Foliate Oak December 2014
 
Fiction

No Need for Tommy Guns
By Rachel Bjerke

"This is the dumbest idea you ever had!" she yelled. The sky overhead was black, though it was only noon, and the wind whipped her hair straight up over her head.

"Yeah, but if it works, we'll be rich!" he yelled back. They kissed one last time. If it didn't work, they'd be dead.

The tornado roared two fields away, so loud she covered her ears. It had grown out of the sky fast, they hadn't had time to grab their Tommy guns. No matter now.

They slipped inside the bank. No one was around, just like he had said. In the vault, they filled their bags, alarm blaring unheard under the storm.

The sky lightened and they ran out the front doors in time to see the bank employees emerge from the storm cellar outside.
 But nobody saw the pair leave in their borrowed Model T.
Rachel Bjerke is a writer and mother in Portland, Oregon. She is currently working toward an English degree at Portland State University.
* * *

Death of a Superhero
By William Bradley

As he flatlined, I thought, for some reason, about the issue of Action Comics he bought for me when I was five years old, back in 1987. The cover featured the villainous Silver Banshee standing over Superman’s “dead,” body, but Superman always came back—in fact, his “ghost” appeared to be right behind her. I had seen and loved the Christopher Reeve movies, of course, but I thought that cover was just the coolest, weirdest thing I’d ever seen. So I picked it up and showed my dad. He said, “Sure,” and placed the three quarters in my hand so that I could pay the clerk myself.

I began flipping through the pages immediately once we got into his truck, asking him who the different characters were. “Jimmy Olsen.” “Lois Lane.” “Lex Luthor.” “Perry something-or-other. He’s Superman’s boss at the newspaper.” We read that comic book together when we got home, and routinely in the days and weeks that followed, until the cover fell off and the pages began to tear. But by then I had other comics to read with Dad—Green Lanterns and Spider-Mans and Firestorms. But the Superman books were still my favorite, and I think they were his too. They were the ones we would talk about after reading them—“Who should Clark be with, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, or Cat Grant?” “How do you pronounce Mr. Mxyzptlk?” “What if our sun turned red? Would he lose his powers immediately?” If these questions ever got tedious or annoying, as they surely must have, he never let on, and treated all of these discussions thoughtfully.

I found a copy of that comic in a used bookstore when my then-girlfriend and I were living in Austin. Dad and I weren’t speaking to each other in those days. He thought I was wasting my time trying to be an artist, when he was perfectly willing to give me a job at his store. I thought he was a small-town rube who couldn’t appreciate anything more sophisticated than the cop shows he watched or the lousy country songs he listened to. Looking back, I guess that attitude was his reward for teaching me to read with the Man of Steel’s help.

I didn’t buy the comic, but I flipped through it in the store. The Silver Banshee’s wail seems to kill Superman. They have a funeral and everything. But it turned out he’s not really dead—just in a really deep, Kryptonian coma. With the help of his friends from the Justice League, he wakes up and defeats the villain. Order is restored to Metropolis. Everything turns out okay.

“Please come back,” I wanted to say, that afternoon in the hospital. But the Do Not Resuscitate order that left the nurses standing off to the side ensured that wouldn’t happen. So instead, I kissed his forehead as my sisters held each other, and I thought of his hands on my sides, under my arms, as he lifted the small me, giggling, into the sky.

William Bradley's work has appeared in journals and magazines including Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, and The Normal School, and his prose chapbook Tales of a Multiverse in Peril! is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press. He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University.
 
* * *
Strangers on a Train
By Ryan Burruss

Maybe it was the night’s rum, a couple of fingers—thick, bloated fingers—of Sailor Jerry on the rocks, a comfortable old blur, that made everything just a little jangled, like dropped keys, just a little out of place. I made my way down the narrow aisle, not quite drunk, not quite hung over, neon cobwebs at the corners, snippets of soliloquies that never went as scripted, chances passed, and the sun, the unforgiving early spring morning sun, all thrusting at me, through me, as I tried to find an open spot. Exhaustion swelled like a bruise growing in the space between my insides, to the point I want to say that forces beyond my control pushed me into that seat, that I had no choice in the dark matter, pardon the pun. I want to say such a thing, but did I see her first, or only after? Who’s fooling whom when you’re the only man in the room?

I would love to park the minutia of my days and nights at the feet of a higher power, but that delusion is a bridge too far, even for someone like me, for someone who profits in the chasm between want and need. Unfortunately, every single morning I’ve woken up with the metaphorical blood on my hands, I could always see the imprint of the reins laid out perfectly in my palms.

The facts of the case, if this were a true investigation, and not the musings of a man staring out his 40th- floor office window, would prove as thus: On a Thursday morning in April of this year, as I entered a commuter train into the city, the same train I get on every single weekday, I—happily married with two small children (and, based on an intuitive knowledge of my wife’s cycle, perhaps a third on the way)—took a seat next to an attractive woman. No great sin; I didn’t slyly remove my ring, or fix my hair. I merely sat down. I tell myself it was the first seat available, a matter of chance, but there is a voice at the corners, less neon than dull, a robin’s egg blue, that argues it is just another revision.

I put my black bag between my legs and stuffed my ticket back into my wallet, lifting my right hip to return it to its place, turning my face slightly to the left—I remember nothing further of this moment. Time stopped. I wish the trigger had been something clearly sensual, explainable—a hint of her old perfume, the distinct cadence of her breath, the deep, harsh tones of her hair—but I cannot remember anything tangible. All I knew in that moment when my right ass-cheek settled back in that seat was that I was sitting next to Ava.

Perhaps that is too dramatic a reading; I thought I could be sitting next to Ava, or someone of the basic size and shape of Ava. With each beat of my heart, though (and I could clearly count each one, as I had not yet exhaled for one beat, two beats, three beats, four...), I knew this could not be true. Or perhaps this is yet another edit, an efficiency of memory, a redline decision to believe myself quicker to reason than I was.

Rational or not, though, I was shaken something fierce. I felt cornered somehow, my body frozen. I imagine my fingers hovered over the arm rests, curled like an ancient caught in lava, preserved for all eternity, a full-body death mask, a mannequin.

After I managed a few quiet, shallow gasps, I tried to strain my eyes to the left without turning my head. I could sense only the height of the mass beside me, something like Ava. I decided to take a quick look.

The sun, however, further conspired against me; horny from on high, it continued to thrust through the train car, invading every window and, in the process, whitewashing the portrait of the woman beside me. I could only gather that her face was long and gently severe in its slopes and peaks, just as I remembered. Another obstacle: The woman wore giant, rounded sunglasses, purportedly to protect against the shine, but concurrently keeping her secrets secret, hiding all the evidence I needed to make a definitive identification, those raccoon-rimmed, almond-shaped galaxies that haunted my dreams.

It had been ten years since I had seen her in presentia actuale, touched her, tasted her. So much had happened, so much that I had come to know second-hand, from mugshots and casual reports from gossipy acquaintances, that it was unrealistic to think she would appear like this, as she was before, as I had learned her. I knew the Ava I had loved was dead, murdered by her own sadness, by the pills and the bottles and bottles of Nyquil she consumed to crawl inside her nights.

This woman was not Ava today, not even close. I had seen the photographs, easy enough to find online, the puffiness around the eyes and neck, the splotchy cheeks, the stringy, unwashed hair, the black marble eyes—the lights are off, folks, nobody’s home. The pixels could not lie, not like Ava could. Never to hurt, though, never with malice, but as a balm, to ease the edges of reality, to help the medicine go down, down, down. No, this woman on a train didn’t hunch to hide her height.

Or perhaps this was her greatest trick. Surprise, the stories of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. She did have a flair for the dramatic, one of many things we shared, and I couldn’t put it past her, no matter how impossible it seemed. This is the power we give ghosts; this is why we fear them, even though their very existence would prove our greatest hopes true, that nothing ever ends. 

The woman beside me, from what I could tell from my anxious, pathetic glances, was perhaps the right age, but only if Ava had aged differently than I knew she had. She was well-dressed in crisp colors, her hair tied tightly back. Her figure was long and thin, as Ava’s had once been. It was as if an Ava from an alternative universe, one in which she had crissed instead of crossed, had broken through the membranes that separate us from the infinite other “us”es, that lock us into one time and one space, and landed here, an alien in tight jeans on a commuter train hurtling through suburban Chicago. She was the Ava that should have been, the happier ever after, the envy of the universe.

I thought of an afternoon in one of her father’s hotels, high ceilings, long, gallant windows and a four-post bed: the sun burst through the curtains, long and yellow and immortal. She kneeled beside me, naked, her torso curled, almost relaxed, almost ready to pounce, almost knotted. Almost everything. The light caught her shoulder blade and cut down the back of her arm. I lifted myself, first on my arms, and then up on my knees, facing her. I kissed her neck and she made a small noise, small enough that I knew it was not for me, that it was something accidental, perfect, real. I leaned down further, and kissed her shoulder, placing my lips over the warm imprint of the sun, and I opened my eyes, looked down over the edge of her, down past where the light touched, where the shadows waited. It was as if I were speeding down a steep mountain road, all cutbacks and perilous turns, and below was nothing, everything, a shifting, dancing abyss that might have been a river, or a monster or the end of the world. I saw through the bed and the ten floors below us the, the subbasement, the underground garage, down, down, down, past the dirt and bedrock, past the things that carry us all on their backs. 

I only realized my hands were on her arms because I could feel them shaking against her. I was nothing, a pauper with nothing but student loans and a cubicle job, and in that moment, I realized how far even a nothing like me could fall.

The train made its scheduled stops. I pulled out a book and pretended to read. I could feel the sweat dripping under my arms. The woman seemed completely disinterested in me, almost purposely so. It was maddening. I struggled to look more indifferent.

I didn’t want to turn around, say hello, hear that soft voice that never quite matched the arch of the brow, not just because I was petrified that it was her, back from some rehab purgatory and better than ever, but because I was equally petrified that it wasn’t her, that this was just a stranger on a train, that everything I had come to know in the decade since I last felt her body beneath mine was true, that there was no happy ending, no cinematic third-act twist, that things do in fact fall apart, never to be put back together. That people can die before they die.

The call was made for the final stop, the end of the line. I rattled beside the idol I had fashioned, real even in her fiction, both attracted and repelled, as if she were too much data for me to process, Borges’ aleph, a cosmic Rosetta Stone, an overdose. I licked my lips, my mouth a desert. We pretend we want to know the truth, but rarely do we reach out for it when it crosses us. We lumber along a rail until it stops; instead of letting what we love kill us in glory, we simply peter out.

The brakes wheezed and sighed. Bodies rose and moved to the aisle like the faithful in their pews, lining up for a taste of the blessed cracker, another fictitious corpse, another beautiful mystery not to be looked at too hard. I gathered my meager things, put away the book I had pretended to read.

I stood up, nodded to an older gentleman who made a place for me in the exiting traffic. I filed out, just another asshole marshaled toward the gates. I stole one last glance back, when I thought I was safe enough away, took her all in, or as much as I could in the space between one thick, bloated beat and another. She was Ava. She was a stranger. She could have been either, neither, both. She was an alien, bug-eyed and deathly composed, a transient from another dimension, a loose end from some other me’s universe, a criss rather than a cross, a happily ever after two books farther down the shelf, something close enough to a victory not because it was, but because I had to believe it to be, because there was nothing else to hold onto, nothing but a river, or a monster or the end of the world.
Ryan Burruss is an editor and writer living outside Washington, D.C.
* * *
Cornflake Jesus
By Alex Casola

I found Jesus.

Not in the way that most people find Jesus. I didn’t walk through church doors, or see the light, or finally read one of the pamphlets covered in hell fire that I was somehow constantly finding in my possession, I actually found Jesus – in my cornflakes.

I almost drowned Jesus, but I recognized him just as I was about to splash milk all over him. I, personally, am not the hugest fan of Jesus. We’re not the best buds my mother would like us to be, but I know the guy. I certainly know him when I see him. I know him well, in fact. He was sort of like the goody-two-shoes next-door neighbor: learn from the lessons Jesus teaches us, what would Jesus do, why can’t you be more like Jesus?

How can anyone be held to those kinds of standards? Anyway, I didn’t feel much love for the guy, but I didn’t want to drown him either. It was a little weird for me to be looking at this guy in my cereal bowl after having avoided him for so long; it was a little unsettling. It figures, the cornflake was also about three times the size of a normal flake. So like Jesus to have to be three times normal size.

So I took the flake out and protected that little bastard. I washed out the Chinese soup container I had lying around from the night before. I padded it up with some toilet paper and snuggled Jesus up into that little bed like he was my very first caterpillar pet, only I didn’t put any crushed leaves in for Jesus to eat – If a cornflake Jesus needs to eat, I guess he can turn the toilet paper into fish or something. So my little Jesus just sat in his bed for about two weeks while I tried to figure out what to do with him.

Over those two weeks he haunted my room and eventually drove me from even wanting to come home. I moved the soup container from my nightstand to a discreet spot on my bookshelf and then finally into my closet – inside an old shoebox. Like a good Catholic, I felt guilty, and hastily apologized to Him for the smell before shutting the lid and shoving the whole thing behind a stack of blankets. But I still felt His presence. All through Sunday school and especially on major holidays I had tried to feel that presence. The guilt and isolation I had gone through not feeling that presence – I had thought I was missing out on a grand comfort, an ultimate best friend, that I just didn’t deserve, but as it turns out the presence of Jesus feels a lot more like being followed, or hearing floors creak in an empty house. And just like those creepy feelings, you can’t do anything about it. Sure my Jesus was tangible and I could have thrown him out, or tried to convince myself that some sort of destruction was accidental. I mean, I could have eaten the guy without ever noticing it was Him. But I DID notice and I couldn’t bring myself to flush him down the toilet, or crush him with my dress shoes like a common spider, or even just leave the little container somewhere where it wouldn’t be my problem anymore.

As much as I fantasized, I just couldn’t do it.

So after weeks of avoiding my room and the Jesus inside, I sold him.

I set him up on eBay on a 3-week auction. I thought it might take a while to find someone interested in this particular merchandise, and I wanted to make sure he was in good hands. I let my local churches know (anonymously because I didn’t want to be the girl making a profit off of Jesus). And although I probably should have known better than to underestimate Him, it really didn’t take long for him get a little following going.

He went for $874! I couldn’t believe it. If you think about it, like, Jesus is worth $874, I guess it sounds like a deal, but to me $874 was a huge windfall.

I used the cash to buy myself a new couch. I probably should have donated the money or something. That’s what Jesus would do, right? But, as I’ve said, I never was very good at living up to those standards.

Also, this couch had a recliner. It was a beautiful faux-leather couch. It was plush, and it fit my body better than a lover. Nothing I had ever bought had ever made me as happy as this couch did, and for the first time in my life, I felt comforted by Jesus – or at the very least by the money he made me.

Alex Casola is a graduate of the University of Florida. She writes short stories and lives in Denver, Colorado. Her story, “Stepping in Shit,” has appeared in the literary magazine BareBack Magazine. Her pieces, “The Recycled Apartment,” and “Wisdom Teeth,” have appeared in the undergraduate magazine, The Mangrove Review.
* * * 
The Runner
By Benjamin Cooper

I stood, solid and resolute, the posture of a perfect soldier.  The first rays of morning sun were breaking through the treetops, illuminating the faces of the silhouetted bodies surrounding me.  My only companions on the frigid, miserable night march had been my worn leather shoes protecting my aching feet, and the glowing moon shrouded in clouds.  Our force had wearily pushed into the darkness, emerging from the seemingly endless journey unscathed.  But at daybreak I did not share in my comrades’ relief.  My thoughts were filled with philosophical questions; contemplating reason and purpose.  No, you mustn’t doubt yourself.  I am supposed to be here.  I am meant to be here.  Essentially, I was just another youngster thrown to the wolves in the colonies, overlooked in the endless quest for land and power.

The Colonel strode down the line, scrutinizing each soldier as he passed.  I shuffled nervously, maintaining the proper stance.  I feared the Colonel’s unrelenting stare more than the Indians who wanted my scalp.  A breeze swirled through the column, taking with it the mysterious fog that had cloaked the army. 

The regal Colonel Freely strode poignantly to the couriers at his disposal.  His stoic face was mostly hidden by the looming shadows.  I stared, entranced by the shiny brass buttons on his freshly pressed, vibrant red coat.  Though his dress would’ve likely cost me a year’s pay, I reminded myself not to be intimidated.

He tilted his head ever so slightly, eyeing me dubiously, as if searching for weakness.          

