is a full-time mother and SLP by trade. She fell in love with writing somewhere between puberty and adulthood and has since embarked on a series of gratifying adventures with the “mighty” pen. She is officially a “published” author.
* * *
By Laurence Sullivan
The tree swayed gently over the little girl’s head – forming a canopy that dabbled little pools of darkness across the sand pit surrounding her. In this separate world entirely of her own, she sat alone, etching strange shapes into the sand with a short stick she had found lying on the ground.
Isolated in this oasis of her own making, the little girl had forgotten all about her parents still arguing inside their house – the sounds of shouting and screaming having faded into background noise, as ignorable for her as birdsong was to other children.
After a few minutes passed, the little girl suddenly looked up, her head following the sound of stamping coming closer – like the steps of the giant her father had read to her about. Not a moment later, the front door slammed and her mother came racing towards her.
"I’ll be back soon, Debbie," her mother hurriedly whispered, gently brushing the hair from the little girl’s face. "I promise…"
Debbie looked up to her mother with a look of pure adoration and held out to her the stick she had been playing with.
Debbie’s mother softly wrapped her fingers around the top of the stick and tried to pull it gently towards her. Her expression unchanging, Debbie pushed the stick down into the sand as if she were stamping a flag into some new, unknowable land between them.
"Do you not want to give me it?"
Her mother tried for a second time to take the stick away, to treasure it as a parting gift until she was ready to come back. But as though Debbie were innately trying to keep her mother close to her, she held on tighter than before – her face contorting into an expression of sadness and confusion.
"I have to go, Debbie! Mummy has to go!"
Unable or unwilling to prolong the goodbye any longer, her mother planted a quick kiss on the top of Debbie’s head before quickly dashing to her car. As she opened the door to the driver’s seat, Debbie’s mother turned to her daughter for a final time – the bright light of day illuminating every tear falling down her bruised face.
Still not understanding the situation, instead believing her mother upset at her for not giving away her precious plaything, Debbie ran – the stick held firmly between her hands – after her mother’s car…
Runner-up in both the Wicked Young Writer Awards: Gregory Maguire Award 2016 and Penguin Random House's 'Borders' competition, Laurence Sullivan's fiction has been published by such places as: Londonist, The List, and Amelia's Magazine. He has also had his work featured at literary festivals like the Birmingham Literature Festival, Bristol Storyfest and the Wise Words Festival. He became inspired to start writing during his studies at the universities of Kent, Utrecht and Birmingham – after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.
* * *
By Vivian Wagner
I walked into a room I’d seen before, with black and white diamond-shaped floor tiles. When had I walked into that room before? I don’t know. It seemed I’d seen it as a child, or as an infant. Perhaps before birth. None of it made sense at the time. I couldn’t even fathom the meaning of a building, of tiles, of windows. I had no frame of reference. I barely knew what it meant to see at all. What it meant for anything to exist. The second time I saw that room, I was in Berkeley, during college, visiting the apartment of a friend’s sister. And that time I thought, oh, that’s what everything is. That’s an apartment building. That’s what it means to have tiles on the floor. That’s a floor. That’s what it means to be alive on a fall afternoon in a place called Berkeley, the leaves turning, the ocean breeze catching in willows. That’s what willows are. I walked into a room I’d seen before, and I finally understood what it meant for there to be tiles and ceilings, sun and birds, being and life.
Where He Went
By Vivian Wagner
He grew up with a fisherman father who thought him lazy for not wanting to clean out the boat. He wanted, instead, to clean out the ballpark, the stats, the game in all of its non-fishy glory. He did, and now he’s gone, drifting over oceanic crowds belting out songs in the universe’s seventh-inning stretch. When he died, he said he’d finally see the woman whose grave he’d covered with deep red roses for twenty years. There’s a constellation shaped like her breasts, and he’s there, nestled between them, dreaming of all the surprising turns a life takes, of abundance and home, runs and mackerel.
Ode To Koekje
By Vivian Wagner
Cookies are always good, the baseline of decency, humble with their peanut butter and raisins, their flour and butter, their touch of vanilla. They don’t rise too high, and nor do they sink too low. They’re the steady bedrock of childhoods and holidays, gifts and apologies. They’re not cake, with its various illusions. Nor are they, for instance, spinach, with its insistence on health, despite all odds. Cookies don’t require explanation or defense. They’re steady and ever-present, the definition of abundance, of daily, predictable wealth. Here, have a few. As many as you want. You’ll feel better. Everything will be fine.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website here.