DynamicsThe Old Lady's Cats
By Tyson Abaroa
Mrs. Morrison had tears rolling down her wrinkled cheeks. Her cats were busy pawing at her door screeching their hateful meows. One white paw was pushing between the gap in the door and the carpet. As it pushed through, the tiny razor like claws protruded as they were trying to dig through the fuzzy pink carpet.
“How could all of this have happened, and why on bridge night?” she mumbled out loud as she sat with her thin bleeding arms hugging her scratched knees in the middle of her bed. Her gray hair was now frazzled. There were small strands of orange, white, and gray cat hair mixed in. Beads of sweat rolled from her neck absorbing into the collar of her pink wool sweater.
She was supposed to be getting ready for bridge night. Then she had to bake four-dozen cookies in the morning for the Daughters of the Tulsa Pioneers bake sale. Not to mention she had the red hat club brunch that was in the morning. With the cats now attacking her out of nowhere, there was no way she was going to make it.
Desperate to call for help Mrs. Morrison turned to the old tan phone and saw that, like her phone in the kitchen, they had chewed through the telephone cord. There was now no way to reach the outside world. All she could think of now was the complex cellular phone she refused to take from her son for her birthday.
Perhaps she could use the window? It was on the second story but it was directly over the roof of the garage. She could climb out and try to climb down. Even if she broke her hip, she’d rather be crawling across the lawn to her neighbor than stuck inside with her feline demons.
Mrs. Morrison crawled across her bed leaving streaks of blood as she dragged her knees across the white and black duvet. Blood was slowly soaking through her shredded khaki capris. A wincing gasp of pain escaped her lips as she got down off the bed. Slowly Mrs. Morrison pulled aside the red drapes of her windows.
Four sets of yellow eyes, with the light of her lamp reflecting on them, stared back at her. Her black cats sat on their haunches watching her. Behind them, three more cats paced back and forth along the red tiled roof of the garage. One of the orange tabbies stopped pacing and bared its teeth in a hiss that Mrs. Morrison could hear from behind the window. The hiss must have been a signal because two more cats jumped down from the main roof. The new cats began pawing at the window.
Whipping the drapes closed she ran back to her bed. She curled into the fetal position still crying, trying to figure out why her cats wanted to kill her.
So many people had told her she had too many cats. Her son and daughter begged her to get rid of the cats. Mrs. Morrison never thought there were too many. Why should she have gotten rid of them? She needed the companionship, and the cats needed her. Even if there was the occasional accident she had to clean up, it wasn't something a good baking soda wash and an open window could fix.
All the recent events ran through her mind. Only minutes before, she was just sitting on her plastic covered couch, watching Wheel Of Fortune like she always did. Sergeant Buttons, her Russian Blue, was sitting peacefully in her lap letting her wrinkled cancer spotted hands stroke him right above his ears. His purring vibrated against her thigh. Sergeant Buttons turned to her. He looked right in her eyes. His mouth opened letting out a long loud, meow.
Without warning, teeth dug into the loose skin around her ankle. She yelped, throwing Sergeant Buttons down from her lap. Then another set of teeth dug in to her calf. Mrs. Morrison looked down and found dozens of cats gathered around her feet. Terrified, she shouted again after yet another set of teeth dug into her toe. Two cats clung to her legs. They used their claws to climb painfully up to her knees.
She jumped to her feet swatting the cats off her legs. A groan escaped her as she scrambled up onto the couch. Five cats jumped up following after her biting at her feet. With all the energy she could muster she stepped over them. She let herself down the side of the couch. The clowder followed her. The cats began swatting their sharp claws at her dry bare feet. She ran as fast as she could to her to the kitchen phone and pulled it off the hook. There was no dial tone. She saw the chew marks that recently had cut the line. She had to kick two of the cats out of the way, but she ran to her room where the door was slightly open. The door thudded when she slammed the door on the cats that were hunting her down.
What was she to do? Hopefully the girls from bridge night would worry about her and rescue her. Except for that Lola Philips. She was always the meanest gossiper. Mrs. Morrison figured she would probably make things up like she normally did and everyone would laugh and not think to check in on her.
The meowing from the hall grew louder. Her heart was pounding as the paws rubbed up and down along the wooden door between her and the cats. Mrs. Morrison began to moan in anguish as she tried to figure out what to do. What if they got through? What would she do, and where would she go? Is this how her sixty-seven years would end?
Thinking that maybe there could be some sort of weapon in the closet, she crawled back off her bed to look through her past husband’s belongings (that she just couldn’t bare to get rid yet), she must have had something that could help protect her. Desperately, Mrs. Morrison grabbed at the partially open closet door and pulled it open.
Sergeant Buttons stared up at her with his sparkling green eyes.
Mrs. Morrison screamed, and the meowing outside the door got even louder. Somehow more paws pushed under the door clawing at the fraying and disintegrating carpet. Sergeant Buttons didn’t move. She ran to the bed pulling the bloody duvet over her head, hoping to put some sort of barrier of protection around herself.
She heard the padding of paws on the carpet nearby. Her hands separated the duvet so she could poke her eyes through the blanket. Sergeant Buttons jumped up the door and clawed at the brass door handle. To her disbelief she watched him hop twice, eventually pulling the handle down far enough that the all the remaining cats outside pushed through.
Now unmuted, the loud meowing made her heart pound. She was sobbing out loud with desperation as tears streamed down her face. Mrs. Morrison heard the cats surround her bed, when suddenly the room became silent. She felt a thump of a cat's weight on her bed. Wincing, she peeked through her blanket to see Sergeant Buttons.
He watched her while sitting on his haunches, methodically licking one paw. His long pink tongue stuck out rubbing against his fur without taking his eyes off of her.
Mrs. Morrison began wheezing as her lungs heaved in and out. She jumped with anticipation when Sergeant Buttons tilted his head examining her. The black slits in his eyes narrowed and he let out a low moan.
In an abrupt rush, the remaining cats that had surrounded the bed leapt up and began impatiently tearing at her black and white sheets.
The cats on the roof cried, covering up the screams from the bedroom.
Tyson Abaroa lives in Gilbert Arizona with his wife and daughters. He is a contributor for USA BMX’s PULL! Magazine. He finally put together all the pieces to discover that his excursions to La-La Land are ADHD induced. So he recently began taking creative writing classes to fully embrace the times he drifts away from reality. While anxiously waiting for his beta readers to finally provide feedback he finds himself imagining odd worlds and strange situations to write about.
* * *
By Chris Bedell
Saying my best friend and his girlfriend went missing after spending last Columbus Day camping so they could search for unicorns perplexed me. I mean, sure. People claimed unicorns existed. But I wasn’t a believer since there was something unnerving about thinking something because of faith.
The wind whistled in the background, slapping my face before trickling into my lungs and drowning them with cold air. That was the problem with walking to Starbucks instead of driving. Then again, Shantel and I couldn’t have driven if we wanted because neither of us had a car despite both being 17 years old.
Shantel furrowed an eyebrow. “Do you want to talk about it, Dakota?
I bit my lip. Sure. Having a supportive girlfriend might have been nice, but burdening her was the last thing I wanted. “It’s fine.”
“I promise I won’t get mad.” Her hair bounced around after the breeze picked up even more.
Having someone make assumptions about what another person thought might have annoyed most people.
But not me.
Shantel and I were friends for years before we started dating in the ninth grade, and her finishing my sentence felt as natural as breathing. And it had nothing to do with being in a codependent relationship, because we weren’t. The two of us were comfortable with each other, which was fine. Sure. Needing a relationship and being consumed by it might have been unhealthy, but there was no reason to look for a nonexistent problem.
“It was like I dared Justin,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Nobody blames you. I’m sure they’ll turn up.”
I hung my head lower. “It would be nice if the police took their disappearance seriously.”
“I know. But to them it must be another teen couple that ditched town as soon as they could.”
Leaving town ASAP probably appealed to all teenagers at some point.
I mean, the idea of staying in one town all of my life was enough to make me want to pull my hair out. But Justin and Laura never did impulsive things-at least I hoped. It wasn’t like I knew what they were thinking every second of the day, because I didn’t. I wasn’t psychic. Besides, contemplating whether they were alive or dead ravaged me enough as it was.
I put my hands in the pockets of my pea coat. “Do you believe in unicorns?”
She came to an abrupt halt. “We’ve already discussed that and I’m not going to break up with you over the issue.”
“I would believe in unicorns if I ever saw one…”
“You aren’t trying hard enough.”
“How can I help it if I’ve never come across one?” I asked.
Shantel huffed. “It doesn’t matter. Justin and Laura will turn up.”
“It’s been a year,” I interrupted.
Talking over someone else might have been rude, but I couldn’t help it. My idea needed articulation before it slipped my mind. Because anyone who associated with me knew I forgot things. Not that it was my fault-it wasn’t. Forgetfulness ran in my family because my mom and grandma always forgot words here and there. Although a doctor might have tested us for neurological issues. But I wasn’t a doctor and had no idea what being one entailed. It was only something fun to think about. Grandma, Mom, and I were fine though. It was normal to sometimes not remember things since our brains weren’t disappearing like a person’s bank account after spending too much money.
We arrived at Starbucks after a few more minutes of walking, and if I felt like being a brat I would’ve scoffed at the smell of Pumpkin Spice Lattes wafting through the air. Because nothing made me scream more than pumpkin being added to every food and beverage in the fall.
I would tell people where to stick their pumpkins.
Kidding. It was only another distraction to pass the day, and I would need as many of those as possible if Laura and Justin were never found.
I arrived home a couple of hours later after my date with Shantel, only to be greeted by Mom sizzling veal in the frying pan when walking into the kitchen.
She lifted her gaze off the stove. “I almost thought you would never come home.”
“You’re like Dad. He worries about everything.”
“That reminds me. We’re on our own for dinner tonight. His business trip got extended.”
I sighed. “That’s too bad. It would’ve been nice to have a family dinner. I can’t even remember the last time we had one.”
Dad earning more than 300 thousand dollars a year might have been great because we lived in a McMansion and did all the stereotypical things rich suburban people did such as eating dinners at the country club, spending summers in Europe, and blowing copious amounts of money. However, all of those superficial comforts were no substitute for a real family life.
Mom put on a brave front, but I wasn’t stupid.
Yeah. Admitting I was quirky was easy, but only an idiot would’ve ignored the black circles staining Mom’s eyelids from all the times of her being crushed by whether Dad would come home or extend his business trip. Playing that game wasn’t fun because he lengthened his stays 99 percent of the time. Then again, just like I wasn’t a doctor, I also wasn’t a lawyer and had no idea about the particulars of negotiating contracts other than how it must have been dull.
Because I couldn’t imagine one person trading a life of adventure for miserable paperwork. If I felt like giving the matter anymore consideration, I would’ve gone on a ramble about how I was born in the wrong century because my tangents would’ve driven me to be an explorer between the 1400s and 1700s. Although my digressions would only be good for so much since I could only imagine people worrying about me steering the ship off course. The lack of technology during the time period would’ve also irked me because the thought of no iPhone, computer, and electricity was unfathomable. Yet somehow people survived in spite of not having many resources. But that was a conversation for another day because the growling in my stomach wouldn’t go away until I ate dinner.
“You and me both.” Mom pushed a chunk of her hair out of the way before reaching for the spatula and flipping the two pieces of veal.
“I’ve been thinking about the SAT’s.”
Mom winked. “Oh yeah?”
“It would be better to take them in May so I have more time to prepare.”
“That makes sense-as long as you’re happy.”
