Foliate Oak February 2016

Fiction

The Five Stages of Grief
By Mileva Anastasiadou

The five stages of grief
 
Alberto pressed the call button to inform Mrs. Jones of my arrival. Despite her  friendly and extroverted character during most of her long life, Mrs. Jones was  unexpectedly worried, as she was not in the mood for visitors on that particular day. This happens to most people I visit. A slight premonition, an intuitive awareness of what is to follow, prevent most people from enjoying my company, which is rather sad in my opinion, since I am the last person whose company they will enjoy anyway, who is destined to help them through the last travel they will ever take, through the winter of their life.
 
1. Denial
The houses I visit are rarely that big. Not because the rich have a different destiny and can avoid death, but because they are not so many as the poor. Alberto, her helping hand, her loyal servant since her beloved husband left this world, some years after their children grew wings and flew away, led me to her door and knocked.
“Did they send you here to tell me the news?” she asked, looking through the window that stood  above her bed,  avoiding eye contact. I was warned that the old lady's vision was not as good as it used be, so I had expected the rather vague look on her face.
“This is true, Mrs. Jones.”
“They shouldn't have bothered. I already know.”
“Do you, Mrs. Jones?” Her reply caught me by surprise; seldom do I see people that well prepared for the journey that awaits them.
“I cannot believe this is really happening though.”
“I am here to help you deal with the news.” This is my role, my very reason of existence. To tell the truth I am pretty excited every single time I hear this line, as I get even more eager to fulfill my duty. In this case too, her response put everything back into place and extinguished my anguish.
“This is not possible” she cried, looking finally my way.
“I am afraid it is, Mrs.Jones” I said as calmly as I could. The secret is to stay calm and determined, but also soft and gentle at the same time. To contain the emotion that is thrown your way and seem able to absorb it, like a sponge would absorb spilled water, without falling apart.
 
2. Anger
“Are you aware of the implications?” she shouted my way, as I walked slowly towards her side.
“I am, Mrs. Jones, I certainly am.” People usually breakdown at this point, when the first shock subsides and are forced to accept the truth; they get agitated and uncontrollable. Some people see visions, that doctors try to eradicate with medication, which is not very helpful at all, considering the fact that I, too, am occasionally obliged to visit dying patients as a vision, when they are not alone in a room, in order not to terrify other healthy individuals whose time has not come yet.
“I hate the fact that I am too sick to move” she said angrily. It is really surprising how strong dying people become on their last moments, though. It is like a hidden force within them is suddenly discovered, not in an emotional level, but on a purely physical one. People that are unable to move, or even breathe, can hold your hand so firmly, that you cannot let go. They can even hit you, if they hallucinate on this phase, trying to get away from the inevitable fate.
“This is my fault. This is all my fault.”
“There is no need to blame yourself, Mrs. Jones.”
Mrs. Jones was giving her last battle. Even though I was certain she could not get away, I kept on holding her tight, until she finally calmed down.
 
3. Bargaining
“If only I could turn back time, I would be much more careful” said Mrs.Jones, rearranging the pillows on her bed, as if she tried to bring order back into her life, to gain back some of the lost control.
“I have to confess it is a bit too late for that now, Mrs. Jones.”
“Don't be silly. I know it is too late” she said smiling. I remained silent, as I expected her to go on with the negotiations. People rarely give up this easy. I was right obviously.
“There must be a way I cannot think of at the moment, a way to get back what I lost. Are you capable of trying? I am sure you must be a very capable young man, if you chose to come here and be the one to announce me the terrible news. And very brave I must add.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jones, but there is absolutely nothing I can do.”
People get very inventive at this point. They even try to bribe me, every once in a while. They do not understand that things do not work out like this on the other side. Their money is completely worthless there.
 
4. Depression
“I cannot stand the situation, though. This is far beyond my control.” She cried like a baby at this stage, which was good because it meant that we were moving on. That was the time to go beside her for the second time. People need embracing when angry, as well as when they are depressed. For different reasons obviously.
“It is a hopeless situation” she whispered, as I held her.
“You never know. Better times may await you out there.” I never know the future of the souls I take along with me. I never know if heaven or hell will be  their new home. If I did, I might not be as kind as I should, as I may not be made to have feeling as humans do, but I am aware of justice and its laws. And all people deserve some comfort, during their final hours, however badly or indecently they chose to live. Thereby, my job is to make the passing easier and inspire hope.
“You cannot fool me. My best days are over. They have been over for a long time now” she said as I wiped the tears from her eyes. But the tears kept on coming, as they always do. Until, one magical moment, that they stop.
 
5. Acceptance
“Well, I admit you must be right. You were right all along.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jones” I said humbly.
“These things happen all the time.”
“This is absolutely correct.”
“The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. That is the correct way though. The world is getting upside down these days.”
“Things do not always happen the way we expect them to.” This is really a serious problem with rich people. They are used to getting away with anything during their living years, so deep down inside, without even consciously realizing it, they believe they can escape death as well. 
“I am quite old as you may have noticed.”
“You look pretty well, considering you age.” An innocent compliment is always welcome throughout the mourning process. Years of experience with dying people have led me to understand this. They never taught me this when I was trained, but I took the initiative at some point  and I have seen it working.
“Black Monday they called it. I have never lost that amount of money in such a short time though. It is awfully unbelievable, that a rich person will get so much poorer in just a few hours. It is not fair. I thought life was fair, you know?”
“You did?” I asked, trying to keep a soft and polite tone. Rich people's priorities never cease to amaze me.
“Of course I did. I never thought that such a horrible thing would happen to me. Life can still save some surprises for old age, I guess.”
“You are right, Mrs. Jones.”
“You always have to move on, you know?” Even in the stage of acceptance, people do not usually make the suggestion themselves. They wait for me to ask them.
“If you are ready, I am” I said softly.
“Ready for what?”
“For our trip of course.”
“Where are we going?”
“Where all souls go, when they leave their mortal body.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I am annoyed when people use the “hell” word, moments before they die. It seems to me as if they throw away the final opportunity to claim a place in heaven, as if they are willing to give away their last chance to be properly treated in the next world.
“Please, Mrs. Jones, it is not right to use such words, during your last moments on this planet.”
“What? Do you really intend to kill me? This day is getting worse minute by minute.” She tried to call Alberto, but was too weak to press the button.
 