“Dismissed!  All except for you, private.”  I swallowed hard as he eyed me.  He came closer.  The stench of stale sweat mixed with perfume was overpowering.  He relayed orders with the composed manner of a seasoned officer. 

“Private, you are the swiftest and most trustworthy of all my men.”  His lips curled as he spoke, every word heavy with importance.

“Yes, sir!”

“I call upon you to deliver this urgent message into the hands of Colonel Scott, and Colonel Scott only, at Fort Martin, just beyond these woods.  According to our Indian scouts, the most direct route can be found through the brush to our east.  Follow it until you reach a small brook, then head due south and you’ll come upon a clearing.  Atop a hill, Fort Martin stands like a grand cathedral.  We will be right behind you, arriving late afternoon, if the weather is agreeable and the men march to their ability.  I doubt Colonel Scott is expecting us,” he snickered.

He seized my wrist and placed the letter in my palm, his piercing stare unwavering.  Grasping my hand with both of his, he ordered in a low voice commanding of attention, “ Go now, my most trustworthy runner.  Use the talent God has blessed you with.  Be swift and safe travels.” 

“I will deliver the message posthaste, sir!” I assured him with a high-spirited salute.  The Colonel returned the salute apathetically before returning to his staff.

I spun around and peered to the east, scrutinizing the underbrush that led to the dense forest.  The unforgiving wilderness loomed, and I shuddered with trepidation.  I’m a solider, I reminded myself sternly.  I’m a runner.  I will do my duty.  I placed the prudent letter in my satchel.

With no time to waste, I set off.  The sun, barely peeking over the horizon, cut through the towering trees, the dirt path dappled with light.  I sped passed companies of infantry.  Some delivered looks of dismay or pity.  Civilians viewed my role as brave, but many of my fellow soldiers took me for a fool.  With nothing to protect myself but my wits, many undoubtedly thought I was doomed.

In a matter of minutes I was alone, my rhythmic breathing keeping my pace.  I relished the solitude.  Gliding across the terrain, the dew-covered grass grazing my ankles, I soon came to the path that led east, a shortcut through enemy territory teeming with savages, allies of the despicable French.  My feet carried me quickly along the overgrown game trail, my focus sharpening as I entered a groove, devoid of aching muscles, soreness, and fear.  The transition was exhilarating.  I traversed the landscape, all the while scanning for landmarks, tracks, and signs of trouble. 

Soon I fell deeper into my groove.  Oddly, I began to feel as if I was no longer running, but levitating, my soul propelling me through the ancient wood.  Continuing my rhythm was paramount to maintaining my precious reserves of energy.

I ran with a purpose, a passion, releasing pent up anxiety with every step.  I tapped into deep-seeded emotion to fuel my run; anger towards my controlling father who had pushed me into the army, the stress of living in an unfamiliar land, and, mostly, my hatred for my wretched ex-fiancé who had broken off our engagement just before my ship had sailed.  All of this filtered into my run, a perfect therapeutic outlet.  Catharsis washed over me every time my soles struck the soft earth.

Gradually, my concentration waned, my thoughts drifting to my past life in London.  Relenting to my father’s wishes, I eventually volunteered for Her Majesty’s Army.  Unbeknownst to him, I had no intention of returning home.  Secretly, I relished the chance to reinvent myself.  No longer was I destined to be a lowly scribe’s assistant, but instead a proud protector of the kingdom.  I had shed my previous identity, a sheltered and conservative urbanite, and embraced the life of adventure and travel. 

The army had whipped me into shape.  I soon learned I had a talent and affinity for running.  The swift-footed were always in high demand, especially in such treacherous lands in which horses were scarce.  Over time I resented my former self, vowing never to return to the city that had shunned me.  I thrived in my newfound career.  All concern for self-preservation was lost to the greater good, resulting in a liberation of my soul that I hadn’t known possible.  At long last, I was content.  I felt closer to God every time I ran.  I had found my calling as a messenger.

Although I had spotted nothing out of the ordinary, my instincts warned me otherwise.  I eased from my vigorous pace, slowing to a jog.  Frantically, I assessed my surroundings, scanning every bush and tree like prey alerted to the presence of a dangerous predator.  Months of practice allowed me to instantly control my breathing for optimal listening.  The symphony of nature erupted; a Sparrow’s chirp, a gentle rustling of leaves, a twig snapping.  I was being hunted!  The Indians knew this land well and would use that knowledge to their advantage, thus nullifying my speed.  Any hesitation and I would quickly be surrounded, mercilessly scalped, and murdered.

A horrific, blood-curdling war cry echoed out, slicing through the peacefulness.  My stomach dropped.  The high pitched howl scared me like nothing had before.  It was the call of death and its deliverer was near.

I sprinted.  I took gigantic leaps, each step propelling me farther.  I dared not look back, not wanting to give my pursuers the satisfaction.  Sweat poured from my brow, stinging my eyes.  Half-blind and racing at full speed, I pushed the intense pace.  Eventually, the muscles in my legs began to burn.  My lungs cried out for air, but I urged myself to continue.  Surely, just a few more yards and I would be out of harm’s way.

Then a meek inner voice echoed, You have found your one true love, your passion.  The honor of your achievements cannot be taken from you.  At last, you have found peace.  Could this be the end?  Was my subconscious coming to terms with my ultimate demise in this primitive land?  I fully expected to be impaled by an arrow at any moment, but the cries of my pursuers drifted farther and farther away.  I had done the impossible; I had outrun death. 

My treacherous journey continued.  Concern morphed to panic as I ventured deeper into the unknown without coming to the brook.  Had I become disoriented in the heat of the chase?  If I was lost, I was as good as dead.  I was beginning to feel overcome with despair, until at last, I came to a babbling brook snaking through the tranquil forest.  Every muscle ached and my lungs burned, cramps on both of my sides squeezed like a vice. 

I collapsed in a heap on a soft patch of grass at the water’s edge.  Soaking in the serenity of the clearing, watching the fluttering butterflies, and listening to the trill of the crickets seemed to rejuvenate my resolve.  I forced my weary body up and took a swig from my canteen.  Thoughts of savages chasing me down and putting a tomahawk through my skull provided enough motivation to spur me on. 

I traveled for what must have been miles, striding over fallen timber and high grasses, the bright foliage surrounding me streaking by in a blur.  At last, I emerged from the wood to open grassland and rolling hills.  Fort Martin stood in the distance, its magnificent wooden towers stretching toward the bright blue sky.  My final destination in sight, I quickened my pace.  The impressive structure grew more menacing as I approached.  It beckoned me, a safe haven and oasis from my plight.

Two sentries spotted me, and called out.  I ignored them; their incompetence would only delay my mission. 

“Halt!  Identify yourself!” the sentry demanded as I approached.

“Imperative message for the Colonel!” I muttered as I raced passed the guard.  The flustered soldier’s reply was muffled by the wind whipping past my ears.

Once through the gaping entrance of the fort, I slowed to a brisk walk as I scanned for the door to the headquarters.  I entered into the belly of the fort, passed the armory, and snapped at one of the Colonel’s staff when he demanded I state my business.  Reluctantly, he granted me entrance.  I stumbled into the Colonel’s office, exhausted yet relieved I had completed my mission.

The stately Colonel was studying some documents at his desk.  He rose to greet me, but I had doubled over in agony, panting like a wild animal, my chest heaving.  His youthful, freshly shaven face seemed out of place in the colonies.

“Good Lord boy, it looks like you’ve been through a war!” he declared with a hint of sarcasm.  “ Get this boy some drink!” he instructed a servant standing behind him in the shadows.  I shook my head, declining the offer. 

Gasping, I stood up straight, and managed a feeble salute.  “ Your message, sir!”  I removed the letter from my satchel, and handed it to him.  He broke the seal expeditiously and scanned the letter, his brow furrowed in thought.  Would the message turn the tide of the war?  How many lives had I saved by completing my perilous task?  Suddenly, the Colonel tilted his head back, chuckled, then crumpled up the letter and tossed it over his shoulder indifferently.
 
“That bastard, Freely,” the Colonel said under his breath.  Regaining his composure, he remarked casually, “ You’ll have a room in which to rest until your unit arrives.  Your services are no longer required today.  You are dismissed.”  The Colonel hastily made his exit, and his obedient staff waiting outside the door followed him.  I was left alone, utterly bewildered.  Where was his sense of urgency? The message had not spurred him into action but instead seemed to amuse him.

I eyed the crumpled paper warily.  Curiosity overcame me.  Briefly ignoring my soldierly duty, I went behind the desk, scooped up the letter, and flattened it out.  I glanced quickly to the door to insure I was alone.

The honorable Colonel Scott,

My most sincere congratulations on your recent reassignment to Fort Martin.  Being in close neighborhood, my men will be arriving by the eve.  May I remind you of our wager in London? Regardless of your vexation, I trust you are a man of your word.  ‘Twas a fool’s wager!  Alas, your horse lost fairly, of which you have my pity, but you are still bound by honor to comply.  My beloved wife and I expect the finest wine as we dine upon the colony’s most delectable viands.  Expect our arrival in due haste.

Your most obedient servant, Colonel Freely.

I had put my life in jeopardy for a personal correspondence?  I stared at my mud-laden shoes, picturing my throbbing feet which had carried me on the improbable journey.  Rage should have taken hold, flushing all common sense from my rational mind.  But as suddenly as the anger had come, it subsided, suppressed by a soldier’s mentality.  There was no place for emotion in Her Majesty’s Army.    

I was relived and thankful to simply be alive.  I dared not speak to anyone of the letter, for fear of treason.  A soldier’s honor bound me to my duty, judgment be damned.  Maintaining my composure, I swiped the letter from the desk.  There was nothing more to be done but to focus on my next assignment, whatever it may be.
Benjamin Cooper is a published author who resides in Naperville, IL with his wife and daughter. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. His works can be found on his website for complimentary viewing.
 
* * *
The Dog Fight
By Joao Cerqueira

Jesus and Magdalene were wandering through the neighborhood when they began to hear a strange noise. Guided by their ears, they walked in the direction of the sound. The brutish noise was initially refined into a thunderous roar and then into two distinct growls. An animal fight was about to take place.

“I’ve heard that they have dog fights in these neighborhoods,” said Magdalene, feeling uncomfortable.

“Who would organize such savagery?” Jesus asked her.

“No idea. There’s talk of clandestine betting, mafias, some police involvement. They sometimes manage to film it on TV but no one has ever been caught. In the end the dogs turn up at the vet’s, their lives in the balance.”

Jesus quickened his step without saying another word. Magdalene found it hard to keep up with him.

They then discovered that the racket was coming from the courtyard of a building. They passed through a small tunnel and entered this enclosed space. Before them, two boys and two dogs. Facing each other, as if this were a duel in which the dogs had replaced the weapons, they were holding their beasts at a short distance from each other while provoking them. There was no one around them; the concrete courtyard was empty. Magdalene understood what was happening: this wasn’t a fight with betting yet, just a training session. As two competent trainers, the boys were preparing their dogs for the major event. And what better way of preparing a fighter than forcing it to fight?

“Stop this!” she cried.

The boys looked up at her.

“Shut up, bitch, or I’ll sick my dog on you,” one of them threatened.

And they went back to concentrating on their task, now slapping the dog’s backs. Suddenly they moved away and the animals launched themselves at each other dementedly. The clash took place with their front paws, which were wielded as their mouths tried to sink their teeth in their necks. One of the dogs managed to bite the side of the other’s snout, while the other went for its jawbone. Both fell back to the ground bleeding, looking like Siamese twins joined at the head. And the intense growling was transformed into a furious whining.

“Wait here,” Jesus told her.

Jesus then began to walk towards the center of the courtyard, making the ground reverberate with every step. As soon as they realized that a stranger was approaching, the boys prepared to face him. One pulled out a knife and the other grabbed the brass knuckles he had in his pocket. “Get out of here, or else...” But the moment they looked up at him they became frightened. Before Jesus was even five meters from them, they had begun their flight, leaving their dogs behind them.

A resident loomed in the window of an apartment, before immediately losing interest in yet another disturbance in the neighborhood.

One of the dogs, a Dogo Argentino crossed with a Bull Terrier, had its paws on its adversary, a purebred Rottweiler, and its teeth dug into the skin close to the other’s neck. As one was white and the other black, both were dyed a rusty color.

Jesus stroked their fur very softly, caressed them behind their ears, but the dogs continued to fight. Then he moved his hand to the scruffs of their necks and started to try to pull them apart. With energetic tugs he made the dogs shake and shiver without managing to separate them, however. He got as far as lifting that mass of self-devouring flesh up to shoulder height, but to no avail. On the contrary, his intervention provoked them even more. The Rottweiler managed to seize the paw of the Dogo Argentino in its mouth, and looked as if it were about to rip it off.

“Let me help you!” cried Magdalene from far away.

“Just stay where you are,” he ordered.

Jesus then let go of the dogs’ scruffs, lifted his arms, clenched his fists, and brought them down on their heads. There was the sound of bones cracking, and the animals fell down, seemingly struck dead. The white dog had fallen on its side and black lay with its paws in the air. The concrete was splattered with blood.

Magdalene came running up to him. “Have you killed them?”

Instead of replying, Jesus knelt down and placed his hands on the animals again; this time on their chests, close to their hearts. He remained thus for a few seconds and, suddenly, the dogs jumped up and shot off, their tails between their legs.

“They were just stunned. It was just a tap, to get them apart,” said Jesus.

“And you’re covered in blood, you look like Christ.”


A Luta de Cães

Na manhã seguinte caminhavam pelo bairro quando começaram a ouvir um barulho estranho. Guiados pelos ouvidos, avançam nessa direcção. O ruído bruto refinou-se primeiro num ronco atroador e depois em dois rosnados distintos. Uma luta de animais estava prestes a suceder.

«Ouvi dizer que há combates de cães nestes bairros», disse Madalena, constrangida

«Quem é que organiza tal selvajaria?», perguntou-lhe Jesus

«Não sei, fala-se em apostas clandestinas, máfias, alguns polícias envolvidos. As televisões às vezes conseguem filmar, mas nunca ninguém é apanhado. No fim aparecem cães quase mortos no veterinário»

Jesus acelerou a passada, sem mais nada dizer. Madalena teve dificuldade em acompanhá-lo.

Descobriram então que a barulheira vinha do pátio de um edifício. Atravessaram um pequeno túnel e entraram nesse espaço. Diante deles, dois rapazes e dois cães. De frente um para o outro, como se tratasse de um duelo onde os cães substituíam as armas, seguravam as suas feras a curta distância enquanto as iam acirrando. À sua volta não havia ninguém, vazio o pátio de cimento. Madalena percebeu o que se passava: não era ainda o combate com apostas, mas apenas um treino. Como dois competentes treinadores, os rapazes preparavam os seus cães para a grande competição. E nada melhor para preparar um lutador do que forçá-lo a lutar.

«Parem com isso!», gritou.

Os rapazes olharam para ela.

«Cala-te puta, senão solto-te o cão», ameaçou um deles.

E voltaram a concentrar-se na sua tarefa, dando agora palmadas fortes no lombo dos cães. De repente largaram-nos e os animais lançaram-se desvairados um contra o outro. O embate deu-se com as patas dianteiras, que se esgrimiram enquanto as bocas tentavam cravar os dentes nos pescoços. Um dos cães conseguiu morder a parte lateral do focinho do outro, enquanto este lhe ferrava a queixada. Ambos regressaram ao solo ensanguentados, parecendo agora siameses unidos pelas cabeças. E o intenso rosnar transformou-se num gemido raivoso.

«Espera aqui», diz-lhe Jesus.

E Madalena descobriu-lhe de novo no rosto a expressão autoritária que a havia atemorizado no sonho do laboratório. Jesus começou então a avançar até ao centro do pátio, fazendo o solo percutir a cada passo. Mal se aperceberam que um estranho se aproximava, os rapazes prepararam-se para o enfrentar. Um sacou de uma navalha e o outro agarrou a soqueira que tinha no bolso. «Põe-te a mexer, senão…». Mas, no momento em que o fitaram, quedaram-se ainda mais assustados do que Madalena. Ainda Jesus não estava a cinco metros deles quando começaram a fugir, abandonando os cães. À janela de um apartamento assomou um morador que logo se desinteressou de mais uma altercação no bairro.

Um dos cães, um Dogue Argentino traçado com Bull Terrier, tinha agora as patas sobre o seu adversário, um Rottweiler puro, e os dentes cravados muito perto do pescoço. Sendo um branco e o outro preto, estavam ambos tingidos de uma cor ferrugenta.