My jaw twitched. “I could always retake them next fall if I had to.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Mom said. “You’re smart.”
I chuckled at her remark. “You’re my mom. You have to say that.”
“That doesn’t make my comment any less true.”
I gritted my teeth. “Who knows? Maybe the police will discover something about Justin and Laura by the time I take the SAT’s.”
Mom remained silent, refusing to speak. She must have been doing her deep breathing exercises, which her therapist taught her. Oops. I spilled the truth about Mom going to therapy despite how there was no malicious intention. Although Mom couldn’t be blamed for going to therapy because it was natural after dealing with Dad being gone so many times. In fact, her head still being attached was a miracle.
“Will you please flip the veal over in two minutes?” she asked. “It’ll be done three minutes after doing that. I need to use the bathroom before dinner. Also, get the potato salad out of the fridge for a side dish and set the table.”
I nodded. “Of course. Don’t worry about it.”
The scraping of her high heels rolled through the air while Mom exited the kitchen before leaving me alone.
Something crackled after I put a slice of veal on each plate, forcing me to whip my body around. Because having a clear glass bottle with a folded note inside it deserved an eye roll or two. I mean, just because unicorns were real, didn’t mean things should start appearing out of nowhere.
Setting the table and getting out the potato salad would’ve been ideal if I weren’t a curious person because I should’ve known better than to open the bottle and see what was written on the piece of paper.
Damn. The bottle had a corkscrew.
Panicking would’ve been foolish despite how corkscrews were annoying because it wasn’t shoved into the bottle and came out with one pull. I turned the bottle upside down, making the paper fall out before reading it: Fear not. You’ll find out the truth about your friends because they’re closer than you think. Kisses.
The only thing more annoying than something appearing out of nowhere was a vague message. Because that was the word I would’ve used to describe the occurrence.
Screaming at the person who sent me this message would’ve been fair if I wanted to be rigid. But I didn’t. I might not have been going to therapy like Mom, but there was no use in stressing over every little thing. And worrying about negativity had nothing to do with it. There was something unappealing about being more frustrated because that wouldn’t have given me any answers. There also wasn’t anyone to tell off since yelling at an invisible person was beyond quirky. It was nonsensical.
The school bus screeched a couple of mornings later after pulling up to the high school’s curb. The bus driver opened the door and everyone left while I finished my math problem before shoving my notebook, textbook, pencil, and calculator back into my backpack and mouthing, “I’m sorry” at the bus driver for keeping him waiting.
“No problem,” he said, touching his curly hair.
His hair shouldn’t have grabbed my attention because his tie dye shirt and shorts told me everything worth knowing about him despite how judging someone for being a hippie was wrong. Because I had nothing against them. They just had a different way of approaching life. Or so I guessed because making minor assumptions was the only thing I could do since I wasn’t a hippie.
If I was going to judge him for anything, it would’ve been for the scent of menthol and dried ashes stinging my nose. Three guesses what was responsible. Cigarettes.
Whatever. The bus driver’s possible smoking habit wasn’t problematic since he was nice enough. But if he were a serial killer running around dressed as a clown that would’ve been a different story.
I flashed a smile at him. “Have a good day.”
“You too. And be careful of those unicorns. You look like a nice kid and the last thing you need is to have a horn stab you.”
I stepped onto the curb and waved at Shantel, who happened to be a few yards away by the high school’s main entrance.
“We need to talk,” I said.
She put her hands on her hips. “Okay. So speak. Don’t tell me you want to go on an African safari again?”
Shantel didn’t misspeak since I convinced my parents to take me on an African safari for my sixteenth birthday. And to say that had been stressful was an understatement since my parents paid to expedite renewing our passports because of indulging my whim. But being nostalgic could wait till another day since dwelling about how Mom’s inquisitive nature was dangerous like mine would’ve taken more time and made me mention how she got chased by a cheetah.
Oh well. No harm done since she survived. Although there was no doubt she wouldn’t go on another safari.
I shook my head. “No. It’s about Laura and Justin. I think someone tried sending me a message about them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Fine. I’ll back up and explain it better.”
She twirled a strand of her hair. “You better, because I don’t want to have to tell your mom you need to go to mental institution.”
I came home from school hours later and walked into the kitchen, finding another glass bottle with a message in it. I pulled out the piece of paper, and read it: Time is running out. You better think fast.
Scratching my head was the only thing I could do because getting another note was the last thing I wanted or needed.
If I ever found out who the person sending the notes was, there was no doubt I would’ve pummeled him or her. Being childish was one thing, but it was another to waste my time.
The sound of squeaking shoes pricked my back hairs, and I put the bottle in the bottom kitchen cabinet because having Mom think I was nutty would’ve been the most unproductive thing on the planet. And I of all people knew what being foolish involved since I would’ve won the prize for rambler of the year-if such a thing existed.
“Hi, honey. How was your day?” she asked.
“It was fine.”
Mom poured herself a cup of coffee after grabbing a mug and went to the fridge and got out the half and half before putting some of it into the beverage. The spoon banged against the mug, changing the blackness to a mundane mocha color before she added two Splenda packets.
“Good,” she said, chugging some of her coffee. “Anyway, I thought we could go out for Chinese Food tonight.”
The doorbell rang before I responded and I went to the front door and answered it.
If life were a cartoon, my jaw would have crashed to the floor. But no. That not only would’ve been childish-it would’ve been melodramatic. And I was in the eleventh grade and should’ve at least pretended to be mature.
My gaze narrowed. “What are you doing here, Dad?”
“What? I can’t change my plans and spend time with my family?” He stepped into the foyer, wheeling his suitcase across the ground.
I scanned Dad from head to toe. Yeah. His wardrobe exemplified his typical attire because he wore a blazer, buttoned shirt, tie, khaki pants, and designer shoes.
Mom walked out of the kitchen and towards Dad and I. “Wow. And they say people can’t change.”
Dad grunted. “Fine. I deserved that. But I’m trying...”
“Okay,” she said, picking at one of her nails. “I already told Dakota that we’re going out for Chinese Food. Except now you’re paying.”
Mom’s statement echoed more than a little attitude, but I would’ve been irritated like her. Although Dad changing his plans was good since actions defined character, and he could’ve remained on his business trip.
But no. Dad came home, proving my parents might work things out even if thinking that would’ve been idealistic.
“Someone is taunting me and I don’t know why,” I said the following morning when walking through the school hallway with Shantel.
She flipped her hair over her shoulders. “Do you have any idea who would want to do that to you?”
“No, but I wish I did.”
Shantel tilted her head. “I hate to tell you this, Dakota, but you sometimes have to let things go.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said, shaking my head.
Her eyes bulged up. “Fine. What do you want to do about it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “There’s nothing I can do. It’s not like the person told us anything. It’s just nice that you believe me.”
“Of course. You’ve never given me a reason to doubt you.”
We turned the corner before walking down the next hallway. More and more students and teachers rushed by while others remained engrossed in conversations with their cliques at various spots in the school.
Whatever. If people wanted to risk being late for first period, then that was their prerogative.
“But I would figure things out soon. Because you have three options. You can try and solve their disappearance, let it go, or have it consume you,” Shantel continued.
“I know, I know. Ask me again after my test.”
She nudged my shoulder in a playful fashion. “At least you have your dad back. That must be nice.”
“Yeah. But I don’t know how long he’ll be around,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat.
Sweat oozed out, sticking to my face, shirt, and shorts while I stood in my bedroom after going for an afternoon jog hours later.
And I once again endured another bottle appearing after a crackling sound bounced through the air.
I yanked out the corkscrew even faster this time, and read the note: Search the Sherwood Forest again. You won’t be disappointed. You’re closer to answers than you think you are. Promise. Anyway, tick-tock, tick-tock. Kisses.
I crumbled the note before dropping it.
The notes crossed a line and something needed to be done. Because there was only so much wondering I could take before losing my mind. Although speaking of that, I forgot where I placed my iPhone.
Worrying about where my iPhone resided was the least of my problems. Showering was the only thing to do since I wouldn’t find out the truth about Laura and Justin tonight and I could at least be clean.
I was headed for the forest-that much was certain though.
The clunking sound of Shantel’s ignition halted the following afternoon after she parked her car in the campground parking lot.
We got out of the car while rays of sunlight snuck through puffy gray clouds, and she pressed a button on her car key, making a clinking sound roll through the air.
Although Shantel making sure her car was locked shouldn’t have shocked me because she was a big worrier like Grandma, Mom, and I. Shantel was just better at masking her emotions, which was something I could learn.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Shantel said.
I snickered at her. “Get over it.”
We clipped through the rest of the parking lot before going into the woods.
“I don’t know what you think we’re going to discover. The police searched the Sherwood Forest four times and they didn’t find one trace of Laura and Justin. Not even a misplaced ID or their camping equipment.”
“It doesn’t matter. We have to get to the bottom of this.”
Our shoes ruffled the leaves, making a crunching sound while we continued walking without finding any evidence of Laura and Justin.
“We should go back,” Shantel said several minutes later when we were deeper into the woods.
An owl hooted, making her recoil.
“Calm down,” I said. “It was only an animal and I would hate to see how you would react in real danger.”
“That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
She expelled a sharp giggle. “Oh, please! You don’t even know what you’re looking for.”
“Lovely day for a walk, isn’t it?” called out a voice.
Shantel and I spun around, facing the man.
A rotten stench traveled through the air, making us almost hold our noses.
Okay. My statement was presumptuous because I could only speak for myself. Although the man’s body odor was nothing compared to his worn out shoes, unshaven face, wrinkled shirt, and ripped jeans since his picture would’ve been next to the word disheveled in the dictionary.
However, the man’s lack of hygiene wasn’t even the creepiest thing about the situation since he sported a gold watch. The kind of watch that Justin wore all the time ever since his Grandma gave him one for his thirteenth birthday. I squinted without trying to draw too much attention for staring at him. The watch was Justin’s.
“Admiring my watch?” the man asked.
The sound of my pulse rang in my ears. Okay. Maybe I wasn’t as subtle as I thought I was. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
His crooked smile widened, accenting the yellowness of his teeth even more-as if that were possible. “It’s okay. Pretty things should be admired.”
“We should go,” I said, shifting my gaze back to Shantel.
The man folded his arms. “What’s the rush? You could come back to my tent. I’m a permanent resident of the Sherwood Forest.”
Shantel raised her eyebrows. “Permanent resident?”
“Yeah. I’ve been living here for the last year and half,” he said. “I’m kind of between jobs.”
My jaw trembled. “When did you get that watch if you don’t mind me asking?”
The man coughed into his arm. “Around a year ago. But I’m thinking about selling the watch. It’ll help me be more liquid.”
Coincidences meant different things to people, but I didn’t believe in them. Pretending I knew everything was irrelevant since it was only logical to think everything happened for a reason. And I would’ve been lying if I said the connection between the man getting the watch a year ago, and Justin and Laura disappearing at that exact time didn’t cross my mind. Because it did. The problem was I had a swirling sensation in my stomach to go on and no actual evidence.
“That’s nice. Now have a good day.” I tugged Shantel’s arm, throwing a gaze before we trekked out of Sherwood Forest and back to the parking lot.
Black draped the night sky hours later while Shantel and I were en route back home after eating dinner at a diner.
“If you won’t say it, I will. Did that man kill Justin and Laura?” Shantel asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” My head remained focused on the window’s view. Cracks of light from the full moon provided a little extra visibility while the trees jerked in the wind.
Thinking about uncertainty was natural after dealing with both Justin and Laura’s “disappearance” and my parents’ tumultuous marriage.