I suddenly came to realize that Mrs. Jones had not understood anything we had been talking about. To be more precise, it might have been me who was out of subject all along, as the subject was her lost money. The thought that she might be regressing into a previous stage of grief, into bargaining, so that she could fool me into giving her some more time, crossed my mind for a while, but I quickly rejected it. I soon came to accept the fact that all my efforts were nothing but a big waste. I was not angry or anything like that, since I am not susceptible to human conditions, such as emotions, but I certainly reminded myself to be more direct next time.
We went through this, one more time. Strangely enough, the second time was easier. One simple explanation could be that she valued her wealth more than her own life, but people who have recently been mourning, go either faster through all the stages again, or at an extremely slow pace. I was lucky though, as our time was limited. Unfortunately, people do not have the luxury or postponing death for long, when the time has come.
Finally, she was almost ready. She asked some time alone with Alberto to say goodbye. I would be too cruel not to give in, after the double mourning process I caused her to go through in a such a short time and I am surely not as cruel as most people consider me to be. Breaking unimportant rules every once in a while is permitted anyway.
“I will meet you outside Mrs. Jones.”
 
This is always the worst part of my mission. I could almost feel his pain but was not allowed to interact more. I am the angel of death, not as evil or bad as they present me in books and films, probably a bit too naive to ever understand human nature, with the distinct role – though - of preparing the dying ones for their final journey to the other side. Even if I was allowed to intervene, despite my training in mourning and grief, I would stand completely helpless in front of  the pain of the loved ones that are left behind. Proper words of consolation do not exist in these cases; even I, an emotionless creature, can understand that.  Alberto is about to travel on a similar road, go through the five stages of loss, but this is a journey that he has to take without my help, at his very own pace. The only comforting thought is that friends and family will stand by him, to contain and embrace his feelings and overwhelming emotions, preparing for the same journey themselves when the time comes; humans are entitled  to bonding, a privilege or a curse depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, not very often I must confess, I envy them for that. I really do. 

Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. She has published two books, a collection of short stories and a novel. Her work in English can be found in Ofi press magazine, INfective INk and HFC journal.

* * * 

A Deciduous Decision
By Anthony Block

Anne and Hans Ruger, second floor, left for work before it began, as did Adam Warren on the third.  Because Beth Warren spent the early part of the morning in the kitchen at the rear of the apartment, she knew nothing about it.  A vague awareness of the jackhammer failed to pique her curiosity.  Mr. Parrott, from the vantage of his English basement, must have noticed, but if so, did not feel it was worthy of passing the word.  So Miss Peggy Cowen was the least likely to break the news.  Her first floor rear apartment in Mr. Parrott’s 89 Horton Street brownstone had windows overlooking only the back yard.
 
“Isn’t it exciting?”  Miss Cowen greeted Beth coming down the stairs.  “Since the day I moved in I’ve been hoping for this.”
 
“For what?”

“A tree.  They’re planting a tree next door.  Come see.”
 
A square of pavement in front of number 91 had already been removed and shoveled out, with the dirt piled around it.  In the bed of a small Parks Department truck stood a spindly tree denuded of leaves in conformance with the season, its roots balled in burlap.  The women watched in silent approval for several moments before noticing the house’s owner sitting on the stoop.
 
“What a glorious day, Carl,” Miss Cowen said.  “We’re so excited.  What kind is it?”
          
“A London plane, like the others.  Now if the rest of the owners would join in, we could have a completely tree-lined block.”
 
“It’s always disappointed us that they ended at 87,” Beth said.  “The ad for our apartment said it was a tree-lined street, but neglected to mention that they stopped before reaching our place.”
 
“Harold knows that trees are an enticement,” Carl said.  “He just exercised a little poetic license.  I’ll have to do the same.  “’Tree in front of house’ sounds too much like that place in Brooklyn.”
 
“How do you convert poetic license into reality?” said Beth.  “Is there a lot of red tape?”
“All it takes is a call to the Parks Department.  They inspect the site, give a choice of trees and issue a permit.  Send a check and bingo.  The whole process took less than a month.”
 
“How big a check?” Miss Cowen said.
 
“Depends on the tree.  This one was one fifty.  The planes are in the cheapest group.”
 
“And that’s it?”
 
“Plus I’m responsible for taking care of it; feeding, watering and whatever else.”
 
“What about flowers?”
 
“Flowers?”
 
“Can you plant them around the base?  I’m partial to flowers.”
 
“I don’t see why you couldn’t.  Y’know, your interest inspires me.  I think I’ll talk to Harold.”
 
Miss Cowen and Beth exchanged glances in a classic demonstration of successful silent communication.  “Until you’ve had the experience,” said Miss Cowen, “ you realize that you don’t talk to Harold.  You talk around him.  No disrespect, but I think dealing with him would be best left to us.”
 
Beth nodded.  “Mr. Parrott has to be approached with a great deal of circumspection.”
          
Which became the subject of her conversation with Adam that evening.  “It’s always bothered us,” she said, “and we have the perfect opening.”
 
“There are no perfect openings with Mr. Parrott.  The man’s a grandmaster.  There isn’t a gambit he doesn’t know.”
 
“But this is so obvious.  Before, the trees just ended.  But now there’s a gap and 89 Horton is it.  He has to be thinking about it already, and that’ll make him receptive.”
 
“You’ve made my point.  If he’s thinking about it his defense is primed.”
 
“You’re assuming he doesn’t want to do it.  Miss Cowen and I think he just needs a well directed nudge.”
 
“And you’ll get a nudge right back.”  Adam shook his head.  “It’s a change, it’s money, and I can’t begin to imagine all the other reasons.”
 
“You have to be more positive.”
“I am.  Positively realistic.  Can’t you and Miss Cowen do what you want and leave me out of it?”
 
“We’re going to, but we want everyone’s support.  She’s talking to the Rugers.”
 
“That’s a mob.”
 
“We wouldn’t think of ganging up on him.  We just want him to know that we’re all for it.  This isn’t a tenants’ revolution.”
 
Adam gazed at his wife, as sweet and innocent as the simple peasant Jeanne and, like her, soon to be in the vanguard of the attack.  “No,” he said, “more like a plebiscite.  But okay.  I’m with you.”
 
“Good.  Miss Cowen will be inviting everyone to a Saturday afternoon tree.”
 
“Afternoon tree?  Is that an example of your approach?”
 
“Just be there.  Leaf the rest to us.”
 
Everyone was seated around Miss Cowen’s table when Mr. Parrott arrived. He stood in the doorway, frowning, taking in the scene.  “This has the look of something more than cake and coffee,” he said.
“Don’t stand there, Harold,” said Miss Cowen.  “Come in and join the first annual social of The Rapscallions’ Environment Enhancement Society.”
 
The furrows in Mr. Parrott’s forehead deepened, intensifying the sparkle of his pale blue eyes.  A minute lift at the corners of his mouth hinted at a mood for jousting.  “Rapscallions?  And I’m to be included?”
 
“We’ve already voted you in,” Beth said.  “All you have to do is accept the invitation.”
 
“I don’t know if I like admitting to being a rapscallion.  A rogue, maybe.  A rake or a roué.”
 
