Foliate Oak December 2015
Soul and Fire
By Christopher Bell
I spend too much time thinking about her. Some would say time wasted, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. It hit too fast. I had plans to shop around in college, especially after all the pain from high school. For a moment, I was convinced it made things with Meg better. We pretended to be different people from the beginning. She had this skinny librarian thing going, mixed with just a dash of rebellion. Turns out the latter part came with daddy issues. I knew what I was into: Twin Peaks, Talking Heads and Total Recall. Meg had too much fun figuring it out like the rest.
There were a lot more my first year at Vickroy, about ten of us comingling with unseen consequences. I thought she was into James. He was uncharacteristically smug, bragging endlessly about happenings in some shit hometown. We all told stories about the people we’d humored, trying to top the prospective status quo. Willie was the worst, an endless slew of falsities stuck dangling in his front teeth. Stacy finally told us he was a virgin after they’d messed around, and he came in his pants. I couldn’t say much, and the same went for Meg.
Our first time was incredibly awkward. She didn’t really enjoy it until the third. We were just getting our rhythms right after ditching history when Brett interrupted, said they’d dismissed early. My roommate and I never worked out a routine. Meg said she always felt uncomfortable around him after that. I considered whether something else was going on, but Brett spent more time in the room than I did; claimed to be writing some kind of masterpiece when he wasn’t playing Street Fighter.
James dropped out after that first semester. Meg’s roommate, Kerry, started dating Doug, and we all lost track of each other. Stacy made a play for George, and Willie spent more and more time with the Rugby team. I didn’t care about any of them; too many hours wasted satisfying their egos. We had our VHS collections, some signature hang-outs and the first advent of pillow talk. I was immediately straightforward, resurfaced embarrassments cracking her right up. She kept me at a distance until after New Year’s.
Spring was probably the best time of my life; making claims we couldn’t support, jumping at tattered opportunities. I liked when she went crazy, pulling my arm down the sidewalk towards misconstrued hysteria. We stole bottles from frat parties, drank red wine in graveyards, and fornicated under waning daylight. Here was this person I thought I knew finally coming alive. It was a privilege standing next to her, faking it a little better given the circumstances. The others made their assumptions as we did with them, a powder keg of post-adolescent theatrics.
There were a few fights, all of which I took her side, even when it was just the two of us at each other’s throats. We didn’t talk about the future, but the summer came too fast. Living back home had a supreme effect, coordinating working-class schedules with vehicle availability and the sting of old familiars speculating. Her high school friends found me unamusing. Mine would’ve jumped at the chance to take advantage. We’d hang on the phone too long; listening to the background noise, surprised by how little there was to say.
I couldn’t make sense of it all until our return to Vickroy. Meg seemed less excited to begin again. Brett said she probably got with somebody over the summer. I shut that down quickly, making him sleep in the common area for the night. It took a little longer to get her in the mood, but afterwards she was all smiles. I hadn’t said I love you for a while, so I whispered it as she left for class the next morning. Meg repeated the words, but her tone shifted just enough. Maybe we’d been falling out of love since the beginning.
We got plastered with her new roommate, Lindsey, at some party. Meg made too many friends, roping me into corners with stoners and their wives. I always got worse anxiety when high, but that night she made the transition far smoother, saying what I needed to hear as we rushed back to her room, screwing with unperceptive eyes. Selfishly we requested too much from the other, rolling over, making plays for dominance. For the first time, I couldn’t finish, which made it difficult for her to keep trying.
That weekend, we retreated to our landmarks, but found the scenery unamusing. I felt stupider with each question, attempting to make her smile or give me the slightest indication that things would work out. She barely touched her Chinese food, while I observed fresh couples in the surrounding space, how the town and its syllabus hadn’t gotten to them yet. A part of me longed for the summer, where each moment represented something more by default. Now in limbo, all that planning meant very little.
She avoided me on Sunday and Monday then stopped by after class. We usually grabbed lunch, but like before, she wasn’t very hungry. “So can we just sit down for a moment?” Meg suggested.
I nodded and joined her on the hard mattress. “So what’s going on?”
“Marvin, I’ve been trying to think of a good way to tell you this.”
“You wanna break up, right?”
“Yeah, I think so, but I want us to be friends. I don’t know if I could handle a life here without you in it.”
“Something tells me you’ll manage just fine,” I scoffed.
“Don’t do that. You knew this was coming.”
“Yeah, but only because you don’t seem happy.”
“And there’s nothing I can do about it, right?”
“I’m not sure there is, and I’m really sorry about that, but ya know what I think it is?”
“We used each other to get away from everyone else, but it’s not good living your life in a shell.”
“I would’ve gone out more, done whatever you wanted.”
“Yeah, but what did you want?” The question made me second-guess why we were together in the first place.
“I want you, but maybe not the person you think you are right now.”
“I’m still just figuring things out, okay? And it may take some time, but I’m pretty sure we both need this.”
“You don’t know what I need.”
“I can’t do this with you right now.” She stood up somewhere between sad and relieved.
“Do you have your eye on someone else?”
“No, of course not.”
“I just wonder if you’ll think about me at all when you do.”
“Will you still think about me?”
“I have yet to stop.”
“We’ll talk soon.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, I know. Neither of us really does,” she walked out.
I considered shouting down the hallway, but playground names wouldn’t sum us up. We never talked about it being over, just everything else, the dense hilarity ingrained in each day. I tried to cry, but couldn’t, grabbing my Walkman and slumming to class in a melancholic stupor. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I didn’t feel or hear anything. The other bodies passed right through me on their way to wherever.
A week later, and it hasn’t stopped feeling this way. I haven’t seen her. Brett said when he did, she said hello, but there wasn’t enough time to ask about me. I know it’s bound to happen, and when it does, I’ll maybe feel something again, however wrecked and twisted it happens to be. There’s a girl in my research methods class who occasionally stares, and another in my cultural studies that seems pretty into New Order. I have yet to raise my hand and make my opinion known.
When I do, they’ll take notice, and then she’ll see me with them sometime soon, and wonder why it didn’t take longer, and when we’re alone again, I’ll tell her the truth, just like before, and she’ll feel good knowing, but will still hold it against me. Now it’s just a waiting game to see who needs the other one first. It’s a real shame too. Saying goodbye was so much fun.
Christopher S. Bell has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. My Idea of Fun is an art and music collective based out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Christopher’s work has recently been published in the Madison Review, Red Rock Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Commonline Journal, Mobius, Gesture, Crack the Spine and Eclectica among others. He was also a contributor to Impression of Sound.
* * *
West Four Thousand and Something Street
By AN Block
Dad looked me in the eye, coughed twice and stuck a folded up bill in my hand.
“Stash it in that hidden compartment of the leather wallet we got you. In case of emergency,” he said, winking. “Keep it out of sight so you’re not tempted.”
“Wow!” It was the first twenty I’d ever had. Holding it made me woozy.
“Got everything?” he asked, gesturing to the closed trunk as I stuffed the bill in my shirt pocket.
Mom kept fussing in the living room, straightening things around the coffee table, the magazine rack, humming. Then she steadied herself back up against the wall, looked at me and sighed so loud trying to catch her breath that it made me shudder.
“Give me one more minute.”
I passed through the kitchen to survey my 8 by 10 bedroom wondering at how strangely tidy everything appeared and would likely remain without me around to mess it up anymore. Kneeling on my bed I raised the window screen and ducked my head out, inhaled the familiar mix of salt air, boiled cabbage and incinerator soot, felt the swirling breeze brush my cheeks and tried to freeze it all in my mind. I turned right to the elevated tracks, left towards the ocean and Boardwalk in the distance, I looked four stories down to the block long concrete and iron tangle of what everyone here called “The Backyard,” scene of my earliest triumphs and humiliations, straight ahead eighteen feet to the discolored tawny-red bricks and drawn shades of 3110 Brighton 7th Street, fourth floor, rear apartment, the ornate wrought iron deco bars over its windows, above and below to the riot of laundry flapping on clothes lines like flags in the wind, to all the oblivious pigeons clucking nervously on their maroon painted fire escape perches, and I had to swallow hard. This little world, this place I could never fit. That apartment across the way that faced me every day of my life, the one whose walls must’ve rattled exactly when mine did, who inhabited it? Once in a while you’d hear yelling. A train clattered into the station heading towards the unfathomable slums of Coney Island. I had no idea. None.
“You have everything?” Dad called out again, half question, half statement.
Hastily I pulled the bottom drawer of my dresser open and for one last time touched the confident smoky-eyed face of Jackie Robinson gazing up from beneath a rubber band on my stack of old baseball cards. Then, wobbling back through the kitchen, I heard the creak of linoleum underfoot, I grabbed and let go the tarnished handle of the Kelvinator, our refrigerator Dad still referred to as the icebox, I trailed my shaky fingers alongside the wallpaper past our bathroom to the foyer and wiped my runny nose on my sleeve.
“Think so,” I answered.
Dad double locked the door and I lugged the heavy trunk down to the elevator. Mom pressed her lips together, her eyes darted to the floor and she patted my hand twice. She nodded and laughed to herself without speaking. Something private. Downstairs I hefted the trunk into the station wagon Dad borrowed from my brother, then the three of us headed north, out of The City, across bridges onto tree lined parkways, over hill and nauseating dale, whizzing past more trees and greenery than I’d ever seen outside of Central Park, the cramped streets fading into shapes, noise and memory, with their cluttered scents of Chinese food and hot knishes, the road twisting past one desolate farmhouse and dilapidated barn after another, past tractors groaning under bales of sweet smelling hay, through the dusty impoverished open heart of what I would soon hear described as Shitkicker Country. Not much conversation beyond Mom asking if we were making good time and Dad grumbling about the crap on the radio nowadays.
Toothpaste U. It killed me how everyone who said it paused, waiting for the joke to sink in, how they must’ve thought that they were highly original wits of some kind for thinking it up. All I knew, I had to get out, had to find some place the exact opposite of everything. Why there? The progression went: pick a New York State school so you can use your Regents Scholarship, wade through the catalogues in the library, try to decode the words, the numbers, the stilted pictures of well-groomed earnest students, fill out the loan forms, apply for financial aid and wait. Wait, wonder, hope. Even once the letters began flying back and forth, the stamps got licked, the envelopes sealed and dropped in the mailbox it still all seemed improbable. Even after the countdown began (week before Labor Day, next month, one more week, just three days) I kept breathing the hollow air of unreality. Time crossed off a calendar. Abstract. I’d just drank an ice cold glass of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic to celebrate my seventeenth birthday and this was well before anyone had ever offered me the sage advice: Be careful what you wish for. Colgate.
Dad and I carried the trunk upstairs to the third floor, Mom trailing behind. There were flies buzzing everywhere, the stinging smell of ammonia.
“Oh, bunk beds,” she said, patting the lower mattress, testing how much give it had. “When Russell arrives you’ll have to discuss with him who gets which bunk. I hope you’ll be friends.”
“Why wouldn’t they be friends?” Dad said. “Of course they’ll be friends.”
“Well, yes,” she said. “I imagine everyone here will be nice.” Then she looked at me, held her arms out for a hug, motioned me forward wiggling her fingers, bit her lip and started sobbing.
I ushered them both further into the room and closed the door with my foot. Families were starting to arrive, I could hear their voices echoing on the staircases and in the hallways, and I didn’t want my new roommate, whoever this Russell was, to witness what I feared would be my own teary goodbye.
Dad put his arm around her shoulder. He said, “Come on, now, Birdie,” but she couldn’t stop crying.
“I’m all right,” Mom kept saying. “No, really. I’m all right.”
Dad gave her his handkerchief, he looked at me, hunched his shoulders, raised his rough raw looking palms and then, without fanfare, she stopped.
“Proud of you,” Dad said then, squeezing both my shoulders. “Knock em dead, son. We’ll sure miss you.”
“Miss you already, Papa.” Now it was my turn to look away, out the window to the pine forest up the hill.
“Better be off,” he said. “Need to get the car back to your brother’s before sundown, he and Elaine are going out on the town tonight. Well. If you need anything, you know where to find us.”
“Please write to us,” Mom said, clutching my arm. “Okay? Let us know how the food is. How you’re getting along.”
“I’ll write,” I said. “I’ll write every day.”
“He’ll be busy with schoolwork,” Dad said, laughing. “He won’t have time to write every day.”
“Well, every other day then,” Mom said. “Thanksgiving is only a few months off.”
We walked downstairs, I kissed them both and they got in the car. There were three others parked in front of the dormitory, two with families unloading luggage. New Jersey plates, New Hampshire and Indiana.
“Let us know if you need anything,” Dad said through the rolled down window. “Anything at all.”
“I’ll be fine,” I told them, leaning my elbows on the window. “I’ll get used to it quick. You know me.”
“Atta boy. You’re going to love it here. Once you get used to it. And remember, your job is to study hard and learn as much as you can.”
“Right,” I said. I shook Dad’s hand. “I’ll work hard. Don’t worry.”
They backed up, turned and began pulling away.
“Be well, son. Keep in touch.”
I could hear Mom sobbing into her hands. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. And then, like that, they were gone.
I turned, stuck one hand in my pocket, took the twenty out of my shirt, put it into my wallet and trudged up the patchy lawn in front of Kendrick Hall. A bare chested boy wearing what looked like a reddish beachcomber’s cap was watching me from his second floor window. He was grinning, holding something I couldn’t make out in one of his hands. He touched it to the side of his tilted head.
Just as I was coming through the front door, a thin wiry beanpole of a fellow in madras shorts, a rugby shirt and mocassins was coming out. He was wearing a maroon beanie.
“Hello!” he said, extending his hand. “Bucky Potter. Ridgedale, New Jersey.”
“Hi,” I said, extending my hand.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re supposed to say ‘Hello,’ not ‘Hi.’ Didn’t you read the orientation materials? And where’s your class beanie?”
“Just got here. Where do I get it from?”
“Should be in your room on the desk with the rest of the packet. That’s where mine was. Hey, don’t let one of the RA’s catch you without it this week.”
I nodded and headed up the staircase.
The smiling boy from the second floor window was walking down, holding a brown bottle in his hand. He had one of those hairy bobcat vests on, like the one Sonny from Sonny and Cher wore, and he was wearing the same maroon beanie that Potter kid had on his head, but tilted at an angle so you could see his blonde hair on one side.
“Hello,” I said.
He stopped, looked at me and broke into a heavy lidded smirk. He was a bull chested kid with a face full of acne. Instead of returning my hello, he took a drink from his bottle. Then all he said was, “You’re not a legacy too, are you?” He held onto the railing, he seemed to be swaying.
