By Francesca Aspromonte
Cartagena’s heat has a habit of weighing you down. Making each breath harder then the next. With so much effort to speak, you’ve got to make sure your words have meaning.
7:20pm People crowd the streets attempting to buy alcohol before dry law takes hold. Peace was on the minds. And tongues. Crossing the street, I hear “Paz” spoken amongst other words I do not understand. I am an outsider.
Broken glass in front of Café Havana threatens my feet, barely protected by flip-flips. I remember my night before.
No dry law.
Conversation with my newly acquired Brazilian friends.
Lost in thought and narrowly escaping the army of horses ridden by uniformed policeman. The stillness of the street summons yesterday, street filled with panhandlers, drunks, prostitutes, and weekend warriors. Where had they all gone? I can’t help but think about us all as part of one big narrative.
A feeling. A moment in time. I can hardly catch my breath.
Last stop of the night. Side street, no longer in earshot of galloping horses or vallenato music peacefully laminating in warm air. Store is empty, except for the owner. Old man. Seems to have seen a lot.
He asks me in broken English where I am from and I tell him New York, but quickly correct myself and tell him California. That sits better with me. I have lived there for the past six years. But then I quickly tell him I now live in Medellin. A teacher. For the next few months.
He’s lost interest.
He graceful grasps at the cigarette packs hanging just above his shoulder. Asks if I want one. I say no.
Can I buy a bottle of Rum here?
He smiles slyly and says not tonight.
Big day tomorrow.
Dry Law, you’ve heard haven’t you?
President’s already here. Big day for Colombia.
Nod and pick up a pack of gum, embarrassed.
Thank him in shaky Spanish.
Heading home now.
I can’t think of a better reason to stay sober tonight.
Francesca Aspromonte is a creative writer, currently residing in Medellin, Colombia. Born in New York, she attended Binghamton University (SUNY) for English Literature and received her MA from Baruch College (CUNY) in Corporate Communication. She was the 2005 First Prize winner of The David B. Silver Award in Poetry, sponsored by The City University of New York. Most recently, her work has appeared in fēlan | poetry & visual arts zine and The Legendary After working several years in non-profit development, she now looks for inspiration in the dream-like Colombian landscape and drinks an enormous amount of coffee to fuel her passion for writing.
* * *
By C. E. Clayton
Hi, remember me?
We’re friends. Though you probably don’t remember. It’s been so long now. We moved away, not for anything important, life really. You went one way, I went another. We were told we should. Education was the goal, the destination. Distance wasn’t supposed to be a problem anymore. Technology was going to fix that. All the social media in the world would save us from our loneliness. But I stayed right here. In this place, in this space. Glued to a phone, a screen, as if it were the window to God.
I looked for you. Waited. Gave you time. Gave you space though you didn’t really need it, did you? Just sort of wanted it because there was something you didn’t know. Something you found only far away from me. Making it easy to ignore the phone and it’s flashing lights. Those lights were me, did you know? I was the satellite orbiting at night, waving my arms, flashing futile lights in the night. Hoping you’d look up, look down, pick me up, and say you remembered.
Hi, remember me?
I thought we were friends. But I guess it was hard to take my hand when I stayed here and you went there. I was a little too inconvenient to hold close. Did you ever learn what I did wrong? What was so galling about me in your life? I would have apologized, is it too late for that? I’m not sure it’s I who needs to say sorry but I would if it meant you’d look at me again. Flashing that big toothy grin like we were kids again. Was this growing up? Did I miss it by inches or miles? I don’t know if I even miss it at all. But I miss you.
If I could roll back time, maybe I would. But I liked what I built here in your absence. This little shrine of memories I kept for you, for us. A place to visit when our ships pitched in the night, tossed on the waves of discord that follow in the wake of change. I kept it safe and dry. Did you leave me because I visited that shrine too often? Was I a thing you wanted to outgrow like high school uniforms?
Hi, remember me?
I am your friend. I loved the sound of your voice so much I asked for it to be there the day I found true love. I clumsily danced to your words from in his arms. For that brief night, I believed you had come back. That all those flashing lights finally got through. For that night I’d forget, ignore, and pretend that you didn’t want me. That when I was three feet to the left, you wouldn’t go to the right. It was too much work to turn your head, wasn’t it? Too much to ask of you when I wasn’t them. When I was still just me. I should have known better.
But you were so good at fooling me. Of letting me pretend and hold on to that shrine. Letting me believe that yes, you were just the same. That nothing had changed. That we’d always be friends. That no distance, no time, had passed. All we needed was that call, that touch, that smile, and all would be as it was. Am I a fool for trusting you, believing you? Did you mean it but forget it once I was in your review mirror once again?
Hi, remember me?
We were friends. I just needed someone to talk to. But all I had to hold on to was apologies for being so busy. Did you think I wasn’t? But I always made time should you have come. I guess that’s the thing you ran from. I suppose it’s all right. Lying would be easy then, I wasn’t real anymore. I’ll try and ignore this pang of betrayal and settle into this new spot you’ve made for me. On the periphery, in the audience of your life rather than on the stage. My part in your play recast, you’re free of the history.
I’ll applaud you, support you, and give you that thing you need to thrive. I don’t want you to worry about me. I understand people grow, change. But we had promised and I kept mine. I’ll try not to be hurt that you did not keep yours. I’ll write off this jagged edge of loss and give it to someone else, maybe someone who remembers me. I’ll still give you that standing ovation and if you don’t see me, if those lights in your life are too blinding to notice me anymore, I’ll survive. I’ll leave my hand for you on that floor. If you pick it up, I’ll make sure to hold on tight through whatever storm you find yourself lost in. I won’t ask you for the same, I know better by now, but it would be nice.
Hi, remember me?