“Rapscallion is better suited for a mixed group,” said Miss Cowen.  “Have some cake.  It’s special courtesy of the Rugers.”
 
“I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
 
“It’s baumkuchen from the German bakery.” Anne said.
 
“You see,” said Hans, “dough, around a cylinder is put und baked one layer at a time until into the shape of a trunk it is building up.  When it is cut, then, the slices have rings like it is a real tree.  Baumkuchen, you see, it means tree cake.  It is made only
in my country where …”
 
“Try some, Harold.  It’s delicious,” Miss Cowen said.
 
“… a tradition it is …”
 
“Better than delicious,” Beth said.  “Scrumptious.”
 
“… to serve at …”
 
“Arbor Day,” said Mr. Parrott.
          
“Harbor Day?  Nein, nein.  At Christmas we serve it.  Anne, what is this Harbor Day?”
 
“Arbor, dear.  There’s no aitch.  It’s a day we celebrate by planting trees.”
 
“Aha.  Arbor Day.  A very good guess, Harold.  You are a smart one.”
 
“So we have here a group called – let me take a wild guess that the name forms an acronym – TREES, serving something called tree cake.  That would appear to be more than a coincidence.”
 
“Harold, I think you have your tongue into your cheek.  It obvious must be to you that …”
 
“That everyone in your house is having a friendly Saturday afternoon get-together over coffee and cake,” said Miss Cowen.
 
“Uh huh,” said Mr. Parrott, chewing such a large piece that it puffed out his left cheek.
 
“You see?  His tongue does that.”
 
“Hans,” said Anne, handing him her cup, “will you please get me a refill.  And
maybe you could slice some more cake.  You cut it so evenly.”
 
All talk suspended as they appreciated the concentration required for the delicate carving.  Only after the last downward stroke of the knife would the silence be broken.
 
“I thought I heard your dogs barking up a storm about an hour ago, Harold,” said Miss Cowen.
          
“Some kids banged on the garbage cans as they went by.  They and the dogs converse with each other that way.”
 
“Bark.  Now there’s an interesting word.”  Beth paused to sip her coffee.  “It’s the voice of a dog or the covering of a tree or a ship.  Don’t you think the English language is fascinating? ”
 
A slight twitch at the corner of Mr. Parrott’s mouth presaged a response.  Adam leaned forward.  But the reply came from behind him.  “I never heard a ship with such a name.  Anne, is it true?”
 
“Yes dear, we’ll look it up later.”
 
“And there’s barking your shins,” said Mr. Parrott.
 
Adam could not resist.  “And with your shins you can shinny up a tree.”
 
“What is it he talks about?”
 
“Trees,” Mr. Parrott said.  “We’re all talking about trees.”
 
“It’s a way of climbing by wrapping your arms and legs around the trunk,” Anne said.
 
“But why skinny?”
 
“S-h-i-n-n-y.  I’ll explain later.”
 
“And then there’s root,” an inspired Adam said.  “For the home team, for truffles…”  He shrugged.
 
“Und highway!”  The triumphant voice exploded in exultation.
 
“It’s spelled differently, dear.  I’ll explain upstairs.”
 
“I am confusion.”
 
“Maybe we could just branch off to another subject,” said Miss Cowen.
 
“Wouldn’t that just leaf us out on a limb?” said Mr. Parrott.  He drank a bit of coffee while peering at Beth and Miss Cowen, who had begun exchanging glances.  Adam sat back, crossing his legs.
 
“Anne, when is it we are asking him?”
 
Anne cleared her throat.  “I think right now.  Harold, I know this is a most surprising revelation, but we were wondering if you would be willing to put a tree in front of the house.”
 
“And I was wondering what was taking you so long to ask.”
 
“Asking is so crass,” said Miss Cowen.  “We hoped that our strategy would be so clever and subtle that the idea would just pop into your head.  Like subliminal advertising.”
 
“Cleverness and subtlety notwithstanding, you can think of yourselves as successful, for I have considered it.”
 
“And your considered conclusion?”
 
Turning to Hans and winking, Adam said, “Here it comes.”
 
“It’ll be here three weeks from Tuesday.”
 
Miss Cowen threw back her head, the guffaws bouncing her stomach.  “Then we don’t have to tell you who to call and how much it’ll cost.”
 
“Parks Department.  One fifty and up.”
 
“And we can have flowers around it?”
 
“I’m counting on it.”
 
Beth clapped and Anne planted a resounding buss on Mr. Parrott’s cheek, causing him, for the first time, to lose control of his regulated expressions.  He beamed.  Hans tapped  Adam on the shoulder.  “Why so long do they wait?  Und so much the word games.”
 
“Maneuvering.  Wasted maneuvering.  I’m surprised you didn’t know how they were going to go about it.”
 
“What Anne said, it did not make sense.  To me, direct approaching is the way to discuss.”
 
“And most of the time you’d be right.  But in this case …”  With reluctant admiration, he observed the landlord in the midst of his gleeful tenants.  “Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
 
Hans shook his head.  “I am not understanding.”
 
“Sorry.  I’m still in the swing of things.  But don’t feel badly.  I don’t think anybody really understands.  However it happened, we’ll have a tree in a month.”
 
And on that Tuesday, Beth, instead of sleeping later, arose with Adam.  “It’s too bad you have to go to work and miss it,” she said.
 
“I like it that way.  When I leave there’ll be nothing.  When I return, there it’ll be.  Magic.”
 
“Do you want me to call you when it’s in?”
 
 
“No.  I don’t have to know that.  I’ll get my enjoyment first hand.”
 
With that anticipation, he turned the corner that evening into Horton Street and began the two block walk past the late autumn skeletons of the London planes.  Nearing number 89, he moved close to the building line for a better viewing angle.  The detail of the newest tree began to emerge and he squinted to compensate for the fading light.  As expected, it stood shorter and sparer than all except its far neighbor, but the thrust of its adolescent branches puzzled him.  Rather than providing promise of rounded symmetry, they formed a narrow angular silhouette.  Standing in front of it, he could see, even in the deepening dusk, a bark not at all like the others.  It was a different tree; the only one like it on the street.
 
Turning in time to catch a slight movement of the curtains at one of the windows of the English basement, he considered for a moment the direct approach advocated by Hans.  Instead, he trudged up to the third floor.
 
“It’s a ginkgo,” Beth said.  “I just love them, don’t you?”
 
“I’m not that much of a tree hugger.”
 
“They’re so much more interesting than the London planes.  Ginkgoes have those fascinating fan-shaped leaves that turn absolutely golden in the fall.  And they have edible fruit.  Some Asians consider them a delicacy.”
 
“And all those wonderful reasons are why he selected it?”
 
“He saw a picture of one in the paper and then he asked if he could borrow our encyclopedia.”
          