Jesus afagou-lhes o pelo com muito suavidade, acariciou-os atrás das orelhas, mas os cães continuaram engalfinhados. Depois deitou-lhes as mãos ao cachaço e começou a tentar separá-los. Com puxões enérgicos fazia os cães abanar e estremecer sem no entanto os conseguir apartar. Chegou a levantar à altura dos ombros aquela massa de carne que se devorava sem qualquer resultado também. Pelo contrário, a sua intervenção acirrou-os ainda mais. O Rottweiler conseguiu abocanhar a pata do Dogue Argentino arraçado e parecia prestes a arrancá-la.

«Deixa-me ajudar-te», gritou ao longe Madalena.

«Deixa-te estar aí», ordenou.

Jesus largou então os cachaços dos cães, elevou os braços, cerrou os punhos e deixou-os cair nas suas cabeças. Ouviu-se um baque de ossos a estalar e os animais tombaram fulminados. O cão branco ficou caído de lado e o preto de patas para o ar. No cimento havia salpicos de sangue.

Madalena veio a correr ter com ele. «Mataste-os?».

Em vez de responder, Jesus ajoelhou-se e voltou a colocar as mãos nos animais. Desta vez no peito, junto ao coração. Esteve assim alguns segundos e, de súbito, os cães levantam-se de um salto e saem disparados com o rabo entre as pernas.

«Estavam apenas desmaiados», disse Jesus.

«Não sabia que praticavas artes marciais. Foi só uma pancadita para os separar…»

«E estás todo cheio de sangue, pareces um Cristo».
 
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. His novel The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014 and the Global Ebook Awards 2014.
* * * 
Saved by the Belle
By Bruce Costello

“Blimey, it’s quiet. Not a tyre-kicker in sight.”
“I tell you what, mate, if this bloody recession doesn’t end soon, I’m looking at bankruptcy and you’ll be down the road.”
The two men, one bald, the other grey-haired, look out from their office, little more than a smoko room at the back of a small asphalted yard. On display are two dozen shiny second-hand cars, crammed like sardines. Everywhere, brightly-coloured triangular plastic flags droop despondently in the still air.
The phone rings.
“Good morning. Pre-Loved Car Sales. Ray speaking. How may I help you?” “Yes, Madam.” “She’s in mint condition.” “Very low Ks.” “Certainly, we’d be happy to do that. Your address, please?” “53 Carlisle Close?”  “What time would suit, Madam?” “Three this afternoon?” “Lovely.” “Thank you for your call.”
Ray hangs up, moustache twitching. “Carlisle Close, millionaire’s alley!” He punches the air. “Yes!” A wide red and gold tie swings across his dark shirt.
He He shouts out the window to a long-haired lad, blackening a Holden’s tyres.
“Hey, Bluey! Get that red Mercedes waxed and vacuumed, will ya! And I want those windows spotless! Rattle your dags...I’ve got a posh woman after it. Belle du Pont!”
                                                                                 *
Belle du Pont’s slender hands tremble as she passes Ray the plate of neenish tarts. Her face is hardly wrinkled and still  attractive, her figure trim and curvy. He feels her light brown eyes looking at him as they did back then.
“Fancy you remembering my face after forty years,” she says.
“How could I forget you...” Ray replies, frowning and running a hand across his bald head, “...after everything that happened.”
Belle’s face reddens.
“I was just a kid at sixteen,” Ray says slowly, “you were way ahead of me, boarding with our family and going to university.”
Belle looks away.
“Did you think I never heard how you told my parents you’d seen me sneaking out of their bedroom stuffing notes in my pocket after that grand went missing? You were such a liar. And it didn’t take me long to figure out who planted a $100 note in my undies drawer for Dad to find!”
His frown deepens. “There was no way they were going to believe me over you, after I got busted the week before for pinching money for fags from mum’s purse.” He leans forward in his chair, gazing into her wide eyes.
“And you know the worst part?”
Belle shakes her head.
“I loved you. You’d made me feel so very special with the things we did...”
“Stop there,” Belle interrupts. “We were both young and silly.”
“...the things we did on the sofa,” Ray goes on, “when Mum and Dad were away.”
“I was barely twenty myself.”
“Old enough to have known better,” Ray answers, his voice rising. “And I was only sixteen, but old enough to be kicked out of home! I’ve never trusted women since. I’ve always been on my own and I’ve got no son to pass the business to when I retire.”
He loosens his tie.
“That’s if I don’t go bankrupt first,” he adds, ignoring the tears beginning to trickle down her face. He rolls his eyes, clicks his tongue and stands to leave.
In a small voice, Belle says: “I’ve been tormented by guilt over what I did. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
She bursts into tears and sobs for several minutes, head in hands, her whole body shaking.
Ray stares at her. After a while, she grows quiet.
“It’s clean,” he says, handing her a handkerchief from his pocket. “We were both stupid kids then, no need to get your knickers in a twist.”
Belle blows her nose loudly.
“Anyway, what happened to you after they booted me out?” Ray asks. “Mum and Dad said you decided to quit varsity and go back to your parents in Brizzie.”
“So that’s what they told you!” Belle exclaims, open-mouthed. She takes a deep breath. “Your parents kicked me out, two months after they sent you away! Do you want to know why?”
                                                                                           *
Ray doesn’t show up at work until noon the next day.
“What happened?” asks Brian. “You look a bit whacked.”
“Been a bit involved with things,” Ray answers. “Got the red Mercedes away, though.”
“She bought it?”
“She bought the lot, mate, every car in the yard, the whole business, sight unseen.”
“What!”
 Ray opens his wallet and shows Brian a bank cheque for one million dollars.
 Brian whistles.
“She’s gifting the business to her only son,” Ray explains, “He’s gonna keep you on as manager, and I’ll be able to retire.” Ray dances a little jig, grinning from ear to ear. “He’s coming in here tomorrow. Tell you what, mate, I’m really looking forward to meeting my boy.”
New Zealander Bruce Costello semi-retired from his profession in 2010 and took up writing as pastime. Since then he has had fifty-three short stories published in literary journals and popular magazines in six countries.
 
* * * 

Henry and Winston
By Ellen Devlin

I'm not really sure where we stopped the car, somewhere off 177. It was all trailers and skinny dogs, humid. That’s what I remember, the dogs barking, the fog. Henry gave me the box to hold, the whole long 173 miles from The University of Oklahoma, Norman, no stops.

Henry pulled over, grabbed his rifle from the back.

"Is that really necessary?"

No answer.

"Henry! Do we have to take that?"

"Yeah. You have never seen crazy like this.”

He stepped in front of me. I followed him past the trailer park into tall prairie grass that clung to my bare legs. He didn’t use the flashlight. There was no moon. He seemed to listen his way there, lifting his head, standing still, and then changing direction.
We had been living together in an apartment on Stafford for four months. I was still making up my mind about him. He was smart and funny and cooked for me. If you saw him wash dishes— lavish, slow, sudsy, caressing a tumbler, for god's sake, turning around from the sink smiling at me, well--

Whenever I asked about his family, or what it was like growing up in Tulsa, he'd pick up his six- string and make up an old-timey oilman's song about life in the boom towns. He wasn't a Getty, but had family money. I'm used to guys I grew up with, who have no money or secrets. Henry and I were both Anthropology majors, both wanted research in the field, New Guinea. He knew why I wanted to get as far away as I could from Park Slope, I really didn’t know much about his family until he asked me to do this thing, carry the box.

The box was small but getting heavy. Whatever was in there was packed in tight, no amount of jostling yielded a sound from inside. Paper of some kind? Photos?

We were in a National Preserve. How could anyone just park an RV and live there?

Henry banged on the door.

"Hey Winston! Wake up! You got company."

No movement from inside the trailer.

Henry put one foot on the second step leading to the door.

"I know you're in there. Come on, Winston, I got my lady with me, she wants to meet
you."

Nothing.

"Let's go Henry, I said, no one is here."

Henry lifted the rifle and fired into a roof vent.

Winston opened the door.

She was a little taller than Henry, maybe five years older, same curly dark hair, dark eyes. She had to turn sideways to get out the trailer door— had to be 300 pounds. She smelled sickly sweet, like a decomposing animal.

"Did you bring them, Henry?"

Winston didn't even look at me.

"You told her?"

"Not everything. Enough."

Rich people are so weird. Who calls a girl Winston?

"Well,” she said, looking over our heads, "Come in.”

Winston grasped the sides of the trailer and heaved herself up. When her back was turned
I looked at Henry with what he calls my what the hell? face.

“You ain't seen nothing yet," he whispered.

Inside was a sea of containers with candy in them—Tupperware, wine glasses, goldfish bowls, coolers, teapots, shoe boxes. Every table and chair, counter, held them, M&Ms filled the kitchen sink, shoes and boots, lined up on the floor were filled with mini chocolate bars, gumdrops, jelly beans; the drawers were open in the kitchen, the dresser, like treasure chests, filled. There was one chair that was clear, with a laptop on it.

“I’m a writer, um...”

"Marion."

"Yes, well Marion, I am an expert in the Fairytales of Western Europe," Winston said
with obvious pride.

"Well, here, Winston,” said Henry. "You get this, 100k a year and I get the rest of the money—that's our agreement. Don't care what you write or who you tell, we're done. You never attempt to contact me again."

"Do you like to surround yourself with the objects of your study for inspiration?" I asked, trying to make a normal conversation out of this.

Winston laughed. "You didn't tell her, Henry? You didn't tell her, how misled we were, as children?"

“All children are misled, Winston. Got to lie to them sometimes, same tongues sing lullabies."

She offered me the fishbowl.

"They left us right here, Marion, in the Tall Grass. They didn’t have any supernatural powers. Some versions make them witches. They had ordinary weariness and great lies. Henry took care of them, so I could stay here.”

He took the box from me and handed it to her. "Here are their tapes, like you asked." Henry opened the box. Inside were about 8 reel to reel tapes, old ones, about six inches across.

Winston took one out and pulled a Pioneer player from a drawer under the built-in bed. She threaded a reel and began to listen to her parents’ laughter.  She didn’t notice them leaving.

Henry was already opening the door, guiding me through.

"What’s on the tapes, Henry? Why does she want the tapes?"

“Conversations between our parents about us. Terrible stuff— including their plans to get rid of us. They both died in a psychiatric residential facility in Atlanta. I was told they played them every night."
Ellen Devlin has studied poetry at Bread Loaf Writers Conference and The Hudson Valley Writers Center. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Poet Lore, New Ohio Review, Women Studies Quarterly, Redactions: Poetry, Poetics and Prose, and Passager, Helix, as well as online in The Lost River Review, and New Verse News.
 
* * *
A Butterfly Effect
By Paula Eames

The leaves had changed, jack-o-lanterns sat on porches, and the air was that brand of crisp particular to autumn. John Hoffstad began his morning with a cup of fresh coffee--black, two sugars--and a bowl of bran flakes. He ironed his suit; brushed his teeth, flossing twice; dressed; combed his hair three times until the part stayed straight; paused at the front door, surveying the outdated furniture and dust-free surfaces, empty of pictures newer than fifteen years old; and left for work. At five-fifteen, he came back and made spaghetti.

He dried his plate and put the remaining pasta in the top right corner of the fridge specially reserved for leftovers. He checked his watch. Six thirty-one. He should’ve left a minute ago. Carefully ripping the grocery list off the pad on the fridge, John wondered how he could make up the lost time, but nothing was forthcoming. As these thoughts buzzed around in his head, he hurried out of the house and shut the door behind him.

Night had settled over the town when John returned home. As he got out of the car, he noticed the curtain move behind the living room window. He froze, thinking somebody was in his house, but quickly decided it must have been the heater kicking on.

He scooped up the bags into one hand and walked up the steps. Holding the screen door open with his back, John slid the key into the lock and turned the handle. The door wouldn’t open.

It was unlocked, he had heard it click, and the handle turned fine, but despite how hard he pushed against the door, it refused to budge. Bewildered, John set the groceries down and slammed his shoulders into the door. Nothing.

The window slid open, creaking from disuse. “Don’t bother,” said a deep, raspy voice from within. “There’s a bookcase in front of it. It’s not going anywhere.”

“Who are you?” John asked, his voice wavering. “How did you get in my house?” He walked off the small concrete porch onto the grass to get a better look inside, but the lights were off.

“You left the door unlocked,” the man said.

“No, I didn’t,” John said, though he wasn’t sure. He had been too distracted by the time when he left. Maybe he had left the door unlocked.

“Then somebody did,” said the man, “cause I certainly didn’t break in.”

There was a spark behind the curtain, followed by a tiny red glow. John heard the man exhale slowly.

“You can’t smoke in there,” John snapped.

“Suit yourself,” the man said. The screen opened and the stamped-out cigarette was tossed out the window. John bent forward to pick it up, stuffing it in his pocket, and wished he had a cell phone to call the police. But, having no friends or family, there had never seemed to be a need for one.

“Get out and let me in my house,” he said. He checked his watch (six fifty-five) and, remembering the food, grabbed the groceries, as if someone might run up and steal them.

“No.”

“You have to let me in. It’s my house. The food’s going to go bad. Please.”

“You can buy more food.”

For an absurd moment, John considered this. He thought about dipping into his savings or the money allocated for bills, but he would have to replace the money in either one, which would put him behind, and he would never catch up and save as much as he had planned on saving for the year. What if he needed that money? What if something happened and that bit of money made the difference between success and financial ruin? His heart accelerated, his breaths coming out in short bursts. He didn’t have any more grocery money--he had spent the last of it tonight. He wouldn’t get paid until Friday, but he refused to borrow money from his savings. John looked at the bags of food in his hand, as if checking whether they’d spoiled in the last five minutes. The groceries. The groceries had to be put away. He checked his watch. Seven-thirty-two. He should have been practicing the piano. Now, he was going to be late doing that and then he wouldn’t get to bed on time and then he might wake up late in the morning. The October air felt too cool, his skin clammed up. And what if he was so late he would get fired? And he still hadn’t put the groceries away because he couldn’t get into his own house.

His stomach rolled. A ringing filled his ears, muffling all other sound. Breathing faster, he said, “Please,” before his head began to spin and he swayed sideways, falling onto his well-kept lawn.

Bright lights glowed overhead. John sat up, peeling his sweaty skin off the table. He was in his kitchen.

“The groceries,” he mumbled.

“They’re put away,” the raspy voice said behind him. “You have one hell of an organized place.”

John would have smiled, but he saw the plastic bags scattered on the counter. He leaned forward to push himself up, but the man stepped forward, resting his hand on John’s shoulder to hold him down. John flinched, almost sliding off his seat.

“Don’t touch me,” he said.

“All right,” the man replied, walking around the table to sit across from John. “Don’t want you straining yourself. That wasn’t a soft fall.”

The man leaned back in his chair, the front legs lifting off the ground. John pictured the chair breaking in panic. Grey peppered the man’s black hair and beard. The bottom of some sort of tribal tattoo peeked out from beneath the sleeve of his tattered grey t-shirt. His green eyes crinkled in either diffidence or a smile, John couldn’t tell.

“Who are you?” John asked. He could hear his heart thumping in the silent kitchen.

“Name’s Rudy,” the man said.

“Why are you in my house, Rudy?”

“Just needed a place to stay for the night. I’ll be gone in the morning. Heading for the ocean. Got family on the coast.”

“I could call the police on you, you know,” John said, looking at the table and sliding his hands up and down the tops of his legs, trying to keep calm. “For breaking and entering.”

“I told you, I didn’t break anything. The door was unlocked. Besides, I have both the house phones.” He held them up as proof.

“What if I have a cell phone?” John asked.

“You don’t. If you had, you’d have done it already.”

Sheepish, John looked down, caught in his bluff. He didn’t know what to say.

“You got any family?” Rudy asked.

“No,” John said. He glanced at Rudy and looked back at his hands. After a moment’s silence, he added, “They died.”

“That sucks,” Rudy said, frowning, his chair dropping to the ground with a thunk. “How’d happen?”

“My parents died in a fire. Our apartment building. I was at school. My grandparents died fifteen years ago. They raised me. Left me this house.”

“No cousins or kids?”

“No,” John said, his cheeks warm. He realized how long it had been since he had said so much about himself.

He looked at Rudy’s clothes--dirty, patched in places, and emitting a rather unpleasant stench of body odor. Rudy folded his arms across his chest like he could sense he was being examined. John stood up.

“You can stay here for the night,” he said, walking to the fridge. “Are you hungry?” He smiled.

“Already ate,” Rudy said.

John looked in the sink. A spaghetti sauce-covered bowl and fork sat there. John filled them with water so they could soak.