I am your friend even if you have forgotten what it was like to be mine.
C. E. Clayton was born and raised in Southern California where she worked in the advertising industry for several years. This was before she packed up her life, husband, and pets and moved to New Orleans. Now she is a full time writer baring her soul and hoping her readers understand her pain, love, jubilation, and/or fear. Her upcoming Young Adult Fantasy Series, "The Monster of Selkirk", is slated to come out early next year.
* * *
A Cup of Coffee
By Jimbo Cutrona
You make a pot of coffee but forget to drink it before it gets cold. You were busy writing the newest piece of classic literature, your fingers constantly moving like neurotic brain marionettes until you looked up and saw a cold cup of coffee.
It was going to be a very nice cup of coffee, but now it's just sitting there shivering under its chilled porcelain. It is a very sad cup of coffee now and has been watching you do everything except enjoy it.
You grab its little handle and bring it to your lips.
You want it to be mad. You want it to say oh my, look who's finally decided to appreciate me. Don’t touch me you selfish bastard, I don't love you anymore.
But it is silent.
You tilt the sad fluid into your mouth. It’s not that bad.
Then you remember how great it was going to be. You remember the moment you were going to share with this perfect cup of coffee. It was going to be picture book. It was going to be divine.
You look at all the sacred thoughts on the screen that you've tried and miserably failed to translate while ignoring what was once a very good cup of coffee; all of the awful failure that surrounds you in the silence of the apartment, the attempt to save the world that got between you and it.
You see clearly that every sad part of your existence has come together in this flagrant act of neglect. You cradle its smooth porcelain. You drink the coffee and as you drink the coffee the eyes you thought you had peel back like oranges made of eye flesh.
In the dark you see a pale form bobbing softly towards you. It is you, naked with both eyes crusted shut.
A naked feeling floats through your head. You think up the scattered images that make up that one night. It was free under the moonbeams, bare bodies feeling the turned soil in the vastness of an unplanted corn field. It was one of those special moons, the ones that leave most of the night unimagined. She was all that mattered. The room seems to breathe to the beat of the memory and you put the cup of coffee back down.
You try to revise the sentences. The cup of coffee sits there on the desk as you run through your works ugliness. Its heaviness teases your finger strength as you pull it back. The air is thick with your unattended smell, your mind is heavy with staleness and you can feel the dampness of your skin without using your fingers. When you look at the sentences you’ve put on the screen you see the things that your insecurity does when it hears terms like free will and manhood. The sacred thoughts are selfish.
The coffee is cold.
You close the screen and fall back in your chair. You always said that you loved being alone, silence was always something you fought for, but it seems clinical now. The sacred thoughts are pointing themselves out like tattling children and you want it to rain so you can relax in the grey. But the sun is hung up in the middle of the baby blue. The light comes through the window and stings your head. You take another sip of coffee.
The liquid sits in your stomach, a lump of caffeine goo acid. The goo acid wrestles your stomach's own acid in a battle for dominance. The silence grows. It is clinically absent, but without the smells of a clinic. You grab your journal and begin writing a tub of bile. You can't read, you can't write, you can't doodle.
You look at the cup. It still hasn't left you, its patient and always ready to give.
With another sip you plot little ways to show you care. Maybe you could load the dishwasher or vacuum. You could write a little note and put it somewhere where she'll find it later. You could even go to the store and buy some flowers and a teddy bear and a Coke in a cool glass bottle. You start cleaning and plotting, cleaning and plotting, cleaning and plotting.
But soon the coffee slaps you with its stillness. You put down the Clorox wipes. You go to the kitchen with the coffee in search of a distraction. The clock acts in strange ways when you are alone. You feel like you could probably be doing something better with your time. You bend lower to inspect the fridges bottom shelf. You go back to the counter to take another sip.
Somehow the coffee gets colder.
The jangling keyhole shakes the staleness and you run to the door with the mind of a springer spaniel and the dexterity of newborn horse, opening it before she can. You promise yourself certain things that are easy to promise yourself right now. She takes off her shoes and you kiss her cheek and hold her tight. She walks into the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water as you ask her about her day. She says that the kids were awful as she looks at the half cleaned kitchen.
She picks up the cold cup of coffee and pours it down the drain.
Jimbo Cutrona goes to Southern Oregon University for creative writing and Emerging Media & Digital Art. He is from Portland, Oregon and has no idea what he's doing. He does know, however, that he spends most of his time attempting to create things while existing with his girlfriend and their dog. Together they fight evil and cold coffee.
* * *
Taking the Cow to get Bread
By Ted Duke
I don’t remember much about my oldest brother Paul, only what I can remember from when I was a small child. He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne in WWII, was wounded in Operation Market Garden, and died when I was seven.
I must have been four years old the summer he was home from college. We didn’t live on a farm, but we always had chickens, ducks, and a milk cow. Paul raised homing pigeons and a sister raised rabbits.
I followed Paul everywhere around the homeplace that summer; ‘helping’. One afternoon he came out of the house and headed to the barn. I followed at a run, trying to keep up; he was big and walked fast. He put a chain around one of the cow’s necks and led her toward the road.
“I’m taking Betsy to get bred, want to go?”
“Tell Mom you’re going.”
I ran to the house, told my Mom, and then raced to catch up. I didn’t understand why we would take a cow to the grocery store to get bread, but I didn’t care, it was something to do and I might even get a Coke if I was good. I would go anywhere with any of my seven siblings when they asked; they all let me tag along since I was the youngest and too young to go anywhere alone.
“Why are we going this way?” The grocery store was in the other direction.
“We’re going to the Judge’s.”