“When?”
 
“The morning after the party.  He liked the sound and that it’s different.  So he changed the order.”
 
Adam shook his head.  “Another Parrott paradox. But then we’ve always known he’s eccentric.”
 
“Sweet.”
 
“Odd?”
 
“Quaint.”
 
“In the spirit of the moment, we’re at loggerheads.”
 
Laughing, she flung her arms around his neck. “Oh Adam.  Don’t you just love living here?”
 
He peered into her eyes and kissed the tip of her nose.  “Now that our landlord’s arboreal integrity has been restored, yes.”  With a theatrical flourish, he stepped back and bent at the waist.  “And to you, architect of clever and subtle strategy, I tender my deepest respects and pledge of eternal service with this, my most sincere and adoring
bough.”
 
As they hugged with giddiness, three floors below, the inhabitant of the English basement again parted his curtains for one last look into the darkening night.  He glanced down at the open Volume Ga-Hy which began, “A living fossil from ancient times …” Satisfaction wreathed his face.  “Ginkgo,” he said, extending the syllables, the end fading.  “Ginkgo,” he exhaled, pleased by the whispered sound.

Retired from 35 years in television, A.H. Block inter-mixes writing with the usual volunteering, reading and puttering. His work has run in over three dozen publications, with fiction in Thema, The Broadkill Review, Art Times and others. He lives in Bronxville, NY.

* * * 

The Turk
By Dylan Brie Ducey

I was broke, so I went to the American Church to look at the ads. One said  “Secretary needed, evening hours.” I thought that was odd, the part about the evening, but I was broke so I called the number. A man answered. He had a heavy accent that I did not recognize. He asked “Do you smoke?” and I said no. I took down his address, which was on the Champs Elysées. To my surprise, it turned out to be an apartment building.
 
He was a short, balding man, at least sixty years old. I was twenty one. I sat on the couch in his messy living room and tried to ignore the blaring television. He told me that he had a business, with offices in Paris, Geneva, and London. I would be required to accompany him when he visited the other offices. Did I know how to type? Yes, I said. He also needed someone to clean up his kitchen from time to time, he said. Of course, I nodded. Was I in school, he asked. If not, it would be his pleasure to send me to the Sorbonne. I stared.
 
His last secretary, he said with some emotion, had been with him for seven years and left recently to go back to the United States.
 
I understood now that the Turk was lonely.
 
He asked if I had any nice clothing, things I could wear out to dinner.  No, I said. Then I will take you out, he said, and buy you a new wardrobe. You will keep your own apartment, he added, and you will be free to have a boyfriend. 
 
I thought of my American boyfriend who would arrive on a flight from Bangkok in just two weeks. How would he feel about being usurped by this old man?
 
The Turk continued talking but I did not pay attention. I smiled, trying to conceal my increasing panic. Should I get up and leave? That would be rude, though I was sure the man would be unable to stop me. I waited until the right moment presented itself – the end of the interview. The Turk said he would call me tomorrow, and that he would take me out to dinner. He looked pleased. He showed me to the door. “À demain,” he said. See you tomorrow. After I heard the door close I broke into a run. I ran to the elevator and I ran down the Champs Elysées all the way to the métro, and I ran onto the first train that arrived at the platform.
 
That night in my room in the 2nd arrondissement I lay in bed, wondering what it would be like to be a kept woman. Would the Turk buy me furs? Diamonds? Couture? My own flat, big enough to conceal my boyfriend? Would I wear couture to my classes at the Sorbonne? Would I wait at the curb in my furs, for the Turk’s limousine?
 
When the telephone rang the next day I asked my roommate, Ulla, to answer it. She was a painter from Denmark. “Allô?” she said. I sat in a chair, my heart pounding, my hands under my thighs. “Désolé, Monsieur,” said Ulla, shaking her head. “Elle n’est pas là.” Then she gave me a devilish look and she told the Turk that I’d moved out. Actually, she confided to him in a whisper, I’d disappeared during the night. Monsieur, she said sorrowfully, one never knows with these American girls. She hung up the phone and I sighed with relief and guilt. No furs for me, no limousine.

Dylan Brie Ducey has a story forthcoming in Gargoyle; other work has appeared in The Pinch, monkeybicycle, Gravel, decomP, and elsewhere. Her awards include the Matt Clark Prize for Fiction, and the Carlisle Family Scholarship to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. She received her MFA from San Francisco State University in January, 2016.

* * * 

The Devil in Winter
By Thomas Dussman

It was a lovely morning for revenge.

Looking east into a milky-blue winter morning, the immense skyscrapers of Chicago soared into the air. The wind was pure Chicago, surly and suspicious as it muttered its way among the concrete and glass canyons. In his penthouse hotel suite, Marvin finished his morning workout, ripping off 50 push-ups in a minute. He had nearly accomplished his tasks. He would soon leave Chicago again. This time he would never return.

Five down, one to go: the devil.

Gazing absently into the rising sun, Marvin dressed in faded jeans and a heavy hooded sweatshirt. As he laced up a pair of battered, steel-toed work boots, scenes from the distant past drifted across his mind’s eye…

......It’s hard to describe what it was like to grow up fat and short, and utterly without grace or confidence. A listener has no frame of reference, unless he or she grew up with the same sad configuration. It is probably the same difficulty a black person has trying to tell a white person how it was to grow up black.

As a boy, Marvin’s unhappy appearance attracted a lot of attention in his rough, “Back o’ the Yards” neighborhood. There was really nowhere to hide. And, with a body that was three or four feet high and three or four feet wide, he didn't have much ability to run---though he tried. Like wolves to a crippled caribou, he drew the bullies, the bored and the beasts. Adding to his misery was his smart mouth, and his helpless and devouring anger. Even when he was getting the crap kicked out of him, he wouldn’t shut up. Even when beaten to a bloody pulp, stripped down to his underpants and tossed out into the snowy school yard, Marvin would scream through his tears, “I’ll get you for this, I’ll get you for this, I’ll get you for this, I’ll get you for this….”

They laughed and laughed, perhaps applying an extra kick or two before they went on their beasty way.
His hardworking parents were no help. Recent immigrants, working two jobs each, they also were trying to get ahead and fit in. But, there was no getting ahead for them while raising four kids in a two bedroom walk-up. Overwhelmed with their responsibilities, they shook their heads and told their friends that they couldn't understand why "Marvie doesn't learn to get along with his friends."

....Marvin's "friends."

Of course he tried to “get along with his friends.” He begged and grovelled to be part of a group, any group, at even the lowest level. No one would have him; his comical body and his sputtering, uncontrollable rage made him too much fun right where he was---a side-splitting, clownish punching bag: a defenceless, comedic gift that kept on giving.