“Follow me,” he said, walking up the stairs.

He showed Rudy the bathroom and guest bedroom and grabbed him clothes to sleep in. As the shower turned on, John went downstairs to wash the dishes and pick up the books that had been knocked off when Rudy pushed the bookcase back in place. As he picked up the plastic bags and stored them in a container under the sink, he glanced at the knife block on the counter, debating whether he should take one just in case. After a moment’s hesitation, he pulled out the paring knife and carried it upstairs. It felt wrong removing it from its rightful place, but he would rather be safe than sorry. John set it on his bedside table, changed, and crawled into bed.

The cloudy morning streamed in through the thin curtains. The alarm buzzed at seven. John sat up, rubbing a hand over his prickly cheek. He saw the knife on the table and remembered Rudy. Hopping out of bed, he went into the guest room. It was empty. He checked downstairs, but no one was there. Rudy had gone.

John’s shoulders slumped, and he was surprised at his disappointment. He sank onto the couch, watching the languid morning light filter in through the windows, listening to the silent, empty house.

A few minutes passed and he sighed and stood to turn on the coffee machine.

Seven months later, John sat at his table, reading the instructions on his new cell phone, trying to figure out how to put a photo with a person’s contact. Frustrated, he ran his hand through his hair, messing up his part. John stood and left to grab the mail, rifling through it as he walked inside.

Shoved between two bills was a postcard with a picture of a long pier jutting out into the ocean, waves breaking around it. In yellow letters at the bottom, it read “Virginia Beach, VA.” All that was written on the back was “Made it. Thanks for your help. Rudy.”

Smiling, John it hung on the fridge.

Recently uprooted from her Missouri hometown, Paula Eames is currently working towards her BFA in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She loves caffeine and sarcasm and can often be found making her friends uncomfortable by blurting out whatever is on her mind.
 
* * * 

Santa Claus: A Dilemma
By Sara Ging

The Christmas before I turned eight is still one of my clearest memories of childhood. I woke up to sun shining brightly on freshly-fallen snow. Apart from being slightly lop-sided, the tree with its twinkling lights could have been something right out of a movie. A fire crackled in the hearth. My father must have gotten up extra early to have it roaring by then. There were mountains of presents underneath the tree, and generally speaking it was as idyllic a Christmas morning as anyone could possibly have imagined. By the time I came downstairs, each of my three siblings had a gift in hand, ready to rip and shred and otherwise maul the bright wrapping paper. No one could open presents unless we were all there, that was the rule, and I was the last one up—a rarity for the youngest of the family. 

“Finally,” someone sighed, exasperated. My three older siblings all looked to my mother, who nodded, and they tore into their gifts. I went and sat by the fireplace. I ignored the packages with my name on them. After a few minutes (in which everyone else’s presents were uncovered and scattered around the room), my mother came over to me. 

“Don’t you want to see what you got?” she said gently. I shook my head.

“You won’t even look in your stocking?” my father pressed.

“No thank you,” I said stubbornly. I got up and went back upstairs. I lay atop my covers in a resentful daze. It wasn’t long before my older sister Rebecca, with whom I shared the room, stuck her head in. 

“Suck it up, short stack,” she said, cheerfully unsympathetic. “At least they told you. I had to find out when I got up to pee and they were filling our stockings.” Becca was twelve and pretty much the worst. It seemed only natural that she would take such a betrayal in stride. I didn’t move. She poked me a couple of times in the side and tried singing rude versions of Christmas carols that she’d heard in middle school, but I didn’t react. Looking back, I know she was trying to cheer me up, but at the time it seemed like ruthless torment. She gave up and went back downstairs after a few minutes—no doubt to read an adventure book. She’d gotten what looked like the full complement of Nancy Drews in a box set. 

My mother came up a few minutes later. “I made cinnamon rolls,” she said. “Do you want me to bring you one?” I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of the offer. I only knew that I was never allowed to eat in bed unless I was sick. 

“No thank you,” I said again, voice trembling. 

“Oh, honey,” she said, gathering me up into her arms. “We didn’t know you’d take it so hard.” I didn’t see how it could be taken any other way. Everyone I loved, and who I thought loved me, had been lying to me for my entire life. And if they could lie about this, who knew what else might be fake? My concept of a benevolent system ordering the world had been shaken completely. It was akin to the being told by the Pope that God wasn’t real—he was just waiting until you were old enough to let you know.

I didn’t open my presents until almost a week later, when I was home alone. Becca and Jimmy were out cross-country skiing with dad to our aunt’s house about a half-mile away, and mom had taken Paul to the doctor because his stomach hurt. Well, that’s what you get for eating a whole chocolate orange in one go.

The worst part was that I’d gotten almost everything that I put on my Christmas list. There had been no letter to Santa, so it was just a list. And, of course, there had been no answering letter, as there had always been before. No ‘dear Amy, you were a very good girl this year, except for that time with the marmalade, but Mrs. Claus has convinced me to let it slide.’ I would have been happier with coal.

No one ever apologized to me, and so I never formally forgave anyone. The bitterness faded over time. That doesn’t mean I think Santa is a good idea, as I was more than happy to tell Jen when she brought it up. It was our last pre-baby Christmas, and we had been discussing how things would change. We sat on the couch drinking gingerbread-flavored herbal tea. Jen couldn’t have caffeine, so it seemed only fair for me to show solidarity. We’d decided to stay put for at least another year—the condo was big enough for three. But obviously Christmas next year would be different. 

“Of course, we’ll have to get stockings for Santa to fill,” she said. “We can hang them over the radiator, I guess, since we don’t have a chimney—”

“No,” I said. “No Santa. We’re not traumatizing our kid like that.” She looked startled.

“What?”

“Santa is the worst idea ever. How are they supposed to trust us if they find out that we willfully deceived them for the first few years?” I said. She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, don’t be melodramatic.”

“I’m not! Call Becca and ask, if you feel the need. It was a huge blow to me, when I was a kid.” My older sister would probably have laughed—cackled—at the memory. I’m willing to admit that Becca is no longer the worst, full stop, but she never really acquired much sensitivity where her siblings are concerned. “Or Jimmy or Paul,” I added, though I wasn’t actually sure how much they would remember. While I have no doubt that Jimmy could describe every Hess truck he ever received, and Paul can probably still recite the recipes for all three kinds of our mother’s holiday cookies, remembering my childhood emotional scars was less probable. “My parents will back me up, too,” I said.

They didn’t. 

My parents stopped by that afternoon—my mother to coo over Jen’s belly and deliver cookies, my father to smile awkwardly and slip me a small bottle of good bourbon. It didn’t even have a ribbon on it, but it was the best present I’d gotten that year. Apart from the baby-to-be, of course, but this show of approval or solidarity or something was a close second. 

“You’ll need it, the first few months,” he confided as we stood together in the living room. “She’ll probably need it more, though, after nine months not drinking.” We’d already had the important discussion, about parenting and doing the best you can for your kids with what you know at the time. We’d had it years before, all hypothetical, with an encore performance when Jen and I had decided to have kids. One kid, at least. This was really all that was left for him to say. 

“So how do you feel about Santa?” I heard Jen ask my mom rather loudly in the kitchen. It was obviously a conversation she was starting for my benefit, so I followed the sound of her voice.

“What do you mean?” my mother said, perplexed.

“Do you think it’s a good idea?” Jen said, looking pointedly at me and raising an eyebrow. 

“Trick question,” my father interjected. “This is obviously an ongoing debate, and I for one do not want to get in the middle of it.”

“Debate?” My mother looked back and forth between me and Jen. “What is there to debate?”

“Whether or not we want to do the Santa thing,” I explained, “considering my experiences. And those of many other people, I’m sure!”

“It wasn’t an issue for any of the other kids,” my father said, abandoning his promise of neutrality. “So I’d say you’ve got a twenty-five percent chance of upsetting your future son or daughter.”

“That’s not a very large sample size,” Jen said. She was unable to quash her scientific impulses. (That’s what I get for marrying a biochemical engineer.) “But I’ll take what I can get.” She smiled at me, holding out the open Tupperware of my mother’s gingerbread cookies as a peace offering. I didn’t want to argue on Christmas, in front of my parents, so I took a cookie and let it slide.  Until the following week. 

“I’m okay with you taking the kid to church. Isn’t that more important?” I said. Jen frowned at me over a plate of leftovers. “You’re not even Catholic. Saints aren’t important to Lutherans, are they?”

“It’s not the Saint Nicholas thing. Santa is almost a secular tradition by this point. All her friends at school will have that, and if she doesn’t, it won’t be fair.” We’d agreed not to ask about the sex of the fetus, but Jen was convinced that it was a girl. 

“If we do Santa, we’re also doing Krampus,” I insisted. Jen looked at me like I was out of my mind. “If they’re going to be upset that something good in the world doesn’t exist, that should at least be balanced by relief that something bad also doesn’t exist.”

“No Krampus,” she said with an air of finality that brooked no argument, and crossed her arms over her belly. It is a truth universally acknowledged among the non-pregnant halves of expecting couples that you don’t argue with the baby bump. So I didn’t.

Which means that now, as Kara’s getting old enough to ask logistical questions about reindeer flight, the only option left to me is evasion. 

“Is Santa real?” she says, beatific six-year-old face terrifyingly earnest. 

“The spirit of giving is real,” I say. We’re at Macy’s, waiting to get her holiday portrait done like we do every year. She’s in a red dress and cardigan and looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to break her heart. This is made difficult by the fact that Kara has Jen’s inquisitive nature and sharp mind. She might not recognize the handwriting on Santa’s letters just yet, but she knows that something is up.

“I don’t think that’s an answer,” she says after a long moment of consideration.

“You’re right,” I say.

Kara frowns, forehead wrinkling, and considers this in silence. I’m not looking forward to next year. I can’t even make cinnamon rolls to soften the blow.
 
Sara Ging is a graduate of Tufts University. In addition to writing fiction, she runs a personal blog about horror in media, which can be found here. When not writing, Sara works in theatrical costuming.
* * *

Grandma's Birds
By David Harris

Betty had slowed down, but she was still as sharp as ever. These days she lived alone in the old house. Her grandson John visited when he could. He had long felt that there was something different about his grandmother, that she was moored to some deeper calm, a quiet acceptance of all that life was that was built on having experienced the full spectrum of triumphs and tragedies without being defeated by either one. The family had tried to get her into assisted living for years, but she utterly refused. She would live in her own home or not at all, she always said. John thought his grandmother must be lonely, but this was not the case. Betty had adopted a nest of cardinals that lived in her backyard as her own bird children. She had names for each of them and could point out the subtle differences in their appearance and demeanors that were only noticeable upon intimate inspection. 

“I’m going to call you Saint Francis,” John joked on one of his visits.

“Don’t canonize me yet, young man. Who knows what this old bird is capable of?”

“You couldn’t hurt any living thing.”

“You have no idea about the things I did when I was young. Besides, your grandfather nearly drove me to violence once or twice when he was alive,” Betty said with a wink.

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

Betty looked at him, her expression suddenly serious. “Forty years of marriage is a long time.”

Later that afternoon John accompanied his grandmother onto the deck during her daily bird ritual. The yard was blanketed with a rare March snow. It was a clear, cloudless afternoon. Betty stood against the rail with her seed bag and tossed a few handfuls to her spot on the ground. She let out a few whistles, her best impression of the language of cardinals. Then she stood patiently, waiting. At first it appeared that nothing would happen, but after a while a small cardinal fluttered out from the band of trees encircling the large back yard and landed beside the seed pile. It stood out like a red beacon against the white carpet. Three more landed beside it shortly after. Betty tossed out more seeds, and the congregation continued to grow.

“That’s probably as close as they come today. Sometimes they come all the way to the rail here. But they smell a stranger,” Betty said.

“I’m not any stranger than you,” John retorted.

Betty gave her grandson a look then proceeded to explain the identities and personalities of each bird. The crowd had grown to perhaps a dozen birds from different nests in the surrounding trees. Betty glowed with quiet pleasure at the sight of her bird children. John stood back, observing the spectacle of his grandmother’s intimate connection with nature. It was one of those surreal moments when it is clear in a way that cannot be explained that some higher energy is at work.

Without warning a streak bolted out of the sky. John saw it out of his periphery. At first it did not compute, but then it did. The hawk dove down like a silent assassin, a feathered missile knifing through the air. By then it was too late. The cardinals scattered, or tried. The hawk swooped down, talons extended in all their awful glory on one of the male cardinals. It clamped down, crushing the helpless cardinal in its vices.

Betty let out a shriek as her bird child was torn to pieces in front of her, staining the snow with blood. John stood in silent shock as his eighty-eight year old grandmother grabbed a small flower pot from the deck railing and hurled it at a velocity that should not have been possible at the hawk. It escaped by inches, flying off into the trees with its meal in its talons.

Betty wanted a few moments to be alone outside with her birds when the disaster had passed. John did as she asked. After a while he came back out and stood beside her against the deck railing.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Betty looked at him warmly. There was sorrow in her expression but also a kind of resignation. “Now I think I’ve seen it all. Maybe this is a sign.”

She shivered in the cold, and she seemed now much older than she had before.
David Harris writes character-driven fiction that seeks to approach the big life questions with realism and wit. Before turning to writing some years ago, his artistic pursuits began in music, with a degree in classical guitar performance from the University of Georgia. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
 
* * * 
The Missing Man
By Mark Herden

It happened thirty years ago. I left Milwaukee and ended up in New York State.  A guy dropped me off in a town called Hamlin.  I got a room and a job working at Jake's Garage.  There were only two full-timers, me and Jake, the owner.  I started calling him Torch Fiend, because he was wild with the acetylene torch.  He'd no sooner have a car up on the lift, his torch would flash, and the exhaust system would crash to the floor.  Jake was a big guy with a channel-like scar on his face that started below his right eye and disappeared into his beard.  His voice was real low, and you had to wait for the words to come out.  I'd joke with him and say, 'Why don't you go out and scare somebody, Torch Fiend.'  He say, 'Okay, Don Juan.'  He called me that, because I kept a comb and a little mirror in my toolbox.

On nice days Jake brought his mother to the station.  She was in a wheelchair and would sit outside the front door between an orange Buick with no tires and a '65 Cadillac Jake was restoring. She'd just sit and watch traffic go by.

One night Jake and I stayed late to work on his Cadillac.  Afterwards, we went to a college bar a couple miles away.
I noticed a booth full of girls in the back, and one really stood out.  She had a smile that was always there.

A pinball machine stood beside her booth, and I got Jake to play.  The girl I was watching caught me looking at her.  We started talking, and the first thing I knew I was in her booth. Jake stood nearby looking like a wooden Indian holding a beer.


The one I liked, Kathy, had to tell him to sit.  While Kathy and I played pinball I watched the five gold-colored bracelets on her right wrist click lightly against the glass.

I waited a few days and called.  We went out every night, and after a month we decided to find a place together.  We rented the top floor of a big house with pink siding a few blocks from the college.

On the nights she was at sculpture class–she was studying art at the college–I'd sit on the cool concrete of the front steps under a light and drink beers I got from the cooler in the porch.

One night she and her friends talked about some sculptor named Rodin.  Their talk made me think of the yard-high carving of Jesus sitting on a rug-covered orange crate near the back door of the garage.  It was dark mahogany and had delicate fingers carved to look as though they were reaching out to you.  Those fingers made you feel uneasy, because they looked so real.  Damn place for it, surrounded by car parts, a ripped-up Chevy seat on one side of it, cartons of oil filters on the other.  Whenever new customers came in they’d look at it funny.  I think Jake's mother wanted it there for some reason.

Kathy and I would lie in bed, talk and look out the window to the street where lights on poles lit the broken sidewalk.  We liked to watch people pass beneath us.  You could sometimes catch their words.  When it rained the leaves on the big elms lining the street twisted and dipped, and the soft sound of water on the sidewalk took my cares away.  Another thing I remember–you recall the strangest things.  At work I often cut my hands up fixing the cars. When I touched them at night it felt as though I were touching someone else's hands.

After a few months things started to slide with me and Kathy—my own fault, really.  It was hard for me to tell what she was thinking. She was something to look at.  Her eyes were a light blue, and her skin was almost as white as porcelain.  She slept with her face buried in the pillow, and I'd run my hand over her thick hair that flowed off the sides of her back.  I can remember that room as clear as if I had a picture of it in front of me.  At one window, on a wrought-iron stand, was a plant with thin shoots falling below the pot, making it look like a frozen fountain.  Her stack of gold bracelets on the bureau top shone through the dark, and the soft blue and red lights in her aquarium shone like the watery lights in a tavern window.