The old Judge farmed, but I didn’t know he sold bread. I usually asked too many questions; at least that’s what Mom always said, so I was content to enjoy the walk. I didn’t even have to run to keep up like I usually did; Betsy walked at her own pace and she wasn’t going to be hurried. Occasionally she would stop and nibble grass along the side of the road, and Paul would let her enjoy it while we talked and then he’d gently pull on the chain to get her moving again.
I don’t remember what we talked about, probably the wildflowers along the road, or maybe the birds. I was probably asking questions, and Paul was answering. I think it was that day I found out that the Judge was a Judge of the Orphans Court. Although I knew what an orphan was I didn’t know why they needed to be judged. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that in Maryland the Judge of the Orphan’s Court handled the probating of wills; and seldom judged orphans, if ever.
We finally arrived at the Judge’s driveway, a very steep hill, and by then I was barely moving. To me the driveway looked straight up, and I guess I must have looked ready to cry, although I wouldn’t have dared. It seemed to me we had walked forever. Later in life I found out it was a couple of miles, quite a trek for a little kid, but I wouldn’t have dared complain, next time I might not get to go.
“How about I give you a ride up this hill, stranger?” Paul reached down and picked me up. He put me on his shoulders and never slowed down, marched right up that hill. Betsy just kept her pace. I had a great view and could see most of the farm. A really big cow started bellowing when we got near the house.
The Judge must have been expecting us because he came out and pointed toward a small field next to the barn, “Afternoon, Paul, put her in there. I’ll open the gate and let the bull in with her.”
“Afternoon Judge, I’ll get the gate, sir.” Paul put me down, led Betsy into the small field, and then opened the gate. The bull started following Betsy around. Paul came back to where the Judge was standing.
“This won’t take long Paul, he’s eager; you might be able to take her back home with you.”
“You may be right, Judge.”
“Is this the youngest?” The Judge was looking down at me; I had moved closer to Paul. I wasn’t afraid of the Judge, but he was old and I wasn’t used to old people. Well, really old people, I mean, everyone I knew was older than I was, but he was really old, I guessed.
“Yes, this is Teddy.”
“Hello Teddy, fine looking youngster like all of you children.”
“Good afternoon, sir,” I said keeping close to Paul. Paul and the Judge stood talking about the weather, and the hay crop, and farm stuff, as far as I can remember. I didn’t pay any attention.
I wandered off, threw some pebbles down the driveway, blew some dandelion fluff, and watched the really big cow, that I now knew was a bull, following Betsy. He was trying to get on her back, but she kept moving. I had heard of a bull, but never seen one and didn’t know what the difference was, but he sure was big.
Finally, she stood still and he did get part way up on her a couple of times. A few minutes later the Judge said, “What do you think?”
“I think that will do it.” Paul thanked the Judge, went in to the field, put the chain around Betsy’s neck, and led her out through the gate. The Judge kept the bull in the field; he wanted to follow Betsy out.
Paul thanked the Judge again and the Judge told him to bring Betsy back if he needed too. We started down the hill. Betsy really didn’t want to go, but Paul managed her without a problem. Once we got down to the hardtop she seemed reconciled to walk back towards home.
We didn’t get any bread, but I didn’t ask any questions. Sometime later when the cow had a calf I figured it all out. I heard my dad tell someone that “the Judge’s bull bred her.”
Ted Duke is retired, but enjoys doing volunteer work in the community, watching Washington Nationals baseball games with his wife, spending time with his grandchildren, restoring old automobiles and tending to his small herd of Angus. His stories have appeared in Pilcrow and Dagger, Hippocampus Magazine, Mused-the BellaOnline Literary Review, 404words.com and his short story "Flower Moon" has been accepted for publication in THEMA in June 2017. He is querying agents to represent his Young Adult novel, Sallying Forth.
* * *
Dead Uncle's Prison Boyfriend
By Chad Haines
One of the first interesting things I discovered in my dead uncle’s bedroom was a framed photograph of his prison boyfriend. It was only interesting in that is was a bit faded and too small for the frame. I didn’t think much of the wallet size photo of a shirtless, tattooed inmate sitting in a 5x7 frame until I absent-mindedly flipped the frame over and noticed my high school senior picture tucked away perfectly in the back of it.
Seriously? My uncle removed me in favor of this felon?
I can just picture it now. He’s sitting in his bedroom, talking on the phone to his inmate.
“I sent you a picture. Do you have a frame you can put it in?”
My uncle looks sideways at the ten year old picture of me smiling innocently, “Yeah. I think I have a place for it.”
What a dick. If he wasn’t dead I’d slug him. My uncle just died from bone cancer. He had been sick for years. First with HIV, then he was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism and they somehow discovered prostate cancer. Over the past few months it had spread to his bones and his doctors decided to stop with the chemo and start with the hospice.
My uncle lived with HIV and cancer while simultaneously living with my 84 year old gramma. It was good that they were there to look after one another, but to quote Norman Bates “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”. And vice versa. My uncle’s motley assortment of constant companions no doubt destroyed his romantic life and created a void filled with loneliness.
Now that he has finally passed he has left all his pain behind him and a mess for me to clean up. So here I am, with my cousin John, cleaning up our uncle’s bedroom because our 84 year old gramma cannot. That’s when we discovered a crumpled old ad my uncle had tucked away that offered the altruistic opportunity to write to prisoners. The whole family was aware of his locked-up boyfriend and none of us were terribly supportive because it all seemed a little strange.
We didn’t know how my uncle had come into contact with a convicted armed robber from another state, but we suspected my poor uncle was being swindled somehow.
Now we knew. My uncle had come across an ad on the internet to become pen pals with an inmate. Don’t think for a second that I didn’t immediately pull this site up on my phone. The website allows you to search inmate profiles based on age, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. Like a very sad version of a very awkward dating website.