And so it went for him, through an eon of solitary hurt and humiliation.

Every Hell on earth eventually ends, even this excruciating west-side-of-Chicago Hell. Marvin finally grew taller than wide. The daily beatings tapered off, then stopped. Joining the Navy, he left Chicago with profound relief. He took advantage of his opportunities, and rapidly moved on and up. In the Navy, everyone was part of a group, part of the team, a shipmate. It rebuilt him, top to bottom. The Navy taught him how to succeed, how to recognize open doors and to walk through them with confidence. On that foundation, he later taught himself to knock the doors down, if that was what was required to get where he wanted to go. Mindful of his porky past, Marvin dedicated himself to a lifelong, daily routine of diet and exercise.

Twenty-five years, and more, had somehow slipped away. Marvin had many friends, and they all knew him as wealthy, confident, friendly and fulfilled. With a loving wife and four children, and money in the bank, he had much to be thankful for. And much to lose. But, behind his success had always been the ruin of his childhood, the frequent terrifying dreams and the unbalanced scales of justice. At some point, he decided to square the accounts.

Moving fast, Marvin easily tracked down the monsters in his childhood closet---the six demons of his daily nightmares. They had never left Chicago, and had moved only from one dreary and hopeless precinct to another. As their fathers and grandfathers had done before them, they worked in the Stockyards or at menial jobs. Soon the Stockyards would close, and they would join the ranks of the unskilled unemployed.

Marvin had property in Milwaukee, and arranged a trip back to the Midwest. He considered, carefully and at length, the legal and moral implications of his revenge. He thought about his family, and all he had to lose.  But, the things that had been done could not be undone. A black fury filled his heart, and he moved implacably forward with what some might call a frightening resolve.

After 25 years of bad dreams, the Chicago demons, when confronted in the in the flesh, seemed much smaller and far from threatening. Yet, he made a careful strategy, disguising himself and his revenge until it was fighting time. Then, one by one, Marvin made short work of them, leaving behind a carefully planned trail of broken bones and emergency rooms.  Except for number five, all of the demons were pathetic, really. That number five guy, Big George, wasn’t that big anymore and even seemed a new and changed man. To all outward appearances, he truly regretted what he done to boy Marvin, and he had apologized profusely when confronted by the new Marvin. But, the debt demanded to be paid.

Marvin administered very thorough beatings, and George took his like a man. When George was down, wrecked and bleeding, Marvin felt bad. Sort of.

Five down, one to go: the devil.

Marvin left his hotel as the morning turned grey and misty. Low, grumbling clouds promised rain, or sleet and snow. The temperature was falling. He made his way toward the barrens of Chicago, on the westside.

The devil was cornered outside Sammy’s, a garbage bar behind Midway Airport in a gritty and unlovely industrial area. Here was Marvin’s personal Prince of Darkness. Here was the leader of the pack of wolves that had fed on Marvin. This devil in human form had taken particular and personal pleasure in delivering humiliation and suffering. Though the devil was saggy and baggy and sorry-looking, Marvin recognized him instantly. Grey-haired and stooped, he was yet a stubbly-bearded and potbellied version of the nightmare of twenty-five years ago.

The word had gotten out about Marvin’s settling of debts, and the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ of it. As the rain began to fall, the devil was watchful while waiting for his ride. Yet, he did not recognize Marvin as Marvin approached him, until Marvin growled his name. Then recognition flooded over him. He staggered back in surprise, moving in fits and jerks as he looked in desperation for an escape. The frantic piggy eyes in his mottled face shot left and right, and left again.

The rain turned to sleet, coming down hard. The mid-day gloom deepened. Thunder rumbled to the west.

Cutting off the devil’s retreat, the Devil gave him a friendly wave, and closed in.

Tom Dussman is a retired US Navy fighter pilot and United Airlines Captain living on the southern coast of Virginia. An enthusiastic scribbler of prose and poetry, he is the well-renowned author in residence at Sammy's Pub. He pounds the keyboard every day, next to his beloved Muse: Mother Ocean.  

* * *
 
Wolf Girl
By William Falo
                                                                              
Eli pocketed the wolf hunting permit and gritted his teeth when he shoved his way past the protesters that made mock howls at him. One of them in a wolf suit stepped into his path, and howled into his face. He shoved the person backwards until they fell, then he turned and saw a nightmare of angry faces. 

“You’re real tough shooting defenseless animals from a plane,” someone yelled from the back of the crowd.

His face turned red and he clenched his fists. The person in the suit tried to get up and grab his jeans. He kicked their hand away with repetitive kicks until he heard the sound of crying. He looked down and saw the wolf person’s feet. The suit didn’t include paws and their toenails were painted purple.

"Stop,” someone yelled.

Other protestors gathered around him. 

“I don’t even have an airplane,” he said.

It didn’t stop the protestors from howling at him when he pushed through them. He drove faster than normal to get home. 

He stood on his back deck looking out on the wilderness. He saw a line of wolves walking through the meadow below the cabin. They looked up when he stumbled over a broken plank. The binoculars 
shook in his hands when he pointed them at the wolves. He held them tighter when some of the pack started to play. A few of the smaller wolves tumbled down a hill in mock fighting and a smile crossed his face. His favorite wolf trailed the others due to a wounded leg; its white-tipped tail brushed the ground when it walked. The sound of an approaching jeep scattered the wolf pack into the Alaskan wilderness. 

“Eli,” a man called out while jumping out of the jeep. 

“Yea, what’s up?” 

“Did you get your permits?” He limped toward him. 

“Yep. There were protestors.” 

“I know. Damn animal freaks. They’ll give up in time.” 

“I don’t know if I want to go through that again.” He remembered the purple toe nails on the wolf mascot.  

“You know how much money the hunters are paying you to guide them. Look at this place, it’s a disaster. When winter comes, it will fall apart. You’ll never make enough taking fisherman out. Hunting is where the money is and wolves are the biggest money maker.” 

Eli looked up at the cracks on the walls and ceiling. The wood below them splintered in spots. The roof leaked when it rained. 

“What are you looking at?” He pointed at the binoculars.
 
“Nothing,” he said and turned away. Jason stared into the meadow. A wolf flashed between green bushes.  

“They’re right below you. Shit, you’ll make a fortune. You can then use that money to buy a plane.
Aerial hunting is the way of the future.” 

He huffed and nodded when Jason jumped into the jeep.

“You’re father would be proud of you for becoming a hunting guide just like him. He wanted that for you.” 

Eli watched the jeep fade away into the distance. He noticed the purple wildflowers still on the side of the road despite the cold weather. Where did they come from? His mind drifted to the purple toenails and when the jeep vanished he kept staring in the direction of the town.  