And that was fine.
Having a perfect family would’ve been nice, but agonizing over Justin and Laura vanishing made me tougher. So whether Dad stayed in town and settled his traveling debacle, divorced Mom, or found a new job, I would be fine. I was a more secure person now. Or at the very least, I could project bravado.
Although the trip to the Sherwood Forest hadn’t been a complete waste. Because even though I didn’t tell Shantel, I could’ve sworn I saw a unicorn-if only for a second. So maybe, just maybe, the world was a more complicated place than I realized.
Shantel stopped after coming to a red light and her gaze drifted back to me. “But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m never going camping.”
“Me neither,” I said.
Chris Bedell’s previous publishing credits include essays on the online magazine Thought Catalog, short stories on the online literary magazines: Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Pidgeonholes Magazine, Abbreviate Journal, Short-story.me, and Quail Bell Magazine while his creative nonfiction has appeared on Sprout Magazine, Inklette Magazine, and Entropy Magazine. More recently, he became a blog writer for the online literary magazine Moledro Magazine. Chris graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University this past May, and is pursuing an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at William Paterson University.
* * *
You Need To Tell My Dad That
By Dan Crawley
When I walk to the end of the street, I see a man holding a stack of books near the opened trunk of a small blue car. This car is parked catawampus on the driveway of the corner house, where Independence Street intersects with Freedom Way. It’s as if the driver, maybe this man with the books, skidded to a stop without straightening up.
“How’s it going?” the man holding a stack of books says. He is built like an upside down Aztec pyramid.
“Not so good,” I say. “I need someone to pay me to do something.”
“But what do you do when no one wants to do that?” The lamb chops on both sides of his face is reminiscent of earlier times.
“No one feels obligated to help out anyone.”
“That is exactly what I tell my father,” the man with the books says, “but he’s an old-school bastard who thinks I’m not trying hard enough. When no one calls, no one calls. He thinks landing something these days should be as easy as it was in his day. Hey, come here.”
My gait is plodding. But if I stop now, the little momentum I do have might be lost and my route, down Freedom Way a few blocks to Memorial and then a long stretch by a park and a small strip center, where multiple units have for lease signs taped on their glass doors, might take longer and will probably be more strenuous than usual. I’ve been walking all this week. I started that same day I found out my older brother is coming for a visit. He requested from our parents the use of the guest room, where I’ve been sleeping for months. Monte owns a San Francisco condo and drives this luxury SUV. My car is parked in the driveway. I’ve no money to replace the cracked radiator or even afford a new battery because it’s sat there for so long. So I’ve found walking takes a bit of the edge off.
Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see someone in a bear costume pass by the open front door of this corner house. Without meaning to, I stop. Now: only beige carpeting and white walls.
“Over here.” The man with the stack of books whistles like a dropping bomb. He winces. “I’ve been substitute teaching,” he says, his voice going high, “but I’m getting no calls. They’ve started this new phone computer system. I miss calls, and I can’t tell if jobs are already taken or not after I’ve given up, and it’s driving me batty. How can I control this computer system that’s obviously broken? I tell my dad this, but you think I get understanding? Now there are no jobs at all. My girlfriend thinks the district ran out of money for the rest of the month.”
“I think I saw her. She’s a bear.”
“That’s all she could find for some cash. You know how hard it is to spin a sign in full costume? With humongous claws? In ninety degree heat? I would fall over and never get up. I overheat easily.” The man’s enormous black shorts drape to his shins. Sweat beads across his wide forehead like translucent cobblestones. “I don’t know how much longer we can live here. I go nutty most days, frequently in the morning when I first wake up and realize what’s what. We might just have to leave it, which we don’t want to do, of course.”
A woman jogs by the corner. “You see a lot of people our age out running at this time of day, instead of working at an office or waiting tables or—”
“Yes.” A beefy finger points out from under the books. “You need to tell my dad that. What you just said. He needs to hear how bad it is from someone besides me. He doesn’t believe me. You okay with your house?”
“I don’t own a home.” I hesitate, and then say, “I live with my parents.”
“I can’t do that. Especially with my dad, obviously.” The books are hefty volumes, literature anthologies or texts on jurisprudence. “I wish I could count on him. He doesn’t want to help me, and I don’t want his help, honestly. But a genuine offer would be appreciated. That might be enough some times when I’m emptying out buckets of my angst-ridden heart over the phone, you know?”
Now my button pushed, I come forward a few steps. I tug on the front of my shirt. I lift my cap and comb back my damp hair and readjust my cap. I wasn’t planning on saying anything about my circumstances. I say, “Parents should listen to their children in distress. No matter how old they are.”
“The plan was I’d stay with my parents temporarily, after I moved here. That was six months ago, and I’ve had only one interview so far, with no call back. Then came an email weeks later, with thanks for interviewing, so many great candidates, blah, blah. And now I’m getting kicked out of my bed at the end of next week. My older brother, who has a job and house and money in the bank and stocks and whatever he has, is visiting and wants to stay with his parents. They only have the one guest room, so I’ve got to move out all of my stuff—a whole storage unit’s worth—and sleep on the couch. I know you might think, ‘So, sleep on the couch. It’s just for a few nights while he visits. At least you’re not homeless—’”
“No, no, no,” the man with the stack of books says. “I’m not saying that at all, brother.”
“It’s the principle of…everything.” I look up and down the empty street. “At least your dad still talks to you. My whole life my parents see me as an afterthought. Monte is the go-getter. They only noticed me because Monte wants the room.”
“I’m down to basic needs. I mean, for now, that guest room is my only home.” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “It just feels like another hit. How many more hits can I take?”
“Abso-preach-it-brother-lutely.” He moves the books toward me as if giving a gift. One of his square hands emerges from under the stack to shake my hand.
“You need to tell my dad that,” the man says and sways and rams like an ocean liner loose of its mooring against the trunk of the sedan. He holds the books with one hand and rummages around the pocket of his massive shorts, retrieving a cell phone. “Tell him that you aren’t getting any calls and how you’re getting kicked out of your only home and about seeing people out running when they should be off at some job. Tell him how hard it is out there for all of us.” The man’s fat thumb goes to work on the phone. The heavy books balance on his other hand. I wonder why he doesn’t just put them down.
I take a few steps back. “I don’t know your dad or you.”
“That’s why it’ll work. Pretend it’s your dad who’s kicking you out of your only home in the world. Let him have it.”
Last night, my parents sat watching T.V. while I paced in their kitchen. When I came into the living room and mentioned how upset I was about having to move all of my boxes and clothes, my mother became all weepy because she didn’t want to pick between her two only children. I told her Monte could afford a hotel room. A whole floor of hotel rooms. She cried to my father that I was making her choose between her two boys, and I pointed out she already made her choice. My father didn’t say a word, but brought his fingers up to his face and pinched his nostrils. I asked him what he was doing. He said I was stinking up the place. So I stuck my fingers in my ears at them and left for a late night walk.
The man says into his cell phone, “Listen to this, Dad.” He tosses the cell toward me in a high arc. Reflexively, I stumble forward and catch it with both hands. I don’t have to lift the phone to my ears; I can hear the loud voice clearly. The man is back to holding the stack of books with both hands. He makes a face. He can clearly hear his father’s voice, too.
“No, I’ve heard enough from you. Now it’s my turn.” The loud voice says, “You’ll listen for a change. So you think I’m a bastard, huh? That I don’t care about what you’re going through right now? Was I a bastard when you quit that great job at that fancy seafood place I got you when you were just out of high school? I was thinking about this today. How worried I was for you back then. How worried I am for you now. How you constantly do things that only makes your life harder. Like that job you quit for no reason. I know you remember that seafood place in Redding. The manager, he was my friend, at that nice seafood place by the river and then you up and quit after one day.” This father’s voice sounds like his son’s, the same soaring register. “You worked at that dishwashing job one day. I dropped you off the next day and you waited until I was out of sight and just left. No explanation to the manager, my good friend.” The man looks down at the cover of the massive volume on top of the stack and mouths something. “You decided just to walk away. Walking all the way across town, over that bridge, thinking you wanted to jump into the Sacramento River. That’s how upset you thought you were. You walked all the way to the downtown mall where your mother worked at that children’s clothing store. The last person you thought you’d see was your dad, sitting there on a bench, waiting for your mom to get off work. And what did I do? What did this horrible bastard of a father do when I saw you? You, on the other hand, spun right around and practically ran away down that mall. You ran out that big glass mall door and didn’t even bother to look back. And when I saw you later on at home, do you remember what I said to you? How I showed you some generosity because your mom told me how you’d called the children’s clothing store from a pay phone, saying you wanted to jump into the Sacramento River. Are we back there again? Do I have to worry myself silly over you these days? Are you hearing me? Tell me you’re hearing me.”
I quickly lift the cell and say that I am.
Dan Crawley's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies, including Wigleaf, apt, North American Review, SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years, matchbook, and Heavy Feather Review. He is a recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts creative writing fellowship and has taught fiction workshops at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and other colleges.
* * *
By Nancy Demme
Like eel skin, her voice, warm and convincing, droned on. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. He had let her talk, let her wind down, strained with knowledge, until her voice was no more than a whisper, a hiss, sea water bubbling from her lips. Exquisite. He couldn’t have planned it better. He would be rid of her by the end of the week, his hands washed clean, reborn.
There would be no more talk of money. No more twenty dollar bills missing from his wallet as if he had been a high born executive lawyer. He would make a last ultimate sacrifice. He knew the law, street law, retaliation. She would get hers. It was just that they were staying by the water. She loved the sea, the curtains drifting, the salt on the air and in her hair. She had said as much while she dangled him like a fish on the line. She was the practiced con, sweet talking with a story to sell. Drawing on Neptune, the fertilizing God, she had lured him with at first small snippets of her supposed life. Dangling sweetmeats, like bait, he had swallowed her story, the impoverished youth, the arranged marriage, her escape. He was no fool, but she was good.
It had started at the café that bordered the sand. He had come from the cigar shop around the corner, where he rolled custom made cigars for the big, fat men in flimsy suits. Though they had an outdoor patio where the men could smoke and have a drink, they preferred to stand in the doorway, poisoning the air with their smoke. His hands were always stained from the tobacco and he reeked of the foul smelling air. He posted the wooden sign, out to lunch be back in an hour, and took his lunch at the café. He hadn’t seen her coming, her silky walk she took on the beach path like leading a school of fish, until she plopped down in the chair opposite him, the others dressed in beach clothes around her drifting wobbly as if they had lost their oar.
“You don’t mind?” she said looking up at him from her straw hat and dark shades, not waiting for his response, but barreling into her diatribe, her reason for being there, her impoliteness self- excused.
She was not beautiful. When she took off her hat and glasses, I noticed her brown eyes set wide and staring. Her face was round and somewhat haggard and her thick, wavy, brown hair wired out from her head like a helmet. But when she opened her mouth words like silken tapestry unraveled the embroidered story woven there. She spoke of her adolescence, the marriage contract her parents had forged, the broken wedding night, the isolation she felt. She wanted a place to stay for a few nights she said. They were looking for her. She spoke of these things while she picked at his uneaten lunch, a tomato, a bit of chicken, pickles.
They were in paradise sitting beneath the palms, the ocean roaring in front of them, tourists milling, children, somewhere music. He asked no questions, paid the bill and motioned her to follow. He hadn’t even learned her name. Two blocks away in a narrow alley, he showed her the wooden stairs that seemed to tumble into the pavement.