In that room it seemed as though I was as far away from the rest of the world as I could get.  For some reason I always had a feeling the whole thing couldn't last though, you know, with Kathy and me and the college town job.  See, Jake got killed.  Jake's sister called one Sunday night, and told me he'd died in a freak accident after I left work Friday.  I wasn't surprised, because he was very careless. He was pulling a transmission from a Pontiac, had the front end lifted by a forklift.  The forklift's hydraulic hose broke, and down came the car.  It must have crushed him like a bug.  I got together with the part-time employees, and we filled a coffee can with cash.

I drove to Jake's house with the money.  His wife wasn't in any condition to talk to anyone, so her sister came to the door.  She told me I could have Jake's Cadillac.  Jake's wife must have told her Jake liked me.  The next day I threw my tools in the trunk and wheeled it onto the highway.
 
Mark Herden's works have appeared in The Iconoclast, Artisan, Barbaric Yawp and The Portland Review among others have published his short fiction. He has a Master of Arts in English from Brockport State College and has studied fiction at the University of Iowa.
* * *
Blood and Lipstick
By Heather Heyns

My sister tried to teach me to put on make-up when I was seven. First the pink, which she wiped away after a sneer and replaced with blue. She rejected purple, orange, and silver-glitter next. A damp napkin stripped the colors away until my skin swelled, red and angry. We did this dance every year, and every year she put away her make-up after deeming me a lost cause.

I never tried on my own. Gobs of colored goo did little to transform me the way it did my sister. Instead, I picked. For every bit of beauty she added, I picked that same amount from my own skin. Every raised bump, every tiny imperfection, I went at with the attention of a surgeon removing tumors. 

As a teenager, she sat at her vanity, bottles and palettes open, and applied it all. I sat on the counter top, alone in front of the mirror of my bathroom. I leaned in, as I'd seen her do so many times, and I looked for the flaws. Each flaw I found I picked at and dug out. Red saturated my fingers as I scratched, until open sores remained. The sores would hurt, oozing and swollen, but I swore I saw something beneath them that was beautiful. It was always just a little deeper. 

When trying to take an interest in me, she took me for a manicure. The woman held my hands and stared in silence. She tried to attach the acrylic tips to the nubs, to the scraps of nail left behind, but the glue had nothing to hold to. Instead, she painted them red. That night more red oozed from where I peeled the pathetic remains of my nails.

One night my sister sat before her mirror, mascara wand in hand, and cried. She tried to apply her armor of pinks and reds quicker than the tears washed them away. Watery mascara smeared every brush stroke until she looked like the Starry Night painting. 

"I just keep thinking that if I could put a little more on, I'd look okay." 

I sat beside her on the small seat and stared into the mirror. Side by side, our features that always looked so different, were at that moment identical. She added, but could never add enough. I subtracted, but could never take enough away. We worked for beauty but got only puddles of tears and reds of every shade.

Heather Heyns is a freelance writer residing in Southern California. She obtained her Associates degree in English, and has been published in Howl Literary Magazine.
* * * 
Recon
By Katrina Johnston

My older brother, Bill, gets off work real late – after midnight. I'm supposed to have his 1:45 a.m. dinner completely ready so that Bill can just walk right in and inhale his supper. If not plated and perfectly served up, I'm supposed to have it sitting on the stove and simmering along by the time he drives from Surrey. But I'm not able to begin the prep this time. Usually, I pull-up a simple recipe online. I couldn't tonight because I've accidentally spilled a honking gigantic glass of Pepsi on the computer keyboard. The keys are are sticking in the depressed position. It's Bill's technology.

I'm also supposed to rev up the blender to puree a bunch of tomatoes. I'm sitting here with a crazy hope that something will rescue me. Or my brother will morph into a pussy cat. Slim chance of that; I'm thinking on it.

Bill lets me stay here rent free when I'm plugging through my university terms. I'm thinking about going down to the lobby tonight and sneaking out, avoiding him completely, except I don't know where I'd go. It's after 1 a.m., and he'd probably find me without much sweat.

Hope he doesn't blow a gasket or hurt me either.

When we were kids, I accidentally broke his model airplane. We we're horsing around with hockey sticks. He walloped my legs. I wore a series of ugly bruises that lasted for two weeks, big purple welts over my shins. He's not really mean; he didn't intend that injury. He wasn't mean when we were younger either, but sometimes he's just way too tough.

Even now, Bill always gets extra fired-up when things don't go exactly to his liking. He doesn't know he's such a huge guy and he's never really aware how powerful.

He celebrated his 29th last month, and I am 24. He weighs-in at 285. I'm a skinny blade compared; 180 even when I'm soaking wet. I'm quaking in my shoes. I'm thinking hard on what he might do to possibly avenge me for the keyboard.

It's a very strange thing, but Bill won't tell me exactly where he works. I think it's a lounge or a night club and he's the bartender or some such. He works these odd night-time hours, but he's secretive. When I asked him last Tuesday, he said: “Mind your own GD business Gordon.”

He used to play football, defensive end. Maybe he's joined some late-night sports team or an athletic club – I dunno? He brings in gobs and gobs of cash. It must be a lucrative gig? But first thing after he gets in... I mean, without even bothering to say hello to me, he heads for a shower. He's not particularly spiffy in his dress, so it's not likely a high-class joint he's coming from.

He's usually an up-front sort of dude, fairly easy-going. Well, he's all social and funny when he wants to be and if he's not being a stupid sore-head complaining about me. He jokes with the neighbours here in the building. Especially with the retired couple who live in the penthouse suite on the sixteenth floor – the Graysons. Their kids are grown and independent. I think Bill rather admires and honours those older folks like they're his substitute grandparents or something. “Respect,” he says. “That's the way to go.”

We live two floors down from the Graysons, right here in 1407.

I guess Bill would like to be top floor. He acts like a big shot, like he's king of the world. This is a pretty expensive condo as it is right here. I'm grateful that he lets me stay. I've got two more years of pre engineering. But I earn it. I'm the chief cook and bottle washer and laundry-doer and grocery-shopper and....

When he finally gets in, I can see he's righteously upset. I don't mention his computer keyboard. I've ordered in a pizza, a plain one, like he prefers, and we'll make do. He doesn't seem to mind or at least he doesn't harp on it.

And Bill sits down on the couch. He has this kind of sad look. He starts yakking like someone flipped a switch.

Bill informs me that he's been working at The Blue Heron Nightclub. Not a bartender or a server. Oh No! My brother's a stripper. I nearly keeled over when he said that. He's a male stripper of all the crazy things!
 
He wasn't overjoyed tonight when Mrs. Grayson came waltzing inside the club with a bunch of her grey-haired 
lady friends. And she recognized him right away and made a huge commotion, and gave him an $50.00 tip, tucked the money into.... Gross!

But he had to keep on pretending to dance and smile in front of a club full of smirking women and a few gay dudes also.

“It's self-respect,” he said. “I've totally lost it.” And he looked like a wet and sickly alley cat.

So, I told him about the keyboard and he just kept wobbling his head and slapping the couch cushion until it was all puffed up.

That pizza dinner, the plain one that I ordered and paid for and we shared while Bill spilled his guts to me was the best damn pizza that I've ever eaten.

Katrina Johnston is the winner of the CBC-Canada Writes True Winter Tale (2011). She lives in James Bay in Victoria BC, Canada. Works of short fiction may be found at several online venues. Occasionally, she breaks into print. The goal of her storytelling is to share.
 
* * *
Cephalopod
By Alexei Kalinchuk

I met her in a bar that discouraged red-hatted festive drinkers in favor of drunken packs of off-duty Santa Clauses from the nearby downtown.  A tourist, I decided when she entered this dark place.  I beelined her way.  Loneliness made me direct.  She taught biology at a community college, she said, before rabbit-holing into her childhood during her second vodka.

“I didn’t have a dog or cat.  My parents were academics.  I had an octopus and another tank full of tropical fish.”

This remark shut down my game for the moment.

“I used to love bringing friends home to see my animals.”

Then the fish started disappearing from their tank.  So she asked her mother did the fish die and get flushed.

Her mother said no, ask your father.

Her father said no, ask your mother.

While they used to be a close family, now they only gathered for holidays, or at silent dinners.  “I knew part of why I was a kid with weird pets was they wanted to distract me from seeing how much they hated each other.”

I decided she was newly divorced and adjusting to a first Christmas alone in the city.  How could I distract her from the past?  Hah, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be in this bar either.

The case of missing fish went unsolved.  “Like Santa Claus,” she said, eyeing the drunks at the bar.  And as a busy, nervous child, she couldn’t devote time to solving the mystery.  Going between her parents with questions about missing costly pets might only annoy them.  Not a behavior that earned Christmas gifts.

“We all want to wake up to a gift,” I said, smiling.

That Christmas morning they all woke up to a hellish smell.

“While we were opening every window, all of us still in our bedclothes, that’s when I found out what happened to my fish.”

An octopus can breathe out of water, she said, for limited periods.  Hers did too, of course.  It also craved more fish, apparently raiding the nearby tank periodically.  When it ran out of prey, on Christmas Eve, it did the only thing it could do.  It went hunting.  It climbed out of its tank, then waddled down the hallway hungry, until it reached the area under the Christmas tree where it died.  Nose wrinkling from the stench, her father grabbed a black trash bag to dispose of Ollie.

“After that,” she sipped her drink, frowned, “...they bought me one last pet - a beagle - then my parents split up.”

“So, happy ending,” I said, hoping she’d concentrate on how close we were sitting, my game restarting.  “You got a dog.”

“He ran away.”

Then she excused herself to use the bathroom.  I waited for her, but after a while, I decided she was as gone as those fish.  My realization birthed laughter, laughter became a chortle, then something more seasonal.

“Ho-ho-ho!”

After a band of bloodshot Kris Kringles glared at me from their seats at the bar, I stopped. 

Alexei Kalinchuk has been published in The Bitter Oleander and other outlets. He likes to cross state lines and move around in large cities.
 
* * * 

The End of the Line
By Dan Leach

Waco couldn’t believe it.

“So it’s me then?” he asked the doctor, so as to be perfectly clear on the matter.

“Mr. Enders,” the doctor said, resting his tanned forearms on the mahogany desk and turning on the sympathy in his blue eyes. “It’s best not to view things in those terms.”

“That’s what it is, though,” Waco said, slapping his hands down on his meaty thighs and standing up. “I’m the end of the line.”

Waco’s wife, a timid woman, anemic in appearance but with a certain tenderness that people warmed to, had always experienced embarrassment for others more than she had for herself. It pained her to see her husband take the news in such a personal way and after assuring the Doctor with a quick flicking gesture of her hand, she stood up and tried to comfort him.

Waco was at the window, staring at the people outside, strangers who, because they were still walking around and still talking on their phones, still getting into their cars and still going places, seemed callous and hateful. It did not seem right that he should be inside receiving such news and that they, no more or less worthy in the sight of God, should be out there carrying on like everything was okay. Everything was not okay and he wanted them to pause and acknowledge it. He wanted the whole world to stop and mourn. He balled his fists, grinded his teeth, and willed it.

“We’ve always talked about adoption,” she whispered, laying her head against his venous bicep.

Waco did not acknowledge his wife’s attempt at encouragement. He could not tear himself away from the window. Mesmerized, he watched a Mexican man and his wife walk across the parking lot, clutching their children in their arms. They had a girl and a boy. He watched as the father brought the little girl’s head to his face and kissed her on the forehead.

“Children are children,” his wife said and squeezed his arm.

“Easy for you to say,” he muttered.  

For several seconds no one said anything. Waco remained at the window and continued following the family. His wife hooked her arm in his and with her free hand rubbed his back. The Doctor, who had clasped his hands together and rested them on the desk’s surface, stared at some indeterminable point in the wood. Eventually the Mexican family reached their car, secured the children in the backseat, and drove away.

“Mr. Enders,” the doctor said. “If you’d like, I can give you some information to review with your wife.”

“No thank you,” Waco said, finding his voice again.

He swallowed hard, crossed the room in two strong, clean strides, and thrust out his hand in front of the Doctor’s face.

“Thank you, Doctor,” he said and squeezed the Doctor’s flabby, hand until he heard a muffled pop.

“You’re welcome,” the Doctor said, retracting his hand. “And feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.”

“Will do,” Waco muttered, arm around his wife, walked out of the office.

Three months later, when his wife emerged from the bathroom, tears in her eyes, pregnancy test in her hand, a thought occurred to Waco, the sheer impact of which forced him to the couch.

"It's a miracle," his wife continued to repeat.  “This is what we prayed for.”

He apologized for his shock and she buried her face in his chest and he held her tightly and did not say what he was thinking.

Later, he dug up the hospital’s number and spoke frankly with the doctor.

“I never said it was impossible,” the Doctor countered after Waco’s first round of accusations. “I might have said unlikely. But I never said impossible. Nothing is impossible.”

The Doctor proceeded to congratulate him in such a sincere and gushing way that Waco had no choice but to bracket his remaining concerns and accept the man’s encouragement.

“This is what you wanted,” the doctor said, right before they got off the phone. “Go celebrate.”

They did celebrate. Two steak dinners at Applebee’s with a beer for him and a pina coloda for her, virgin, of course. And later, in bed, they held each other in the darkness and talked about the future. They predicted genders and tried out names, hoped for features and debated paints for the nursery. Even though they both worked the next morning, they stayed up well past mid-night and reveled in what would soon become, and what already was, a new chapter in their lives.

“It’s a miracle,” she said, one last time before drifting off to sleep.

He kissed her on the mouth and rolled over to his side of the bed. He listened to her soft and steady breathing. She was asleep and he was alone with his question-- that, and the doctor’s reminder that nothing, absolutely nothing, was impossible.

 Dan Leach was born in Greenville, SC, graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. His work has appeared in The New Madrid Review, Deep South Magazine, Two Bridges Review, Storm Cellar, Drafthorse, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on his first novel. You can read his work here:  
 
* * *
 
Wissahickon
By Julie Odell

In her seventeenth summer, she came here often with her girlfriends, wandered through the woods in flip-flops until they found Devil’s Pool, where they’d swim in bikini tops and cut off shorts, lie in the sun and watch the boys dive off the rocks. She was skinny and long-haired then, and it was the most free she’d ever be, the water always cool, inviting her into its darkness, enveloping her like a cape. Two years later, she was pregnant with him.

“This whole area used to be a mill town, populated with workers. There were factories and houses and taverns. It wasn’t always just wild. It was a real place, a vital part of the economy. And now it’s a National Landmark. For what? So hipsters can let their dogs terrorize people off leash. So mountain bikers can destroy the trails with their testosterone displays.  Didn’t even know this place existed until I got sent here to take water samples.”

Her son, now grown, took the lead. His pace was brisk to make the point: she was overweight. She huffed and puffed on the rocky, uneven trail that rambled across the top of the valley. Did he know how easily she could twist an ankle, step the wrong way on a gnarled tree root and tumble down through the woods, bashing her face on a boulder, tearing her flesh on a branch? She wouldn’t, though. She knew how to move through the woods. She would keep up with him and keep her labored breath as quiet as she could.

“The WPA—Works Progress Administration—they restored the bridges, the outbuildings. Look at that stonework holding back the tree. Mother, over there. Think about how long that took, pulling the stone from the creek, carrying up the banks, across the path. Cutting out the earth and arranging the stones just so. How many men. It’s a marvel. No one works like that anymore.”

She couldn’t remember when he became this awful know-it-all, a pedant. He’d been such a sweet kid. She was surprised and hurt than he didn’t remember coming here with her when he was tiny, the summer after his father left.

Forty-five minutes from their cramped house in South Philadelphia, from the relentless cement and broiling sun and fears about her future. The woods were essential, like vitamins for her and her boy. She taught him to drink the thick, rich air deeply, like water.

She’d carry a picnic in her backpack and hold his soft little hand as they made their way up a side trail to the cave, and she’d spread an old bed sheet on the rock and lay out Tupperware containers of toddler food: baby carrots, string cheese, Goldfish Crackers. She made him sit with his back to the rock so he wouldn’t slip. Sometimes it was slick up there, always cool.

She could have been jealous of the couples around them, dreamy romantic love, but in those bright, warm days with her boy, she had everything she wanted. After their lunch, they’d walk along Forbidden Drive, stopping to pop seed pods on jewelweed plants, his laughter like bells when the pod exploded into ribbons between his tiny fingers.