“What’s a legacy?”
“Hey, you’re that kid I just saw kissing his old man, right?” He laughed. “So, you up for a swig?” He held the bottle out to me.
I shrugged and went past him up to my floor.
I sat down at the desk and put on my beanie. It was too big.
I looked out the window. More cars were arriving.
So, I wondered, what would this be? Let’s see: there’s twenty blocks in a mile, we’re 200 miles away. Guess it’s somewhere around West Four Thousand and Something Street.
AN Block has just had a story accepted for publication in the Blue Bonnet Review and has one being published this fall in The Binnacle. He has an MA in History and is a Master of Wine who has published dozens of non-fiction pieces on wine and food.
* * *
When Words Have Gone
By Elena Croitoru
One morning, my husband talked to me in a language I didn't understand. He sat next to me, on his side of the bed. His lips moved and these well-rounded vowels and consonants echoed in his mouth but it all sounded like a strange song.
I tried to speak but I realized that my own words came out with difficulty. I tried to remember how to pronounce my question, "Why are you speaking like that Tim?"
My husband stared out of his trembling, tourmaline-blue eyes and only seemed to wince when I said his name. It had been a long time since I didn't trust him. I used to wonder about whether or not he had ever allowed himself to be vulnerable around me, like the time when he said how perfect his father was, even though I had just heard them arguing. But I thought that after forty years, we were going to face death together, with serenity and candor even.
I gripped a corner of the duvet and held it tight, ascertaining my surroundings. Was this a vivid dream perhaps? The chiffonier was still there; the oak doors painted in almond white shimmered in the feeble light coming through the windows of our Georgian cottage. The teapot filled with Earl Grey from the night before was still on the nightstand along with my cracked filigree cup. Everything was in its right place. We were still in Wales.
But as I told Tim that something peculiar was going on, I realized that I spoke Czech, not English. I blamed my seventy-year-old brain for that. I thought it was a temporary glitch. I tried to speak again, but no English came out of my mouth.
Tim’s cheeks turned pink and he placed his hands on my shoulders. He shook me a bit. I pulled back.
"What's happening?" I asked.
Tim didn't say anything. He got out of bed and dressed in his grey tweed suit, the one he used to wear when visiting the old school, where we both used to teach. He pulled my hand and gestured towards the chiffonier. He took out my cream wool dress and laid it on the bed next to me and then pointed at it. I didn't know what else to do so I dressed up and put my lacquered shoes on. I saw my reflection in them. I looked tired beyond measure. Tim took my arm and we both left the house and strode along the shore where the liquid silver sea modeled the sands into flame-fractal patterns. I tried to remember the formulas that I used to teach my students, like the Lagrange theorem or the Fourier transform. I still remembered functional analysis.
I told Tim that but he looked puzzled again. My chest ached as if thorns grew and pulsated inside me. On our right, the local clinic had its doors flung open. We went in.
The doctor, a verbose young man, talked over Tim. I could tell that the conversation was tense. They both took turns to stare at me. My hands were shaking and all I could think about was how I was going to spend the remaining few years of my life if I couldn't understand what my husband was saying. I couldn’t go back to the Czech Republic now. Everybody I used to know either died or would not recognize me. Sometimes I used to wonder if I ever lived there at all. I could hardly remember the anger I used to feel at the invasion of Czechoslovakia or how I had to swallow my protests at the normalization that spread over the country. The memories didn't even move me anymore. It was odd, as if my later years spent in Wales were the only reality I knew. I thought about going back, just before I married Tim but it was as if my heart had grown roots in the soil and the rain had pushed them down further and further.
The doctor led me to his desk. He typed something in and then pointed towards his computer screen. A message translated in Czech said, "You suffered a mild stroke overnight. I think you can only remember your native language."
I read the text twice. I had even forgotten Czech a bit, as I only spoke English for the past twenty years. I covered my face to hide my tears. I couldn't believe the farce that my body had thrown me into. Tim held my shoulders.
The doctor typed something else in. "This might be temporary. We'll keep you under observation for a couple of months to see how you do. We'll send a specialist to evaluate you afterwards." The words were blurry. My tears wouldn't stop, but I nodded.
Back at home; I spent the rest of the day looking at the dictionary, trying to learn some words. I started with the word family and repeated it a dozen times but I still could not commit it to memory. I would have preferred it if it was Mathematics that I had forgotten rather than English.
Tim had gone somewhere outside. He didn't come back until evening. I thought he was trying to deal with my condition but then it crossed my mind that he never tried to learn my native language in the first place. I wondered if he hadn't loved me enough for that. I wrote down Euler's formula just to test my brain. This was something I could still do. I showed it to Tim later. He smiled for the first time that day. He used to smile whenever I looked at him.
Tim would attempt to speak to me in the morning but I would stare back wiping my forehead because of the heat that would take over me. He would then go away into his study or into the garden and only come out for lunch or tea. I would spend my days alone in the conservatory with the dictionary and a few blank pages, trying to get back the sweet words that had run away.
I worried that when the specialist would came around, Tim would hand me over to him and I would end up spending the next few years in an institution. Tim had good intentions but he didn’t place much faith in himself. He would always leave things to the professionals, like he did with our daughter Debbie when she was depressed about her boyfriend. Because of Tim’s veiled forcefulness, I would forget my own opinions and give in to his charm. I wished I could hear Debbie, worried as she was about her problems, her voice would have been enough even if she didn’t speak Czech that well. But she would never answer her phone. London was all consuming.
As I sat in the conservatory one afternoon, looking at the geranium, which had bloomed without me noticing, I remembered the same shade of red on the mountain flower Tim gave me in Peru, while we were hiking twenty years ago. I figured I should find the old photos of us climbing the escarpment and maybe that would make Tim remember who we once were.
But I looked everywhere and I couldn't find any of my old pictures. Just like the words, they had gone. Perhaps the flood had destroyed them. I sobbed so much that the neighbor’s cat ran away from our garden.
Tim came in. He picked me up and said, "It is going to be all right Marie."
It was the first time when he had ever said something in Czech. "I was never good at languages but I will be,” he said, “Trying is just not good enough."
His voice had changed into a lullaby, new and familiar at the same time, seemingly belonging to a land that was always between us but we never explored.
Elena Croitoru lives in London and is working on short stories and novels. She completed the University of Oxford's Advanced Creative Writing Course and is currently studying for the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge. Her fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories. She is also a software developer.
* * *
By Jeffrey Dupuis
From the first few seconds of meeting Dean Cain, I couldn’t stop referring to him as “Dean Cain,” never just “Dean” or “Mr. Cain.” It was not as though he had saved my life, but he had done me what you might call a “solid.” However, things could have turned out significantly worse, had I not met Dean Cain, but a mountain lion or a grizzly bear instead.
Elise had left me by the roadside, prey for the midsummer mosquitoes, and I had no choice but to walk down the mountain alone and hope for someone else to be driving down the secluded road, fraught with switchbacks and crisscrossing wildlife. It turned out asking for a divorce was more difficult than I had envisioned, even with the ticking clock of Magda’s pregnancy hanging over the whole thing. I thought that spending the day in the mountains, near Longspur Peak, away from the life Elise and I had built together, might make the whole thing easier. However, Elise spent the night prior baking, preparing a picnic, and the whole day was too pleasant to mention the D-word.
Only on the way home, when we stopped at the roadside so I could answer the call of nature, did Elise pick up my phone and find something objectionable. Although she may have been in an agreeable mood, Elise was the type of person who could ferret out a secret, even if she suspected nothing. It was a trait I profoundly disliked about her. With my iPhone in her hand, I could see her expression through the window grow more and more distressed as I walked back to the car. I couldn’t be sure what upset her, e-mails maybe, or the sonogram Magda sent of our unborn child.
“You are such a fucking, fucking asshole!” she screamed.
Tears filled her eyes and she was still screaming as she drove away, fishtailing onto the shoulder as the road curved, the tires kicking up gravel.
“You shouldn’t drive when you’re so emotional,” I called after her. “You could get into an accident.”
I honestly cannot remember ever crying. Perhaps I’m a sociopath or maybe I’m somewhere on the autistic spectrum—I don’t understand those conditions and I’ve never been diagnosed. I just tend not to feel much of anything and, as far as Elise went, I just couldn’t pretend anymore. My father used to tell me when I was a boy that our heart was encased in the ribcage to keep our feelings locked up. I know as an adult that that theory is not biologically sound, and if it were true, giant squids must be littering the sea floor with melancholy.
My first visit to Longspur Peak was when I was twelve and I went hunting with my father. We waited among the moss-covered rocks and old-growth trees at the edge of a clearing for what seemed like hours. Dad didn’t “hunt” deer, he found their food source and waited for them to come to him. We finally saw a ten-point buck emerge on the other side of the clearing. Dad aimed the rifle, lining the buck up in his sights, then, without a word, lowered the barrel and handed the gun to me. I raised the butt of the gun to my shoulder and took aim, the wood and steel rifle feeling heavy like an Olympic barbell. Then I took the shot. The bullet tore through the sternum of the buck and it bounded off amongst the trees.
“Jesus Christ, Pete,” was all Dad said and we jogged into the bush, following the trail of syrupy droplets.
We found the buck lying on his side, appearing to have an asthma attack. It struggled for air and never succeeded. I chambered another bullet but Dad took the gun away from me.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
He handed me a knife with a wooden handle and tarnished blade, something that looked like it had last seen action in the trenches of World War One.
“Cut the carotid artery,” he said. “Like this.”
He used the back of the blade and traced a line down the side of his neck.
Dad stood over me as I sunk down onto the animal, the knife in my right hand, my left hand over top, steadying the blade. Some blood spurt out at first, coating the back of my trembling hand in thick warmth, then the stream flowed slowly down the buck’s neck.
“There’s a good man,” said. “A man clears up his mistakes.”
When it was done Dad put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it tenderly.
“In Islam, they do that to goats every year,” he said.
For the remainder of my childhood, I thought Islam was a place.
The winding road leading toward the city was the one thing that hadn’t really changed since I was a boy. There wasn’t much of a shoulder, so when I heard a car tearing down the mountain road I moved almost into the trees and waited with my thumb outstretched. A silver coupe sped by, screeching to a halt twenty feet down the road from where I was, laying down two lines of black rubber.
“You’re Dean Cain,” I said to the driver, who leaned across the car to open the passenger door.
“What are you doing in the middle of nowhere, Canada?”
We took off down the road. Dean Cain had the windows down and cool air ripped through the car, flies rain dropping on the windshield.
“I’m doing a movie up in the mountains,” he said.
He gave me the synopsis as though it was printed on the back cover of a DVD. When copper miners in the Pacific Northwest accidentally awaken the legendary Sasquatch, it’s up to small town sheriff Hardee Wallace (Dean Cain) to put a stop to the monstrous, bloodthirsty rampage.
“I don’t know any radio stations,” Dean Cain said, pointing toward the dash. “Put on something rockin’, I wanna get in the zone, you know…”
The classic rock station was the only one that came in clearly. We caught the tail end of Don’t Fear the Reaper, then a paid political announcement came on. It was an election year and the party in power filled the airwaves with attack ads. How do the Liberals plan to balance the budget? By raising taxes. Higher taxes kill jobs.
“I doubt they can cite any economic research papers to support that claim,” I said to Dean Cain.
“It’s just common sense. High taxes kill jobs and the middle class.”
“You can’t have a middle class without public education, infrastructure and social services,” I said. “Taxes are what pay for those.”
“Are you a communist?” Dean Cain asked me as the car screeched to a halt.
“No, I’m not a communist,” I told Dean Cain. “I’m more like what you Americans would consider a New Deal Democrat.”
“Try a No Deal Democrat. Your free ride’s over. Get out of my car.”
I could see then that I wasn’t dealing with raised-in-Smallville-by-the-salt-of-the-earth Dean Cain. This was more the entitled, beginning-of-Future Sport Dean Cain, or maybe even the intolerant to the developmentally challenged, surfer-from-Life-Goes-On Dean Cain. He had pulled over so close to the edge of the road that I stepped out and fell about three feet into a gully. As soon as I closed the door, he sped away and I could hear Panama blasting from the car’s speakers.
The rays of the waning sun stuck to what looked like a string of gems, a tiny constellation of sparkles at the base of an old, stone mile marker. I could see that it was broken glass. The marker itself was marred with streaks of green paint. A crow stood upon the moss-covered milestone, looking down at the glittering glass, seeing value where humans see only damaged goods.
The lift Dean Cain had given me shaved an hour off my journey and I could walk to the nearest town before nightfall. Magda would call and maybe Elise would answer. I imagined all the horrible things they’d say to each other or about me, as I walked back to civilization.
I didn’t seen Dean Cain’s face again until a howling winter night, at home, watching the Sy-Fy Network as bare branches tapped my window. Dean Cain was starring in Sasquatch Rampage, which concluded with a copper mine filled with sasquatches and dynamite, and Dean Cain firing a flare gun into the TNT, saying “Bigfoot…meet big bang.”
Elise wanted nothing more from me other than the severing of all ties, which was considerate of her, since I’d need what money I had for my impending child support payments. She later married a tow truck driver and moved up near Longspur Peak and they lived happily among the local Sasquatch population, making well-mannered baby after well-mannered baby.
Jeff Dupuis writes fiction, poetry and satire. His work has been published on The Barnstormer and in magazines and journals such as Valve, After the Pause and University of Toronto Magazine. His next e-book, Mister Molecule's Grand Gesture, is forthcoming from Found Press.
* * *
By Jeremy Griffin
Bradley had ridden his bike the mile and a half to K-Mart check out the meager collection of anime magazines (you had to make the twenty-minute drive to the mall for a more extensive selection, and just try convincing your mom to haul you all that way so you could spend an hour staring at Annie Mays—that’s what she called them, for Christ’s sake), only to find himself drifting toward the pharmacy as soon as he walked in the door. Actually, it was more of a pull, he would later realize—yes, he’d been pulled toward the racks of mysterious and intimate inventory, the kinds of items that he could never bring himself to look at directly. The feminine products in their pink and purple packaging, their lettering curvy and leaflike. The creams and ointments, the powders and sprays. It all made him feel so indecent.
The worst was the display rack of condoms. Partially it was because they were right there at the pharmacy counter, where the aisles converged like rivers emptying into a single floodplain. Also, their sizes and variety of colors gave them the distant appearance of candy, until they were right in front of you and suddenly the silhouetted images of men and women on the verge of kissing were obvious and you felt like a complete idiot. No matter how many times Bradley saw the display his brain continued to process it this way; it was always just for an instant, but it was still enough to fill him with the absurd suspicion that, like so many other things in his life lately, the whole thing was just some unending prank directed exclusively at him.