I’m sure that many inmates honestly just want someone to write to. But I can’t shake this nagging image in my head of a small group of prisoners huddled together. One of them telling the others how great a racket this pen pal thing is. You find someone lonely and willing to give them things and milk them for all you can!
I glanced again at the prison boyfriend’s picture set back on the bedside table before I started going through piles of papers and dirty laundry on the floor. Unopened bills, bottles of expired medications, a collection of well-used carpenters cds, and an ever growing pile of correspondence from prison. We began a pile dedicated solely to prison love letters with hearts and initials sloppily scribbled all over the envelopes.
Once the floor was cleared off we went to work on the dresser drawers. That’s where we found the Western Union receipts. Stuffed at the bottom of his underwear drawer where everyone keeps their shameful possessions my uncle filed away his evidence that over the years he had given tens of thousands of dollars to his prison boyfriend. What does an inmate need this much money for? Can’t he just trade romance for cigarettes like everyone else in prison? My uncle has been living on disability with my 84 year old gramma who is living on her social security. They’re no strangers to having their utilities shut off because they can’t pay all of their bills.
Now I’m angry at my uncle. How can he be so stupid? Was he really that lonely that a few letters are worth living in poverty? That he was willing to let his mother live in poverty?
After the room was finally clean we finally sat down and casually took up the collection of love letters. They all contained the same basic formula. “I love you,” “It’s lonely in here,” “thank God for your letters,” and then finally a page of “I need...”
The prison boyfriend needed shoes, shirts (want to know which kind? Because he included catalogue clippings), lawyers fees, money on his commissary, money to send his sister to pay her cell phone bill . . .
The list goes on and on.
How is this scam allowed to continue?
My phone just buzzed in my pocket. My godfather, Bug is giving me suggestions for scripture to read at my uncle’s memorial. How can I think clearly about a mourning the dead when I’m too busy mourning his damaging decisions?
I found out from from cousin John that another love letter just came in the mail. My uncle was dead and he’s still getting requests for money. This time for a new pair of shoes for the prison boyfriend to wear to the gym.
I’m angry at my uncle for giving me a reason to be angry when I should be sad. I’m angry at myself for not ensuring that my family felt loved enough to not seek attention from a strange convict. I hope this prison boyfriend is getting poked with a toilet brush by a large cell-mate named “Hump.”
Screw it. I’m telling everyone I know how much I value them. But first I’m putting my senior picture back in that frame.
Chad Haines is a small town farm boy who grew up working with animals and not much else. His late introduction to social skills has rendered him with an awkward and somewhat unfiltered way of expressing himself. Keeping this in mind it was necessary for him to quickly develop a sense of humor in his delivery, lest he say the wrong thing to the wrong person and is summarily beaten to death with a rusty piece of farm equipment. He has two degrees in biology and a pet tarantula named Juliana. If you would like to criticize his life choices you can contact his mother directly in Denver, Colorado.
* * *
By Cyndy Hendershot
Steven must not touch the lesion. He must restrain himself. Touching means releasing. He bangs his head on the counter.
Popsicles with demon’s eyes---that’s what emerged from Steven’s mouth the last time he touched the lesion. Five hours later he had finally melted them all with a blow torch.
Going to the abandoned amusement part had been his mistake. He made a stupid bet with Julie and look what it got him. Julie got hers, too. Steven kissed her after the accident and lava poured out of his mouth. At least she died quickly. Her tongue had touched the lesion.
When Steven woke up beneath the rotting floor boards of the funhouse, he knew something horrible had happened. His mouth felt like it had been stripped of all skin.
Steven stares at the goldfish in the bowl. He cradles the fish in his hand. Then, he swallows it.
Cynthia Hendershot is the author of City of Mazes and Other Tales of Obsession (Asylum Arts/Leaping Dog).
* * *
How Short is Short?
By Murray Levine
I am a widower, lonely because my wife of 62 years was the center of my universe. I needed to meet new people. I signed up for a course on short stories. The first words in the assigned text said: “How short can a story be and still truly be a story?” Short is simple. But what is a story? A story tells you something about the world, or about yourself. When I read, I am in a dialogue with the text. What did the writer say? What did it mean to me? What experience did it illuminate? What did it make me think?
OK, that’s a story, but what is short? A single word? In English, one letter can be a word. So the shortest story could be one letter. Once, we went to an exhibit of conceptual art, empty space, with a caption that encouraged you to imagine the art. Scam? But logically, taking that as a base, the shortest short story can be a blank page.
Which reminds me of why I was not an ace psychotherapist. Once, I had a writer client who complained of obsessions. He couldn’t stop thinking. So I suggested he roll a blank sheet of paper on his typewriter (it was that long ago), and his mind would automatically go blank. He never came back.
Logically the shortest story can be a single word, or even a single letter. Omitting abbreviations, only two single letters are words: A, and I. All stories probably begin with I. I reminds me of me. And of my dilemma. I am an 88 year old dude with a pacemaker and a cane. That doesn’t fit any younger woman’s image of an ideal lover. Try telling that to the 14 year old boy still inside me. He doesn’t listen. He gets hooked on erotic fantasies.
However, in my stage of life, even near romance is dangerous. Recently, a considerably younger woman friend and I shared a movie and dinner. In the gentlemanly tradition common to my demographic, I drove her home. After she got out of the car, she walked around to my side. She leaned into the open car window to give me the obligatory, chaste, goodnight peck on the cheek. Unexpectedly, she slipped. The corner of her eye glasses poked my right eye. The next morning, the white of my eye, thoroughly bloodshot, made me look like a zombie in a horror movie. Now my dilemma: It wasn’t her fault. Should I tell her and let her feel guilty, or should I just make up a short, short story to account for my appearance?