The silence of the night fed his loneliness and he drove toward town despite needing sleep dreading the long hunts. A group of men from Los Angeles were due the next day. Since, the aerial hunts were booked up they took him. His walk-in hunts took longer and he didn’t guarantee success, but they were desperate. They all wanted wolf pelts or a stuffed one to brag how strong they are. 

The heads of various animals sat in a pile out back. Their eyes stared up in disbelief from being killed by an invisible bullet. Once his father died he removed them, but he never lit the match to send their spirits to heaven. He put the picture of his mother on top. The thought of her leaving with a hunter from Texas made him angry. No letters ever came despite her promises to send for him. 
He drove to town and saw The Northern Lights club. It lit up the dark road with signs that flashed green and purple. Cars and pickup trucks filled the lot since the club attracted both locals and outsiders due to its mixture of music and sports.  

The sound of laughter made him pause before entering the bar. It sounded like memories 
of his father laughing at him when he couldn’t lift a dead dear’s head, schoolmates  
laughing when he couldn’t spell, and the girl from town when he asked her for a date. 
He ordered a beer and stared at the football game on one of the televisions scattered 
through the bar. 

In a corner, he saw a group of people set off from the rest. A girl with dark hair smiled and sipped wine. The light from a candle created sparks in her eyes. Hypnotized, he realized that she was staring at him.  

His cheeks turned red and he looked away then started to get up. When he turned around the girl stood there. “Where are you going?” 

“I’m leaving.” 

“Not until you tell me why you were staring at me.” 

He stepped backwards and put his hands in his pockets.  

“Well,” she said. He noticed the dark eyes that sparkled in the candlelight also sparkled in the fluorescent lights. It reminded him of a wolf he once saw in his flashlight, the yellow eyes sent goose bumps up his arms before it darted off.  

The goose bumps spread up his arms again, but this time he rubbed them to try to make them disappear. “Your eyes sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight.”

It was a cheap pick up line that had no chance of working on her. 
She remained quiet for a long time while he continued to rub his arms. 
Finally, she sat next to him. “That’s about the nicest thing I heard in this town. I’m Julia.” 

He opened his mouth then closed it. He didn’t want to tell her that he read it in a poem somewhere. 

“Do you live in the town?” 

“Snowshoe. No, up on the mountain.” 

“Cool, you must see a lot of animals.” 

“All the time.” 

"What kind,” she moved closer to him. 

He knocked the glass of beer over. The bartender cursed and wiped it up with a stained covered rag.  
"Can I buy you a drink?” 

“Sure,” she said. “A white wine.” 

“And another beer,” he said.  

“Haven’t you had enough,” she said and laughed. He laughed too.  

“What kind of animals do you see up on the mountain?” 

"Deer, fox, mountain goats, bear, and wolves. Sometimes.” 

She stopped him by putting her hand on his shoulder. Sparks spiked through his body causing his hand to shake. “Wolves?” She stood up. 

Her hand remained on his shoulder. It felt like it was on fire. “Yes, all the time.” 

“I love wolves. I am here because of the aerial hunt. A group of us came from Fairbanks to protest. I go to college there.” 

He couldn’t think straight, but knew not to mention the wolf hunting expedition. “Oh, I can show you them sometime.” 

She smiled and her eyes lit up again. She removed her hand, but it still burnt his arm. He was tempted to see if it left burn marks. “I would love that.” 

“Okay, when do you want to go?” 

“Is tomorrow okay?”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m Eli.” 

“I’m Julia.” They shook hands. He didn’t want to let go. “I can meet you here in the 
morning. I have to go back to my friends now.” 

“Okay,” he said.  

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek at the same time the television announcer yelled, “Touchdown.”  

When she walked away he noticed that she wore sandals despite the cold night. He gasped. Purple toenails flashed when she walked. She was the person in the wolf suit. It can’t be. He kicked that person violently. It was her. He shivered and his hand began to shake. He could never let her find out. 
When the applause died down, he walked out of the bar.  

The gasoline covered the open eyes of the stuffed animals in a glaze. It was time. The girl could never see them. He threw the match on it and watched it flare to life in the darkness. The eyes of a bear seemed to fill with tears before it melted into ashes. Unable to watch their destruction, he walked away and while the fire crackled he heard crying. A sad howl echoed through the woods. The wolf seemed to know what would happen when the aerial hunts began.  

The morning came fast after a night filled with tossing and turning with no sleep. He drove into town after shaving and using ten year old cologne. The girl stood outside the Northern Lights Club. Her dark hair was tied tight behind her head and it made her look even more beautiful than before. Her face was bright and smiling when she waved to him. He got out just as another car pulled up.  
The window went down and a man leaned out. “Eli,” he said. 

“Yes,” he said. 

“I recognized you from your ad. We’re here for the wolf hunt. We’re from Los 
Angeles.” 

“I’m…” he couldn’t say anything else.  

Julia stared at him. “You’re hunting wolves. But you told me.” 

“I’m sorry.” 

“Wait, I recognize you. You hit me. You’re the one who knocked me down the other day.” 

“But, I didn’t mean too.” 

She ran down the street and he heard the sound of sobbing despite the engine of the car. 

“We’ll.” The man in the car said. 

“The hunt is cancelled.” 

“You must be joking. We came all this way and gave you a deposit. We’ll take you to court.” 

“Okay. Hold on. Follow me,” he said and got in his truck.
 
He led them to his cabin. “You can stay here.” 

“This is a dump,” one of the men said. The other remained quiet. 

“It’s hunting. You’re not on a tour.” 

“Okay,” they said. 

“I’ll be back.” 

“You can’t leave us here. We want to hunt wolves.” 

“I’ll be back. I have to get something in town. You can start hunting on the other side of 
the river, cross the bridge and walk until you see a green marker then keep going for a hundred yards. There is a large pack in that area.” 

“But we paid for you.” 

“Then you can wait.” 

“Let’s go,” the other man said. 

Eli went into town to look for Julia. A few protestors gathered outside the permit office, but there was no one in a wolf suit. He entered the office. “There are men hunting on protected land up by my cabin.”
 
“Why didn’t you warn them?” 

“I did.” He lied and knew it would cost him his hunting permit.  

The man picked up a radio and called a ranger to investigate. Despite, the legal wolf hunt, you needed to carry a permit and stay in certain areas. When he left, only a few protestors walked around. “Does anyone know Julia?” 

“Yea, I do,” a girl said. 

“Where is she?” 

“Down at the airfield. Some people went there to protest.” 

His truck screeched around the corner and bounced over ruts in the dirt road. A few planes taxied on the runway, while another one unloaded their gear. Draped across one wing were three gray wolves. Their mouths hung open. They would never howl again. 

The girl sat on a bench with the head of her wolf suit in her lap. 
He approached slowly. His hands searched deep into his pockets for words to say. 
She looked up, and started to leave. “Please, wait.” 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push you or kick you.” He looked down. 