Even more disturbing was how intimate those silhouettes seemed, more so in fact than if the couple in the image had been doing it outright. You don’t hear people swapping dirty jokes about kissing, do you? You don’t hear them yukyukking about it in the halls at school, clapping each other on the back like the punchline is some sort of accomplishment. Kissing was so unremarkable as to be off-limits. Sex, however, was public domain, or so it seemed to Bradley who, at 13, was still a virgin—a screamingly obvious one, too, if the incident in the locker room two days ago was any indication.
Now, at the condom rack he paused, trying to appear aloof, like buying condoms was something he did all the time. He plucked a pack of Durex Pleasureworlds© from one of the hooks and examined it closely. ALTERNATING STUDS AND RIBS FOR INCREASED SENSATION! it proclaimed in bold black letters at the bottom of the box. Of course, he had no occasion to use the condoms. For him, talking to girls was like trying to communicate with an exotic and potentially dangerous species. Plus, there was Emily Hilford’s revelation in bio last month that everybody presumed him to be a level 5 queermo. “I thought you knew that’s what people were saying,” she’d said as though this were the most obvious fact in all of human history. “I was just asking. It’s not like I’m psychic or whatever. Sor-ry!”
No, the condoms were about something more, something he didn’t entirely understand yet but could feel turning in his mind like the tumblers of a lock falling into place.
Running his thumb over the image of the man and woman, Bradley thought about all the boys in gym class who had stood around the other day laughing at his Pokémon briefs, all of them including his best friend Jason Halvorson. They had been inseparable since kindergarten—“the Ambiguously Gay Duo” as Jason’s sister Maggie, a high school sophomore, often joked—although admittedly things had been a little strange ever since last year when Jason shot up a good six inches in a matter of months, leaving him with a slim, serious face and an air of antagonistic indifference. Everything was gay or lame or weaksauce now. Everything, that is, except the invitation he’d received a couple months back to a party at Desiree Yarborough’s house, where he’d reportedly had sex with Ashley Carr during a round of Seven Minutes in Heaven.
Upon hearing the story, Bradley couldn’t help feeling betrayed. For years they’d shared their outcast status like members of a support group; now here was Jason having suddenly graduated to this newer version of himself while he, Bradley, was stuck being who he was, a plump, chipmunk-cheeked kid who got tripped in the halls and whose mom slipped little notes of encouragement into his lunch like he was still in preschool. Believe in yourself! they’d say or maybe Today is yours!. Each one he would cram into his pocket and then later deposit in his locker, because as embarrassing as they were, he couldn’t yet bring himself to throw them in the trash.
Nor could he bring himself to confront Jason about his new personality. Doing so, Bradley feared, would only widen the chasm between them. And so he now wondered: is this what had drawn him here to the condom display, a need to prove that he could be a better version of himself too, someone who could willingly make the wrong choices because they were wrong? That he was capable of being just as reckless and dangerous and unpredictable as Jason?
Whether there was an answer to the question, Bradley couldn’t say, but that didn’t matter. Casting a look down either end of the aisle to make sure no one was watching, he slipped the small box into the pocket of his hoodie.
When he’d left from home on his bike, he’d had no intention of stealing the condoms. In fact, other than the first edition Bulbasaur card he’d swiped from Ricky Bowles when they were eight (Ricky wasn’t actually a Pokémon collector; he’d gotten the cards as a birthday gift from an aunt, which as far as Bradley was concerned made him unfit to own it), he had never stolen anything in his life. But now, as he made his way to the automated doors with the box in his pocket and his heart fluttering wildly in his chest, he felt a sense of triumph that he’d never experienced before, as if everything in his life had been careening toward this single act.
Except, that was when the alarm blared out and the red lights of the theft detector panels started flashing; he’d been too lost in thought to even notice them. As he whirled around to the store’s interior, he met the eyes of a clerk restocking the five-dollar DVD rack. A pudgy slack-jawed fellow, the man had acne-scarred jowls and a sullen demeanor that made it clear he would just as soon put a bullet through his head as price-mark another copy of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Well, here it is, Bradley thought. He was busted, no question about it. Any second the man would come grab him by the arm and drag him into a little windowless room in the back of the store where he’d have to wait for the police and then his mother. Oh god, he could just see the humiliation on her face when she arrived to pick him up, the craggy crease of her brow, her lips pinched into a wrinkled, colorless nub. Her son the thief.
Then a strange thing happened.
Something shifted in the man’s eyes, a glint of recognition, and suddenly Bradley had an unaccountable feeling that this fellow, a complete stranger, could discern things about him, personal things that only someone like Jason would know. In a flash, the events from the other day flitted through Bradley’s mind: the locker room with its pea-colored walls and fusty stench; the scrum of shirtless boys guffawing over his underwear, which he had only picked that morning because all the others were in the laundry; Jason stepping forward and giving the waistband a snap, his face bent into an unfriendly smirk; Bradley locking himself in a bathroom stall later that period and sobbing so violently into the crook of his arm that he had to bite into muscle to stop.
Only later would he come to understand what it was that the man saw—the shared recognition of trauma, like witnesses to a grisly accident. This must have been why the fellow now turned back to the DVD rack like he hadn’t seen anything, his pricing gun once again click clacking on the plastic cases.
For a moment Bradley just continued staring at the back of the man’s head, waiting for something to happen. Waiting to surrender. Then, when it finally dawned on him that the clerk was letting him go, he fled outside.
Behind him the lights continued to flash and the theft alarm howled, and folks in the parking lot gaped at him as he flew past them, but he was barely aware of any of it. All he could sense as he mounted his bike and began pedaling furiously, his hand still gripping the box in his pocket, was the blood pumping in his ears and the afternoon heat on his face like a friendly welcome to an unfamiliar world and the phrase repeating over and over in his head Today is yours! Today is yours! Today is yours!
Jeremy Griffin is the author of a collection of short fiction from SFASU Press titled A Last Resort for Desperate People. HIs work has appeared in such journals as the Indiana Review, the Iowa Review, and Shenandoah and has been nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently a lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University.
* * *
The Long Dirt Road
By Keshaune Hatchett
On a brisk, fall afternoon in a small town in Ohio, all was calm as the hours were entering into the evening.
That soon came to a screeching halt, after the front door at the local watering hole violently flew opened and slammed against the wall shattering the glass.
Slade Drew, the town drunk and troublemaker emerged from the bar with a bottle of liquor in each hand.
After taking a few staggered steps into the street, he stopped and took a drink from the bottle that was in his right hand, while loud obscenities were being shouted by the owner of the bar, as he stood in the doorway.
In his inebriated state, Slade spun around and flung the bottle in the direction of the bar owner, and even though he missed his target; the bottle shattered a window.
This brought pleasure to Slade, as he flashed a yellow toothed smile. He ran his fingers through his stringy, gray hair, and after shouting a few obscenities of his own; he gave a one finger salute then turned and staggered away.
As he walked down the middle of the street, taking a drink after every few steps, people were staring at him in disgust, but their looks or remarks did not faze him.
He came to the end of the block and made a right onto a long, dirt road that led to his house, but before completely making the turn; he stopped and looked back at the bar from which he came then chuckled, as he admired the damage that he caused.
Slade took yet another drink then began to make the mile long hike on the dirt road that led to his house.
Half way down the road, he immediately stopped in his tracks and stared at a mysterious entity that stood just ten feet in front of him that seemed to have magically appeared.
Slade could not believe his eyes, as he wiped them several times, but after each time; the entity remained.
The creature returned Slade’s stare with eyes as black as charcoal. His skin was chalky white, and was riddled with long knife- like scars. His long, slick, black hair partially covered his face and hung to the middle of his torso and back.
Slade’s first instinct was to turn and run away, but he was frozen by fear, and once he noticed the creature’s thick claws that pointed at the end; his heart began to race, and he started to sweat profusely, sensing his demise was imminent.
He knew he had to do something. Thoughts of fighting entered his mind, but he knew that his slender frame would not stand a chance against the creature, so he decided to do the next best thing, run.
Slade took a hard step to his right, but it was met by a hard step to the creature’s left. He did the same to his left, and alas; it was met by the same to the creature’s right.
It was like the creature was playing with his prey, taking perverse pleasure in Slade’s fear, and after he flashed his smile that was full of gray, razor sharp teeth; the creature belted out a deep sinister laugh at the sight of urine that streamed down Slade’s pant leg.
“Enough!” Slade shouted, as his anger had usurped his fear. “Whaddya want from me?”
“I think you better watch the tone in your voice!” the creature replied in a very deep tone.
Slade took a quick drink then took a deep breath, “Why ya here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Slade watched in horror as the creature ran the claw from his index finger along his own cheek, slicing the skin, but at the same time was in awe as a white smoke emitted from the cut while his skin healed, as if nothing ever happened.
“What are you?” Slade inquired.
“I am a demon,” the creature smiled and said. “You caused quite a disturbance back there. Where’s the man that was so full of bravado a short time ago?” he took a few steps toward Slade, which were met by a few steps back.
“I, I was just havin' a lil fun; I ain’t mean no harm.” Slade wiped the sweat from his brow then gazed into the demon’s dark eyes. “I promise if you let me go; I won’t cause no more trouble.”
“On the contrary, I like it when you cause havoc.” the demon rubbed his palms together while flashing a smile. “I love it when you tear up places and get thrown out of establishments.”
“You talk like you seen me before,” Slade replied, as he stared at the demon with a perplexed look.
“Where you seen me before? I’ve never seen you," Slade said
“Just because you don’t see me, doesn’t mean that I’m not there,” the demon chuckled. “I am always around, lurking in the background.”
The demon looked around the dirt road then looked at Slade’s sweat soaked white tank top that was littered with food and alcohol stains, and noticed that his slender frame trembled from fear. “Is there a particular question that you want to ask?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid of the answer.”
The demon glared at Slade with a look of disdain, “Ask your question!” he shouted.
“Are ya going to kill me?”
The demon’s demeanor quickly shifted from anger to delight, as he stared into Slade’s petrified eyes. He purposely stalled for a few moments while Slade waited with bated breath.
After what seemed like an eternity had passed, the Demon cracked his familiar diabolical smile then answered, “I am not going to take your life today.”
Within a flash, the Demon had closed the gap and was within an inch of Slade.
He was snarling and breathing profoundly as saliva fell from the ends of his teeth, “You are not the sharpest knife in the drawer are you?” the demon continued to breathe heavily. “I won’t take your life today or tomorrow; we still have a lot of damage to do in this town.”
After delivering those words, just as quick as the demon appeared, he had vanished, while his words resonated in Slade’s head.
“We?” Slade asked, as he heard the demon’s laugh echo.
Slade dropped the bottle that was in his hand, as the laughter was replaced by sirens, and as the police cars rapidly approached; he realized that the demon resided within.
Keshaune Hatchett was born in Canton, Ohio in 1975. He graduated from Canton McKinley high school in 1993. He served his country in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged in 1997. He attained his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Beckfield College in June of 2014. He had short stories titled, Angel Among Us published in the June 2013 issue of Cigale Magazine, and Sometimes We Forget published in the May 2014 issue of Foliate Oak Magazine.
* * *
By Amy Jarvis
What remained of raindrops danced across her skin, tracing over each other and refusing to be completely straight. Grace could feel tears threatening to stain her eyes, but made no move to wipe them away. Instead, she pulled down her jacket sleeves, covering the reminder of what had brought her into the woods in the first place. Her footsteps on the damp, fallen leaves were muffled underneath her as she made her way through the dense trees, with only the full moon slicing through the branches to guide her. From somewhere in the distance, what sounded like an animal howling startled her. Trying to ignore the nagging feeling of trepidation, Grace convinced herself she wouldn’t have to walk much farther from the beaten path. Several minutes later, Grace stopped dead when she realized she had come to an iron fence that wrapped around the outline of cement blocks. Old railroad tracks twisted through the woods beyond the cemetery, crossing over each other and disappearing in different directions, possibly leading nowhere. She slipped through the gate, walking through what appeared to be a mist-filled cemetery that had been abandoned years ago.
What couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before, Grace had pulled her car into the empty parking lot outside of the nature preserve. Loose gravel had shifted underneath her tires, echoing through her mind. They would find her car, she had thought to herself, but it would probably take a few days before they found her body. She wondered if her hair would be tangled around her face, her skin covered in caked on mud and devoid of any color besides ghostly white. She could only hope her father, the only person she wanted to believe cared, would forgive her.
The tombstones were barely recognizable, their pieces crumbling underneath them. The writing, meant to memorialize souls, had hardly withstood time. Grace leaned close to one, deciphering what she thought said 1864. A chill crept underneath her skin, but she doubted it was from the cold. A mausoleum stood towards the center of the cemetery. The outline of a cross on the rooftop seemed to burn into her, and she contemplated the irony of spending her last moments inside something dedicated to the afterlife. Swallowing, she made her way towards it. Writing was etched into the stone above the heavy wooden door, but she couldn’t quite make it out. As she pulled it open, the door let out a groan that echoed through the woods behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, aware that if anyone was around, they obviously would have heard it. Moonlight filtered in behind her, through the window and cracks in the cement, welcoming her. The entire mausoleum seemed to be covered with a layer of age, complete with dust and grime that edged along the stone walls. Cobwebs brushed against her skin, and she resisted the urge to cry out. Several wooden benches were placed in crooked rows, and a statue of an angel stood in the corner, its vacant, hollow eyes staring into her. Candles stood against the far wall on what appeared to be an altar, dried wax pooled around them, their wicks charred. She quickly searched her pockets for a lighter without any luck. Below it, draped with what remained of dried flower petals so fragile they were practically see-through, stood a coffin. She took a few steps forward, determined to figure out what she had stumbled upon, when footsteps mirroring hers came from behind her.
“What are you doing in here?” a deep voice asked.
Grace turned, swallowing the scream that caught in her throat. A silhouette leaned against the doorway. Shadows masked most of his features, but from what she could tell, he didn’t seem much older than her, and he wasn’t dressed in clothing like she was accustomed to. Instead, he was draped in what appeared to be a duster that hung down to heavy leather shoes. She took several steps back, smacking against the base of the coffin and knocking a few flower petals to the cement ground. In the several seconds it took to steady herself and ignore the nausea that came from losing blood, she found her voice.
“I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to be,” she managed to say.
“I never said that,” he responded, crossing his arms.
She glanced around with every intention of finding another way out, only to realize that he was blocking her only escape. He watched her from the doorway, but made no move to come inside.
“What are you doing here?” he repeated.