“So now the Water Department is in the middle of a storm restoration project, working on storm overflow and getting rid of sediment at the bottom of the creek so the water runs smoothly through the dams, so I have to come out here all the time. I hate it. If I want nature, I want Adirondacks, Vermont. Mountains. Not this urban faux-wilderness. I mean, look up ahead, those kids bringing beer down so they can party and leave their trash behind.”

Suddenly the woods broke open and they crossed the viaduct over Devil’s Pool, where she’d first taught him to swim. It was exactly as she remembered, emerald green in the deepest part, reflecting the trees, the sky. He had been only three and it had felt like a baptism when she dipped his head beneath the water. When she was capable of delusion, she thought she’d forged in him a love and respect for nature that day. After all, he’d become an environmental engineer.

“Did you know that after it rains, 95% of this creek water is treated sewage? One cut on your leg, one half-opened mouth and it’s Giardiasis or ryptosporidiosis, shitting your guts out for days, doubled over in pain. Even death. There should be a cop here writing tickets because it is against the law. People are idiots. If they get sick, they deserve it. Jesus, look at that. What kind of moron lets their kid swim here? Mother, come on. I have to get back before—“

Her feet remembered the path that cut between the rocks, taking her away from the viaduct, and she danced down like she was seventeen, still lithe, and when the rocks got too slippery, she took of the sandals and went barefoot. She could smell the water and yes, it did smell like shit, but it was so clear, beckoning, and soon it embraced her, knees, belly, shoulders, until she was all the way under and she couldn’t hear another word.
 
Julie Odell holds an MA from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has published short stories in journals such as the Berkeley Fiction Review, Atticus Review, and Five Chapters. In addition, she was a 2004 MacDowell Colony fellow and has recorded personal commentary for NPR.
* * *
Snowed Under
By Troy Lynn Pritt

I thought that I was in an Army sleeping bag, lying on the ground in a tent. I could see the canvas walls of the tent and its ridge pole. I saw Jodie Stokes and Hamp Brown, my buddies in Nam, dressed in Army fatigue uniforms. They told me that I was in Sergeant Hammil’s tent, but that was all right. He was out on a mission and wouldn’t be back for four or five days. Before then a chopper could come in to evacuate me. After a long time, was it one day or two days, I became conscious that I was in a hospital bed and the people were doctors and nurses, not my buddies from Vietnam. Had a chopper come for me and I didn’t remember any of it?

I was moved out of ICU and into a hospital ward. The nurses and doctors told me that I had come through open heart surgery with flying colors. I realized by then that I was not in Vietnam, that it was a much older me who was recovering. During the daytime, some family members came to my bed. At first, I only understood some of the things they were saying.
Nighttime was a whole different world. The walls and windows and ceiling would turn into a gigantic snow bank. The clock on the wall became a circle in the snow bank. The erasable message board became a rectangular outline in the mass of frozen white crystals. After a while these would be replaced by a park bench lodged in the snowy ground. Two women were seated on the bench. These were white stone statues attired in Grecian robes that left one shoulder bare. The statue women were talking. Occasionally, other statues walked by.

I would wake up shivering and cold. In the daytime everything was becoming clear and lucid. Every night the dream would return. About the third night, I noticed that one of the women walking past the bench was carrying a basket. It appeared to be filled with giant snowballs the size of melons. The following night I went closer to have a look into the basket. What I saw were the heads of humans. I heard one of the women on the bench say about one of the “snowballs”, “I heard that he finally succumbed today. He put up a hard fight.” About then a nurse woke me out of my dream.

“What are you doing, kneeling at the foot of the bed, staring down at the floor?”

The next day my wife, my daughter, and my two sons came to visit. During the visit, for a few moments, my wife seemed to become one of those Grecian statues on the park bench.  My daughter was the statue walking by with a basket full of snowballs. One of the snowballs was me!

During their visit, there was an undercurrent of contention. Their whispers were about my business, my money, and my will.  My two sons have not seen my will, but they assume that the lion’s share of my estate and the control of my business will go to them. They will be surprised!

That night the snow bank returned; the nightly pageant resumed. Just after the woman with the basket full of snowballs strolled past the white stone Grecian ladies, the snow bank began to collapse. There seemed to be an avalanche of snow. I was trapped inside the avalanche and I could not breathe. Everything became dark. “Where is my oxygen hose?”
I was being lifted off the bed and onto a gurney.

“Is he dead? Did you hold the pillow long enough?”

“He isn’t breathing and I don’t feel a pulse in his neck.  Is that dead enough to suit you?”

The voices sounded like my sons! I tried to call out for help, but there was no air in my lungs and no sound would come out of my throat.

“Hey, where are you going with that patient?”

I recognized the voice of one of the male nurses on duty at night.

“His family is transferring him to the Cedarwood Cardiac Care Clinic. We brought the Clinic’s van to transport him.”

“Patients aren’t transferred in the middle of the night.  If he were being transferred, I would have a half dozen sets of papers to fill out. There is no one in the offices now. I’m calling Security.”

“Here are the transfer papers. You can read them while I help to push him out to the van.”

By then the elevator door was opening. The door closed and we were going down. When it opened again, we obviously did not go directly out the front door. I could tell that we were going down corridors, turning into connecting corridors, and going through doors. Then we came to what must have been a large, walk-in refrigerator. The two men rolled me into the refrigerator. I could hear them taking off clothes, which they threw onto my body. Maybe they were discarding their medical workers’ disguises.

The nurse probably told hospital Security, his supervisor, and then the police about two men who had taken a patient out of the hospital on a gurney who said they had a van outside waiting to transport the patient to a Cedarwood Clinic. No one looked for me in the hospital, in a refrigerator.

A day and a half passed before my body was discovered. By then it was covered with a thick layer of frost. The police were called and eventually the funeral home was called. The undertaker who came to pick up my body swore a few indecent oaths when he saw my half-frozen corpse and realized there was extra work for him.

The day of my funeral I would have laughed if dead men could laugh. There was a record snowstorm for December. The reading of the will was postponed by the lawyer for a week because of the weather. I wish that I could be a statue in a corner of his office when my will is read. 

No sooner had the thought occurred, than I found my “self” in a white marble bust of Socrates. It was on a wooden pedestal table in a corner of my lawyer’s office!

The day arrived when my family and the officers of the company came for the reading of the will. It was brief for a legal document.

“I Devon Liam MacGruder, being of sound mind declare this to be my last will and testament.

“My estate includes all the shares of MacGruder Brass Fittings, a private corporation which owns the business. I hereby give and bequeath half of these shares to be divided among all of the company’s workers in proportion to their years of employment. I give and bequeath the other half to be divided evenly among the chief accountant, the sales manager, and the plant manager. My daughter and two sons are each to receive $50,000 from the estate. My wife is to receive the remainder of funds in the estate in addition to the two automobiles, the family home, and the lake shore cottage.”

When the lawyer finished reading the will, my two sons leaped to their feet with an avalanche of protests.
“He can’t do that.”

“We’ll sue to protest the will. He wasn’t in his right mind, what with being sick.”

The lawyer responded. “If you sue, you will have to use your own money to do so. I doubt if any lawyer would take the case on speculation. Your father was aware of the seriousness of his heart condition. He discussed the possibility of his death with the company officers and with me at various times over the past year. This was after both of you were offered a chance to go to work for his company and learn the business from the ground up. Neither of you lasted more than a few months before quitting.”

“Who wants to work all day among riff-raff and get dirty and sweaty?”

“$50,000 is a pittance. We were receiving more than that from him every year, for different things we wanted.”

At that the sons stormed out of the room and went into the reception area where there was coffee and bottles of water. They were alone, or so they thought. The statue was against the wall of the reception area and I could hear them.
“You idiot! You told me that we would inherit the company if he died.”

“I thought we would.”

“We should have left well enough alone and hoped he would recover.”

“How could we have guessed that he would cut us off and leave us with crumbs? He was always generous to us while he was alive, always reminding us to save enough for a rainy day.”

“I shouldn’t have listened to your hare-brained scheme.”

At that moment another man stepped into the room from a supply closet.

“My name is Detective Frank Flaherty of the Centerville Police Department. I would like for you two young men to accompany me to the police station. We need to discuss your ‘hare- brained scheme’. Your father did not die of natural causes. The medical examiner says that he was smothered. His body was stolen in the middle of the night by two young men and hidden away in a walk in refrigerator at the hospital.

“From what I heard just now, you had a motive, even though it was mistaken. The medical workers’ attire that was found with the body had a few hairs caught in the material. When the two of you provide us with samples of your DNA, we can compare it to the hairs we found on the uniforms. We will also put you in a line-up. We’ll see if you are identified as the two men seen by the nurse who was on duty when the body was stolen. “

My wife and daughter were leaving the room and approaching the reception area. When they saw my sons being led away in handcuffs, my daughter gasped; my wife sobbed inconsolably. I wanted nothing more than to hold them, but the scene disappeared from my sight.

 Troy Lynn Pritt is a retired ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination. He and his wife Lorraine live in Warren, AR. He has written an oral history, four novels, and numerous short stories.
 
* * *

Evangelism Explosion
By Vic Sizemore

Monica Snow comes out of Starbucks with a tall latte. She walks back to her car in front of Game Stop, fishing in her purse for her keys. Up pulls this kid in a baby-shit yellow Ford Escort with silver duct tape holding the front right headlamp together. It smells of something burning, not oil, but some poison plastic chemicals. He parks beside the passenger side of her Camry, gets out, steps up onto the sidewalk and faces her. If they both reached out, they could almost touch fingertips.

He looks emo, with his hair dyed jet black and molded into a thick spike over half his face. It covers one eye, like he just stepped out of a Japanime film. He is skinny, has on a tight black t-shirt with the faded white word Agape across his chest. He has thin hips like a little boy, wears black stretchy girl jeans and a glittery metal belt. His shoes are white with black wing tip toes. He has a tattoo around his skinny right bicep, some Latin phrase beginning with Vocat.

He has gospel tracts in his hand, and a button on his shirt that has nothing but two question marks on it. He’s from Pinewood University, the Evangelical college on the hill.

Monica is an atheist. Her parents are atheists. It never was a cause for controversy before, but in this small southern town, it can cause a scandal at a party. Monica’s dad warned her about Meadow Green. He told her, “Sweetie, the 2000 census has that little town at over eighty percent Baptist.” He said, “That’s a higher percentage than Salt Lake City is Mormon.” 

She came anyway, because of her friend Stevie.

Before she catches herself, she’s made eye contact with him. The one eye that’s not covered with hair is a big brown doe eye. A very pretty eye. A beautiful eye really. He is wearing some serious eyeliner. Monica has a soft spot for gay men. Stevie was gay—he committed suicide their senior year of high school, filled his pockets with rocks and walked off into the Puget Sound.

This gay man wants to tell her about Jesus. Or not—he’s just as likely to try and sign her up for some Christian Ponzi scheme. She steps off the curb and stands by the door of her Camry.

Instead of introductions, he simply blurts out, “If you were to die right now and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”


Monica sets her latte on the roof of her car and looks squarely at him. The day is bright white, the sun a fluorescent smear across the entire sky. She has to squint. She says, “I’d say, ‘God? I’ll be damned, you do exist.’” She smiles sweetly.

He steps off the curb and the two of them are beside her driver’s side door. He is a tiny guy, not much taller than she is. With gravitas, he says, “Sadly, you would be right on both counts.”

“You’re awfully sure of yourself.”

“Not myself,” he says. “I’m sure whom I have believed and am persuaded—”

“You’re eat up with this shit.” She says.

From here, the conversation heats up, shifts and rises into a full-on argument, until Monica is standing in driver’s side door, shouting over the car roof at the pretty boy, who has retreated back around and is standing at the open door of his own piece of shit car. A train comes by on the hill above the strip mall. The whistle blows four times, and then the noise settles into its heavy rhythmic clacking. They have to raise their voices even more.

  “You sure are angry at a God you say doesn’t exist,” he yells.


“It’s not god,” she yells, “it’s you—and I’m not angry; I’m frustrated.”


“You ever consider that your anger is caused by the fact that you know down deep that you stand guilty before Him?”

“Him?” she says. “Forgiveness? From him?”

   “We are all sinners deserving God’s just punishment.”

“Eternal pain and suffering.”

“And a life of unhappiness and lack of purpose. Don’t you ever wonder why God put you here?”

“God didn’t put me anywhere.”


“Of course He did.”

“There you go with the he again.”

They yell on. The train is still clacking heavily above them, a very long train of rusting coal cars with glistening black mounds of coal rising out of their open tops.

Eventually Monica has had enough. “Why can’t you just leave people alone?” she shouts.

“Why can’t you see your need of God?”

She growls.

“You know in your heart of hearts that I’m right.”

“You go to hell,” she yells.

He yells back, “I’m afraid that’s exactly where you are going.”

  “Fuck you,” she shouts.

His lips curl into a prissy little smile and he yells, “No thank you.”

“No, of course not,” Monica yells. “I don’t have a dick.”

His one uncovered eye goes wide in astonishment.

She drops into her seat with another low growl—she is not a person who says nasty things to gay people; how did she let him get under her skin?—she slams the door and starts her engine. As she swings out of the parking space, she hears a tumbling across the roof of her car and then a muted wet explosion on the parking lot.

Her latte. She left it on the roof. He just watched her do that.

“God damn it,” she shouts, “son of a bitch.” She puts her car in park. She sees him in her rear view mirror, standing, watching her. Poor Stevie. She couldn’t save him.

She gets out and stands by her open door and waves to the guy. He steps out and walks toward her on thin legs, swinging his hips like a model on a runway.
 
“Evangelism Explosion” is excerpted from Vic Sizemore’s novel Seekers. Other excerpts of Seekers can be read at Vol.1 Brooklyn and WIPs Works (of Fiction) in Progress. His fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, The Good Men Project, Connecticut Review, storySouth, Sou’wester, Blue Mesa Review, Superstition Review, A River & Sound Review, [PANK], and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters and elsewhere. Sizemore’s fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart.
* * *
The Dead Bird
By Tracy Speelman

“That’s a bird?” I ask. “A real bird?” Lying in the center of the table, fat, still. I suddenly feel afraid. Where is his head? Where are his feathers? 

“Yeah,” my father says, “That’s Big Bird.”

Laughter.  

Big Bird? My stomach turns. I see Big Bird in my head, singing, dancing, his bright yellow feathers bouncing.

Big Bird is dead.

My mother offers me a plate. I shake my head and step back.

“Look what you did,” she says to my father, “You made him cry.”                                                   

                                                                                                  *

I am hung over right now. I stare at the turkey on the table in front of me and remember that day, twenty-something years ago. No one ever told me it wasn’t really Big Bird. Somehow I figured it out myself. I must have finally noticed the size difference.  

I stare down at my plate and hold my pounding head in my hand. 

“William?”

I look up at my mother’s tired face staring at me from across the table, her dyed platinum-blond hair pulled back into a bun.

“Yeah?” I ask.

“You haven’t said one word.”

“He never does,” my father says.

My mother lets out an exasperated sigh. “And you’re still not eating meat, I see,” She presses her lips together and shakes her head.

Here we go again. I look down at my plate. I’d loaded it with extra stuffing and vegetables, hoping she wouldn’t notice the absence of meat. But she always noticed. Every single year.

“A man that doesn’t eat meat,” my father says, “I never heard of such a thing.”

As if we haven’t had this conversation before. And now my mother is going to say…

“I really wonder how your body functions without protein. I wish you would think about that…”  

“I get plenty of protein, Ma.”

Why did I come here? Because I’m supposed to. Because that’s what people do on Thanksgiving. They visit their families. I tried to get away from them by moving to the other side of the United States, but now that means I have to spend several long days with them during the holidays instead of a few short hours. It’s not that I don’t love them, because I do. I just don’t know how to be with them. 

“So what’s going on with you, William?” my mother asks, her voice raised a pitch in an attempt to sound lighthearted. “Tell us what’s happening in your life.”

My mother’s face is pleading with me to give her an answer that she wants. Something, anything to let her know she did something right.

I force a smile. “Oh nothing much to tell, just working a lot.”

“How’s the job?” my father asks.

“Good, good.” This forced conversation is killing me. “Mom, can you pass me that bottle of Jack Daniels behind you?” I ask, reaching out my hand.

She stares at me for what feels like an eternity and I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin. She turns and reaches for the bottle in the liquor cabinet behind her. She is moving in slow motion. My hand is open and begging for the bottle to be placed in it.  

When she finally places the bottle in my hand I feel relieved. I open it and pour it in my glass. I drink it in big, long swallows, loving how it burns my throat and chest, not caring that they are both staring at me wide-eyed.  

“Do you have a girlfriend yet?” my mother asks.