“It’s unlocked,” he said. “I’ll be back at six.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” she said hugging his arm, the words slipping from her tongue with a baby’s innocence. “I won’t forget this…this kindness,” her voice a little harder, jaded.
He kicked himself later when he returned. She had locked the door and while he fumbled for his keys, she called from inside.
He had expected to be robbed though he had little of worth, the TV, a radio, a wristwatch he never wore, but they were all there.
“I thought this was an escape, an escape from drudgery. You called after him like you were calling for a lost child.”
“He is lost. You’ll see.”
He didn’t want to see. He wanted her out of his life. He had made a mistake. He could take it back, his word, safety, but his act of charity, if it was that, made him seem handsomer, a bit taller. The first few days, she didn’t eat when he was there, but he noticed scraps of things were gone, a leftover chunk of cheese, some grapes, a small can of black beans.
She tried not to watch him and he tried not to watch her, but the apartment was small, the furniture sparse, and they bumped into each other going about their feigned concerns. He seemed always to move about with his back to the wall. She didn’t mention his kindness again, did not touch his arm.
On the third day, a hot and sultry day, she took off her wig. He hadn’t known she was wearing one, but removed, he saw how it had made her look ugly. She saw him staring at her.
“It’s to keep us chaste, unattractive to men. This way,” she said holding the wig over her head, “they can control their desires, and I can keep my modesty, my privacy.” Setting the wig aside as though it were a third person, she ran her fingers through her hair. Her hair was light brown, thin and was plastered with sweat to her head. He choked on his laughter. It did not make her beautiful, but it did make her eyes seem less wide and staring. “I can cook, that’s one thing men applaud. What do you have?”
“I have fish.”
“Splendid.,” and she scurried into the small kitchen and made a feast of cod for the two of them. “Dishes, too. Dishes are allowed,” and she washed the dishes, soapsuds to her elbows, and dried and stored the dishes in the precise places she had found them “I am tired now. It has been an exhausting day,” and she made her way to the couch, trailing the wig behind her as if it were a lost dog.
“No,” but he stopped before saying ‘make yourself at home.’ He did not want to see her sleep again, did not want to warm to her presence, did not want to see the mussed covers. “Why don’t you take my room tonight? I’ll sleep on the couch.”
He did not sleep at all that night. At work he spilled tobacco on the floor, scattered cigars across the counter and made sloppy custom cigars for his customers. As the days wore on, he noticed twenty dollar bills missing from his wallet. He said nothing and even seemed to soften toward her and was hopeful with her theft that she was planning her escape. The apartment was cleaner than it had ever been, the bag of laundry he carried from the laundromat was folded and put in drawers. Her own dress, a baggy dark blue thing and turquoise scarf, she cleaned in the kitchen sink while he was away and it was hung on the stairway landing. While it dried, she borrowed, the only thing she did borrow, was his red bathrobe, which she wore until her dress was dry.
One evening as she was watering his few, straggling plants, he asked. “Will he come?”
“Whether or not he will come, he will be looking,” she said, the water spilling over the edge of the pot and raining down onto the floor. “It is likely. Yes. It is likely he will come.”
The next morning as he was about to leave for work, he opened the door and three men stood at the top of the stairs as if nailed into the worn, white planks. They wore black, wide-brimmed hats, incongruous in this beach town. Their overlarge black suits, like crow feathers, stirred with the faint ocean breeze as the sun beat down on them. Their side locks spilled down their cheeks, curling up upon their collars. The smaller man, the one in front, spoke.
“She is my wife. Mine. I want her back, am taking her back,” and he moved forward, his fists balled, his jaw set.
He smelled himself then, Cuban cigars, the nose tingling pungency of smoke. He had hoped to be rid of her before this, hoped she would be miles away.
“I am Solomon Meyer. Rachel is my wife, my bashert, my soul mate. I knew this when I was five.”
“I’m glad for you, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“She saved my life from drowning. We were at a lake. I got in over my head, she pulled me to safety.”
“She must be quite a girl.”
“She is my bashert. I knew it then. I knew it at five,” he said pulling at his beard. “Later she saved me from street bullies. I was seven. Our parents made a contract. We are married. I want her back.”
“I’d be glad to oblige, but I don’t know any Rachel.”
“I know she is in there. I will tell you something, and he leaned into the smell of cigar. “Rachel stopped going to the mikveh,” he whispered. “It is a ritual bath to cleanse after menses, after miscarriage, after childbirth. She suddenly just stopped going. I believe she is pregnant, that she is having my child. If I had to, I could do without Rachel, but I cannot do without my child.”
He was late for work. The cigar stand would overflow with morning smokers. There was no way out of the apartment. He decided on another tack to give himself some time.
“How do you know she is here?”
“The scarf,” and he pointed to the scarf that was draped over the railing. “It was a wedding present from me to her.”
“There must be a hundred…”
“It is Rachel’s scarf,” and he pushed the smoke-scented man aside. “We have wasted
The three men barged into the apartment. Sounds of overturned furniture, shouting and general outrage, slammed against the walls of the apartment.
The husband wailed throughout the empty rooms, “You will not be granted a get. I will not permit divorce. The baby is mine! You will be married to me for a hundred years!”
While he stood outside, apart from the melee, he watched a dark blue dress balloon from the ocean wind at the end of the alley, as the figure ran down the wide expanse of beach and took up with a group of shell collectors and disappeared. He left the grumbling, rambling dark men, picked his way carefully down the rickety stairs and walked to the cigar shop. As he had thought, the morning smokers were itchy for their morning cigar. After he opened up, saw to their tobacco needs, he lit a fancy Cuban cigar and smoked with the rest of them, the big, blue cloud of smoke hovering over the restless sea.
Nancy Demme is a retired Children's Librarian. She has facilitated a writers' group for 20 years and has taught creative writing to teens and adolescents. Her work has been published in the US1 summer fiction edition, Confrontations, LIU's literary journal, and Kelsey Review.
* * *
By Robert Earle
They had him, and they had no business having him. What would their business be? Fixing him? How would they fix him when they didn’t have him following them around all their life, keeping his eye on them, cocking his ear their way, driving them crazy repeating the things that came out of their mouths because he thought they were juicy?
From day one that’s how it was with the brother. I said something, he said something. I did something, he did something. I had a woman, he wanted next. Made me nuts, not to mention her. He’d do it before I got me zipper up. No tomorrow as far as he was concerned. Born in today and lived in today and kept being himself no matter what the weather did or anyone tried on him, which would not be advisable unless you were me.
I had purchase on him if not ownership, a lay-away plan so to speak— eventually I’d pay him off lock, stock and barrel and then I’d fix him, see? We started together, bundled up in the same womb, and I had my hands on him most likely, and he liked them there or expected them there, and when they were there, it was all the same to him, my hands, his hands, made no difference, but your hands, keep them to yourself. Knock me off the jungle gym in the schoolyard and you’d find out who would do the knocking. The brother would do the knocking. Someone might think, Well, all right, I’ll knock him back, but here’s the difference simple as I can put it. A person like the brother does not feel the same kind of pain these others do. Knock him all you want, and he keeps at you, flailing and kicking and biting. The brother would do all that until a whole crowd fell upon him and pulled him loose by main force and I said what they all wanted me to say, which would be, That’s enough now, Charlie. We proved our point.
They took him away fifty times if they did it once and found what it was to have him and sent him back to me. If he’s going to be somewhere, it’s going to be with me, that’s what they learned. We’re like an atom. Split us and watch out. Kaboom! Don’t take no Einstein to figure that one out.
But this time they pronounced him old enough and dangerous enough he must be held forever or as long as it took until he wasn’t himself anymore, a danger to the universe, so it became a question of me taking steps because how do you give a life sentence to a man whose life is not an hourglass, whose sand never trickles down, because tomorrow and tomorrow does not exist in a person already prancing in eternity?
I needed to get him out of that prison, but there was no way to communicate with him since the lot in there, guards and guarded, doctors and nurses, were a lying untrustworthy duplicitous corrupted scum of what sometimes is categorized as humanity but lacks all the attributes humanity allegedly possesses, including fairness, mercy, and the ability to think outside the box. Here was the conundrum and irony, you see. They were putting the brother in a box when he was outside the box from the get-go, needed no instruction or whispers from some genius as to how to be there. No whispering from me on that score, that’s for sure.
Me, a genius? Look, I’m the normal lusts and greeds whereas the brother’s the fury, the hail of needles and hammers of rage, which being the case, him in there that way, trying to get him to turn on me, rat on me, say I was the zenith and nadir of evil, the one who always put the blame on him, snitched on him, said he did it, not me—it’s folly, my friends, all you’ll do is have him radiate your livers with one of his stares. O, they’ll be what you’re not wanting deep in your fatty greasy hidden tissue, preying upon your souls, squeezing them into squish with the devil’s own grip.
He’s not having it, I tell you. He’s already as fixed as he can be fixed, mild as the noonday sun of May as long as I don’t set him off, because yes, it’s true, I frankly admit it, I’m the more evil of the two. I do put him up to what I want, Rolex, Bentley, whole block of merchants pissing their pants seeing me roll up, and his honor the brother, hopping out to do my collecting, hang them by the balls in the closet until every last shilling shakes loose. I could never do what he can do, but he would never do what he does without me telling him: Here, look, me brother, I’m offended, I’m in need. So poke at him if you dare and see. Yes, he’s a loon, of course he did it, while I always stood well clear of judgment and censure, all of which, the opprobrium and insults, drove and damaged him and now have him imprisoned on the other side of that fence which I will have to snip through meself so I can get him back to do my bidding, innocent, credulous, loving soul that he is.
So there I am, applying for, interviewing, and accepting a job as a kind of picador in the corrida of Western State. And there I am coming into the room where the brother is strapped into a chair in the little dining room reserved for the impossible, and it’s an instant connection, of course. You can split atoms, but you cannot split brothers, much less twins, home and circuit and gravity binding us to one another beyond dark forces and dark matters and all the rest Einstein, rest his brain in its jar, never imagined.
What is it about the human heart that is so deadly and mysterious and explosive? Why is the grandest thing two of them beating together in lifelong malice, not caring a farthing for anyone else, all caught up in their original sin of love deeper than love, everything else in the skies and seas a picnic feast for the plucking?
So of course I know what no one else knows. How would they, society’s little spoons and screwdrivers, scooping and twisting with no chance of getting the sugar to their mouth or the screw in its hole? And I’m in awe of him, to tell the truth, the brother’s horror at the sight of me on the other side of the punishment, me being one of them, not one of him, a traitor descended from the heavens, God flapping his wings and balling up his claws. Am I to guard him? Am I to stuff the sugar into his mouth and make him swallow? Am I to tighten the screws on his straightjacket until the blood stops running and the muscles stop twitching and all that’s left is the piteous panic in his popped-out eyes?
No, no, I think, communicating the way I do. It’s to get you out, me brother. It’s to free you to be you, the rampage of factual truth, not what anyone says but what you are. Gory, I want that, too, the sight of you aloft in me mind, swirling around, the stone in our sling, the ink in our thoughts, the sermons flapping after us like chickadees chasing us eagles and hawks.
And he goes all soft and loving when he gets me mental message, relieved and crushed with gratitude, a man who’s killed a dozen, banged up ten times more, had women like they don’t like to be had, and made what’s the world’s his own.