Grace looked back over at him, realizing that whatever was about to happen, there wasn’t much she could do to prevent it. She had wandered out into the middle of nowhere, and now she was inside a cemetery that looked like it had been abandoned for years. No one would ever find her if anything bad was to happen, and she was okay with it. That had been her plan all along, anyway. With that thought in mind, she lowered herself down onto the nearest bench, grime seeping into her pants. She clasped her hands together on her lap and studied them, trying to come up with an answer.
“I came out here to think,” she said.
“You’re a good liar. Now why are you really here?”
She looked over her shoulder, noticing that he had taken a few steps into the mausoleum. The door closed behind him, sealing her fate with it. Grace watched as he made his way down the aisle in several long strides. He knowingly went directly to a matchbook on the altar, lighting the candles before sitting down on the bench across from her.
“What are you doing out here? Do you normally walk around the woods at night?” Grace asked, a note of sarcasm in her voice.
“I own the property,” he said calmly.
She felt an “oh” form on her lips, but she wasn’t quite sure it made it into the space between them.
“Are you going to answer me?” he asked.
“I messed up,” she said.
Grace was referring to her life in general, but her response still caught her off guard. For a second she considered that she was telling the truth. There was always the possibility that things could get better. She choked at the thought, swearing at herself that she was beginning to sound like her therapist, who probably repeated the same things to everyone with depression for the money. Nothing was going to get better and she knew it. For a second, it looked as though he had stifled a laugh.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head, trying to figure out what was going on. From what she could tell through the veiled window near the entrance, he had started a fire outside of the mausoleum. She vaguely remembered walking past a crumbled pile of cement bricks outside, and figured they served as a fire pit. It made sense; November in Virginia had a tendency to be cold enough to need it. She watched as the glowing embers faded outside of the window, disappearing into the cascade of night sky.
“Who are you, anyway?” Grace asked.
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“I suppose not,” she responded.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” he said.
“What are you here for, the company?” she retorted.
“Not tonight,” he said.
They fell into silence for several minutes, with only the sound of a draft attempting to come in underneath the rotting door to make them feel like they weren’t alone. Grace cleared her throat, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to get out of explaining why she had stumbled into the woods to begin with. That and she needed someone to talk to. It didn’t matter that she had absolutely no idea who he was, or what had brought him into the woods that night. She could feel him studying her as she stumbled over the details. She was beginning to feel dizzy, her eyelids heavy. The air around them seemed to thin as she finished, still unable to look over.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, holding a hand up and folding his fingers as he counted off everything Grace had told him. “Drunken quarterback douchebag tried to rape you, mom left, dad blames you, you didn’t get into Ivy League, and this is somehow your fault?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” she said, her voice almost breaking.
“I’m listening,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to die out here, anyway,” she said.
“What makes you so sure you’re going to die?”
His question was a reminder of why she had wandered out there to begin with. She removed her jacket, uncovering the bloodstains that had seeped into the fabric, covering her wrists with dark red. She had told herself the unforgiving razor she had selected was sharp enough that she would barely feel anything as she tore it across her wrist, slicing her skin and allowing blood to flow down her arm like a painting. Her teeth grasped her bottom lip, her eyes narrowed into slits. With the drops that landed beneath her, she had counted off every point that brought her to the decision as she turned to the opposite wrist.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
“Guess it’s worse than I thought,” she said, forcing a laugh.
Without asking, he tore the bottom of her jacket, quickly tying the shredded fabric around her wrists. She allowed herself to relax a touch as the pressure took some of the pain away. She could feel blood escaping from underneath it, and took a few breaths to steady herself. As if fate had accepted her decision, a slight drizzle, the remnants of an earlier rainstorm, had kept her wrists from clotting. The cuts weren’t as deep as she had intended; otherwise she would’ve blacked out already. Still, Grace knew it was possible to bleed for hours before it even became life threatening. She shifted on the bench underneath her, preparing to settle in for a while.
“Why didn’t you ask someone for help?” he asked.
“No one would understand,” she said.
She could feel his eyes burning into her, but couldn’t bring herself to look over. Instead, she wiped her hand off on her jeans, leaving a streak of dark red blood from her thigh to just above her knee.
“So you decided that dying would be the better option?” it didn’t sound like a question.
“No,” she said. “Not better. Just easier.”
“What could possibly make you say that? Life isn’t supposed to be easy,” he said.
“Don’t lecture me.”
Even though she hadn’t meant to snap, Grace felt a sort of satisfaction when he flinched.
“I wasn’t trying to. I’m just saying you’re not alone,” he said.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Call me John.”
The name struck her for a second. When she was younger, her father had taken her to church. The book of John reminded her of love, something she didn’t want to think about. Once her mother had left, her father ignored her as if she was a constant reminder of the woman that had abandoned them. She looked back over at him, noticing he looked older than she expected him to be; like life had worn away at him without giving time a chance to. Still, she figured early twenties was probably accurate.
“John. Are you some type of saint or something?” she asked.
He laughed without humor. “Not even close.”
“Good. Because I wouldn’t believe you if you were,” she said. “Even if you are here to help me figure things out.”
“What makes you say that?” he asked.
“Why else would you be out here?” she asked.
“Maybe because I own the land, remember? So, I take it you’re not religious.”
Grace shook her head, shifting on the bench underneath her. A sliver caught onto her shirt, and she pulled it loose before it slipped into her skin. She looked back towards the altar, at the candles that had somehow managed to stay lit as they burned down to their bases. In between them, pushed back against the wall and draped in intricate cobwebs and dust, stood a tarnished cross. She turned back towards him, feeling a chill creep down her spine.
“What do you believe in?”
John seemed to consider her question for a second. His brow creased and he looked over at the cross before turning his attention back to her.
“There must be something else out there that’s bigger than you and me,” he started.
Grace gritted her teeth. “Oh come on. Enough with the cosmic bullshit.”
“Fine. I believe in God,” John said.
“That’s not what I was expecting,” she responded.
“Why? You’re so desperate to believe in hell because you think it’ll serve you justice. You’re forgetting something. It’s not the devil that makes the judgments, sweetheart. That’s up to someone else.”
His dark eyes sliced hers.
“You’re only saying that because you know I’m right,” he said.
“What’s your point in telling me this?” she asked.
“I wasn’t finished. If there’s truth to what we’ve been taught…” he said before pausing, obviously trying to figure out what he wanted to say.
Grace thought about his words for a second. She was suddenly conscious of the angel statue that stood in the corner of the mausoleum, holding something. She couldn’t quite remember what it was, but found herself unable to turn around. She figured it was probably a bible, and decided to leave it at that.
“Hell is exactly where I’m heading,” she finished for him.
“Not necessarily,” he said.
“What makes you so sure?” Grace asked.
She looked over at the cross and fought the urge to approach the altar long enough to brush the filth from it. For some reason, it bothered her that it wasn’t clean.
“Forgiveness is a hell of a concept.”
“I swear if you tell me to repent-” she started.
“I’m not telling you to do anything. I’m saying God forgives,” John said.
“After tonight it won’t make a difference, will it?” she asked.
“That’s for you to decide,” he said. “For what it’s worth, you deserve better.”
John pulled up his sleeve, checking a silver watch that was clasped around his wrist. Candlelight reflected off of it, but she couldn’t make out what it said. He seemed to let out a breath before looking back over at her.
“It’s almost midnight,” John said.
“You have somewhere to be?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No. I just can’t stay for much longer.”
John stood up from the bench, wrapping the duster tighter around him before making his way towards the exit, his footsteps almost silent. Grace made to follow him, unsure of whether or not she should. When he reached the door, John looked back over at her, the ghost of a smile on his lips.
“For the record, it’s not easier,” he said.
“What’s not easier?” Grace asked.
“Dying,” John said. “Go home, Grace. Forgive yourself.”
She waited several minutes after his footsteps had faded away before changing her mind. She needed to know more about what had brought him there, if she would ever see him again.
“Wait,” she said.
Grace stumbled to the entrance of the mausoleum, leaning against the cold cement for support. The fire outside had somehow gone out, but the lingering smoke still burned her throat. She considered calling for him, but from what she could tell, he had disappeared through the fog that surrounded what she now thought of as the entrance to hell. She could see nothing from the railroad. Nothing but the dust and rubble of echoes that had long been forgotten along the old, rusted tracks.
Amy Jarvis currently resides in South Carolina. She is a Master of Arts in Writing candidate at Coastal Carolina University. Her work has appeared in Cahoots Magazine.
* * *
By Thomas M. Mcdade
At Dragonfly Pond, a temperate evening in August, a father watched over his two sons. One fished, the other fed broken bread crusts to the ducks. At leaving time, the older one complained he hadn’t caught a fish. “We shouldn’t have to leave until the ducks do,” argued the younger boy.
By the boathouse a few steps away, Eddie Moss paced in front of a bench, oblivious to the boys and ducks. At short intervals, he took a piece of paper from one pocket, read it, and placed in another. He rarely remembered where it was last. Briefly, forgetting his paper, he took out a handkerchief, started to move it toward to his face but stuffed it into his back trouser pocket where he again located the slip of paper.
Glancing at his watch, he snapped open his cell phone. After several deep breaths as if a swimmer before the start of a race, he rested his left foot on the bench. He fumbled for the scrap of paper. Finally, the temporarily complex task accomplished, he carefully read the number. As he slowly poked it, his free forearm fell to his thigh. After the busy signal, he left a voice message, “Just scare her.”
Russ McGraw had suggested the acting out writer’s block solution to Eddie. They’d met in the college cafeteria. Eddie was taking an advanced creative writing course, McGraw enrolled in an acting workshop. Drinks with McGraw became a ritual after classes. Now Eddie wished he wasn’t so susceptible to notions rising from drunken conversations. Guilt stunned Eddie as he regretted arranging his wife’s sham death by hitman even if it was simply for the novel. She was so good; allowed him to pursue writing while she labored as a para legal. McGraw laughed until he almost puked when Eddie suggested they use $1,500 in Monopoly money. Eddie Idiot apologized for questioning the realism requirement.
Walking to another bench under a lamp missing its cover, Eddie pulled a notebook from under his jacket as he sat. A slip of paper fell, a list of things to do for his wife. After ripping and littering the note, the pen was flying as he created many “like or as” images for the wedding band closure moment after he received the “deed done” call signaling the toss of the brass washer into the pond. He was considering one to embellish when a tap on his shoulder scared hell out of him.
“Take it easy, friend,” said Russ McGraw, snatching the thick notebook. Fanning the pages with his thumb to the last one written, he strained to read a few of the possibilities. “Not bad, looks like you’re progressing.” Pointing at Ed’s finger, he joked, “wedding ring looks like it’s on mighty tight. Now, what’s this ‘scare her’ business? No Halloween involved my friend. You’re not going to renege on the final $500 are you? Don’t get any ideas about going to the law. That’s not part of the plot, is it?”
“Here’s your money,” whipping out his wallet, he removed five, hundred dollar bills. “The whole thing’s off.”
“My goodness, you’re going to disguise me in that novel, right?”
“Worry about nothing.”
“Make sure I get an autographed copy!”
“It will read like this, “For Russ McGraw, my muse and artistic brother.”
“I think we need ‘Thespian’ after my name.”
McGraw slept fitfully worrying about Eddie who couldn’t write himself out of a paper bag, lousing everything up. He’s fouling the scenes like a bad method actor, off the wall adlibbing. I’ll Academy Award string the sap along anyway! The easiest bucks ever for doing nothing I must say. When he snaps out of it, his shame will lock the money in my bank account sweetly. Fifty bucks for my help and guidance – sure thing sucker. As he was close to sleep, all Eddie concerns nearly fading, the phone rang. He hoped it wasn’t a “think of the devil” occasion but it was.
“McGraw, I’ve taken an overdose.”
McGraw took a moment to fake pulling himself together. This was too good to be true. “For what, you jerk? That’s not in the script.”
“She’s dead, I can feel it,” said Eddie, ending the call.
“Bonkers,” said McGraw to himself and was asleep in a fluff of the pillow.
On the deserted shore at Dragonfly Pond, the sun was in its glory, the sky an optimistic blue slate. Eddie was happy he’d included the suicide just in case he found a hole in the plot. An occasional breeze fluttered page edges as Eddie’s pen worked feverishly. He believed he’d finally hit on the essence of “stream of consciousness.” Imagining evil McGraw killing his wife, he concocted some blood images, raw and violent. He saw himself beating McGraw into at least paralysis to get every dollar back. He smiled, wrote so easily his pen seemed to be in control. He held on to pen and pad even after the loan shark’s thug pinned a baseball bat reminder on each arm. The ducks watched the Louisville Slugger landing among them and scattered a few feet before eying it as if the long loaf of French bread—a stale image that had been central to a short story that fetched Eddie an “A+” in creative writing class. The notebook finally fell, landed on its spine. The attacker picked it up, held back and front covers like wings and shook. About to drop it into the trash he noticed the practice autograph. “Ah, a brother,” he said, laughing to himself. Eddie flipped the brass washer and inch or so.
Thomas M. McDade is a former computer programmer living in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife, no kids, and no pets. He served two tours of duty in the U.S. Navy. Mcdade is a graduate of Fairfield University. His fiction has most recently appeared in Five on the Fifth.
* * *
By Scott Szpisjak
“Please, Sylvia, let’s think this through first.” He could taste the stupidity of his statement; Sylvia was the one who had thought in their relationship.
“You can’t just think these things away, can you?” Sylvia was struggling with the window’s lock. It always stuck. Her bathrobe slipped down her shoulder, revealing the dark skin beneath.
“They’re just butterflies.” The insects sat on every flat surface in their room. Not moving, but not dead, either. “And they’re nice looking, too. Grey and green. Do you recognize them?”
“They aren’t butterflies, they’re moths.” Her words kept getting caught in her throat. “And they’ll eat everything, no matter what type of moth they are. I don’t want to have to buy us new clothes and sheets and whatever else they get into.”
“They aren’t doing anything. Just sitting.”
“Let’s hope that once I get this window open they won’t be.”
The window snapped and creaked as Sylvia unlocked and opened it. The wind blew the gauzy curtain around her and through it she looked like a ghost. Now that the window was open he realized the usually omnipresent noise of traffic was silent. He pulled the blanket to cover himself from the morning’s winter air. None of the moths moved except for a few by the window, whose wings fluttered in the breeze. Sylvia waited by the window. She shivered. The air was dry.
Rob patted her side of the bed. “Syl, come back here with me. The moths will do the same thing no matter where you are.”
Sylvia lifted the blanket gently to ensure that she did not crush any of the moths. They sat with the comforter up as far as it could go.