Yet. As if I'd never had a girlfriend in my life. I want to remind her that I did have a girlfriend once. In high school. I fill up my glass again and take another big swallow.  

My life is nothing close to what they want me to have. My life is nothing close to what they could even comprehend. I don’t know how much longer I can go on pretending. 

Staring down at my plate, I say, “I have to leave here tonight.” 

They don’t respond. I clear my throat, cutting through the thick silence. “Work tomorrow. Double time, you know?”

Still no response.  

“Every penny helps, right?” I add.  

Still nothing.  

“My girlfriend and I, we’re saving for our wedding.”  

My mother gasps. I’ve finally made her smile.                            

“I know, I didn’t tell you,” I say. “I wanted it to be a surprise. I’m going to get married.  Not sure when yet, but eventually.”

“Oh, William!  I’m so happy!” My mother gets up and runs around the table toward me, her arms outstretched. She wraps her arms around my neck and squeezes me tight. I look over her shoulder at my father, who is staring at me with a confused look on his face. No, I’m not the bright yellow Big Bird who is singing and smiling and bringing joy to those around him. I am the Big Bird who lays there still and lifeless, with no sound, no music.  

Suddenly I feel my mother’s arms tense around me, and I realize that she has made eye contact with my father. She stands up. I feel her stare pressing against the side of my head as I stare down at my plate. I don’t have to say the words, that I’m not engaged, that I don’t have a girlfriend, that I will never, ever have a girlfriend, because she knows. They both know. 

We sit in the silence. I wait for her to cry, to throw something, to ask me why. I wait for my father to grunt something in disgust or walk out of the room. But there is only silence. 

“His name is Lenny,” I say to my plate. “He is wonderful. We’ve been together for four years. He’s a vegan chef. He loves to cook for me. We love each other. We really do. He wanted to come here to meet the two of you but I didn’t want to give you both a heart attack.”

I push my plate away and look up at my mother, into her eyes. And I realize she is looking at me differently. Not as a son who has failed her by lying, but as a son who has been lying because he has been failed. And I realize that we’ve all failed each other. By expecting each other to be anyone but exactly who we are.

Suddenly I hear the tink of my father’s fork hitting the plate as he goes back to his turkey dinner. I don’t know if it’s the Jack Daniels or what, but in that moment all of my tension melts away. I know that from this day on, Thanksgiving Dinner will never be perfect, but at least it can now be real.
 
Tracy Speelman is the author of 'Coloring in English - A Vocabulary Builder for Beginners' (Pro Lingua Associates, 2014). She lives in New York.
 
* * *
 
Lunch Break
By Stephen Williams

I’d already started eating my fried dough when Zoe Troy came into the cafeteria. She carried her lunch in a new paper bag, the kind some people use every day. And, as she walked, her red bangs swayed with each step caressing her cheeks and neck. She looked around the lunch room, at ease with all the unfamiliar faces, until Lunch Lady Watson showed her to one of the sixth graders tables.

I sat at another table, one used by seventh graders. It was a safe place where other kids could pretend I didn’t exist. One of the seventh graders said, “I heard she’s from Kalamazoo and completely stuck up.” That morning, our teacher had announced we’d have a new student after lunch, but I hadn’t pictured anyone like Zoe. Her dress and shoes looked store bought new, not thrift shop hand downs and her hair was perfectly combed. Later, I tried a hundred times to imagine her brushing her red hair but couldn’t. After lunch, teacher said, “Her name is Zoe Troy and ….” But, I didn’t hear another word as I tried to guess at the mystery that brought her into my life. Did she walk to school or did her mother drive her every day? Which empty desk would teacher assign? And, what would I say to her if I ever got the chance? How could I be so unprepared? Would I be able to say anything? Then, almost as a sacred sign, teacher pointed at the empty desk next to mine. After she put her books in the desk, she turned to me. My mouth dropped open like a coon hound on point when she tilted her head and smiled at me.

She smiled. Once I saw that faint hint of a smile, the rest of the classroom was less than the buzzing of a fly.

She smiled.

Her constant little smile never faltered. I don’t know how long we looked into each other's eyes, but before she turned away she nodded her head and whispered, “I’m Zoe. What’s your name?” She touched her lips as she spoke as if sanctifying her own words. It took a while, but whatever I answered must have pleased her because her eyes brightened. I had a lot to do and very little time, because when she turned to me, she smiled.
Stephen's work has appeared in issues of Jelly Bucket, Windmills, Plainsongs Poetry Review, The Nashwaak Review, Poetry Northeast, Picayune Literary Magazine, Owen Wister Review, The G. W. Review, Potomac Review, Pear Noir, Wisconsin Review, Convergence, Prime Number, riverbabble, fiction fix, The Midwest Literary Review, and The Redlands Review.
* * *
Creative Non-Fiction

False Starts
By Catherine McClain

The mist still clung to the grass around our feet. Her voice reached from somewhere to my right, but my nervous eyes never found her. I guess it was the official, the race-starter, the referee, whatever you call the person who starts a cross country race. I looked beyond Jackie’s shoulder, shook my hands, bent knees out of habit, and suddenly everyone was running. Maybe I didn’t hear the gunshot, but then there were two, and we stopped. A false start, a mistake.

Sometimes ideas, the words, the pictures take off before they’re supposed to, sometimes I just come back to the start line. Maybe there’s no good reason – maybe the speed I started with would’ve lead to a good start. Maybe these almost starts are because my shoe’s untied. Maybe it’s my fault I can’t complete things. I stop believing in myself after the first rush of thought.

I searched through torn up journals, documents titled “ehhhh,” and sticky notes with a few words on them. I’ve listed the thoughts here, the almost maybe starts.

But everyone has.

I don’t want air out my sins, I don’t want my words to live in a dumpster.

I found Sarah next to the elevator, outside of security, after parking my car and finding the train to Terminal 3 at Chicago International O’Hare Airport. She smiled and winked, the army green Eddie Bauer backpack slung over one shoulder, pulling up her dress just a tad. I adjusted my shoulder strap, trying to make it lie flat while my duffel swung, forcing a half limp until I reached her. My sister finds a certain joy in airports. I think it’s when her travel virus  “Ahhh I can’t believe we’re going!”

Passport Stamps from 2011:
         Greene Memorial Hospital’s Surgical Waiting Room – November 14th, 2011 
         12 am-3 am.
         Memorable View: Daddy’s hand on Mama’s back. I don’t remember falling asleep, just waking up.

What is it with power anyways?

I am an octopus, not an eagle. My mind works in feels, tentacles testing and searching each moment quietly, colors giving way to surroundings.
I am an anchor, not a flag. I hold fast, catching on moments and memories, holding firm that which is up high.
I am Velcro, not glue. We attach and rip, but both remain intact after the break.

But I mean, how am I supposed to lead you to truth?

Dinner: things said
        -     “I can get you a job with Peter Roskam”
        -     “He’s not turning red or grey or black”
        -     “You can get really good Mexican there” 

But butbut that’s when the shift comes, that’s when the change occurs. Lead me lead me lead me to the next heart, the next desire, the wondering eye.

Maybe a false start is better than no start. Can I still run? Do I just disregard thoughts about octopi and power? I pick and pick and pick at everything. I shoot the gun, tell myself it’s too early, stop and start all over. Maybe I stand in my own way, judging myself and my work before it ever begins, knowing it’ll fail before it tries. These are words I like, maybe I could love, but words I gave up on before they even had a chance. I stopped believing in myself.

Catherine McClain is an aspiring writer from West Chicago, Illinois. She pursues creativity in a number of ways - from drawing bones in nursing school to rhyming couplets while waitressing.
 
* * *

The Myth of Rainbows
By Rachel Tanner

You can only write about depression so many times. Eventually it gets old. Eventually there have to be some rainbows, right? Statistically, there has to be more to life. No one wants to read the same thing over and over again. But when you’re stuck in that rut – in that deep pit – how do you get out of it? If there’s no one to pull you out, how do you escape?

Maybe there are no rainbows. I’ve never seen them, anyway. I’ve only read about them. Heard the songs. I assume they must be more than a myth. I assume they must be real. They’re such a lovely idea. But what other consciously beautiful things have we imagined that ended up not being true? We can’t really wish on stars; some things are merely pretty ideas. Maybe happiness is the same thing. I’ve been chasing it down for awhile, trying to figure it out. I’ve researched it. I’ve done my due diligence. I think that, according to everything I’ve learned, I should’ve encountered it by now if it was real. So why haven’t I?

That’s the thing about rainbows. They don’t appear out of nowhere. They take the right combination of factors. There has to be rain and there has to be sunshine. And then? Something beautiful. But if even one of those factors isn’t right, it won’t work. It takes ingredients and precision, timing, patience. It takes looking in the right direction at the right time.

Maybe happiness is kind of like that. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t been lucky enough to find it yet. I don’t even know what factors would go into it. I don’t know where to begin. I look at people who seem to have their lives together and I don’t understand how they do it. It’s like this happiness is an infinite loop that has no discernible start or end instead of random sports of magical moments that help get them through the day. None of this helps me figure it out because they’re all looking in a direction that has always blinded me.

I didn’t know what factors went into making rainbows when I was younger. Eventually, I learned. Maybe eventually I’ll learn this, too.

 Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. 
 
* * * 

The Words
By Nicole Yurcaba

When the phone rings, I’m not sure how much time has passed. I have been rejuvenating in warm water and purple-scented bubbles for long, unprecedented minutes. I have been fully immersed in the pages of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, recalling how as a child I played on a computer simulation of the moon’s orbit around Earth, and I made the moon crash into Earth. It’s funny now to remember that while the moon exploded, Earth remained unharmed.
Hmmmm….
The phone’s screaming reminds me that today I will be forced to participate in humanity, that I will have to close the book, leave the bath, don clothing, and actually have to socialize with people. The mere thought of interacting with another human makes me want to maniacally shed tears, to shroud myself in a mood blacker than Morticia Addams’s dress.
Today is not a day for people.
Today is a day for books.
Today I desire only the lover’s touch of words.

                                                                   ***
           
When I was in kindergarten, I began to learn that people were inherently evil and that words were a gateway to freedom. As I sat on the classroom floor with the rest of my K-2 classmates, I rolled my eyes as the teacher explained in baby terms how the moon revolves around the Earth. I knew this information already, as at age 4, I’d read that portion of the encyclopedia to my Baba Anna as we sat on the front porch of her Trevorton home.
Unable to control my boredom any longer, I blurted “In 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, but some people don’t actually believe he did. They’re called ‘conspiracy theorists.’”
The kindergarten teacher, whom I graciously referred to as “Mrs. R.,” glared at me, the fear of the unknown resonating in her witchy blue eyes. My classmates stared at me; some even scooted away from me, fearing I was a freak, and they awaited for either me or the teacher to speak.
“Can you imagine if the moon crashed into the Earth? That would be bad,” I said simply to break the silence and to create more awkward stares. Finally, Mrs. R. spoke.
“It’s nice that you know everything,” she seethed, “Now, go to your desk and sit with your head down.”
The punishment didn’t fit the crime. I had simply presented facts and then posed a critical thinking question. Why was I being sent to my desk? Why was I being removed from the beloved K-2 class circle?
I wanted to call her “Stalin.”
“Why?” I asked. 
“Because,” Mrs. R. responded, her face twitching slightly, “You’re speaking out of turn.”
But that was just a cover for her true feelings. Since I first entered her classroom on a crisp post-Labor Day September morning, Mrs. R had hated me. I was an intellectual hell-on-wheels with which she could not reckon; however, begrudgingly I lifted myself from the eerie orange carpet and trundled to my desk.
“May I read?” I asked. A few kids snickered; others gasped, but Mrs. R. began to show exasperation.
“NO!” she yelled, “You sit there! With your head down! You don’t move! And you don’t speak! NOW!”
I felt all the eyes on the room watching me as I walked to my desk, pulled out my chair, and placed my head on the desk’s cool surface. My face flushed not with embarrassment but with anger tinged with glee.
I wasn’t like the rest of those that sat in the circle.
I was different, and I knew I was different.
So I closed my eyes, and I daydreamed of sweet, luscious, delicious words printed virginally on a pristine page.


Weeks later, I found myself being led by the school secretary to an isolated room somewhere in the school’s antiseptic-looking basement. The adventure made me imagine being a Cold War spy—Young Philby perhaps (whom I read about in one of my father’s favorite espionage novels). When we reached our destination, though, my daydream swirled quickly into a standardized nightmare when I saw our chubby, glasses-eyed, somewhat-effeminate guidance counselor, Mr. S, sitting at a wide tan-topped table that harbored stacks of thin-paged test booklets.
Mr. S. smiled as the secretary pushed me into the dimly lit, blue-walled room.
“Good morning. Please have a seat so we can begin,” he announced in a tone that made me think of penguins.
I took a seat before him, ready to be punished for my crimes, feeling sad that I, the greatest spook of them all, would now be interrogated by our school’s version of Mr. Magoo. Mr. S placed a booklet and two pencils before me.
“Are these Ticonderogas?” I asked Mr. S.
“Excuse me?” Mr. S. quipped, unsure of what he was hearing.
“Are these pencils Ticonderogas? I can only write with Ticonderoga Number-Twos,” I stated.
“A pencil is a pencil is a pencil,” Mr. S said, “They are all made of wood and lead.”
I shook my pony-tailed head.
“Technically, it’s graphite,” I corrected, “and these pencils aren’t Ticonderogas. You have some Ticonderogas behind you on the shelf. I’ll take two of those, please.”
Mr. S., who’d begun to resemble Mrs. R. the day I taught her about Neil Armstrong and the moon, turned around and quickly retrieved two Ticonderoga pencils from the box behind him. He swapped the generic pencils with the Ticonderogas, and then he shifted in his seat.
“We’ll begin with Reading,” he announced.
And so I devoured the words.
 

                                                                 ***
Twenty-one years ago, my inability to control my mouth in kindergarten and a few test results sealed my academic fate as well as my social realm--one for the better, one for the worse.
No ADHD.
No mental disorder.
No Aspberger’s.
No unheard-of social disorder.
Gifted.
My following school years were a myriad of gifted classes, of isolated library hours, of nearly-aced AP exams, of hours’ worth of bullying victimization. My range of friends was few to none, except for a book in my handbag waiting to be read or a blank journal in my bookbag dying to be filled. People and societies, throughout the years, proved themselves to be furthermore inherently evil than what I realized on that fateful day in Mrs. R.’s kindergarten class: either people wanted you for your brains, or they wanted you for your body, or people didn’t want you at all; in American society, a woman could not be both beautiful and popular and intelligent, she had to be either one or the other, and from little up she was taught that, really, her body will get her farther in life than her brains. A woman had to choose.
I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.
I didn’t devour the propaganda.
I avoided the Cosmopilitan and instead chose the Walden.
Which is why, at 27 years old, I find myself lounging naked in a tub sized-for-one as the water’s warmth begins to temper, devouring a few more chapters in The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, wondering why the person calling me keeps calling, why his need to speak to me is overpowering, great.
Yes, the phone confirms the brutal truth that there is at least one person requiring my presence, one person wanting to speak to me, but I’m not sure why. At nearly 30, I find myself primarily always alone with a book. I have more books, more blank journals, more publication credits than I have friends, than I have people that I genuinely trust. Humanity has failed not only me, but also others like me, especially other women like me, but I have tapped into my orenda via words, succulent words. Nonetheless, being forced to communicate, to socialize, to actually talk to people is a thrust by an invisible hand into a world in which I do not belong.
I have never fit.
I have never belonged.
I have always been offbeat yet always in rhythm to my own tune.
In so many ways, though I’m approaching 30, I am still that smart-assed, pony-tailed, constantly-questioning kindergartener.
And I am still alone, staring at the world from its outskirts as I lie with my head on the desk’s cool surface dreaming of the words--the lusty, inviting, taunting words printed so immaculately on a pristine page or on a flawless screen—and waiting for the moon to crash into  the Earth. 
 