Murray Levine, a widower, is 88 and a well published academic with a PhD. and a JD. .He has recently completed an 80,000 word romance novel encouraged by scholars who claim the novel is dead. He reasoned if it is dead, how much harm could he do?
* * *
The Dust in my Bones
By Kandi Maxwell
The not-knowing drives me crazy. The images I conjure up in my mind are out of proportion with reality. One might assume that my worst-case-scenario thinking would provide sweet relief when a bad diagnosis is ruled out, but all I think about is what might be ruled in: Lyme's, Lupus, Graves Disease? I pull into the gravel drive, home from another doctor appointment where I am told, "We'll do another test next week. Maybe we'll find some answers then." My mind is fluff. Like a dandelion in wind, brain fragments scatter across the fields, cover the dry earth, float through the air in the morning breeze.
I call the dogs, Lady, my six-year-old wolf-husky and Jackson, a lab/border collie/pit bull mix that the locals call a Modoc Mutt. We walk the fields behind the house where dried golden stars cling to the greying branches of the rabbit brush. Their once soft, yellow flowers surrender to the autumn cold, and their crisp, dying petals sprinkle the ground. I bend down, pick up petals- they crumble in my hands. My body dissolves, tiny flakes of soft skin mingle with the scentless, desiccated flowers.
I walk through clump grass, but where I once heard swoosh, today, I hear crunch. Three years of drought has turned the slender, knee-high stalks into ground-level, sharp, silver spikes. The spikes surround each clump and their centers are leafless, filled with dirt. I think of these plants before the drought, see their leaves shimmering in the breeze at twilight. Now, the wind has swept the earth clean. It blows dust and dirt inside my windows, where thick layers spread across tables, chairs, and shelves. I live with the earth inside my house, it won't be contained. I am the dust. Whose windows will I seep through?
Before the drought, I was a wild flower, a rosy pink shooting star. I could blossom with the smallest drop of rain. The reservoir inside me was deep-an eternal spring, and it filled me with energy. Now, energy seeps out sparingly, and I don't know how to keep the flower in bloom. I watch it wither. Wait, wait, wait for the doctors to discover what has happened to my life-giving spring.
Lady and Jackson find a badger hole- it's huge and deep. Heaps of yellow-gold and burnt-reddish earth are piled high next to the hole. I see a tiny skeleton, the head of a ground squirrel, a discarded piece of the badger's meal. I pick up the skull, see two tiny squirrel teeth in perfect condition. A few weeks ago, I saw one of these badgers and was surprised at his size. His body was immense, and he looked almost comical, with his tiny ears and his short legs, but he had the face of a warrior. A white streak was painted down the center of his forehead as if he were headed into battle.
The badgers are moving deeper into the earth. Some holes fill with sand, while others are covered in a tangle of spiderwebs. I slip through the hole, descend into darkness, sit on the hard, crusted earth. The landscape is grey and cold, but this is not death. I look closely at the ground and see them: tiny green leaves push up through the barren soil. The cold ground seeps through my thin jeans, chilling assurance that I am alive.
Kandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, One in Four, The Raven's Perch, Ray’s Road Review, the memoir anthologies I Speak From My Palms and Lionhearted, and others.
* * *
By Priyanka Nawathe
Forever is a word used in fairytales. Not in real life. After all, forever is an illusion. A myth that holds legends. Eternity. Is that the same thing as forever? We always want the happy moments in our life to last forever. But waiting for those moments to arrive feels like eternity. Words can surely be tricksters. They mean the same yet completely different. Call them antithesis. Call them oxymoron. Or any other fancy schmancy figures of speech. I call them tricksters, illusionists. Master manipulators.
Lex was one such man. He made his life with words. A trickster by nature, he hid his intentions and camouflaged himself into people’s lives, enchanted them with his words and before they realized, ripped them apart.
Dusk settled over the city scorching every structure it held in fiery amber, orange lights bringing with it the opportunity for Lex to case his next target. Leaving the comforts and luxuries of the grand Ritz behind him, he strolled down the streets like a typical reveler catching the last ebbing moments of the festivities around him. He let the bedlam of merriment all around carry him to his destination, the ancient Victorian mansion at the end of the frolicking street. Fluidly slipping off his suit jacket, clad in a linen shirt, black vest and bowtie he entered the archaic structure, sliding his hands in the pocket extracted a tiny, intricately designed, flat, bronze pendant.
The room lit up with flaring gaslights as he opened the pendant to reveal a timeclock with the words “tempus fugit” exquisitely etched on the inside. Despite the priceless antiquities tempting the moonlighter, he walked towards a painting with determination curbing his burgling instincts. This time the job was different, more crucial than any sparkling jewels littered throughout the mansion. He raised the pocket watch towards the Pre-Raphaelite painting of Sir Lancelot by the 19th century artist Arthur Scott. Smiling deviously, he whispered the words “Tempus fugit” and held his breath foreseeing the inevitable. The moment the words escaped his mouth, huge gusts of wind blew smashing the glass windows and blurring everything around him. As seconds inched towards minute every detail around him disappeared slowly in bits and patches eventually sending a bright gold light blinding him for an instant.
Sight adjusting gradually, he heard music playing ceremoniously with laughter and joy emitting from the room. Grabbing a tray of hor d'oeuvres from the table, he beelined towards his target avoiding any eye contact or possibly worse, menial conversations with any of the snooty guests. A short, portly man stood there, deep in conversation, holding a cigar between his fingers and a shot of bourbon is his hand. Despite his genial features, he emitted an aristocratic persona next to the tall, sinewy man who appeared to be rough around the edges with a bouquet of whiskey spewing out of his stubbled face and borrowed suit as they stood there submerged in their conversation. Lex eavesdropped while walking around them, carrying the tray like an eagle swooping around its potential prey. They talked about arts and culture but above all value and commission acquired from it.