She remained quiet.  

“I was upset. I needed money, and listened to the wrong person.” He looked up and noticed her eyes glistened with tears. “I’m not taking the men hunting. In fact, I set them up to 
get in trouble for illegal hunting.” 

“Oh,” she said and walked away. “I hoped you were different than most people around here.” 

“Can I show you something? I promise you’ll like it.” 

“You hurt me.” She looked at the wolves lifeless bodies slung over the plane’s wing supports. 

“I’m sorry. Please, let me show you something tonight. Give me one chance.” 

Another plane unloaded dead wolves. One with a white-tipped tail flopped onto the ground.  
“Oh, no.” He fell to his knees then got up and saw his father’s old friend get out. He charged the man.

“Eli, did you come to help.” 

“You killed that one near my cabin. I followed him since he was a pup.”  

“You’re crazy. You wanted to hunt wolves too.” 

“No, I didn’t. My father wanted me too. I wanted to show them to people.” 

“We’ll your father was right.” 
 
“No, he wasn’t. He never cared about what I wanted to do.” 

He walked away and Julia followed him. They drove up a curving road to his cabin, and he led her around back past the ashes from the fire as the sun set. At the edge of a path, they sat on a fallen tree overlooking a meadow below them. Giant snow flurries drifted down like pixie dust. “Is this it?” Julia asked. 

“Wait,” he said. He looked to the sky, and said a silent prayer. 

A lone howl broke the silent night. Another one followed from a distant ridge. The howls filled the night around them. Below them, a pack walked into a clearing with one less member. 
He tapped Julia’s shoulder and pointed down.  

“Oh my God,” she said. “This is beautiful,” she touched his arm. The electricity of her touch sent sparks through his body and seemed to ignite the sky as the northern lights flared overhead. 

William Falo’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Emrys Journal, 34th Parallel, Skyline Review, Oak Bend Review, Open Wide Magazine, Flyleaf, The Linnet’s Wings, The View from Here, After Nyne, The Monarch Review, and others. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

* * * 

Smart Bomb
By Timothy Nunes

Every life is priceless... Isn't it?

The snow felt especially heavy today, Ed thought, as he struggled to find his rhythm. Scrape, push, scoop, lift... Scrape, push, scoop, lift... Scrape, push, scoop, lift. He paused to catch his breath and wipe away the sweat, only to find that his eyebrows had already frozen into Brillo pads. As he rested on his shovel, he felt a tightening in his chest. He knew it was just muscle pain but, after being out of work for half a year, he couldn't help thinking that maybe he should shovel extra hard this time, put everything he had into it. His life insurance was paid up through the end of the year, and......

“Hey, take it easy there, buddy! Don't want to give yourself a heart attack,” his new neighbor yelled. They'd only met once, at a community meeting... Doug? Dave??... Dan. Yeah, Dan, that was it... Maybe. He seemed like a down to earth guy from the few words they'd shared. Average, nondescript. Supposedly just back from Afghanistan. Some sort of military or government job. Ed continued resting on his shovel as Dan(?) walked towards him across the badly plowed street.

“Dan, from the other night.” His neighbor reached out a gloved hand. Ed shook it. Firm handshake, but not crushingly so.

“Yeah, I remember,” Ed responded. “How's it going? All moved in?”

“Yep, pretty much. Still have boxes stacked here and there. Hopefully it'll all be put away soon, just in case I'm redeployed again.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that. Um...?”

“Afghanistan.”

“Yeah, Afghanistan.” Ed straightened up on his shovel, signaling that he was ready to get back to work.
“Well, good luck.”

“Say,” Dan continued, ignoring the silent cue. “You still looking for work?”

Ed looked down, contemplating his snow boots for a moment. He hated talking about his current circumstances. Though he knew the layoff hadn't been his fault (maybe... who knew?), there was a part of him that still hadn't come to terms with it.

“Still looking.”

“Been awhile, right?”

“Yeah, awhile,” Ed responded without looking up. “Six months.” Six... long... freakin'... months.

“Well, I know a guy who might have something. Come by when you're done, we can talk about it. I'll put a pot on.”

“Okay, yeah, sure.” Ed looked up, meeting Dan's eyes again. “Thanks.”

“And maybe take it easy on the shoveling. Face down in dirty, plowed snow and salt is no way to go.”





“Why me?” the congresswoman asked the casually-dressed, nondescript man sitting across the table from her in the busy, beltway coffee shop.

“You're on the Financial Services committee,” the man responded. “The decisions your committee makes impact a range of businesses... Banks, investment houses, retailers.”

“And...?”

“The Company needs people in key roles like yours, influential people who can contact other influential people. We're at war, as you know. And this particular war requires unconventional thinking, new tactics. In this war, one phone call can have greater impact than a $70,000.00 Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone.”

The congresswoman lifted her coffee cup while contemplating the man's words, took a sip. It was cold. 

“I'm still a little unclear about what you're asking of me.”

The man met her eyes and smiled, unassuming and non-threatening.

“Just an occasional phone call. One month the call might be to a bank VP, the next month we might ask you to contact a HR director somewhere. We're interested in influencing hiring decisions related to specific, pre-selected individuals... As part of an innovative new program. It's all very low-key... And top secret, of course. We'd even provide you with an unregistered mobile.”

“What if I chose not to make these calls?”

“We're all patriots, Congresswoman,” he responded, again with the non-threatening smile. “You'll do the right thing.”






Ed sat at his neighbor's kitchen table, spellbound, a half-empty cup of coffee forgotten in his hands. Dan had just recounted the suicide attack that had killed his co-workers and left him bleeding and near death.

“A freakin' doctor,” Dan continued, “Someone who'd spent countless years becoming who he was, someone who was supposed to value life over everything else. That's the kind of hatred we're up against. Words fall short... Especially here in suburbia, over a cup of coffee.”

“How bad were you hurt?”

“I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I survive, they even saved the leg. Just three surgeries and five months of physical therapy. It hardly bothers me any more, most days... Except when I'm shoveling snow. I think maybe the cold affects the one piece of shrapnel they couldn't get to.”

“Wow.” Ed paused, finally remembered his coffee and took a sip. It'd gone cold. “So, you said you might have to go back?”

“Yeah, maybe. Could be anytime. That's why I'm trying to get everything in order. That's also why I wanted to talk to you.”

“I'm listening.”

“The agency I work for, we're pretty low-key... Operating under the radar, so to speak. Always trying to come up with new ideas to even the playing field. It's extremely important work. If you're interested, we're starting up a new organization, one where you could really make a difference.”