None of the others will have him or want him to stay there or think they can fix him. It’s what they’ve been told to do that they know they can’t. Not a guard, not a psychiatrist, not a preacher, and the Dining Room for the Impossible begins to pressurize, you know? It’s like the water’s flooding in at their knees and hips, what the brother and I are doing just being together, all wombed up like from the beginning, and they begin to gargle and gag and the snot spurts out of their noses and the wax comes shooting out of their ears and me and the brother watch as they float and wriggle and struggle to get out of the room and then it’s just him and me, like always, him as ugly as a radish, me as pretty as a palm.
Off with your kit now, I tell him, and get into mine. We’ll swap places, you’ll leave at shift’s end, and meanwhile I’ll play it low until you’re good and gone to the old place down by the beach where you’ll be listening, I know you will, to the story I tell these guards and psychiatrists and priests of what you’ve done to me.
He puts me in the straightjacket and kisses me head and off he goes while I gobble every bean and grain of rice clear off me plate, like never happens when it’s him supposed to swallow their swill. And that’s where I start: Did you notice I ate it all and licked the plate as well? Because I’m not him anymore, say I. That one’s gone. You let him get away. He’s on the street again, menacing murderer that he is, while I your angel am all bound and tied and condemned worse than Christ on His Cross.
He’s in the shack at the beach, eating his tinned kippers and tipping the oil down his gullet to wash down the little bones. Has himself a cup of rum. Spreads his legs and gives himself a pull. Wipes his spurt in his hair and checks the mirror to be sure it’s him in his happy body, not me.
Meanwhile I’m saying he somehow had it all planned, and here I am, sweet and lucid and offering them money I’ll never pay but hearing the little juices perking in their greedy gourds, thinking of the possibilities, a bank robber’s bank robber offering to share his loot. Might as well be rubbing their nipples with the flat of me hand. Might as well be licking the backs of their ears with me tongue. All a tragic misunderstanding, the way we look the one like the other, I say. Get me employment picture. See for yourself. He looks like me, but so do I, and I’ve been done to the way he does things, brutally handled, put in this straightjacket, left with a mouth full of your swill I had to swallow or never take another breath. Let me out, and you will see how gentle I will be, not like him, the one you could never fix. I’ve been fixed from time immemorial, the Bible’s own time, when fish were fowl and the soups of the oceans were brewing life.
Let me out now, my boys and girls. Put me where I can go find him. I’ll know where to look and back I’ll bring him, I swear. Next time you should fry him not fix him. He can’t be fixed, not the brother. Death’s his due, and I’m the one to collect his fee.
They look upon me in wonder. O, what a problem I’ve solved, getting myself pinched, freeing them of the brother, all unholy and howling more hours than in a day.
I’m trusted. I’m freed. I take me time strolling out into the night. Breathe a bit. Suck him in, deep in my lungs, that sweet salty scent of the brother, in every rancid gulp of ripe fresh air.
With more than 100 stories in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary short fiction writers in America. Vine Leaves Press will publish his story collection, Imagining Women, in 2017.He also has published three novels and two books of nonfiction. He lives in North Carolina after a diplomatic career that took him to Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East.
* * *
as well she could
By F.X. James
The old woman had pain in the early hours of the morning, mostly along her shins and around the frail bones of her fingers and wrists. Her neck was sore like it frequently was regardless of time, so she gave little thought to this. There were discoveries along her back too, several small lumps the Indian doctor at the walk-in clinic said were benign growths, though still they hurt her.
She sat up in her own time and moved her legs over the edge of the bed, her small feet already swollen with blood and summer heat, the toenails yellow and thick. It was too early, she thought. Why couldn’t she sleep like her grandchildren could? She was seventy-nine and her husband of four decades was ten years in his grave, pancreatic cancer. The handful of women she had liked and had taken coffee with on Sunday mornings after church were dead as well. Her only child, a daughter, mother of the children the old woman cared for, was back in prison serving time again for drug related convictions. Self-loathing and recidivism at its worst. The circle forever turning and unbroken. She’d spent most of the last ten years inside and couldn’t stand to have her children visit, so the old woman never brought them.
The old woman put her elbows on her knees and hung her face in her dry palms. She had so little energy these days, much love, she thought, but so little energy. She had raised her own troubled child long before, back in an age when she herself was younger and he was there to help. But now she longed only for quietude and slow summer hours and the comfort of clear, knowledgeable voices on the radio. But nothing was as it should be, she thought, and surely never would be.
She rubbed at the tight muscles along her neck. She made waffles yesterday and even though there were leftovers in the fridge, she prided herself on creating variety for her grandchildren, so she would do her best to not use the same mix this morning. The dog barked and she stood and crossed herself and looked at the framed photo of her husband on the bedside table, taken just after the war, the three medals there on his chest, his bright eyes and strong nose. His death had been like an amputation to her, something taken she could barely stand to live without. She was so thankful for the children.
She ran her hands along her dry scalp, gathering and tying her long silver hair into a single thick clump. She walked to the mirror and faced the inexorable offerings there. Seventy-nine and her heart still pumped, her mind still flowed with clarity, her limbs, though slow and pained, were not yet dysfunctional. Her name was Maria, and she said it now aloud, just once to herself, rolling her tongue on that middle R like she did in her youth. MaRRRRia. It was her mother’s name and not one she ever cared for, but one she learned to embrace. Her mother Maria, she Maria, but not her daughter, there the circle was broken, for all the good it did.
The dog was spinning around and around, yapping and snapping joyfully at its stunted tail. She opened the back door and let it run out into the early morning summer, its little feet churning up dead grass and tiny clouds of dirt, its yaps and yips annoying a cluster of birds perched along the fence at the end of the small yard. She went to the kitchen and eyed herself in the window above the sink. She touched her hair. Her husband had loved her hair, had loved the soft touch of her throat, the weight of her breasts in his large hands. Eggs this morning, she thought. Something simple and good. The dog yapped and yapped. It was a school day. There was hardly any cereal left. Toast and scrambled eggs. Why not? There was some apple juice too, enough for them both if she diluted it a little. She had his pension to live on and a little something from the state to help with the children, but it wasn’t much, she had to be careful.
She made coffee, then took the dark pan from the cupboard and added in a dab of butter. She turned on the gas and heard the click, click, click, until the blue flame billowed. She set the pan on the flame and cracked three eggs into a bowl, adding in a drop of cream and a thick pinch of parmesan cheese. She whisked this and when the pan was ready poured it in. She slid thick slices of white bread into the toaster and depressed the handle. The eggs slowly began to bubble. The old woman opened the window above the sink and poured herself a cup of black coffee. She looked in the fridge for bacon. There was none. She sipped at her coffee and went to the back door and called for the dog. He came in at a rush, nails clicking across the bare floor, stunted tail wagging like a remonstrating finger. She followed him back into the kitchen where he waited for his daily treat for being a dog who had for years achieved his business outside. She pulled a cracker from a jar as he danced on his back legs, his thin wet tongue licking the air, his forepaws counting off some secret tempo. She flicked the cracker and he jumped and caught it before it began its descent. She laughed and rubbed his back as he growled protectively and quickly devoured the bland treat.
The girl got up first, walking into the kitchen in only her underpants, rubbing at the corners of her eyes, her hair a matted pile of long dark strands atop a small, perfectly round skull. She fell to her knees and hugged the dog, kissing his face and soft ears, shaking his little head in her hands. He licked her chin. The old woman turned the eggs over and sipped her coffee. The toast popped up. She thickly buttered the slices and set them on a plate. The boy came in as she was dividing up the eggs onto plastic plates; one blue, one red. He was younger than the girl and naked, rubbing his small penis with one hand, picking at his nose with the other. Halfway across the kitchen he stopped to lift a foot and fart, both children giggling at the noise and at the dog’s ears pricking up to it. The old woman smiled and shook her head.
They sat together in silence, the children swinging their legs back and forth as they ate, the old woman drinking her coffee and smoking a cigarette, blowing the narrow plumes of blue smoke toward the open window, remembering to straighten her back for the momentary comfort.
It took the children twenty minutes to dress themselves. The old woman stacked the plates in the sink and ran the hot water, added a squirt of dish soap. She would finish them later.
She walked them both to school, the dog on a long length of clothesline held by the girl. The boy dragging a stick along the ground, stabbing now and then at ants and other defenseless life forms. The sun already colorless and uncomfortably hot, glowed above them. The old woman had no car, no savings put aside, nothing more than the children to keep her going now.
Once a week the old woman rode the bus to the prison, and if the weather was agreeable, she would sit with her daughter at a plastic-coated metal table beneath a small cherry tree, the legs of the table and benches bolted to the ground. Her daughter would quickly smoke several of her mother’s cigarettes while nervously rubbing at the flesh of her thin arms, her eyes dull and sunken, the rings beneath them almost black. Hardly a word was exchanged between the two until the old woman would begin their common ritual, taking the single photo of the children from her purse and sliding it across the table to her daughter, this grown child of hers who was a stranger to her. It was the same photo she brought with her each time, the one with the boy hanging on his sister’s back, his face over her right shoulder, his arms held out wide like wings, fingers spread, tongue protruding cheekily to the camera. The girl had her arms looped above her brother’s scabby knees, strands of hair had drifted across her face at the exact moment the shutter was triggered, giving the girl an eerie, ghostlike look. The photo was nearly a year old.
At the end of the short visit a whistle would blow and the women would stand and awkwardly embrace, the old woman patting her daughter’s back, sensing the lacing of narrow bones there, recalling them being a fraction of the size, back when her daughter was an infant, always smiling, feeding at her mother’s breast nosily, the sound making her father laugh.
She refused to keep the photo in her cell, instead asking her mother to bring it each time she came, this very same photo, the last one taken before her current sentence began. Such pure innocence could not exist in prison, she told her mother, it had to be kept safe and distant from such a place. Awaiting its arrival each week gave her hope, she said. But seeing her children in the flesh, holding them, kissing them, stroking their hair, that would kill her. The old woman could not see the sense of this, could not see how the children could bring anything but strength and joy to her troubled child, just as they brought to her each day, but she let it be. Out of her four visits a month, most were made from a sense of guilt and obligation. The others she hoped would show some modicum of change in her daughter, no matter how small, but they never did. She knew her child walked the path of a damned life and there was nothing the old woman could think to do or say that would help her from it.
In the evening following these visits she would sit the children on her lap and tell them stories of their mother when she was a child, stories the old lady had to create, for most of the memories she recalled beyond her daughter’s infancy were tarnished with struggle after struggle, with so much hostility, the true stories she would share with no one. The boy would quickly fall asleep against the old woman’s heavy chest, a thumb in his mouth; while the girl continued listening attentively, rubbing her small hands together, her eyes closely watching her grandmother’s mouth for the words taking shape there.
When they were in bed and deep into their untroubled sleep, the old woman would sit alone on the porch, smoking, rubbing the dog’s silky ears, the radio on a small table beside her, its calming tones bringing her news of global strife.
Despite her pains, the old woman saw no easy way out and longed for none. She had no plans, it was much too late for plans. She had nothing more to offer the children than the limits of her love, shelter, food and warmth, her consistency, which of course, was nearly all they really needed. During the day when they were at school she would clean the house, wiping away the gray fur of dust with shirts too old for wearing and with no man around anymore to wear them. Sweeping up the shells of dead flies that gathered each day on the window ledge. Keeping her stiff fingers moving busily, taking pride in what she could still do and still do fairly well, humming to herself throughout the day and not even knowing it.