As the music ebbed and guests poured out of the mansion, giddy with joy and booze, Lex dropped his servile façade and followed Arthur Scott into the dark night. The night brought with it a whiff of adventure and fortune. Humming a song under his breath, Arthur let the alcoholic buzz and the full moon guide him home. An hour later, he reached his humble abode only to fall onto the floor with the alcohol sending him into a deep slumber. Striking his opportunity, Lex sneaked into the house, tiptoeing quietly, scanning the place for potential valuables most of all paintings. He cased every room while keeping track of the ghastly snores emerging from the doorway. As night inched towards dawn, he made his way to the last possible spot - the basement. Lights glowed all around as he pulled the strings in the middle of the stairs. The place was damp with mold rising out of bricks in walls, floor littered with paints and brushes. He had to be careful not to step on anything causing a terrible crash and burn his opportunity to steal the masterpiece. The room held a single canvas covered in cloth. Feeling his luck striking him, he pulled the cloth to reveal the painting he had set his eyes on for years.
It sat there unfinished. Angels and spirits stood there gazing at a horse but no one rode it. It stood alone beneath the tree appearing abandoned and lonely without the rider. Staring at the unfinished piece of art, Lex figured he miscalculated his time of arrival. His research had showed him the perfect date and time of the artwork. What could have possibly gone wrong? As he stood there puzzled with knitted brows, trying to figure out his error, sun rose over the sky streaming its golden rays through the window and over the painting, bringing white blurring lights around him. What looked like blinding comets were angels and spirits flying around him, as they rose out of the painting grabbing him by the soul, carrying his spirit away with them.
Sunlight permeated the house with warmth, waking Arthur up from his stupor. Memories of last night flooded in, conversation filled with opportunities for potential fame and fortune broke his inebriation hurling him to the basement. To his amazement, the painting stood finished on the canvas while morning breeze blew ashes and dust out the window into the air. The painting had become a masterpiece.
Decades and centuries down the time, it stood on museum walls and in Victorian mansions as people from all over the world came to catch a glimpse of Sir Lancelot. And with it stood the soul of Alexander Lancing riding towards Camelot with angels for eternity and forever.
Priyanka Nawathe currently lives in Chicago. She writes stories in different genres with magical realism and speculative fiction. Her work has been published in Thrice Fiction, Inkitt and Storybird.
* * *
Everyone's Rose and Somebody's Star
By Rooya Rahin
To the woman who looked around, wary of surroundings, the noise drowning out her thoughts. I sat just two steps behind her, watched her, as she gave another quick glance to her son, and she gave him a smile, forced if I’d ever seen one. Her eyes moved from side to side, as if surveying and then she swung around to me, as if she could tell I was watching her. Later, I’d comprehend it was only a nervous reflex, another segment of her constant surveillance. But as she turned around, I gained a glimpse of the girl as she saw herself. The jagged streaks of makeup that complimented the narrowing of her eyes, and the blush around her cheeks that occurred more from the weariness of the day than any other concern. The ordeal was unframed, unscripted, the buildup of years of letdowns and the view that what needed to happen never would. She didn’t notice that I noticed the way she rubbed the beautiful starry blue tattoo that graced her arm like it was mark of burden. Nor the way that she watched her son with endless worried eyes, nor the way she played with her hair, waiting for something that wouldn’t come.
I wish I had half the strength she did, or at least enough to go up to her, and tell her that even though she stumbled with her keys, and averted her eyes and hurt so often, that she was doing something right, even if it was just enough to put her hair in a ponytail and get through the day. And I hope that somewhere down the road she stands up and wears her heart on her sleeve, and for once the world doesn’t knock her to the ground and leave further from where she started.
And to the little daredevil with the pink and purple scooter, who drove her older brother just a little crazy with her endless chatter. She came up to me and wasn’t even bothered by the idea of talking to someone unknown, letting her chatter flow free, in endless words of children’s cartoons and purple ponies. She gave bright little smiles to everyone who passed, showing them her toothless little smile with white mounds starting to peek out, and she climbed atop everything and shouted to the word of her success from atop the structures. She had no cares and no hurt in her heart, only a skip to her step and the loud ring of her voice, faster than the movement of a hummingbird’s wings.
I hope that she someday understands that while the world isn’t a kind place, she never loses the twitter of her voice, or the kind way she greets everyone. I hope that while she learns that everyone is not to be trusted, she keeps the sentiment that everyone deserves a chance at her trust, and that anyone who breaks her trust understand that the hope in her eyes and her ability to make everyone laugh is irreplaceable.
I know that the world is not kind, and that the woman with the starry blue tattoo may have well once been the little girl with the tiny white mounds of teeth, and I hope that as our paths crossed, theirs will as well, and that the woman with a need for others will find that she was once the little girl who never stopped trusting like she never stopped talking and once again begin to let others into her heart.
I hope that the little girl will meet a woman with a starry blue tattoo and understand that the world knocks you down, and that every day, you still get up face it with your head held high.
I hope that the world will begin to learn from the woman of the stars and the girl with the grin and that they will both heal and be healed by a world that never deserved them.
Rooya Rahin is a high schooler living in Colorado, and can often be found on the weekends watching
Netflix in pajamas. She enjoys writing contemporary and hybrid fiction, and is set to graduate in the year 2019.
* * *
Weekend Guests at the Artist's House
By Kathleen Rollins
I blame it on the crows. If they’d migrated like other birds, none of this would have happened. But crows don’t migrate and these never left the house. They found their way down the hallway from frame to frame, their wings pumping in elliptical strokes caught in the series of photos I took, so they either followed me down the hall or flew at me like something from the Hitchcock movie. I would have taken them down but the reporter from Art World said they were “charming.” And then Henry left to go to some engineers’ convention in Lansing for the weekend, so it was just me and the crows in the hall.