“Shouldn’t they be… not alive, Syl?”
“You mean dead?”
“No, I mean they shouldn’t be here now. It’s too cold. Shouldn’t they be hibernating in their cocoons, or something?”
“I’m not sure.” There was a stain of the far corner of the ceiling. “I think so, but this whole thing isn’t normal.”
“When’s the alarm clock set to go off?”
“No. Do you have early shift today?”
“Right. Should I reset the alarm?”
“I’ll stay awake.”
He laced his fingers with Sylvia’s under the sheets. She did not move her own hand. “If we turn off the light it’ll be brighter outside, and moths are attracted to light, right?”
Rob slumped further down. So far the moths hadn’t moved at all, not even towards the lights in their room. They might as well have been fakes made for kitschy home décor, or hats.
But they had checked, though, and they weren’t.
“It’s already bright enough out there.”
She leaned forward and pulled a cord on the ceiling fan anyway. The light stayed on and the fan started turning. Rob began to reach out to fix it, but Sylvia did it herself. The moths still did not move.
“D’you think it was a prank?” After his eyes had adjusted, the room looked like a grainy black and white photograph. The moths were dark splotches, like the film had been scratched.
“Who would have done this?”
Rob bit his lip. “Should we call someone?”
“Now?” She looked at the digital clock. The edges of her silhouette glowed green. “Who?”
“Him? Do you really think--.”
“What else is there to do? Wait? And if we wait, we’ll still have to do something with them.”
There was a click as Sylvia lifted her phone off the glass-topped nightstand. “There’s no dial tone.”
Sylvia set the phone down and turned the lights back on. The moths remained still. She followed the phone’s cord, and sat up. “Someone disconnected the phone from the wall.” She was staring straight at the door.
“It isn’t plugged in. Could there be someone in the apartment?” She got up, retied her robe, and bent over. When she stood up again she was holding an aluminum baseball bat.
“How long has that been there?”
Sylvia pushed the moth sitting on the end of the bat off. It flapped its wings just long enough to get it to the nightstand. “You never know what to expect.” Her words were carried to him on tiny gusts of wind. “Now be quiet.” Sylvia crept over to the bathroom. She was hunched over, the bat over her shoulder as she held it, ready to swing.
Sylvia emerged from the bathroom and checked the closet.
Sylvia began to creep out of the bedroom door, onto the dark landing. “Want me to come with you, Syl?”
“Could you toss me a sweater?” He held up an arm. “Goose bumps, see?”
“I don’t. But here’s your sweater.” She tossed him a worn purple sweatshirt, looking back at him.
He slowly pulled the comforter down and got out of bed, pulling on the sweatshirt. He crept across the floor as well; the moths were so close together that he couldn’t put his whole foot down without crushing one of them. He could see his breath.
Sylvia opened the closet door and peered in, and Rob closed the door on his way through the living room. It did not take them long to declare the apartment empty, if one did not count the moths.
It was still silent. Rob saw himself and Sylvia reflected back in the windows. His mouth was open slightly, and he closed it. “Wanna check outside?”
From the balcony the world looked like a photograph, a normal night frozen. The moths were the only things out of the ordinary; they covered everything they could see.
“We still need to call someone, though.”
“No, just about the moths.”
“Right.” They looked at each other and back at the city.
“Let’s stay here, just for a minute.”
“Are you sure?”
Then, the moths began to fly. The wave started a few blacks away and came nearer and nearer until all of the moths had lifted off into the air. Sylvia slid her hand down his arm until they were holding hands. The moths in their apartment poured out of every crevice they could find: the crack in the door, the open bedroom window, until all of them made it into the cold air. A few minutes later there was no sign that they had ever been there, other than the cloud of them moving like smoke above, a dissipating grey cloud, moving onward.
Scott Szpisjak lives in Virginia with his dog and a lot of pens. He can most commonly be found not sleeping. His work has appeared previously in Grey Sparrow Journal and on the website of New Politics Magazine.
* * *
Three Poems by Saima Afreen
Room for Rent
The last winter is still wrapped
in a sodden quilt, a few mornings
painted on the wall smell of tiger lilies;
the window is still shaking, with
my suicide note.
No it’s not musty air greeting you,
my breaths still embrace the dust.
With ink I had extinguished the stars;
the candle light will cut a square
in the window.
The glazier fixes the glass pane
through which sluiced my voice
perhaps swinging on a cobweb;
I had shouted for Gaza, Kashmir;
the rectangle of the bed is
a slogan, too.
In the cupboard it’s still raining,
nothing can wash away my scent.
a drop of it fell on the mosaic floor
that the landlady has rented you;
its value Rs 000000000000000.00?
The Charpoy My Grandma Left
There she is again in shadows
Of white cotton sari, sitting
smiling on the charpoy she
chose from her father’s house
as a 13-year-old bride when red
was the only colour she knew.
Then she saw her house near the border
Of Pakistan: a white square fading in
Orange dusk. All that was left in her eyes
Was print of barbed wires and prayers on her lips
With the rosary moving in her fingers
like the planets. The charpoy creaked
under the weight of violence her face sighed with
each rope in its criss-cross knew a tale:
the lemon pickles drying in the sun
bobbled like the chopped stories she
heard from Baluchi nomads that sold
sunlight in glass jars. Later the sun
was exiled in hollow eyes. A beam
was worth millions of lives;
faces grew like jungles, stuck in
my grandma’s braids then black.
She saw flags like hawks hovering
against the blue of her eyes. A strip
of sky remained in her iris. She took
that and folded under her pillow.
Summer moon often peeps at the
silent charpoy that she left for us.
Its ropes DNA of many anecdotes;
My hands touch its wooden
legs – old history shifts
In another map
My grandma took with her.
My Father's Last Prayer
Murmur of verses
lips of old women;
their cotton dresses
sieve the milk of stars.
My father picks
starlight for his
velvet prayer mat.
The city lies below the
It glitters on his index finger.
breath of his five children
The lotus of his palms
is wet with morning rain.
The peasants will reap
this rain on Eid.
rip the layer of moonlight
in the iron bucket. The clock
strikes four. Halwa and date-palms
on table; black slaves freed
from the docked ship. Abraham’s
sheep bleats. In the faraway corner
I look for my father’s prayers
only to find his skull cap
in the shadows of a new moon.
She hasn’t yet reached the field where she can find herself. Calcutta is where she grew up, smelling shiuli flowers and chewing syllables. Her poems have been featured in Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Road Review, Brown Boat, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, The Asian Age, The Telegraph, etc.
* * *
By Daniel David
In this core of winter,
when the snow is brittle,
like old, kitchen linoleum,
and the wood stands naked
and shivering in a hollow room,
its splendid, green gown
now hanging in the closet,
I am startled by twenty robins,
a sudden blur of wings and beaks,
rushing from sprig to sprig,
fixed upon the tiny, violet berries
gathered in the evergreen, the bush
I considered cutting from the thicket.
Not now! Never!
For a moment I’m fooled,
the windows thrown open.
But these robins’ red throats
are strangely silent, their songs
neatly stacked in the cupboard
like the best teacups.
These robins are heedless of
their bright, summer nurseries,
the precious, azure gemstones
swaddled in pine needle cradles.
These robins forget their cravings,
their usual feasts of crawling things
shelved in the frozen cellar.
So preoccupied with their meal,
I am invisible, a dry, useless weed
or just another, inconsequential sparrow.
Sometimes I’d prefer a broken bone or a split lip
to the deep, purplish indifference,
but this time, I find a perverse comfort
in the robins’ neglect.
Daniel David is a writer, artist and professor living along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. His poems have appeared widely in a number of venues across the United States, in Canada and the United Kingdom. His publications also include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha; and his novel, Flying Over Erie.
* * *
Two Poems by MJ Duggan
Trojan bronze and coin
embedded in Ionian turquoise blue;
Where metal black crows span above a man spraying spittle
over weaved baskets in strips of long bamboo - skinned.
I suckled on Tzatziki and lamb Kleftiko
consumed a carafe of Grecian wine;
saw the stars of Ithaca dance with mountain songs
bells chimed like the after-dinner shrill from deranged sirens.
Gazed like the God’s at amber and crystal blue boxes
jarred along a shark bitten tail shaped bay
prickled fruit – decaying pomegranate
peeling red flesh inside the opened draining of day.
I travelled on the navy blue albatross
wooden fin splicing through Hellenic water; Triangles in translucent green
reflections from the feverish and mad -
the faces of those who had come before me.
Half sunken Byzantium shaped ships
moulded into yellow cliff - Crescendo of beach crickets surfing
on the sound buckles of Poseidon wrists,
I swam in the strong currents – mangled in storms
Tumbling through rotten ship masts
lined with dead pine trees; My lungs filled with salt
while white snappers nibbled at my blue flesh,
my limp body awakened and dragged to the surface of a unfamiliar sea.
A beautiful woman with olive skin and tarantula coloured hair held me
I peered down into the depths of clear ocean,
noticing she had dolphin heads as human feet
her complexion and breasts as smooth as soft whale skin
In an ancient tongue she pointed to the rise of sun
a pink centre of valley - shining marble from the caves of the nymph;
as I swam closer I saw the chipped face of Odyssey shaped in the marbled mountain
in green cypress print – Inside the cave Penelope weaved her twenty first shroud.
The Missing Quarter- Jacks
On the edge of Corn street
I stood as a child like Southey before me;
Awaiting the clocks final tick
Eyes like a tourist staring at the quarter jacks
On the hour they moved
In beetle red - luminous yellow,
Marching towards the clock-face
The seconds chime from golden hammers on Broad Street;
delivering the sound of time.
Today the Quarter Jacks are missing
Lost in dust-bins of boxed antiquities
Waiting on a slashed council budget to unclamp their rustic uniforms;
With the stone pages
etched in ancient cuneiform.
MJ Duggan won the erbacce poetry prize for 2015 and has had poems appear in The Journal, Apogee Magazine, Lunar Poetry Magazine, Section 8, Inkapture, Yellow Chair Review, Illumen, The Jawline Review, Turbulence, Seventh Quarry, The Delinquent, Chimera, Dwang, Roundyhouse, The Cobalt Review, Carillon, Decanto, plus many more.
* * *
Three Poems by Renee Emerson
Keep with the other girls.
That advice like what an actual mother, not in law,
would tell her daughter.
The women work their own
area of the harvest, herding, moving
as birds sometimes move,
one nebulous shadow being.
Gathered, we are more noticed but less so--
harder to choose one from all
the faces, legs, breasts, hips.
Together, gathered, we forget
the danger. Gossip about this man
or that. Some grow bold, venture from
the other women now and then, to be admired,
to shine like a jewel, in the far ends of the fields.
Farther and farther. Until one comes back, or doesn’t,
taken, tattered, fawn with broken leg.
Those are absorbed to our center, where they beat,
beat hot, in the red-dark
heart of fear that binds us, keeps
us from harm.
Boaz Watching Ruth in the Fields
She seems to love
the remnants, taking
up what others have
cast aside. Maybe she feels
a kinship with them, herself
cast aside by death,
clinging to her mother-in-law,
who has returned to
a family who forgot her.
The steady rows of the harvest
sigh, hushed to the reapers
working their violence.
She came at dawn,
when the air was still
cool in its memory
of the evening. She takes
what they miss and discard.
Hands quick as twin mice.
She isn’t used to this work--
you can tell by the way
she sometimes enjoys it.
The repetition, the long
hours under the slow eye
of the sun, only occasional
human voices, but more
often the rustle of the plants
holding fast to the earth,
singing their only song--
take, take, take, take.
“She rose before one could recognize the other”
I offer no apology
as I step out into
the mouth of the night
which forgives me everything
anyway, a true night, moon
cloaked with the
sodden clouds of
a storm that will
break hours later.
Cat-eyed, I see
the world in contour,
your body muffled
to only the almost
waves at the shore
I have always loved
this part of the night,
have always felt it
more personal than
so many times of day.
It asks nothing of me,
and I rest
alone in a lack
from my body, mercifully
blind to the constant
periphery of own hands,
own breasts, own belly.
A pure mind floating
So when you rise too,
I move past you
as the hours move
past us in their funereal
march into the indiscriminating
accusations of the sun.
Renee Emerson is the author of Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014). She lives in Arkansas with her husband and three daughters.
* * *
Life of the Goddess
By Chloe Hanson
Perhaps your body was not a body at all
but an ectoplasmic layer of spirit-skin
over spirit-bones light and hollow, like a bird’s,
you watched those first bodies crawl
from the ocean that was the world to the first
green places. Perhaps they were pink and soft,
buoyed up on the tongues of great oysters
nestled like pearls.
Perhaps you saw them break like brittle
shells, white bones sharp and delicate
pushing through skin and sinew, painted red,
and you showed yourself to them, so that you
too could feel, could be.
Perhaps they carved your likeness in marble,
perhaps they fashioned it from the cleaned carcasses
of their kills. When they gave their children to you
run through with swords of bronze and steel,
perhaps you grew stronger, and wished you had not.
When they forgot your name, forgot
to re-christen you, forgot the stories and the idols,
the crumbling remnants of your image, perhaps
you returned to the ocean they once crawled from
and let yourself be carried off, white foam on the water.
Chloe Hanson's work has been featured in Red Cedar Review, Driftwood Press, and Off the Coast. She lives in Logan, Utah.
* * *
By Sandra Kolankiewicz
I know the nature of viruses is
to bloom, their seeds eternal once they make
soil of you. I have fields of them within,
and little clusters that cling to crannies
in my joints and along the sunken curves
of my bones with the notches anchoring
my sinews. In fact, I followed one whole
season, went inside on an exclusive
tour with a college-educated guide
who pointed out the wonder of each shape,
a multitude of them, my eyes become
microscopes seeing down to electrons
changing hands between membrane envelopes
and protein coats, nucleic acid all
that matters. I understand now that like
God they are everywhere at once, stronger
even than bacteria, demonic energy
which cannot be destroyed, barely controlled.
Sandra Kolankiewicz's poems and stories have appeared widely, most recently in Prairie Schooner, Per Contra, New World Writing, IthacaLit, and Fifth Wednesday. Her chapbook Turning Inside Out is available from Black Lawrence Press. The Way You Will Go was published by Finishing Line Press. When I Fell, a novel with 76 original illustrations by Kathy Skerritt, is available from Web-e-Books. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, with her family.
* * *
By Thomas Piekarski
You toothy soothsayers can all line up now;
here’s your big chance to get back at me.