Nicole Yurcaba hails from a long line of coal miners, Ukrainian immigrants and West Virginian mountain folk. Her work has appeared in print and online journals such as VoxPoetica, Referential Magazine, Rolling Thunder Quarterly, Decompression, Hobo Camp Review, The Camel Saloon, Jellyfish Whispers, Napalm and Novocaine, Floyd County Moonshine and many others. In life, she enjoys taking the unbeaten path, and usually exits the scene pursued by bear. Her first collection of poetry, Backwoods and Back Words, is available online. 
* * *
Poetry
 
Frogs and Freedom
By Chrystal Berche

lightning flashes, thunder roars
and still we dance
Laugh
kicked bare feet skyward
sodden clothes molding
to rain slicked skin
you grin and I love you more
in that moment
when you let go the mask
and slip back into the freedom of childhood
where chasing frogs through the mud
was the greatest pleasure
and our only regrets were
letting them go
Chrystal writes. When she isn’t writing she’s taking pictures, or curled up with a good book and a kitty on her lap.
* * *
Apology to His Sunshine
By Apoorvo Chakraborty

There was a knight once.
In the days long forgotten,
In a land long lost.
He had blood of thousands on his hands,
The most feared and the most wanted one.
The Knight of Death they called him,
But not anymore.
No, now he was a doctor,
Trying to wash his hands, hoping to clean those stains of red.
Travelling from one village to another,
But never staying long,
In paranoia of his past catching up.
Until he saw her
The sun shining at her face,
And that smile that looked more vibrant than the rays themselves.
The doctor fell and so did she,
His sunshine he called her.
His sunshine who made him stay
They kept themselves a secret, or so they tried.
Her sister saw them once,
But did nothing to stop them.
For how can someone in love,
See two lovers apart.
But then it happened.
They had gone out of the village, on a mountain,
She had always wondered what the view would be like from there.
He told her who he was, his past,
His secrets and the horrors he had done.
He had expected that she would give him a look of hatred, that she would run away,
And it would be time to move on again.
But all she did was embrace him and whispered ‘I love you, my doctor.’
Such was the beauty of his sunshine.
But little did he know, back in the village,
His past was catching up,
Looking for the infamous knight.
They both were returning to the village but they could already see it,
Burning homes are after all easy to spot.
He had realized what had happened.
They ran and ran till they reached her house,
And then stopped dead in their tracks.
And he saw his sunshine broke down in tears,
Her whole world destroyed, and he was responsible.
Her parents were hurt, and her sister lost her love,
All because of him.
He wanted to apologize to each of them,
Apologize to each one of them,
Especially her sister, who had hidden their love.
And what did he do in return?
For he was in love,
And he had separated two lovers.
But he could do none of those,
Just watch his sunshine take all the guilt.
And there was then a knock on the door,
They were here to take him.
‘I will be back’ is all he said, looking for the sword he had hidden away for so long,
‘Come back as my doctor please?’ she asked.
‘I promise, cross my heart,’ he said,
And dropped the sword.
  Apoorvo Chakraborty is a 10th grader and a newbie writer. He runs a blog. Still learning the craft, he dreams of becoming an author one day.
 
* * *

Crossing
By J. Adam Collins

There is the ocean.
There is the slowing
sway of last night’s
eddy in the rocks.
I want to sit with you
on the silt, the sifting
rinse of salty foam
on our feet. How far
we’ve come. Too quickly
we wash out to the current,
drifting toward another
shore and the sound of us
crashing again and again.
This constant forsaking
of sky and sand. You are
saturated. You are
steady as the morning’s
ferry churning in the cove.
I’d follow you from land 
to land—a gull chasing
madly in the sun.
 
J. Adam Collins is a book designer and editor in Portland, Oregon. He is a proud West Virginia native and holds an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University. Adam's poetry has been featured in various print and online publications.
* * *
Beauty
By Abbie Copeland

she was beautiful
because she decided to be
open.

soft belly massage,
gaping tongue,
ravaging herself like
pink begonias.

that dress that hung
just barely off the hanger
slipped on smooth and
fitted,

she decided to let go,
bushy eyebrows and all
dimpled and pimpled,
protruding collar bones.

it was a good day
because she remembered
to water everything
and let filtered light in
at the right angle.
 Abbie Copeland graduated from Kean University with a B.A. in English. Her work has appeared in Vestal Review, Off the Coast and the Bacopa Review.
* * *
Broken-Mirrors
By Amitabh Vikram

I
Butterflies in my garden-yellow, pink and grey
Used to flutter about in a wintry sunny day
A ray of hope used to touch their colorful hue
Spreading joy and a brightness new
In my eyes I used to see a new zest
In a divided humanity in the heaven’s nest
II
Now they fight for black and white on their sides
And a piece of land for that only death will chide
But they slaughter each other, and they cry
Till madness evaporates and blood turns dry
Heaven became hell’s gate, and deaths now play
Flies flutter around today- yellow, pink and grey
 Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi is an assistant professor of linguistics in the School of Languages and Literature at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, India. His research interests include language documentation, writing descriptive grammars, and the preservation of rare and endangered languages in South Asia. He has contributed articles to many English journals.
* * *
Poetry by Lou Graves

circles of irreverence

there is a place between here
    and midnight
where angels dance in circles of irreverence
their broken prayers like echoes
    of echoes
their broken songs like ashes
like the ashes of armageddon spread
over the oceans and the rooftops and
on the flowers on the
    graves of suicides

there is a silence between us as
   broken and thin as
the bathroom mirror where i
watch myself shaving at four
in the morning, drunk and pious
and broken
    my shadow
like oceans cast and vomited on the edges
of everything, like prayer
    shadows rejoicing in
    the irreverent beauty of a silence
that fades and falls and falls

    in
my safe haven which is sometimes a palace
    or a prison of decadence
bleeding moments within moments like broken silence
like silence
    broken and twisted and
left to hang and hang

and still
   staring out from
within the mirror i hear broken echoes of her voice
and her song and
prayer and
all the rest that falls between here and midnight
between the mirror and myself shaving
    silence where
once we had gotten drunk and danced
through the mad and starving
    night like marionettes
 
the night haunted by voices and
    visions of burning shadows and sacrifice
visions of irreverence and of
ashes like snow settling on the twisted streets
and on the graves of suicides
    visions of broken prayer and
song and angels dancing in circles
of irreverence singing

    us
drunk and dancing like marionettes
her haunted eyes like burning
   oceans
my voice echoed and burning in her hands and
her hands on fire and held
high like sacrifices to the skies, to
the gods and oceans
her lipstick blood red and smeared
    her face a pale candle white and
the thin veil lifted to
receive the ashes of armageddon and
    be baptized in them

    visions of
burning tarot cards scattered as we danced
   like marionettes and moved
ghostlike and full of drunken grace floating
and falling to fall and float and
float like ashes falling again
and again
    and we danced

past the love tree, past the tolomato cemetery drunk
and singing and pious
   two broken
things, wounded, drowning in the heavy
    night dancing
our laughter an echo of the nothingness
and the irreverence that dragged us
down, that dragged us
   down

somewhere between here and
    midnight there
is a circle of angels around us dancing
with track marks on their
    arms and their veins
filled with junk and ashes and
still we dance like drunk marionettes
    and still we dance, drunk
like marionettes


her clothes at the foot of the bed

pretending i was asleep i
    felt her slide out
from under the sheets and i
watched her finding her
clothes (scattered on the floor at
the foot of the bed) and
    begin to dress

first sliding her panties (left
leg then right) then
    her bra (left arm then
right) cupping the breasts, reaching
behind her back, fastening.  then
    her blouse (left arm
right arm) leaving the front unbuttoned

   she dressed
almost like a slow and rhythm
-less dancer, like a
feather whose only rhythm, whose only sense of beat
or measure was a slight breeze

and then she caught me
watching her “what are
you doing?” she said, and i laughed but refused to
   look away and
she went on dressing as though
i wasn’t there, as though i was

as familiar as the house cat.  i purred from
   under the covers “like
what you see?” she said, as though
we were as familiar as an old pair
    of shoes just sitting
somewhere in some corner
somewhere just sitting

and she dressed and left and
   i saw her again
less than two days later and i
watched her un
-dress, slowly (left arm then right) (left leg
then right) leaving her clothes in
    a lifeless heap at the foot
of the bed
 
Lou Graves was born in London, England but moved to America in his early twenties. He has been writing ever since he could hold a crayon. Recent work has appeared in Out Of Our, The Write Room, One Sentence Poetry, Florida Speaks, and others.
 
* * *
Poetry by Robert Del Mauro

The Art of Love

The smell of freshly cut grass filled the room,
replacing the stench of anxiety in his nostrils.
An artist had shaded the rolling hills gray
so that they would appear green from a distance.

He was drawn closer, discovering
strokes that delicately caressed
his skin like soap, emerging purified.

He would visit this drawing after class every afternoon,
submerging himself in a different nuance each time,
starting with the small tulip at the bottom,
eventually arriving at two pins near the top corners.

This impurity would grow more profound each day.
At first, it was easy for him to stop at the clouds–
his thoughts cushioned by the artist’s imagination.
Yet, these clouds seemed to drift into the paper,
contrasting with the pins that were violently protruding.

He returned one Sunday
as the rain fell with the orange and red leaves,
dissolving in the breeze.
The pins fell to the floor as he slowly pulled
paper from the wall like dead skin from a sunburn.

On the back was the artist’s first attempt, overwrought
with misplaced lines and awkward shading.
All at once, the hills stopped rolling,
the clouds stopped swelling,
the smell of grass no longer permeated.

The drawing fell to floor
He realized that he could no longer look
at the delicate strokes without also feeling
the harsh ones.

---

Concerning Photons and General Relativity

You compress my bed sheets,
warping the spacetime continuum.
Like a single particle of light,
I move through your wrinkles.

However, if you were to disappear for eternity–
collapse into a single particle of infinite mass–
this continuum would never return
to an uninterrupted state.

Like a black hole, your absence
would be more telling than your presence,
and your infinite mass would bend
the continuum with enough strength to alter
the path of any photon.

---

On Evaporation

First is evaporation:
water droplets remain trapped
in the leaves of a plant–
swaying with the late autumn breeze–
or in great stretches of ocean
before breaking free.

This vapor rises through the air,
defying the very standards upon which
it has been confined for so long
as if there is a slight chance
it could escape this atmosphere.

Then comes condensation:
the air turns cold and can
no longer allow for such wishful thinking.
The vapor conforms, turning into dense droplets
that must succumb to the forces of gravity.

I’m on the rise.
I can feel the wind through my hair
as the colors of sunset swallow me whole.
I can only hope that when I fall,
the sun shines through the clouds,
dissolving the gray like sugar,
disappearing into my coffee,
leaving a rainbow in my trail.
 
Robert Del Mauro is currently a student at Dartmouth College.  He enjoys writing poetry, watching the rain, and drinking large cups of coffee.  He hopes to make a difference with his poetry by evoking strong emotions in his readers.  His poetry can be found in Emerge Literary Journal, Third Wednesday and Eunoia Review. 
* * * 
Poetry by Alexandra Piccioni
 
The Mind is an Inscrutable Ocean
The mind is an inscrutable ocean
Populated by creatures lurking deep
Some with triumphant, shimmering scales
Others are hideous, blood on their teeth

The waves are slippery, shadows on ice
Bowing and scraping, magician’s prestige
And the truth? is harsh and heavy sediment
Layered under the marvelous deep

Gray character filters through the water
A game of reflections, inspections, dissections
A therapist’s pen will plunge and record
Each lovely, quiet, carnivorous specimen

Like the metaphorical elephant
Each blind man knows only what he can touch
Smooth and cylindrical, rough and expansive
The ocean is dark; no light can survive it
No justification, no firm explanation,
Never complete understanding gleaned

We each carry inscrutable oceans
Dense, opaque basins in our heads
Yet we stand as though on the grimy sand
Creatures under the bursts of starlight
Wondering what lies within


Charcoal Armories

Wear me, wear
me, spare me the smearing
from nights with the charcoal we
sketched those old guns.

War had begun.

In the museum, we
touched, sparked like powder
and traced those wax
figures, and sketched
those old guns.

Eroding each other

Wear me, I said
Wear me and smear
me,
combust me, entrust
me, your comrade in arms.

I knew sketches fade
to faint, cryptic
markings, uniform
cuneiform, trace of a ghost.
Heedless I drained you,

waned you to wax, 
thus painted perfection
eluded us both.

Your coward’s retreat
submerged me in charcoal
they call it my shame, my
smearing, my mark,

so be it, I prayed
now laden with arms.



Migraines

The cut light that blares through the Redwood trees
is deafening
To a child with headaches

Like glare from dry snow

Send me to bed
Flat, foggy Carmel
There is peace
There is the peace like ravens perching
like manors on moors

Before, light gnashed at me through a prism
And spun into ribbons of ballerinas
So I seized my head and shouted, PLEASE!
Send me to dark, to silence, to bed….

the darkness eases me now
It whispers, “hush, weary Daughter of Snow
Daughter of Redwoods, Daughter of Light,”

a Father to soothe me

I think of my Father in foggy Carmel
a Shade by the sea with coin-less eyes
and I wonder,
how will he pay his fee?
 
Alexandra Piccioni has previously been published in the Ralph Munn 2010 Creative Writing Anthology. She holds a Bachelor degree in World Literatures from Ohio State.
* * *
Three Haiku for Gray Happiness
By Sam Silva

Her smile grows finer
with age! Her eyes...more childlike.
We laugh forever!

Another dusty 
Autumn...years cool and tranquil.
Only you bring joy!

Winter and saviour
They tickle our hearts with snow.
Snow falls on lashes.

Sam Silva has published at least 150 poems in print magazines, including Sow's Ear, 
The ECU Rebel, Pembroke magazine, Samisdat, St. Andrew's Review, Charlotte Poetry Review, 
Main Street Rag, and many more. 

 
* * * 
Poems by Darren Stein

Reading the Signs

As we drive down Old South Head Road
my daughter reads out the signs:
No Stopping
No Stopping
No Parking
No Stopping
Temporary Happiness Bar and Grill
Clearway (Saturday-Sunday)
Children Crossing
No U-Turn
Caution – Sharp Turns
Disabled Parking
No Stopping
Yield
Yield
Yield
Yield
Shady Acres Retirement Home
Yield
Road Ends
Stop.


Autism – Level 1

The diagnosis comes as no surprise;
His behaviour similar to many of the students I have
taught on the lighter side of the spectrum.
Still, the confirmation bears an unexpected heaviness;
My little boy hiding beneath his hoody;
his breakdowns in the cacophony of chaos, noise or crowds;
Those funny sounds and pulled faces at strangers who say hello.
It doesn’t change anything;
At home in the safety of familiarity, with his grandparents and
those he loves, he is a bright and happy child; His artistic talents
shining through along with a receptive and perceptive sense of
humour.
His teachers are understanding; much of the support already
in place,
Yet, you can see his struggle, and it breaks a parent’s heart,
and you ask yourself if you’re to blame?

 
Feeling limp

I have a little patch that’s supposed to make me a man.
Well, an exaggeration perhaps.  I was born with the right
equipment, but over time my diabetes and other hormonal
deficiencies have tapped my testosterone, reduced the juice.
I might see it as a male menopause, a snipped masculinity,
but at least I can still grow my beard, if not my self-esteem.

 Darren Stein is an Australian poet and teaches History and Comparative Religion at a college in Sydney. His recent work has appeared in Poetica, Rangitawa Press, The Journal of Microliterature, and others. His second anthology, The Nut House Poems, is due for release by Red Dashboard Publications in early 2015.
 
* * *
Artwork
Gone for a Walk
By Greg Olgetree
Greg Ogletree is a Natural Science and English (Creative Writing) double major with a minor in French. He ran Cross Country for the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He enjoys all sports, reading, and photography. He wants to travel and would like to have a photo published by National Geographic.
ogletree.jpeg
ogletree5.jpeg
ogletree6.jpeg
ogletree2.jpeg
ogletree4.jpeg
ogletree3.jpeg
Down Home on the Farm
Magen Martin
Magen E. Martin is a nursing major currently working on her minor in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She is a mother of two and a minister's wife. 
A Costa Rican Adventure
By Hali Phillips
Hali is an English major at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She enjoys reading, writing, and photography.
martin2.jpeg
martin5.jpeg
martin3.jpeg
martin4.jpeg
martin.jpeg
hali5.jpeg
hali6.jpeg
hail.jpeg
hali2.jpeg
hali4.jpeg
hali3.jpeg
Joyful Decay
By Sheri Wright
Two-time Pushcart Prize and Kentucky Poet Laureate nominee, Sheri L. Wright is the author of six books of poetry, including the most recent, The Feast of Erasure. Wright’s visual work has appeared in numerous journals, including Blood Orange Review, Prick of the Spindle, Blood Lotus Journal and Subliminal Interiors. In 2012, Wright was a contributer to the Sister Cities Project Lvlds: Creatively Linking Leeds and Louisville. Her photography has been shown across the Ohio Valley region and abroad. Currently, she is working on her first documentary film, Tracking Fire.
wright2.jpeg
wright.jpeg
wright4.jpeg
wright3.jpeg