“You should make some new friends while I’m gone,” Henry suggested before he left.
I agreed. After all, winter in Michigan can be isolating. So after he left I made a dog. Nothing big – one of those fluffy white things that look like stuffed animals even when they’re real. The armature was easy to put together from hangers and scrap wood. For the body, I used some cotton batting and pieces of shag rug from the spare bedroom. Honestly, no one has shag rugs anymore. The glass eyes came from a moth-eaten stuffed fox the previous owners abandoned in the house. The poor fox was left blind, but it never went far anyway.
After I finished the dog, I realized my laptop wouldn’t work. Henry had taken his with him. I tried turning mine off and back on, which is the only fix I know for anything with a plug. It didn’t solve the problem. I tried several more times. But electronics know when the engineer goes away. The little white dog watched me bang my head against the keyboard.
In order to take a break from hurting my head, I made a model of me banging my head on the keyboard, using one of my manikins. It came out quite well, actually. I dressed her in my old jeans and a sweater, and added some bruising on the forehead and a splatter of blood. Once she took care of the dark despair duties, I was free to pour a glass of wine and make some dinner.
I was rifling through the cupboards, looking for a box of mac and cheese when I heard something banging on the sliding glass door. Just like in Wuthering Heights when the stranger is lost on the moors and he seeks shelter in the crazy folks’ house only to hear something scraping on the window: not branches in the wind but someone searching for a lost love. When I heard it again, I threw open the curtains. Snow curled against the glass door. Bare branches scraped together in the wind. As soon as I turned away, I thought I saw a flash of red plaid shirt. A suburbanite in an L.L. Bean lumberjack shirt? A burglar? A crazed attacker lost in rural Michigan during a winter storm? Kind of stupid, wearing red in the snow. But easy to see. I built the figure out of a couple of broom sticks, two sheets of foam-core, some pillows, Henry’s flannel shirt, heavy pants, hockey mask and gloves. The figure grabbed the handle of the glass door menacingly.
“Well, earn your keep!” I yelled at the little dog, attaching it to the burglar’s pant leg.
I closed the curtain so I didn’t have to watch their struggle, but they were still fighting the next morning. You’d think the burglar would have chosen a different way.
The woman at the computer was still distraught, so I took away the problem. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. I threw the computer out in the snow and cleaned up the weeping figure. I have to say she looked pretty good in a cocktail dress, some nice jewelry, and fresh face paint.
I set her down at the kitchen table and poured her a glass of wine.
That’s when I noticed the burglar had dropped the door handle. Even with his mask, I could tell he was staring at the beautiful woman with the freshly painted face. And she was staring back.
What could I do in the face of sudden attraction? I called off the little white dog and invited the burglar in. I forgot to let the dog in until later, but he seemed none the worse for the wear. Meanwhile those two couldn’t keep their eyes off each other. What a little tramp. Once she looked good, she made a play for my burglar. After I saved her from despair. I pointed that out, but she wasn’t listening. I find it really annoying when people don’t listen. I yelled at her, at him, but no one responded. They were busy looking deep into each other’s eyes.
Jealousy is a weak emotion. That’s what I’ve heard. But the people talking haven’t felt it rising inside them, pulling everything into it like a tornado funnel. I stormed out of the room and returned armed with two butcher knives. The little dog disappeared under the table.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. When it was over, I couldn’t believe the scene: dismembered bodies, bits of torn clothing, dark red splatters all over the burglar, the model, the oak veneer table, the chairs, even a few spots on the Japanese stone arrangement in the center of the table. The little white dog wouldn’t come out from his hiding place.
I sat in the middle of the mess for a long time. It got dark and light again. The stupid lovers had drunk all my wine.
Later, the front door opened, letting in a blast of cold air.
“I found your computer in the snow,” Henry said, closing the door and hanging his wet coat on a peg.
“It was misbehaving,” I explained.
We sat on the floor, surrounded by the bloodied remains of the beauty and the burglar. Henry put his arm around my shoulder.
“I had a tough time too,” he said. “I got so bored I entertained myself for about an hour considering where I’d place dynamite sticks to make the building implode.”
“You know how I love it when you talk demolition,” I murmured, leaning into his kiss.
He helped me up. On our way down the hallway, we passed the crows on their endless flight through the frames. “I think it’s time for those birds to fly away,” Henry noted.
“Me too. They’ve been trying to escape for months now. And we need to get new eyes for the fox.”
He wrapped his arm around my waist. “Probably.”
I didn’t mention keeping the dog. There’d be time for that discussion later.
After retiring from teaching composition and literature at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, Kathleen Flanagan Rollins started work on a series of historical fantasy novels about early explorers in the Western Hemisphere. Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, the first book in the series, follows the adventures of a group of explorers from West Africa to the New World, about 14,000 years ago.
Rollins also writes the Misfits and Heroes blog, which can be found here , which examines ancient concepts and their echoes in the present.
Weekend Guests at the Artist's House came out of a bit of cabin fever in a typical Michigan winter.
* * *
Hoist That Rag
By Adam Wehby
It’s done, Martin thought. He threw the empty vial in the trash next to his marble counters. For good measure, he shoved it under an empty take out box. The gesture was pointless; his wife was not going to check the trash. The car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, a brutal punishment for distracted driving. What bothered Martin most was that Sarah was the active one. Up before him most days, sometimes showering after a run before he had even left the bed. Her mouth lost half of her smile before she even left the hospital.
Martin was a damn good doctor, and since became consumed with her care. His other patients, family and friends understood, he assumed. However, calculated care and precision did not heal her mind. In fact, her manufactured appreciation cracked with each monotone affirmation he delivered. This potion, though, was the answer.