You’ve been waiting all this time to prove
you’re better than I am. I’m going to give in,
allow you to toss me flat on my back upon
a bed of red-hot coals, nail my svelte hands
and feet into the ground beneath, and then
hoot until your hearts are content. Go ahead.
I’ve been waiting for this day when truth
would finally be wrung out under duress
in the absence of its fraternal twin beauty.
Only one thing, if you wouldn’t mind,
if you’d be so kind, grant me one request,
which is that once all the water is fried
out of my body, and I’ve become a sizzling
charred heap, start throwing lightning bolts.
Strike my forehead like the marksmen you
are; bury those lightning bolts dead center,
paid assassins, mercenaries, pitiful puff.
You’ll expect me to recant my faith in you,
but it won’t occur to me to bite the hand
that often reaches out in my hour of need.
The sun’s reflections shall slurp my face
while pain and suffering slowly dismantle.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry and interviews have appeared in Nimrod, Portland Review, Kestrel, Cream City Review, Poetry Salzburg, Boston Poetry Magazine, The Journal, Gertrude, The Bacon Review, and many others. He has published a travel guide, Best Choices In Northern California, and Time Lines, a book of poems. He lives in Marina, California.
* * *
The Harvest of Dreams
By David Anthony Sam
He dreams threadbare clothes
woven with sand and stagnant water,
dyed with dried tears and empty skies,
and laced with the skeletons of desert birds.
His cloth is faded with echoes of colors
from his longing and those dead words
he hears singing on scratched records
he has salvaged from his past.
Morning jolts the fabric of false warmth,
chills his windows with frosted hope.
He rouses into the alien knowledge
of living neither past nor present.
Waking harvests echoes of beggars’ cries
and wails of the muezzins, and images
from barren olive groves and vineyards
empty of any fruit, bleak of any leaf.
No hands can loom such bitter dreams,
no tongues weave words for such longing.
David Anthony Sam has written poetry for over 40 years and is the featured poet in the December 2015 issue of The Hurricane Review. He lives now in Culpeper, Virginia USA with his wife and life partner, Linda, and serves as president of Germanna Community College.
* * *
A Solitary Figure
By C. Robert Stark
The solitary figure stood in silence by the pole,
A lonely soul discouraged, and burdened by his woe;
The hopelessness of being there, futility at its worst,
He felt despair well up inside till it seemed nigh to burst;
He muttered some words, almost silently, and dropped his head down low,
And thought about the things undone and how he just should go;
But then two figures appeared afar and slowly walked his way.
Could they be coming to join with him, his heart began to say?
Indeed they said, we’ve come like you, concerned for all around.
We look for others to also come, to share in heart and sound.
And come they did, first one , then two,
Till eight souls shared the spot.
They shared the burdens on each heart,
And slowly did depart,
But something had changed in each one’s soul,
A light, a spark, a hope,
Till once again they all had left,
And a single figure stood,
Reflecting on the things they’d said,
Encouraged by the good.
The solitary figure stood in silence by the pole,
But discouraged and burdened no more,
For now the figure stood strong as a rod,
Alone, with others, and God.
Dr. Stark is a Professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of Arkansas at Monticello where he has been a faculty member for over nineteen years. A native of Kentucky, he has attended graduate school at the University of Illinois and previously worked for the University of Georgia at their Tifton campus.
* * *
By Susan Castillo Street
Stabled on Mount Helicon amid the Muses,
his hide ripples, golden. Sleek, unsaddled,
this satyr roams the night. His horse-half’s lusty,
willful, his hindquarters made of earth.
The human part’s a different story.
Chiron’s head is filled with light
and visions of high heavens. His strong arms
fire arrows that trace glittering sparks,
celestial arcs to guide the Argonauts
to find the Fleece. The Muses cheer him on,
eternal wanderer, applaud him, and at his feet
cast wreaths of glowing stars.
Susan Castillo Street is a Louisiana expatriate and academic who lives in the Sussex countryside. She is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emeritus, King's College, University of London, and has published two collections of poems, The Candlewoman's Trade (Diehard Press, 2003) and Abiding Chemistry, (Aldrich Press, 2015).
* * *
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
By Jack C. Buck
Frank had made the dive off the same tree into the same river every summer since the first time eleven years back when he was 12 years old. As then, when we were just young boys, and just as now, Thomas watched Frank make his way up the tree and bring himself out to the branch’s end. When there were girls with the boys Frank would perform by scaling up the old, large tree rooted on the embankment of the river with double-speed. In what seemed like careless route he would fling himself out as far as his body would go, wrapping one precarious leg around the horizontal branch with his other leg dangling 100 feet high and 30 feet out above the surface of the water.
Frank was recognized as the best swimmer and most courageous of his friends. However, he was inflexible in being talked out of a potentially bad decision if he had already made up his mind. Everyone in town who knew Frank or of him all knew this. On the riverbank Thomas and the two girls, whom they had met earlier that afternoon, waited for Frank to show how it was to be properly done. Frank would say they all do it wrong, you see, Frank believed there was a certain way one is to air oneself into a river. His way would vary slightly with each climb and plunge, but they all had a Frank quality to them.
The girls were putting their feet into the water. One of them talked for the other girl. The other girl Thomas thought was cute. Thomas had asked the other girl questions in hopes of beginning a further exchange, but she just quietly laughed and the other friend answered for her. Sometime a little after three in the afternoon Thomas had given up and only shrugged at the two girls. By this time Thomas had stopped noticing the girls and was looking out on the river. Every year, around this time, at the end of summer, Thomas would make a point to remember. Closing his eyes, with the warmth and pulsing geometric figures given by the late August sun his inner eye’s darkness would explode with movement, reels, and stills of nature’s offering before him.
It is then when Frank is letting go, knifing towards the river. Submerged, with the inside of the river around him, the ceiling of the river is shone with light, at the bottom, black.
Jack C. Buck lives in Denver, Colorado. His most recent flash fiction has been published or forthcoming in Connotation Press, Flash Fiction Magazine, Beechwood Review, Birdy Magazine, 101Words, Zero Flash, 81 Words, Platform for Prose, Ginosko Literary Journal, and L' Allure des Mots. He is the fiction editor for The Harpoon Review. He thanks you for reading his work.
* * *
Say His Name
By Jim Finley
“Jimmy Ray Haskel! Jimmy Ray Haskel!” I yell his name like his mama yelling him to supper. I do every thing for Jimmy Ray. I pick up stuff he drops and turn him around when he makes a bad turn. Jimmy Ray can’t care. He can’t get his clothes pulled on the right way. He can’t button or zip for nothing. His hair pokes out the side of his head and at the back of his head. Jimmy Ray can’t care for nothing.
Sometimes Jimmy Ray grabs at me in bad places. I feel like I don’t count for nothing when he grabs at me like he does. His mama, she can’t feel nothing neither. She don’t come see him like she did. She don’t never come to our building. Nurse Sanderson says his mama got married with a new husband and can’t be worried about nobody who acts like Jimmy Ray acts.
Jimmy Ray screams, “Get set, get ready, go!” Then he makes a middle finger and grins. I see his purple gums on top of his teeth. Him looking like that, with breakfast across his mouth and all that chewed-up food mixed with them big gums, it makes me sick in my belly.
Lots of times Jimmy Ray throws out his butt and struts like he is a famous movie actor. But he is not that. He has on them run-over shoes without no strings. Lots of times he has on just one shoe. Nobody can be no movie actor with one shoe.
Story telling is Jimmy Ray’s most favorite thing. He always tells about baby Jesus since his mama put him in Vacation Bible School forever. He made things there. He made Virgin Mary and Three Wise Men out of plaster of paris. Jimmy Ray named them Wynkln, Blynkln and Nod because he said they was looking at stars too long and got their eyes bent. Jimmy Ray keeps them in his room.
Today Jimmy Ray tells how baby Jesus had a daddy and it weren’t the man in the picture holding the donkey neither.
“Then who was his daddy?” I say.
“He was a big red head,” says Jimmy Ray. “His name was Cletus Lee Washburn.” Jimmy Ray can try, but he can’t fool me. Everybody knows Cletus Lee Washburn works at Ritz Car Wash on 61st Street, and Jimmy Ray can’t get nothing straight.
I say, “Jimmy Ray, you can’t get nothing straight.” Jimmy Ray grabs me and pushes his big breakfast face up against my head.
He says, “I want to marry with you and make a baby Jesus.” The sunshine comes in the window and it lights up Jimmy Ray’s face. I see his thin hair and his wet eyes shinning in the sunshine. He looks more pretty than I can ever believe. He looks so pretty I about cry. I cannot help myself; I have to say his name. I say it over and over.
“Jimmy Ray Haskel. Jimmy Ray Haskel. You say it. Say his name.
Jim Finley has published in more than 30 literary magazines...after being reared on the east side of the Salt Fork of the Brazos River in Stonewall County, Texas...which is located somewhere south of sorrow and north of nothingness.
* * *
By Tyler Pipher
He shot me in the chest on the last day of summer. It was the end of August where the weather scorched skin, down in south Florida. My exposed torso, naked to the sun’s heat, leaked sweat and blood into the passenger seat of her new car.
“Stay with me,” she said with a lip full of tears. “There’s an ambulance on the way.”
Her hand pressed against the gaping hole above my heart while her other hand gripped the back of my neck. My head dangled and my blood spewed. It was the last time I ever felt her gentle touch.
Shoes kicking sand into the air closed in on us, and her ex-boyfriend appeared over her shoulder. He tried to push her away as he held the gun that shot me above his head. She fought back.
“Stop,” she yelled, leaning into his shoulders, driving him back. “You killed him now so just go.”
I closed my eyes and felt a lightness envelope my body. I didn’t want to die just yet.
The car door slammed shut, snapping my eyes open.
A gunshot rang out.
I looked out of the window and saw a blinding light surround a shadowy figure holding a gun.
Pulling on the handle, I leaned back and kicked the door open. Warm light fell onto my body as her ex-boyfriend flew backwards. Behind him was her, motionless. I threw my body out of the car, falling onto the beach and filling my hands with sand.
As I crawled toward her, a foot knocked me down.
“Look at me,” the ex-boyfriend said, pulling the hammer back on his gun. Gripping the bloody sand underneath me, I flung it into the air. Another gunshot sounded as the sand splashed the ex-boyfriend’s eyes and mouth.
He stumbled back, spitting, clutching his eyes with a vicious cough. The gun’s hammer was still cocked with the muzzle fixated on the ground. My arms were numb, my legs quivered, but I stood on my feet and charged him.
We crashed into the sand with my hand clutching his wrist. No longer attached to his hand, the gun rested a few feet away from us. We rolled over each other, his hands squeezing the breath out of my throat while I kicked and thrashed. His strength dominated mine and he was soon on top, holding me down by my neck. I shoved another handful of dirt into his face, breaking his force enough to break free.
I almost forgot I’d been shot. The amount of blood loss made my joints lock and I fell onto my hands and knees just as I rose to my feet. With one last attempt, I lunged toward the gun and fell just short of reaching distance. My body began to slide away. The ex-boyfriend pulled me towards him but a kick to the bridge of his nose let me loose.
The gun was in my hand now and I took my time aiming before shooting the ex-boyfriend. The bullet punctured his chest, exactly where he had shot me. He stayed on his feet, walking toward me with a hand on his hard. I shot again, and again, until he was face down on the beach.
The voice, my voice, was unrecognizable but it turned my attention toward her. She was facing me, motionless, her hazy eyes locked onto mine.
“Viola,” I said again.
She blinked and smiled once I reached her. Her hand fell around my neck while the rest of her body remained motionless. I didn’t have the strength to bring her into my arms. I could only hover over her with my hand on her wet stomach.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
People circled us, chattering.
I looked around and saw nothing but a bright blur.
Then, a black dot appeared in the center of my vision. As the ambulance drew closer, the dot grew larger until that bright blur surrounded a dark tunnel. In that tunnel was a human figure.
She watched me from inside the tunnel before turning and walking away.
“I feel a pulse,” A voice said. “She’s still alive.”
Born in a small town in Indiana, Tyler’s love for writing took over his life after a teacher who had Ty in isolated detention every other week told him to pursue a career in writing. Whether she was being cruel or not, he took it to heart and has spent the majority of his life writing novels and short stories. Now living in Florida, Ty is a freelance writer and creative journalist for Mieux, and Shockwave Magazine. After earning his BFA in Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University, he is currently pursuing his MFA in the same degree.
* * *
It Wasn't Raining
By Tony Press
They assured me I would be paid for the time and since I had nothing else to do anyway, I said yes. Sometimes that word “yes” is bigger than it sounds.
It was a summer camp, a something-to-send-the-kids-to when regular school was on vacation. In a perfect world when school was out, parents would be out, too, and still be able to feed their families --- but this wasn’t a perfect world. It was Elkhorn, Wisconsin.
My job was to get them to talk, to express themselves, to tap into their creativity, and maybe even get them to write. I had the 11-year olds for an hour, then the 12-year olds, then the big kids, the seventh and eighth graders. I just worked with the boys but if I’d had my choice I would have worked with the chick who worked with the girls. If I ever could have convinced her to express herself, I’d have died a happy man. It didn’t happen. She could have worked at the Playboy Club on the lake, if it were still open, and if she weren’t so damn religious. She was polite to me but nothing more. She went to the University up in Madison and had a real football player for a boyfriend. I almost went to Gateway Tech but caught a case instead and went to County for three months. Now I had probation for a year, and my P.O. sent me here, claiming it would be good for me, too.
I thought I wasn’t the best candidate for the job but he said I’d be fine, that my high school teacher had written him a letter telling him about my talents – “you must like to keep them hidden,” the P.O. laughed. I figured I was supposed to laugh, too, so I did.
I’ve got nothing against Christians, or any other religious-types, but it’s just not me, never was, never will be. I told him that, too, but he said it was okay, that it was “non-denominational” and that I’d be an asset. He said I’d get trained, and that it would be good for me, too. I doubted it, but I hadn’t had anything good in a long time, so I was game. I also knew enough to know that if a probation officer suggested something, I should probably do it.
So, day one, after about ten minutes of “training,” I was sitting with a bunch of kids. They were bouncing off walls but they’d brought their little notebooks with them, so once I peeled them off the walls, we sat around a picnic table and waited. Unfortunately, and it took me awhile to realize this, we were waiting for me to do something.
I did have one idea, recycling something I remembered from high school. “Write your name vertically, and then write a phrase or a sentence after each letter, so we’ll get to know each other.” I gave them my example:
R – red-haired dude who likes bikes
O – older then anyone at this table
C – can’t believe the Brewers are winning
K – kissed Miss America last night
Y – your turn is next
I told them they could throw in one lie, just for fun, and the rest of us would try to guess it.