When the call came early that autumn morning, the man’s voice so brutally stark and devoid of compassion, she nearly folded. Her daughter had been stabbed in the throat, the voice told her, killed the night before over some dispute with her cellmate. The old woman stood in the hallway, the phone pressed painfully against her ear, the dog sensing stress, curled and whining at her feet. The voice went on in flat, authoritative tones. There was nothing anyone could do, the voice told her, these things happen all the time and the voice was sorry that they did. Very sorry. The old woman believed everything but this last part. She listened on at a distance as the voice continued, her mind’s eye seeing her child long before the savage impurity of drugs infected her and ruined her, long before the boy and girl were born, long before this awful voice on the phone ever had cause to speak her daughter’s name.
She dressed the boy in a suit borrowed from a neighbor, clothes some other small child had worn for a similar reason many years before. The boy pulled at the dark sleeves that fell short of his wrists and told the old woman the pants itched bad between his legs. She told him she was sorry and then ignored him. The girl wore a tasteful summer dress, pale yellow, the silhouette of a tiny bird in flight embossed in red above the left nipple. The old woman brushed out the girl’s long hair. When it was his turn, the boy fidgeted, trapped between the old woman’s knees, while she licked her fingers and smoothed down his recalcitrant cowlick and picked things out of his ears.
They were the only ones there beyond the old man mumbling biblical verse and the two laborers standing in the distance with their shovels, smoking and talking too loudly. The well-formed hole in the ground fascinated the boy. He leaned out over the edge, his hand gripped in his grandmother’s, his eyes searching below for spiders and lizards, for mice and other furtive things worth killing that dwelled in darkness. That his mother was laid out dead in cheap wood not five feet from him meant little to the boy, the entire concept of her being as puzzling to him as her not being, for he only knew his grandmother as the true constant in his brief life to date. The girl leaned against the old woman’s hip, her eyes taking in everything: the man of god wiping a finger beneath his nose and it coming away shiny with snot, the heavy older laborer flicking his cigarette behind him, her brother tugging at their grandmother’s hand like a puppy, the way some of the gravestones glittered in the morning light and others didn’t, the smell of the freshly dug earth, that hawk circling silently so high above them all.
It took several days for this finality to be comprehended well enough by the children. The old woman let them stay home from school for the rest of the week. The boy played alone with dirt and sticks in the backyard, the dog stretched beside him, tongue out, his soft ears twitching at persistent flies. The girl shadowed her grandmother constantly, from her chair to the window when the mailman came, to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, to the hall when the phone rang and her grandmother stood there nodding and speaking quietly, absently stroking the girl’s head as she did. For three nights following the funeral the children slept together in the boy’s bed, entwined like vines sprouting from out of the Spiderman sheet.
Things slowly returned to normal. The old woman placed a framed picture of her daughter beside the one of her husband. It was an old photo, taken just before her daughter graduated high school, it was the only one the old woman had that showed her daughter before the fall, and in it she smiled radiantly, her teeth white as milk, her hair lush and resplendent, not a single shadow showing beneath her bright blue eyes. The children would come to the bedroom and look at the photo while their grandmother made them dinner. They would each hold a corner of the frame and tilt it so that the light would catch their mother’s eyes and they could see themselves reflected there in the glass. When their grandmother called for them they would return the picture carefully and leave, the girl thinking how pretty the young woman looked, the boy hoping dinner was ready.
F. X. James is the pen name of an oddball British expat writing from the plains of South Dakota. When he’s not dissolving in the midst of a savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories on the backs of unpaid utility bills and drinking too much dark ale.
* * *
The Next Surgeon General is Missing
By Bruce Levine
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963 prompted an array of investigations and inquiries. Of all the accounts of cover-ups and conspiracies (both fact and theory) one has never been heard or investigated, that of Colonel Frank O'Leary, witness to the Kennedy autopsy, and his family.
After the autopsy Colonel O'Leary arrived at Laura and Andrew Hathaway's house in N.W. Washington, DC where his family awaited his return. That night and the next few days altered all their lives.
This is Laura's story as she lived it.
22 November 1963
The news that President Kennedy had been shot reached me at the Esso station on Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC. I went straight home and a few minutes later I got a phone call from Alice Margaret O'Leary. She said her husband, Frank, was going to the Kennedy autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital that night and asked if she and their twin daughters could come to my house to wait for him since they lived in Alexandria, Virginia - I lived in the Friendship section of N.W. Washington, not far from Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m. Frank dropped Alice Margaret and their twins off and continued on to the autopsy.
We made coffee, set the table, put the twins to bed in the guest room and prepared to wait for Frank's return.
My husband joined us for about an hour and we discussed the news reports and wondered what Frank would tell us upon his return. There wasn't any other topic to discuss, we were all so stunned by the President's death, and the time seemed to go at a snail's pace.
Finally, at about 5:00 a.m., Frank arrived. He nearly fell into a dining room chair; he wasn't just tired, he was almost in a state of shock.
He told us that the President had been shot from both the front and side and that he had been told to forget what he had seen, ask no questions and never discuss the matter again. He told us that he'd announced that he "refused to comply, refused to be a party to this charade and said he'd go to the President" (Johnson) and then left.
As Frank sipped black coffee the weariness slowly ebbed, but not the anger and he started filling in a few details. He told us that Kennedy's brain and body was tampered with and re-sewn before it reached Washington.
Between sips of what was now his fifth cup of coffee he kept repeating "it was bungled - what were they hiding?" and added that he was going to make sure the truth would be known and that several people at the autopsy could not be trusted. We asked him who was there, but, ever the stoic, he only answered that he wasn't at liberty to say.
Alice Margaret and I listened and kept looking at each other - we could read the fear overtaking us in each other's eyes. There was no reason to be afraid, but we were.
At about 6:15 we started to clear the table and wash up. At one point Alice Margaret turned from the sink toward me and I said that this didn't feel like America anymore. She answered, "no it doesn't. It feels like Nazi Germany".
At 6:30 a.m. (November 23rd) they left for home in Alexandria. I told Alice Margaret that I'd call her tomorrow (the 24th) so they could get some rest.
24 November 1963
I called Alice Margaret as promised, but the only response I got was that the number I'd called had been disconnected. I thought I'd dialed the wrong number and tried several more times with the same result.
I stared at the phone. It made no sense, I'd called so many times...
I drove to their garden apartment in Alexandria and was met by the superintendent painting what had been their apartment, now empty. This was a man I knew well, having visited many times, but he pretended not to know me.
I asked him what happened to the O'Leary family, but he denied knowing or ever hearing of them and if I knew what was good for me I should leave immediately. He was clearly afraid and kept looking around as I questioned him. He simply repeated, loudly, that he didn't know the O'Learys, didn't know me and that I should leave the premises. But, between these loud pronouncements, he'd slip in, very softly as if afraid someone might hear him, that I should leave and not ask any questions.
I finally gave up and left, but I knew something terrible had happened.
26 November 1963
I drove to Alexandria again. This time, at what had been the O'Leary's apartment, I was met by a new superintendent. This man denied knowing the previous super and had no knowledge or rental records of the O'Leary family.
I was stunned - it seemed as if the entire family had been wiped off the face of the earth.
I went home...
I called the Department of the Army, but ran into a blank wall. I wrote a letter inquiring about them, but got no answer. I called the Pentagon, but was told that no one had ever heard of Colonel Frank O'Leary or his family and had no record of them.
As the weeks passed I periodically met people who I knew had known the family, but no one seemed to know anything about their disappearance. The only suggestion anyone had was that maybe Frank had been transferred.
I knew that was impossible because, even if Frank had been suddenly transferred, Alice Margaret would have called to say good-bye.
No, the only answer was that four people who I'd know for three years had suddenly disappeared with no trace of them ever existing.
It was true that families moved, friends drifted apart due to time and distance, but these weren't ordinary friends, the kind that come and go.
First of all it made no sense that the Army had no record of Frank since he was a career soldier. He'd served a tour of duty in Frankfurt, Germany before returning to the States where he'd been told that he was next in line to be nominated for the post of Surgeon General and not only were his medical credentials beyond reproach, but he was everyone's idea of a soldier - a Norman Rockwell portrait with a brush haircut - and his military record all but assured his confirmation.
Alice Margaret was the ideal companion, wife and friend and their twin daughters, blonde and adorable, added to the picture of the perfect American family.
The more I thought about them the more I realized that someone, somehow had intentionally eliminated all the records and, possibly, eliminated my friends.
I'd been warned not to ask any questions, I'd even gotten an anonymous phone call, but there was no one left to ask.
My friends were gone and I'd have to live with the mystery of their disappearance, but I'd never forget them. Nor would I ever stop the questions in my mind.
Bruce Levine is a native Manhattanite and spent his life as a writer and a music and theatre professional. His works have been published in a variety of media, including a soon to be released story on Visitant, and his shows have been produced in New York and around the country.
By Bob McNeil
You get used to the sun laughing at your inability to rise. Your clock is jocular as well, chortling between bells at you. Each annoying tintinnabular sound is there to rouse you. All of the clock’s attempts are to no avail. Coffin-lid-rigid, you continue lying on your bed. Unconcerned with the alarm, you await the ferry back to unconsciousness.
Later, after getting up and cleansing your mouth, you have what your brain and body deem as essential—caffeine. No matter the number of attempts at memorization, you cannot recall the day that coffee became as important as air, food, water and shelter. Once every drop gets pumped into your gullet, you feel the way a car does upon getting premium gasoline.
Everything is rote for you. Diurnally, you are accustomed to showering at a certain hour and then preening. Furthermore, by standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, you always scrutinize your body.
You dress. Frequently, you look at the labels on your clothes. Not one garment is anonymous or generic. No, each garment has a designation worthy of a phonebook. Outside of the fact that public nudity is an offence in most areas, you do not understand why designers decide what apparel is appropriate.
Fully clad, you commute. Does it matter if you are shuttling on shoes, a bike, an automobile, or a train? Any travel mode will do as long as it moves at a speed on par with either a cheetah, Usain Bolt, the Kawasaki Ninja H2, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, and the CRH380A or something faster. Quickly, you must reach a destination that your heart detests. Face it, a lobotomy and lodgings in a mental asylum would be better than the madness of speeding to a place you wish were on the wrong side of a wrecking ball.
Given the chance, to be sure, you would not work at all. Thus far, as it stands, until you come into The Wells Fargo of inheritances, win the lottery or rob a bank, you are stuck in the workforce. Such is the tale of an adult who has to bench press the weight of bills. My, what a weight it is. You have the planet Jupiter’s weight in debts.
You arrive. From nine a.m. to five p.m., your time will be enslaved by an employer. Soon, very soon, whatever feelings you have of independence and confidence will be incarcerated during those hours. Granted, in reality, you will get paid, but it never seems like enough for filing your individualism away.
Halfway through the entry way, you see other people waiting for the elevator. Faced with finite options, you greet them and ask how they feel. It is all perfunctory. You do not care how they feel. Quite honestly, they do not care about your feelings, either. Old indoctrination from parents and teachers transforms everyone into parrots that say, “Good morning. How are you? Have a nice day.” All you want to say is this, “Until the votes come in, I can’t tell if the morning is good or not. That should tell you how I am. And, oh, by the by, the day would be nicer if we didn’t share greetings.”
Never forget the Weather Spectators, all of whom are annoying. You tolerate their need to editorialize about each fluctuation. They complain when it is either hot or cold, as if their protestation can make some deity adjust the temperature to their specifications. Therefore, you want to say, “Just weather the damn weather. Complaining about it is the equivalent of pitching pebbles at a charging military tank—totally futile.”