Martin met the witch doctor in the dusts of Arizona, at a two-room laboratory nestled between a couple of dunes. With driven confidence, Martin tested the doctor, and surprisingly, the doctor competently answered. The side effects, infertility and unspecific urinary problems, were manageable. The doctor, perhaps sensing Martin’s passion, asked several times if Sarah was pregnant. For the past year, they made love only a handful of time, each time Martin left in tears. The doctor’s eyes sucked the light out of the room as he stared at Martin.
“Take it then. I benefit nothing keeping it. “
Now it was in her tea on a tray with bagels and grapefruit. I don’t know how she eats this, he thought. She isn’t Hunter S. Thompson. He laughed and thought, imagine her talking like him, ‘Give me my tea, you bastard.’ They watched Fear and loathing in Las Vegas once, and she was impressed how accurate the acid trips were.
A smile captured his face, emerged from its slumber, ready to see his love restored. He picked up the tray with both hands, eyes locked on the cup, and stepped to her bedroom. The striped curtains were open, and the garden glowed through the windows. This is the brightest it has ever looked, he thought.
Reading Tender is the Night with eyes eating the words, Sarah sat, as she always did, with an air of a bird, light and lively. Her energy was immaculate, clean, and never labored. She raised her eyes slowly, transitioning from fiction to reality.
“Thank you, baby,” she said. From the other side of the bed she pulled the stand for the tray to rest over her lap.
“You are welcome, sweetheart.” He put the tray down, eyes still on the tea.
“I can’t wait to get back to this book.”
“Is it good?”
“Yes! Fitzgerald writes beautiful sentences. I was thinking earlier, one of good things about being paralyzed is getting to read more. When we were in college, I always said I wanted to read more. I had list of over fifty books! I’ve gotten through almost twenty.”
“I don’t think that qualifies as a ‘good thing about being paralyzed’.”
“I’m just trying to be positive, Martin.”
“That’s fine. Good even. I’m just want to get you back on your feet.”
“You won’t love a wife in a wheel chair?”
“Of course, I love you.”
Sarah’s complexion was off-white, drained from days in the house. Her lips broke the hearts of mortal men and she spoke with an elegance that overloaded the circuits of minds too. Her hair shone of a polished cherry, full with waves like a Gulf Coast tide. Unbelievably sharp, Martin could not pass a single act of prestidigitation past her, even when she was dulled with a smorgasbord of medication, and he both admired and loathed it.
“Do you think I could be a good mother in a wheelchair?”
“In my neighborhood– when I was a kid– one of the girls I used to ride bikes with’s mother was in a wheelchair. I never really wondered if it happened before or after she had my friend but she raised her almost all on her own. Her husband traveled a lot.”
“Probably cheated on her, too.”
“Martin!” Her face curled in pain.
He betrayed his feelings and he knew it.
“I’m sorry. That was dark.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
He did not respond. She should have figured this out by now, for his care of her was colored with hate for her condition. No more had they talked about taking trips, or what books they would read to their children. In fact, today was the first day the curtains had been open in months, which was Sarah’s doing, struggling to move to her wheelchair, never once asking for help. She had always asked him to open them, but he coldly insisted she that needed rest. His eyes had become wild, pressed by a barbaric competition to beat the monster that doomed his wife to a life of disability.
“Do remember when we made love a few weeks ago?”
Several moments passed. Sarah traced the lip of the teacup with her pinky, with Martin watching.
“You hate it, don’t you?”
“How can I enjoy it when–…”
“When I can’t?”
“I enjoyed that one though.”
“How? That’s impossible.”
“Because I’m pregnant.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. Sarah cried. Then, with Martin watching, she drank her tea, and he knew what would happen. They would lose the baby. Martin was not an idiot. The witch doctor’s tone was clear.
“Well, are you going to say anything?”
“I’m happy,” he said, and he was not lying.
Adam Wehby grew up in middle Tennessee, and he tells stories because they are always more interesting than his own life.
* * *
By David MacWilliams
Dandelions rioted across the lawn, explosions of yellow dots from fence to fence. The four-year old boy had it all to himself. He knew what to do; he’d make a fat bouquet for Mom. On hands and knees, starting at one fence, he gathered all the flowers he could reach. At the far fence, he had a fistful of bright yellow flowers.
He brought them inside, and in the kitchen he slid a chair to the cabinet, reached in and chose a wine glass for a vase. He filled it with water and the dandelions.
Mom was in the living room on the phone, chatting, laughing. Sweet smell of cigarettes. The child stood in the doorway holding the bouquet behind his back. As soon as Mom rang off, he ran to her and swept the bouquet out in front.
Mom’s face lit up. “They’re beautiful.” She lifted him off the floor and hugged him. “I’m so lucky,” she said. “Where did you get these beautiful flowers!”
He picked them in the garden, just for her.
“One good present deserves another.” She led him to the kitchen, to the freezer, and pulled a red popsicle from a box.
“Eat it outside and don’t let it drip on your shirt.”
He savored the popsicle, licking up the trails that threatened to drip onto his fist, and as he ate he admired the green swath of grass from where he’d snatched the flowers. When at last he was finished, he went into the kitchen to the trash bin. He dropped the stick inside. It landed on the dandelions, scattered and limp across yesterday’s newspaper. He peeked into the living room. Mom was on the phone. Sweet smell of cigarettes.
“Weeds,” she laughed. “If only he’d pick the whole damned yard.”
His cheeks flushed with shame. He retreated to the kitchen and plucked all the flowers from the bin, then he returned to the lawn. One by one, he lay the dandelions down refilling the swath of green grass.
David MacWilliams lives in Colorado. He earned his MFA from Ashland University in 2011. He has published creative nonfiction in Mason's Road, Pilgrimage, and Apple Valley Review.