They jumped at it, which surprised me a little, but I was more glad than surprised. They wrote, shared, giggled, teased, and that filled the hour. It worked for all three groups pretty well.
I did stuff like that for the first week but I couldn’t remember any more. I thought about seeing my old English teacher but I was still embarrassed. She had written the letter, had even come to court for my sentencing, but I didn’t want to talk to her.
The next Monday I walked the long way, trying to come up with something to do when I got there. I was crossing Devendorf when I saw a sign on a church lawn. I don’t remember which church it was, but the sign said:
It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
I thought that was pretty good, got it right away, and used it that day with the kids. We started with it and wrote whatever we wanted from there. I figured it was all about thinking before acting, that sort of thing – a thing I could’ve done a little better with in my own life.
There were a bunch of churches, another batch of things I’d barely noticed before, and most of them had signs, and I was grateful. We did: Faith makes it possible, not easy. We even did Seven days without prayer makes one weak. That one for me was more about wordplay, and even though I’m not a believer, I kind of liked what it meant, too. For others, of course, but still.
It was the Tuesday of the fifth week. I still hadn’t got paid but I really didn’t care. The three hours there, for free, were better than the paid eight hours scrubbing pots and pans and floors at The Silver Moon. The problem about to hit me in the face was that none of the churches had changed their signs. Maybe they took vacations, too. I was thinking about Laura, the girls’ writing coach, and her long blonde hair and her perfect hips, and how much I wanted just to touch one of those hips, and then I remembered the big jock she played with every night despite her “pure” image during the day. It wasn’t fair, somehow. More to the point, if I’d had the same chance as the guy, God I would have jumped at it.
Then I saw a bumper sticker pasted on the rear window of a Chevy pick-up:
If you can’t race it or take it to bed, it ain’t worth having.
That was Tuesday’s writing prompt. That’s why I was told, on Thursday, not to go back, and why I’m here now, outside my P.O.’s office. I’ve been waiting for an hour. Again, not fair. Just this morning I saw another one but I never would have used it:
If it’s got tits or tires, it will give you trouble. I mean, I’m not an idiot.
Tony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. His short story collection Crossing The Lines will appear in early 2016, published by Big Table. Close to 100 of his stories and poems have appeared in print and online.
* * *
By Alaina Symanovich
The Cook Forest vacation is a bloated sun above all my childhood memories. I can’t look back at my life without it burning me. I can’t see anything apart from its light.
In my memory, the third night of Cook Forest is the center of everything. My dad rubbed his palms together over his plate, shooting my mother and me a wily smile. “Let us,” he announced, “eat lettuce!”
My mom and I groaned, scanning the diner to see if anyone had overheard. The lone waitress had gone back to the kitchen, and the gray-haired man across the room looked enamored with his meatloaf. Not many travelers passed through the forest after dark.
“I wouldn’t call that lettuce,” Mom said, gesturing toward Dad’s deep-fried seafood special.
Dad pointed to the wad of curly parsley that cradled a decorative lemon wedge on his plate. “Rabbit food,” he said. “For rabid hunger!”
I rolled my eyes, stabbing a rectangle of ravioli off my plate. The red sauce was runny, and too hot; it puddled around the pasta instead of covering it.
“Why couldn’t we have just eaten at the inn?” I grumbled. I was picturing my best friends from home having the time of their lives without me. Just then, Hadley and Marie were probably at a sleepover, reading Seventeen and watching MTV and worrying about what high school would be like.
“Everything at the inn was too healthy for your father,” Mom said. She took a swig of her beer. She didn’t usually order beer. “It wouldn’t have properly clogged his arteries.”
Dad smiled and popped a bite of fried catfish into his mouth. “I’m just grateful for a break from that vegan tofu crap,” he said, chewing with his mouth slightly open. “Finally—flavor!”
Mom grimace-smiled through another swallow of beer. “You poor thing.”
Mom moved out the day we got home from Cook Forest. When she and Dad broke the news to me on the drive home, I noticed she’d already taken off her wedding ring.
I suppose that’s why I became a private investigator. I specialize in loss: lost money, lost spouses, lost faith. I always tell my clients the same thing: “I’ll see what I can do.” It’s a wordplay my dad would approve of, if he were still alive. I will see what I can do—whether I can do it, that’s the tricky part. Plenty of my former cases tell the same story: I saw my client’s problem, saw it in stunning illumination, saw it as the boiling heart of my universe—and sat back and watched it implode. Like Galileo, blind from staring at the sun, I’m a pro at watching lives go up in flames.
Alaina Symanovich received her BA and MA degrees in English from Penn State University. She is currently an MFA student at Florida State University, where she specializes in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth River, The Offbeat, Fiction Southeast, Switchback, the Little Patuxent Review, and other journals.
* * *
The Art of Drinking Charcoal
By Caitlin Garvey
The white Styrofoam cup holds the black matter—a mix between liquid and solid form—and it’s handed to you by Tammy, the nurse, who says, “Drink this. It will save your life.” You’re there, in your green hospital gown, because of a sleeping pill overdose, and when Tammy speaks, you notice that some of its blackness is seeping down the side of the cup, and she says more: “Our cups are flimsy. Drink fast.” She stares at you while you stare down at the charcoal, a black residue, ash-like and porous, the remains of the campfire you attended in the woods when you were 16 and drunk for the first time, the night after your mom had a double mastectomy; the blackness at the bottom of the bowl that you used to smoke weed before a school presentation because, as you told yourself, it worked better than anti-anxieties; the mud pit in the park across from your house in which you made sticky sludge angels when you were six years old and smiling with your best friend; the wet cement parking spot in the alley where you and your first girlfriend carved your names, not just as an act of rebellion but also as a chance to declare yourselves as a same-sex couple, carving your identities to feel more at ease with them; the black hair dye that you applied to your friend’s roots when she wanted to look edgier for a boy and it ran down the sides of the clear bathtub. Now, when the charcoal drips down the side, you want it to drip more, but they’re staring at you and you can’t just let it drip and you can’t empty it into the drain. You take your first sip: it’s cold and you can’t swallow it as is—you have to chew it a bit to get it down, and it sits between your cheeks and stains your teeth so your smile becomes a moving x-ray; you dribble a bit of it down your chin on purpose because living becomes less likely the less of it you drink. “Just chug it,” Tammy says, and as you sway from exhaustion, you hear the echo of your high school friends telling you the same as you hold a PBR on its side, the faint voice of your mom telling you to “just plug your nose already and swallow the damn medicine,” and then you think of water, plugging your nose and jumping into the deep end, its clearness, swimming in a meet with your mom cheering from the bleachers, jumping into the cold waters of Lake Michigan to swim three miles to fundraise for cancer research after she died, the pureness and warmth of a bath. As Tammy stares, you drink more, and there’s something about how she rubs your back as you drink that calms you, that makes you feel like you should do as you’re told. You vomit in your mouth from the chalky taste, but swallow it back down. You sip more quickly since you’re on a mission now, trying to remove the substance from your sight, trying to reach the bottom of the cup, and in doing so, you recognize that you’re going to fail, that you have already: not with finishing the cup but with ending your life. Hours later, long after you’ve thrown out the empty cup, you rush to the bathroom—a side effect of charcoal consumption—and vomit up what took you so long to get down, a long and huge release, a vomit so uncontainable that it sprays in a web-like pattern over the toilet bowl and stool, and you’ve made your mark—The Kiss of the Spider Woman—black matter zigzagging and striping the white seat, expelling death and creating a mess of memory. When you’re done, you wipe the stool and toilet seat down with paper towels, making them white again, but aware of their power to trap and flush death and aware that upon them lies your imprint.
Caitlin Garvey is a student of creative nonfiction in Northwestern University's MFA program. She teaches English and composition at a two-year college in Chicago. Her work has been previously published or forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, Doll Hospital Journal, and Apeiron Review.
* * *
Life in the Pink Palace
By Elizabeth Robin
She glances at the clock. One of those generic black and white disks found in stark offices and classrooms. Worldwide, apparently. 4:13.
She takes to staring. First, a closer inspection of that pink vinyl that covers each gently curving sectional. A dusky rose, slightly mottled into carnation pink. Not quite Pepto Bismol, but not quite pretty either. A couch clover leaf, the arrangement into sinuous curves provides four assymetrical sections within the stark square space. It jars her memory of a psych study about soothing wall colors. Pink, she recalls, offers an initial calming effect, then madness fifteen minutes in.
The largest of these quarters fills steadily with a multi-generational group, the women in hijabs and loose neck-to-floor garb. Intermittent chants, songs and prayers fill the cloistered space in some unrecognizable language. One begins to sob, another moves to comfort. One commanding older gentleman begins a call, the rest respond. Generally he sits separately, his presence acknowledged with a bow and greeting by each new entrant.
She tries not to stare at them from her corner. Instead, she offers intently at the odd metal sculpture above their heads. A puzzle, that. A shiny aluminum rectangle, with smaller, slimmer jointed radiae, all but one parallel. Its central location on the wall, its amorphous nothingness provide a vital distraction to the anxious mind.
Wasn’t that what the clock read before?
She returns to her artistic deconstruction, fighting the madness of waiting, waiting. Not decorative. Not interesting. Not matching otherwise empty walls. Could it have some as yet unrealized function? And as she thinks this, a wave slows, breaks to understanding. A television wall mount. Of course!
Like the hermetic seal-shut of a sliding door, the Muslim family’s wailing reaches her reverie, and she returns to that edginess of angst in The Pink Palace. Her granddaughter named it thus, and brought with her visits the aura of a princess in her element, repelling, yet poignantly accentuating its tragic potential. When the pink princess blurts I want daddy back the way he was before, she assures the little girl that this will happen, and wonders at her duplicity.
In Pink Palace limbo, all are waiting, imprisoned within a web of what ifs. Each one’s world has compressed to just get well. This, the unspoken mantra. Here, hope runs on a laugh track. False, tinny rings peal away in between relay visits in pairs, masked and scrubbed, watching machines keep her son alive. Or their mother. Or her husband. His sister.
Some sit in solitude, or like the prayer group, in swarms. Most roil through a rollercoaster from stillness to agitation to stoicism. Some remain silent. Some need chatter. No single pose rules, but the anxiety stays a palpable universal.
One blurts her story: My husband was eating a lamb chop. Swallowed a bone. It pierced his esophagus. They had to remove it. Unbelievable, really.
Another responds: My sister’s been here for 159 days, waiting. Finally got the call. Best place in the country for a liver transplant, the QE.
She volunteers nothing. Can’t speak, really. Unbelievable doesn’t begin to describe her situation. She had planned a spring Nana fix. The calls began three days before her flight.
He’s admitted to hospital. Dehydrated, from the flu. And then,
He’s been catheterized; they’re worried about his kidneys. And then,
He’s been moved to critical care; he’s going into shock. And then,
He’s got some virulent infection; they don’t know what, but he’s on antibiotics. And then,
He’s been sent straightway to theatre; they may take his arm. And then,
He’s stable, with support. More surgery tomorrow.
She flies as the surgery proceeds, arrives in time to hear a diagnosis, touch him, whisper I love you plenty before he returns to another theatre run, she to the Pink Palace, where it’s always 4:13.
This makes sense now. The Pink Palace suspends our lives into a condensed hope chamber, intersticed tissue underneath space and time. Not a waiting room, but suspended de-animation where hope struggles to face a whirr of pumps and vials and tubes that can temporarily cheat death.
She ponders the Belle of Amherst, oddly, who talks about feathers and hope that take flight. But how could she know such elation, who never saw its light?
Reinforcements arrive. Her daughter. His father-in-law. Her ex-husband. She has to remind herself, each time he offers another surety based upon no expertise, of his equal right to be present. Even though so absent for most of their son’s childhood. Even though his presence adds immeasurably to her tension.
The Pink Palace shrinks to a most miniscule vacuum for hope. Short of breath, each ventilator already claimed. And it’s still 4:13. She beings to wonder, would that be 4:13 a.m., or 4:13 p.m.? The antiseptic clock offers no clues.
She amuses herself wondering what he must construct in his morphine-tinged brain to explain the presence of both parents, side by side, after 26 years apart. She hopes he doesn’t assume he’s dead. She doesn’t want him to give up.
A bizarre rhythm assumes a routine within this roseate glow. Two wait. Two entertain her grandchild. One shops. One cooks. One cleans up. A relay of antibiotic doses ordered by the health department parses out mealtimes in rigid intervals. Personnel rotate, but the routine does not budge. One day flows into the next, marked only by the flux of newcomers, the absence of past fixtures to the Pink Palace. The Muslim matriarch graduates to a ward upstairs. One liver flunked, so they use a spare waiting for the next patient. That it matches her, cosmic luck. The Pink Palace begins to feel a future in such tales. A septic anxiety dissolves into possibility.
It’s still 4:13. But each day, with each vial emptied, each tube removed, the Pink Palace becomes a blushing tribute to the fragility of time, the comfort of space, and the strength of love.
Elizabeth Robin retired from teaching to write. “Life in the Pink Palace”, from the essay series Life in Third Person, depicts the week her son struggled on life support in a UK ICU, the same week her brother’s leukemia returned and her dear mother-in-law died in a New Jersey ICU. Her emotions find a voice in the objectivity of third person. Writing offers both a lens and a strategy to thrive. Also a poet, she appeared most recently in Island Writers’ Network’s Time and Tide, i am not a silent poet, and Autumn Sky Poetry Daily.
* * *
By Kirsti Anne Sandy
Take me out tonight
Where there's music and there's people
And they're young and alive
Driving in your car
I never never want to go home
Because I haven't got one
My best friend Jill bought a 1969 Mustang, turquoise blue, in 1985, in the October of our senior year of high school.
If you stood too close, the paint flaked off onto your clothes, like bits of a robin’s eggshell, and the car always smelled like chewing tobacco, despite the fact that neither Jill nor any of our friends chewed. It did not have bucket seats, so we could fit three, four of us in the front if we wanted; it was one big expanse of vinyl. One of our friends nicknamed it “The Stang.” We could fit our whole AP English class into the car, all eight of us at once.
Jill was not a patient driver, and was prone to shifting problems. Forward, back, forward back: I got carsick a lot as a result. When I suggested that she should have bought an automatic she stopped really fast and my face hit the dashboard.