Along with others, you ride the elevator. Amidst faces that fell to the floor a long time ago, you empathize with the plight of lobsters in a bucket. Somehow, while experiencing claustrophobia, you want to yell about the width of your hatred for the job. You gripe to yourself, rather than yelling about your discomfort. Not content to just stand, you notice the numbers of the floors. Irony’s long feathers tickle your armpits. Considering the misfortune of employment, it seems farcical that there is no thirteenth floor. To inspire someone’s triskaidekaphobia, you want to paint the disturbing number all over the walls.
Your floor appears. You arrive at work. Far worse than you expected, the clock says, “You’re late.” Regardless of how much you try, any attempt at sneaking to your desk is a waste of subterfuge. Your boss sees you. Save your imagined Ninja skills for sneaking to the water cooler or bathroom when not needed later today. None of the behindhand minutes make your boss any happier about you still being alive. Infantilized by your employer’s reproaching look, you walk inside.
Obviously you know what your boss looks like, but within fantasies, the employer takes on other appearances. Determined by the trek your thoughts take, the authoritative figure can be any historical dictator, a police dog or a demon right out of some scripture.
Co-workers, whom you tolerate, are staring at your being as if it should be wearing an asbestos suit. Honestly, you are about a cyberslacking second away from feeling a fire.
Contrary to your physical mass, your job makes you feel on par with a nonrefundable bottle—something seen and unwanted.
Except for their bobblehead motions of acknowledgement, no one cares that you are there. You do not speak; instead your body nods like the famous drinking bird toy. Dejected, you squat before your desk, where other annoyances congregate.
There you are doing what your imagination despises, which is work. Why even mention the type of work? A designation will not make the job any more likable.
At the very least, despite the way work seizes most of your existence, you maintain a paramount possession: yourself. Life knows you labor to become the being of your design. This is your essay, poem or story. Those people and places known for annoyance can be edited out with another job. But, you will still have the paragraphs or staves of your selfhood.
Each existence will be another autobiographical edition on a bookshelf. Your tome, although awaiting more chapters, should receive herds of blurbs because it exists. Grant yourself a good review each day, knowing you will wind up out of print at some point.
Bob McNeil recalls reading A Child’s Garden of Verses at the age of six. As a result, a love of all things poetical bloomed. Later in life, the Imagists and Beats nurtured him.
Tenaciously, Bob McNeil tries to compose poetic stun guns and Tasers, weapons for the downtrodden in their effort to trounce oppression. His poems and stories want to be fortresses against despotic politics.
After years of being a professional illustrator, spoken word artist and writer, Bob still wants his work to express one cause—justice.
* * *
Judith Gets a Good Night's Sleep
By Shawn Mihalik
Judith Schmidt, who I used to volunteer with at the hearing and speech center in Youngstown, Ohio, back before I packed my car and drove across the country and left everything behind, hasn’t been sleeping well lately—the last few years.
You probably think the Deaf, like Judith, sleep well every night—or even during the day if they want to—because after all they can’t hear any of the sounds that distract you and me. They can’t hear babies crying. They can’t hear the new neighbor’s dog barking—damn that neighbor and her dog who were not there when you moved in. They cannot hear the sound of gunshots firing three or four blocks over. They cannot hear the fire alarm, beeping, beeping. Beeping that the battery is dead or nearly dead.
But still the Deaf do have nights they cannot sleep. The light can bother them. Stray thoughts can like a stick in a drop trap keep their minds propped open and for a long time they may not be able to pull the string.
Judith when she was a young girl used to refuse to fall asleep because she knew when she did she’d have the dream of the monster chasing her. In the dream she could always hear the monster chasing her. Even though she was born deaf, in her dreams Judith could hear everything. But she could not herself make a sound, couldn’t even scream. So she’d refuse to sleep because the monster would chase her and she wouldn't be able to scream.
But of course she couldn’t stay awake forever: eventually her eyes would close and she’d run and try to scream but wouldn’t be able to and would wake just as it caught up to her.
She stopped having that dream when she was seven. Now it’s no dream that impairs her sleeping.
No, now Judith is just old. Her back hurts. Her joints hurt. Her mouth gets dry but if she drinks too much water she has to pee in the middle of the night. She can feel Bill next to her, snoring. The snoring is new—either for fifty-two years Bill never snored or for fifty-two years she could never feel it.
The lights on either side of the sofa flash, indicating someone’s rung the doorbell. Bill is in the garage building a sawhorse desk, so Judith answers the door and it’s two police officers and an interpreter from the hearing and speech center, where Judith used to volunteer herself but doesn’t anymore.
“Hello,” Judith says warmly, knowing her voice is clumsy. She wonders whether there’s still any coffee in the pot, whether she has any cookies or Little Debbie cakes she can offer.
At the hospital Judith and Bill are in the waiting room and Judith is watching her husband sign a prayer, asking for strength for each of them, and for their granddaughter, Madeline, may Madeline recover quickly.
And then before he signs amen he pauses and asks God also for strength for their daughter, Camilla, and forgiveness for Camilla’s husband, Frank, who is in custody, the police have assured them. Camilla is in custody, too, but that’s probably just temporary—investigators don’t think she had any knowledge of the fact that Frank had for a while now been sexually abusing Madeline, who is his step-daughter and who is ten years old. Indeed, they said Camilla said when she came home and found Frank raping Madeline, found Frank penetrating Madeline with his fingers, she jumped on him and hit his back again and again until he threw her off and punched her head and pushed her into a wall. Although—it was not Camilla who called the police but a neighbor who said she heard the commotion, and when examined by a doctor Camilla bore no evidence of a blow to the head.
Bill asks for strength for Camilla and forgiveness for Frank and then signs amen, bringing one forefinger from his temple to tap parallelly the other.
Judith nods and signs amen too. Her husband is a wise and gentle and generous man.
The waiting room is empty except for Judith and Bill and the interpreter, who sits a few chairs away respectfully until the doctor comes in and asks her to let Bill and Judith know they can see Madeline now.
When Madeline wakes from the coma a month later the police show up again and ask if Bill and Judith will look after her. She’ll need to testify next month in court, at the preliminary hearing. Normally a child so young wouldn’t be called to testify, not even the victim, especially not the victim, they say, if the victim in a rape case is a person so young, because a young person shouldn’t have to relive that experience. But in this instance Madeline is all they really have. Camilla ran off the instant they released her and no one’s heard from her since, and all the neighbor can say is she thought she heard a sound.
Frank’s still in jail, though, until the trial. No one’s posted bail. An anonymous source told the paper they thought Frank had ties to the Italian mob, but no one else with ties to the mob is going to confirm that by posting bail.
Of course Judith and Bill will look after Madeline, they tell the police via the interpreter, a different woman this time. She’s their granddaughter. She’s all they have now. And they’re all she has.
So Judith drives with Bill to the hospital the next day. When they get to her room Madeline is there with a nurse. Madeline is out of bed, holding a small backpack into which the nurse is helping her pack her things. When they walk in the girl looks up at them, looks right at Judith. Judith smiles and says, in her clumsy voice, “Hello. We’re so excited to have you stay with us.”
Madeline doesn’t say anything. She looks away. She looks at the nurse and then resumes placing things in her backpack: a small bear, a folder t-shirt, a handheld video game system.
Judith turns her head and cries a little and wonders how much we really know people, anyone. And how guilty should that make us feel?
Madeline is quiet for weeks, after they take her in. “Quiet” more of a metaphorical term, because Judith’s whole world is and always has been quiet.
Madeline does not talk to her. She does not fingerspell or write words on the dry erase board they give her. Besides the alphabet she knows certain other signs Camilla taught her—water, toilet, hungry, dog—but she does not use them. But can you blame her? Unspeakable things have happened to her, and she hardly knows her grandma and grandpa. All her life they’ve lived in the same city (all Judith’s life she’s lived in this same city; for most of my life I lived in that same city, until I moved away), but Camilla never brings her, brought her, by. Judith hasn’t babysat Madeline in three years, four years.
They’re keeping her out of school, for now. Every day a tutor comes by and sits with her. Twice a week a counselor. The rest of the time Madeline sits in the living room watching television, cartoons, or she sits in the room Judith spent hours making up for her: it has lace curtains and a lace bedskirt and purple blankets and an antique tea set on the dresser. And also on the dresser are pictures of Madeline when she was a baby.
How she looks like Judith did….
The day before the preliminary hearing, while Bill is in the garage finishing the sawhorse desk, Madeline comes to Judith and holds out to her a large, thin hardback book.
Judith takes the book and opens it. The spine threatens to crack but holds together. She looks at Madeline. “The Little Prince?” Judith says.
This is Judith’s book. Her own grandmother gave it to her when she was seven, and soon after she stopped having the monster dreams. “Want me to read it to you?” Judith asks.
Madeline nods. She joins Judith on the sofa, presses herself against her.
Judith turns to the first page and starts reading.
After a few paragraphs she looks at Madeline and Madeline is frowning.
“I’m sorry,” Judith says. “I don’t speak so clearly.”
After a moment’s introspection Madeline shrugs and motions for Judith to give the book to her.
Judith gives the book to Madeline and at first she’s worried Madeline is going to get up and walk away. But Madeline doesn’t walk away—she snuggles closer. She looks up at her grandma, smiles, looks back at the book and starts reading it out loud, silently.
Judith watches her granddaughter, following along. She long ago memorized every word.
The next morning my mother, who I haven’t spoken to in over a year, probably closer to two, calls me. She tells me I should check Youngstown news. Why? I ask her. Just check, she tells me. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to talk to me; it’s obvious this call is a courtesy call. She feels obligated to call me, to let me know something’s up, but not to talk to me long enough to give me the details herself. I press her some more. Finally she tells me that last night Judith Schmidt and her husband and their granddaughter were killed in a fire. I ask her what does she mean killed in a fire and she says that’s all she knows. Then she hangs up.
I get online and check the papers, the news websites. It’s on the front page of all the local ones. By this evening it will be on CNN. Neighbors said they heard a loud bang, coming from the basement. But it wasn’t your normal sort of bang. It was more like a thud. Like a dull explosion. It was a matter of minutes before the house was engulfed in flames. They found Judith in the remains of her bed. They found her husband in the remains of the bed. Their granddaughter the forensics unit identified by her dental records, next to her bedroom door, the antique tea set not far away.
There will be an investigation. But despite the news coverage the investigation will go slowly, too slowly. Within a few days the public will lose interest. When finally the police say there were no signs of foul play—go figure—no one will care enough to challenge them. No one will question the force’s own ties to the once-great steel city’s mob. No one will care.
When things like this happen we insist we care. I care, I think as receive the news, I’m devastated. But then why, and only in a fit of delayed guilt, does it take me years to write about it . . . ?
One of the papers interviewed Judith’s husband’s sister. In the paper, she says, “We’re devastated by this loss. Madeline was the apple of Bill and Judith’s eye.”
Maybe she was, the apple of their eye. I don’t actually know. Maybe there was no strain in the relationship. Maybe before the assault Judith and Bill saw their granddaughter all the time. The truth is I made up many of these details. Madeline’s name wasn’t really Madeline. The assault was real, the rape. The fire. Lots of those details were real. I got them from the papers.
But the truth is I didn’t know Judith all that well. I never met her family. I don’t know how well she did or didn’t sleep. I just volunteered with her at the hearing and speech center, before I moved away.
Shawn Mihalik is the author of four works of fiction. His most recent novella, The Assured Expectation of Things Hoped For, was published by Asymmetrical Press in 2015. Shawn briefly studied journalism at Youngstown State University before deciding his talents were better directed at fiction. Shawn currently lives in Helena, MT, with his wife and their two cats, Worf and Oliver.