I have not seen Jill for twenty five years, but I distinctly remember the last time I saw her. I was at the mall, in one of those stores that had semi-cheap prom dresses. It was 1989 and I was going to a college dance, a winter formal, and was deciding between a simple black velvet dress or a black dropped-waist with a ruffled skirt of gingham taffeta. Unfortunately, I ended up choosing the gingham taffeta. I was moving dresses through racks when I saw Jill and her younger sister, two racks down. I don’t remember what we said, but she didn’t smile. We could have been acquaintances, saying awkward hellos, and I knew something had gone wrong well before either of us said anything. For years, I assumed she knew why, that she had some reason to start hating me, and hated her back for making me wonder what I had done.
Right after Jill bought the Mustang, we realized that we wanted to go places but had no money to spend, so at first we just drove around, then we started driving past the houses of people we knew: boys in our classes, mean girls, teachers. Not that we ever stopped to get out—the point was to try to see what they were doing. Jill would pick up speed, even on these side dirt roads up in the mountains, and we would try to go by as quickly as possible so as not to be seen. One of us would swear that we saw someone peering out of an upstairs window, or the car of someone else we knew in the driveway, create stories to explain it. Our English teacher was having a coven of Satan worshippers over for a meeting. Our friend Kim, whom we teased for being cheerful and studious, was dutifully practicing her flute or reading Milton. “Dear Kim,” Jill would say, “always does her homework with a smile on her face.” The boy from our geography class who seemed so quiet and serious was having a threesome (Jill, who spoke fluent French, referred to it as a “ménage a trois”) with two of the prettiest cheerleaders. We weren’t making fun of them, not really. These people we knew became fictional characters in the stories we told, stories inspired only by a glimpse or shadow through a window, as the Mustang wheezed by, choking with black smoke.
I met Jill in the cafeteria my first day of junior year. I was new, having come to New Hampshire from a Catholic girls’ school in Lowell, Massachusetts. My new school building was set in a valley surrounded by mountains in a tiny New England village. The building itself did not suit its colonial and clapboard surroundings; it was a late 1970s modern block of concrete. Everything was square and chunky—even the senior lounge had been replaced by an orange-carpeted “senior block” in the hallway, in front of the trophy case. Instead of classrooms, the interior held vast, low-ceilinged learning spaces the principal called “open concept design,” which meant that it had no walls, only wheeled partitions that functioned as walls. You could see over them and under them, and, worse, you could hear everything that was going on in all of the classrooms. The students joked around with their teachers, who were much younger and taller than the teachers at Keith Hall, and when school was over, everyone rushed to their after-school activities. At Keith Hall, the school bell could not ring soon enough—the girls heard it, ripped off their uniform skirts, threw on concert t-shirts and jeans, and took their leave, not even bothering to bring any books. At Gilford, students studied. The class president looked like a high school class president from a television show about high school. No one tried to sell me drugs. Girls wore shaker knit sweaters with long skirts and pumps, or Esprit harem pants with blazers. I had only ever worn a uniform, so I knew right away that jeans and a t-shirt would not do, but in the first week of school a girl in jeans and a UNH sweatshirt started talking at me in the snack line. “We’re too late for donuts,” she said, genuinely irritated. “The sophomores always get them first. There is nothing worse than rushing down here only to find yourself without a frigging donut.”
Jill had the kind of blonde hair that children have: shiny and fine, not the brassy, scrunched and sprayed curls that were popular back then. She would feather her hair and it would flatten out in an hour. Her features were also delicate: blue eyes, clear skin, small, straight nose. From the waist up she was slender with long arms and fingers, but she was pear-shaped in an age when boyish hips and rock solid thighs were in style. Once, when the yearbook published a picture of Jill getting on the bus, she was furious for two reasons: first, they had revealed that she, a senior, rode the bus. “Oh, and there’s my ass!” she would add. “My ass… on the goddamn bus.”
I soon found out that Jill lived on her own. Yes, she had a mother, who was in Massachusetts a lot with her stepfather, so Jill stayed in their vacation condo in the woods. It had sliding glass doors and not much furniture, and Jill didn’t like to spend much time there. Sometimes we would leave school and watch Days of our Lives at her house, but she never had parties there or anything like that, even though I suggested it. She went food shopping, did her homework, went to work, all of it, without anyone telling her to do it.
A lot of the Gilford kids had been in school together since kindergarten. Yearbook pictures went way back to first grade dance classes and field trips; everyone was surprisingly easy to recognize as tinier and round-faced versions of their current selves. They seemed to fit together so easily, but they had grown up together. Then there were the Gilmanton kids, who were from out in the country. They had their own elementary school but came to Gilford for middle and high school, and they remained outsiders. Jill and I were Massachusetts transplants, a group of kids whose parents wanted to get away from the city or the suburbs. My parents had moved to our vacation home on Governor’s Island, which was thought of as a community of multi-millionaires, though we lived in the more modest, wooded mid-section of the Island. Jill lived up in Gunstock acres, also in the woods, but we had both been born city kids. My family was intact, and Jill’s was what you would see more often among Massachusetts transplants: a stepfamily, with a resented stepfather and an absent, never-mentioned biological father. Our peers were polite, but we knew what we were: latecomers. Massholes.
To buy the Mustang, Jill had to work at the counter at a gas station convenience store and at an office supply store, and then, in her spare time, she copy edited our school paper. She talked me into joining her. After school, Jill and I would edit the stories as they came in, in the windowless lab with the new IBM computers while the Talking Heads played on the boombox, the glowing green cursors blinking at us and the dot matrix printer sliding noisily back and forth. And we would sing and write and flirt with the boys who came in with snacks, and sometimes play chess or some primitive computer game, finding odd comfort in being so deeply encased in concrete that we could not see the snow and wind outside, or the trees or mountains, or even whether it was dark or light. It was our own unsupervised world and the one place in the school where Jill and I both belonged.
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
We all had cars to drive by senior year. I drove my parent’s trapezoidal Toyota Tercel, dark blue, with a sunroof. My friend Kate drove a white VW bug with plates that read “NEATO.” Kate once took a picture of me dreamily leaning on the Tercel door, as though I am about to go somewhere amazing and not back into the bowels of the computer lab. Jill had me take a photo of her sitting in her Mustang and smiling out the window. Photograph Jill always looked so kind, so sweet. But then after I would snap the picture she would say “Oh my God—did you see that guy gawking at me?” To Jill, no one was worse than a gawker. Maybe a person who spoke imperfect English (including, I realized when I read over the letters she had written me from 1986-1988, immigrants.) She hated nothing more than cops and men, but if you were on the road, you couldn’t help but encounter them. “Oh my God—is that a cop? Look and see. No don’t look! Now we look suspicious.” I am still not sure why this mattered. She wasn’t speeding, and we didn’t drink or take drugs. “Cops don’t care,” Jill would say. “They’ll plant stuff on you. We get pulled over and then what’s to stop them from raping us?”
“I’m a feminist,” she told me on the day the cafeteria had been out of donuts. I had never met a high school girl who called herself a feminist. I came to learn that this meant that she believed in reproductive rights, supported equal pay, and understood that women were oppressed both obvious and subtle ways. Jill took it upon herself to educate me about feminism; she saw sexism everywhere. “That’s disgusting,” she would say, storming off when someone told a joke about blondes or about women drivers. She had never had a boyfriend and although I freely shared my crushes with her, she was never quite as forthcoming. This is why it surprised me when one day we drove by the house of a boy I didn’t know. It was up near Gunstock, an A-frame cottage with a truck in the driveway, and Jill drove by once, then parked a few doors down, and got out of the car.
“You drive now,” she said. “I don’t want him to see me.”
“I can’t drive a stick!” I protested. “And who are you talking about?”
“Just drive,” she said, and waited for me to get out.
The car wouldn’t start at first, and then I heard a grinding sound that felt wrong, and then the car jerked forward when I shifted.
“Why are you shifting?” Jill shouted.
“It’s a stick—you’re supposed to shift!
Jill ducked down.
“Won’t he know your car?”
“Shut up,” Jill said, but she knew I was right. Actually, he had sold her the car, which I found out later. He worked as a mechanic at a car dealership in the next town.
His name was Scottie and he was twenty five, a fact that I could not get over.
“He’s a grown-up!” I marveled. “He has been able to drink for FOUR years!”
“You act like he’s forty three,” Jill said, waving it away. “Seriously, sometimes I think you’re in high school.”
“Sometimes I think you’re not,” I said.
We were only a year apart but it could have been ten. Jill did her own laundry, and she knew how to pay taxes and pump gas. She fried up her own burgers for dinner and shoveled snow. It should not have been a surprise to me that Scottie was sometimes sleeping over at her house, but it was. I had joined the drama club and was in my first school play, and I tried to get Jill to go to cast parties with me. She would agree if she could be back by a particular time.
“You’re not studying on Saturday night, Jill? Come on—you have to have some fun sometime.”
“I am having fun,” she said, not sounding as though she were having any fun at all.
By spring of senior year my parents had stopped complaining about bad New Hampshire drivers and were now complaining about bad Massachusetts drivers, a sign that our transition was complete. I had won a small role in the spring play, and Jill had quit the convenience store and got a job at the local library, shelving books. When I stopped by to visit I would find her sitting at one of the wooden tables, conjugating French verbs.
“I’m going with Paul to the prom,” I told her.
“He’s adorable,” she smiled, still looking at her book. “What time is his curfew?”
I ignored this. It’s your senior prom, I would tell her. You should go. You will never get this chance again.
Jill would shake her head, tired of the conversation. Finally, she agreed to stop by.
“What are you going to wear?” I asked.
“A wedding dress. What else?”
I had never met Scottie, and I was pretty sure this was because, as Jill often implied, I was immature. “Innocent,” she called it, and she said I was better off uncorrupted. On prom night, I stood outside on the balcony, sulking because Paul was not the boy I had wanted for my prom date, when I heard the Mustang approach. I stood there, leaning off the railing of the ski lodge in my black brocade dress with the huge white bow, waiting for Jill to step out of the car and tell me that the boy I liked really liked me, how could he not, look at me in that dress, he didn’t know what he was missing. All of the things your best friend is supposed to say, and she always said them, but not tonight. Tonight I could see Jill and our friend Jennifer and her boyfriend Phil, and another man, tall and chunky with a beard and a Carhartt jacket. He looked as old as a teacher. Jill was in jeans.
“Am I in time to march in the line for prom queen?” she asked, hugging me. Jennifer and Phil went off to talk to friends and there we were, standing with Scottie, who looked partly amused and partly bored. In ten minutes they were out the door, heading for the bowling alley, and I watched the prom queen contenders march from one end of the lodge, in blue and pink and peach and I wondered why we could not be those girls, smiling with their golden tans and dyed pumps, while the cheerleading coach and the shop teacher marked scores in their open notebooks. It was too late, we had missed our chance, and Jill didn’t even care.
Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s when it all went wrong.
I don’t remember when I found out that Scottie was married, and that he was married in name only, but separated, and he hated his wife and couldn’t wait to get a divorce but didn’t have the lawyer fees and was afraid of having to pay alimony so he was staying with her until he had enough saved so the monthly checks wouldn’t bleed him dry. Jill felt sorry for him and wanted me to understand that he had no choice. All those lines were new to us. We were in high school—what did we know of alimony, or separations, or of divorce court? I had never been on an actual date with a boy or kissed a boy. I was a senior in high school and the most I had done was held hands and had one half of a bottle of beer mixed with 7 UP, at Jill’s house one night. Up until now, I had trusted that Jill knew what she was doing, but now, I was not so sure.
We drove by Scottie’s house a few more times before we graduated. I was trying to talk Jill into attending the alcohol-free graduation party run by the senior class at an under-21 nightclub on the seacoast, but she wasn’t interested.
“I’m not taking a bus,” said Jill, but I explained that it was part of the alcohol-free graduation party deal. “And they won’t let us bring dates.”
“They won’t let people drive there,” I said, “and only the seniors can go.” The best I could get was a maybe.
“Here’s his house,” she said. “I’ll duck down and you look and see if the white car is there.” Scottie’s wife’s car.
I protested, told her that if she ducked down it would look as though a driverless car were careening up his street, with me in the passenger seat.
“He’s met me, remember?”
But Jill didn’t care, and the white car was parked in the driveway.
“Bastard,’ was all she said, and I didn’t disagree.
For two years after graduation we would write back and forth. Jill was at UNH studying French and Women’s Studies. The letters I still have, pages of Jill’s rounded cursive on stationery from her different jobs at copy places and computer stores, or tracing paper covered with cutouts of funny quotes (one, a story about a woman who mowed down a man with her car three times, was captioned by a handwritten comment from Jill: “only a MAN would let himself get run over three times.”) Another letter contained an extended analysis of the names of Worcester area ice cream shops (“there’s a Dairy Maid, even a frigging Dairy HAREM, but no Dairy Queen”) The third year we lost touch, and then I saw her at the mall, and then nothing for twenty three years, and then an email: “I’m married and we have no children, just parrots! “I can’t believe how much technology has changed since we were in school,” she wrote. “I remember that your family had the first home computer I ever saw.” Just three lines.
I still have a picture from graduation day. Jill and I are at my house, and she is wearing a sophisticated black and white color-block dress with a belt and shoulder pads. I am right next to her, in a white cotton dress with lace trim and a drop waist tied with a bow. The picture is dark but I can see that we are smiling a little nervously. We would be in one more picture together, that summer, at our friend Amy’s wedding, Jill in the same color block dress, me with a perm in a pink dress with a peplum. On graduation night, I changed out of my white dress and into something casual, and waited outside for the bus to take me to a nightclub called the Dungeon. Jill and I sat on one of the concrete benches and talked about the graduation ceremony and the speeches and the flowers our friends had given us, and who had cried, and what was next.
“You’ll miss your bus,” she said, and I knew then that she was not coming with me.
The school was emptying out and it was getting dark. As climbed the steps on the bus I heard the Mustang rumble, and the thought that it was the last time I would ever hear it leave the school parking lot was almost too much. But above me were the moon and the stars, and it was summer, and the girl next to me was listening to a Smiths tape on her Walkman and telling me something she had heard about a girl in our class, which she had heard from a good source was absolutely true, she said, but I had to promise not to tell anyone, and wasn’t graduation awesome, and would I like some gum, and I said yes and meant it.
Kirsti Anne Sandy teaches memoir and narrative theory at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. Her recent work can be seen in Split Lip, The Boiler, Anthem Journal, A Prick of the Spindle, Barnstorm, and The Flexible Persona. She still does not know how to drive a stick shift, and she probably never will.
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Art and Photography
addison is a mystery to us.
Photos by Martha Clarkson
Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found in monkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Alimentum, elimae.She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.”
Photography by Keith Moul
Keith Moul’s poems and photos are widely published. His latest chap called The Future as a Picnic Lunch will be released 9/15 by Finishing Line Press.