* * *
By Joe Oppenheimer
Eugene Austermann, the regular graveyard shift watchman, did not change out of his uniform when he left work that Wednesday morning in February. As usual, he put his sidearm, and his holster, along with his hat, in his locker at headquarters. He quietly filled out his entry in the log book, reported to his replacement, Ranger Blair and wished her an uneventful, and good morning.
For someone in security trained to use a gun, to deal with medical emergencies, to handle a car in dangerous on and off road chases, his was the easiest of jobs. Five nights a week in the not-so back country of West Virginia, Park Ranger Austermann patrolled the deserted historical streets of Harpers Ferry using a converted electric golf cart. The worst that ever happened had occurred earlier that Wednesday morning.
The moon was obscured by heavy cloud cover. The air never got cold enough to reduce the bite of moisture it held captive. A nasty and consistent wind blew from the north. It flung its chill from the frozen ridges to the Potomac: in sum, a particularly dark and inhospitable night.
Driving through the town, exposed in the cart, Gene was tired, cold, hungry. He was looking forward to his day off. Casually, in response to these thoughts, he patted the pocket and felt his favorite snack: a fresh Payday.
The weak lights of Gene’s little vehicle gave him only a dim view of Shenandoah Street and the low front porches to its historic houses. Passing the John Brown Museum he headed toward John Brown’s Fort. At Potomac Street he turned toward the train station.
There, right in the middle of the cobble stones, Gene was startled by the amber reflection of his lights in the eyes of a large wild beast. It stood in the middle of the icy road. The golf cart’s headlights projected its long, menacing silhouette on the old brick wall of the White Hall Tavern. From Austermann’s seat in the tiny golf cart the projected bear shadow towered above Gene. Its shoulders rose high above the roof of the cart. At that moment, in this dimly lit and frightening corner of the park, there was but a fuzzy boundary between reality and imagination. And that bear was fueling the latter.
Unusually large perhaps. But far more alarming, the bear was awake, not taking its prescribed winter’s nap. The confluence of these attributes focused Gene’s attention on his looming confrontation.
How was he to proceed?
Could he return to the ranger shack without the bear following him?
What would be the consequences of harming the bear?
Too much to contemplate, Gene stopped the vehicle for a moment of reflection. Unfortunately, this slowed the cart’s generator and dimmed the headlights. In the diminished light, Gene could still see the bear. Momentarily it stood its ground, staring intensely as if it was curious about his small, suddenly quiet, electric vehicle.
Gene wanted the bear to move along, away from the cart. And so he did what most drivers faced with a moveable obstacle would do, what all urban drivers would do: he honked. The sound emitted from the little cart was not quite the same as one from an eighteen wheeler.
Indeed, Gene himself had not properly anticipated the sound. Nor had the bear. It cocked its head, and ambled a few steps closer to the golf cart. He, if it was a he, seemed positively attracted by the high pitched, toy-like, ‘BEEP-BEEP’ of the horn.
The situation was on a worrisome downward slope. Gene’s anxiety level increased. At first, he had only been startled, then concerned. But now as the bear approached, Austermann was frightened. Of course, he had Ranger training. He knew one shouldn’t run from a bear. He wouldn’t do that. He would stay with the cart. But even if he turned the cart around and floored it, the bear could outrun the little thing. He also knew that a park ranger in Harper’s Ferry who shot a black bear would have a tough time keeping his job.
Suddenly inspired, Gene did the next best thing. With a prayer in his heart, he threw the bear his Payday. It was a good throw and it took a small bounce off the brick wall of the White Hall Tavern. As the candy left his hand, the many reasons he had been given why one should “never feed the wildlife” scrolled through his mind. Ignorant of these prohibitions, the big bear, for it still seemed enormous to Gene, turned toward the sound of the fallen candy bar. The scent of caramel promised a tasty morsel. As planned, this left Gene free to turn and hightail it (at about 15 mph) toward the ranger station building. Arriving there ahead of the bear, he locked himself inside.
Shortly after Gene threw the latch, the bear turned to track his provider to the small building. It hoped for an entree to follow Gene’s sweet appetizer. Had the bear quickly departed, Austermann’s internal world could have settled to a new calm. He might even have taken a break - a coffee or a snooze. But the mighty beast hung around waiting for another handout. Perhaps on a sugar high, eager to get another candy bar, the bear banged and pushed on the sides of the small building. Gene’s environment was insufficiently stable for a nap. Eventually however, the bear left, frustrated and unsatisfied.
So it came about that even by the sunrise, even after watching the bear depart, Gene refused to leave the protected interior for another night patrol. He was happy when Ranger Blair came in with her thermos of hot cocoa, ready to relieve him. She asked if there were any notable events on his watch. He didn’t identify any. Knowing that one ought not feed the bears, Ranger Austermann wrote no entry in the event log.
Gene looked forward to getting back to his cozy double-wide in Sharpsburg, the town he called home. He would make himself an omelet. And, if he could catch an early sleep, he’d even get a start on his taxes, and then maybe take in a movie - after all, Gene had Thursdays off.
Walking to his Jeep he didn’t look forward to scraping the thin film of ice from its windshield. While scraping the ice, he reminded himself to buy a fresh Payday when he stopped for gas on the way home. In the Jeep, he spied the thermos which he had absent-mindedly abandoned in his car. When he took a sip, he was pleased to find the chicken soup still-warm.
The next night Gene had off, and Murphy, a part timer, took his place. Murphy, like Gene, made his rounds in the cart. Turning the same corner, at about the same time as Gene had done, Murphy found what we can only presume was the same large, non-hibernating bear. The bear, probably expecting another treat, approached the cart in a far more aggressive mood.
Alarmed, Murphy, with less training, had no habit of carrying a candy bar. The shooting of the bear was in the local news and even on a PETA website. Murphy lost his job. Unfortunate. Unlucky. And how unfair that everyone knew “nothing of note ever happened” in Harper’s Ferry during Ranger Austermann’s midnight watch.
Joe Oppenheimer was a professor of mathematical social science at the University of Maryland. He retired to write fiction and poetry. Payday is based on a chapter in his unpublished novella, Flotsam. Oppenheimer assists a writers' group in Progress Place, a center for the homeless in Maryland. The award winning story "Salvation Army", has been published in Origins. Other poems and stories of his have been published in Chronogram, Scarlet Leaf Review, Corvus Review and Faculty Voice.
* * *
By Mathew Serback
It took 30 hours for me to drive across the country when the hospital called and told me that you had been admitted to the psyche ward.
“You are his emergency contact,” the hospital administrator whose name sounded like Steve or Stephanie or any nondescript human being that had to call and inform people about the consequences of decisions.
“My brother,” I said. “My brother.”
“We can hold him for five days, but you might want to be there when we decide to release him.”
“I – yeah – that makes sense,” I said. There was a pause where the static sounded like your voice telling me to get out. “Suicide, huh?”
“I can give you the number to the local police department,” they said.
The waiting room was in disorder. The chairs didn’t match, and I couldn’t understand why a place full of people in need of order failed to make their space feel safe. Those plastic evergreen colored chairs were all jammed together with the pasty brown chairs that felt like warm mud. The floors were mostly white, except for the occasional Tetris blocks of blue that stood out like a blood stain on a t-shirt.
These were the things you couldn’t get out.
On the side table was a pamphlet - The Truth About Mental Illness. I thumbed the pages, reading, and rereading the words, trying to figure out which numbers and which thoughts applied to you.
According to the United States Board of Health and Human services, only 17% of adults function at the optimal mental state. The implication of this is that most people aren't mentally ill or mentally healthy; most of us exist the gray area somewhere between.
I hadn’t decided if I was angry. I wanted to hear you out first. Suicide. You left me to live alone so you could take an acid trip; I never tried to figure out where you went – or the reasons why you left. I heard you needed space; everyone was so concerned with space.
The hospital administrator that took my information when I arrived waved me toward the desk. I left my coffee cup, full, on the small oak table that was cradled in the corner. Someone else could clean it up.
“He’s retrieving his things now. He’ll be out shortly,” she said. “Will you be staying with him?”
“For now. I – I don’t know where he’s been staying or what he’s been doing. We haven’t – this is probably too much information,” I said.
Mental illness may not last forever.
While there are some incurable mental health diseases like schizophrenia, most mental health issues are treatable. Anywhere between 70-90% of people who suffer from mental illness find relief, and sometimes a cure, from a combination of medication and therapy.
There you were – gauze wrapped around both of your arms and red splotches along the exposed part of your neck. Your throat swallowed, and the skin bulged up between the burn marks; every swallow was painful.
“Thanks,” you said to the medical assistant that opened the door for you. You didn’t smile at me – your face didn’t flinch; you clutched the see-through bag that held what was left of your possessions.
“Thank you,” I said to the same nurse before turning toward you. “Shall we?”
You moved ahead of me; I chased after your tail that was tucked between your legs. I was overcome with the emotion to slap the back of your head – your neck – just to remind you of the time when we were kids, and you mocked me in the front yard; when you walked away, I picked up a rock and threw it at you. I didn’t want to hit you with the rock; I just wanted to scare you. I wanted you to know you could hurt me and – more importantly – I wanted to know I could hurt you. The rock hit you square in the head.
You pushed through the sliding glass doors that were an exit, or entrance (depending on your perspective).
“What’s the plan?!” I shouted at the back of your head, hoping it had the same force as the rock.
“I don’t think I can go back to the apartment,” you said.
“Considering you blew it up,” I said.
“Considering – I blew it up,” you said.
“Care to divulge?”
“Depends on what you’ve already heard,” you said. “I left the gas on – that is true. I left the house while the gas was on – that’s true too. I did go back inside and light up a cigarette – that’s obviously true.”
“And why did you do this?”
“In my defense, I was drunk.”
“They’re saying it’s suicide.”
“Only because you’re here to correct me. But I was hoping for less of the how-to manual and more of the pertinent details. Like – I don’t know – why? Why try to kill yourself? Why try to blow yourself up? Seems like a lot of trouble just to die.”
You rubbed at the bandages; your skin crawled with the fury of fire ants.
“I just got tired.”
“Not sleep deprived tired – just tired of trying.”
“Trying to do – or trying to be?”
“All of it,” you said. “Tired of trying to behave or misbehave. Tired of trying to not only love but love the right way. No one tells you the wrong way to love. Sure – people will say don’t hurt other people’s feelings or be spiteful or be vindictive, but no one tells you what to do. It’s not pain that hurts us, right? All of us can tolerate our individual pain. It’s when you see someone else in pain; when you see someone else who is helpless. When you see someone who is defeated; that’s the thing that’ll make you tired. You can’t help that.
Look me in the eye. Nobody was there for you more times than I was. I want you to hear me, and I want you to hear me loud and clear. I don’t care about these people – not anymore.
In the car, you rolled down the window and asked if we could stop for cigarettes. I didn’t mind. You can’t go getting in the way of other people’s decisions.
I parked in front of a gas station that was across the street from the motel we were staying at. I pulled some cash from my wallet and dropped it in your lap.
“The police want to talk to you,” I said.
“More people who want answers.”
“Then you’re coming back – back home with me.”
“You don’t trust me to be alone?” You asked. You opened the car door and stepped back out into the world as a living being.
“I’m not done trying,” I said.
You didn’t close the door.
Mathew Serback's debut book will be available in October of 2017 through ELJ Publications. He has short fiction everywhere in 2016. He's the managing editor of scissors&spackle, as well as an assistant editor with Bartleby Snopes. He has short fiction pieces upcoming in Crack the Spine and Knee-Jerk.