“I still have one job-related lead I'm following up on,” Ed responded, “But, if that doesn't pan out......” He allowed his voice to trail off as he thought about what Dan had said. “Besides,I work... Or worked, in marketing. What would a low-key, government organization need with an old marketing guy? And how could someone like me ever make a difference?”

“You'd be surprised, Ed. Very surprised.”






“Hello, this is Congresswoman Janet Freeman. Is this Bob Harcourt, VP of Business Development at First National?

“Yes, it is. And it's a pleasure to hear from you, Congresswoman Freeman. What can I do for you today?”

“I need a favor, Bob. A man by the name of Ed Neuman recently applied for a marketing position in your retail banking division. It would be in everyone's best interest if his application was deemed unsuitable. Consider it a personal favor.”

“I will take care of it personally, Congresswoman. Thank you for calling.”

“Thank you, Bob.”

Ed shifted uncomfortably on the old vinyl-covered couch, causing it to squeak. The sound echoed noisily throughout the cold, empty warehouse. He'd driven more than an hour away from his suburban home for this meeting in a distant, mostly abandoned industrial district. The location, the cold and the conversation all added to his discomfort.

"You see, Mr. Neuman," the nondescript man sitting across the battered Formica table from him continued, "we're losing this war. It's a fact we've been able to keep from the general public, but the reality is that we've found ourselves in a decidedly un-American world."

"You didn't bring me all this way to listen to nationalist rhetoric, did you?" Ed asked, feeling mildly annoyed that, despite his current economic circumstances, his own government would underestimate his intelligence so.

"Allow me to explain. When I say "un-American", I'm not asking you to visualize a Leyendecker-painted recruiting poster of Uncle Sam. I'm talking economics... The world economy, the economies of various countries. In many parts of the world, poverty is increasing, creating fertile ground for the radicalization of entire populations. Poor, uneducated or undereducated people are being taught that America is to blame for their economic circumstances, and that by attacking us, they're helping ensure a better world for their children."

The man continued, "The economics of the current war are also un-American. History has shown time and again that, as a country, we've been able to come together and achieve amazing things. In that respect, we're still the greatest country on earth, in my opinion. Unfortunately, it's difficult to stop an individual suicide bomber with a Hellfire missile. Also, a single suicide bomber costs maybe $1,000 to train, vs $70,000 for one Hellfire. I know we like to believe that life is priceless but, unfortunately, the cold reality is that many people no longer share that belief... Including those living in poverty here in our own country, people who are actively being recruited by radical groups as we speak."

Ed shifted again, wincing at the echoes. "What does any of this have to do with the opportunity you brought me here to discuss?"

"The organization I've been tasked with forming will be dedicated to training and equipping intelligent people such as yourself to become anti-terrorists. Recruits will only be required to serve for one year, including training time. After one year of service, a full Federal retirement package will be awarded to each recruit. Should a recruit be required to prevent a security threat, their family will receive the full retirement package plus a $100,000 bonus."

"Wait." Something the man said didn't make sense. "When you talk about a bonus to the family..." Ed paused, gathering his thoughts. "Don't you expect your recruits to survive these “security threats”?"

"The organizations we're fighting, Mr. Neuman, are well funded, their leaders are experienced and their recruits receive months of expert training. The full resources of this country –our vast arsenal, our intelligence community –all are falling short of effectively combating this threat... The threat of individual, intelligent weapons... Weapons that can deviate from course or change tactics in a microsecond. The Japanese kamikaze pilot was by far the most effective tactical weapon of the last century. In the 21st century, it's weaponized individuals. And to win this war, in this century, we need to fight fire with fire."

"You're not saying... " Ed stumbled on the words. "You can't possibly mean......?"

“We've developed new, state-of-the-art technology that will better enable our recruits to detect and neutralize threats, allowing us to save numerous lives. We're also being extremely selective about who we recruit, requiring that each candidate be older, well educated, immediately available, and most able to benefit from the financial security we're offering. In other words, Mr. Neuman, we're looking for people just – like – you.”

Ed just stared back at the man in disbelief.

"Think about it, Mr. Neuman. The safety and security of this county is at stake, as is your own family's security... Now and into the future. Just think about it."

The coat really was a miraculous invention, Ed thought as he casually strolled through the crowded shopping mall. Synthetic 'fabric' capable of containing up to 20 lbs of hyper-accelerated shrapnel, a deployment mechanism designed to securely enclose and restrain two people. All the operator need do was embrace the target. Best case, where the target's device failed to detonate, both the operator and target would then remain safely immobilized until the proper authorities arrived. Worst case scenario, any blast would be up to 90% contained... Meaning most of the potential victims would be saved.

The other technology he carried was more of a mixed bag. The CloQEDS (Close Quarters Explosive Detection System) was very effective at detecting most explosives (e.g. TNT, C4, Ammonal, even TATP) and notifying the operator via a hidden earpiece. Unfortunately, temperature, humidity and other environmental factors often limited it's effective range from its 100' ideal to a less than 50' reality. The CloQDPS (Close Quarters Detonation Prevention System) was even more problematic, with detonation design variations limiting it's effectiveness to just 50%.

Memories of the equipment test videos he'd watched in training passed through his mind as he navigated towards the hot pretzel counter (a location he frequented due to the long lines of potential targets). The coat almost always contained the explosive force of any detonation to the two test subjects (the tests had used adult pigs), the CloQEDS usually detected all device variations within 70' to 100', and the CloQDPS prevented detonation as many times as it didn't. Was the tech perfect? No, it wasn't. If it helped save 9 out of 10 people though, or even 18 out of 20... And also helped prevent the kind of panic such public attacks inspired, well... That would be considered a victory.

Regardless, it had been the right decision, he thought, as he navigated toward the mall's center and its packed merry-go-round full of children. Since his recruitment nine months ago, he'd received a regular pay check, the bills were being paid, and his family's current and future financial security were ensured. His wife had raised her eyebrows when he told her about his new “Security Analyst” position, and had no idea of the risks. He'd tell her when his year was up... Or The Company would. Either way, she'd be looked after.

When the alarm went off in his ear, he reacted reflexively, the product of months of intense training. Scan the area, find someone wearing bulky clothing. He slowly approached two possibles, a young man wearing a thick winter coat and a [seemingly]pregnant woman. As the audio alarm guided him towards the young man and away from the [now likely]pregnant woman, he breathed a quick sigh of relief. Then he focused on the Chinese food counter slightly to the right of the young man, allowing him to pass by within inches. The alarm's volume was almost deafening by the time he made his pass, turned, deployed his coat and activated the CloQDPS.

His final thought as searing pain enveloped his brain was that he was glad he hadn't ended up face down in dirty, plowed snow and salt.

A native of Stockton, California for most of his life, Tim is a graduate of Illinois Tech, and his day job for the past 25-odd years has been in Information Technology. Tim currently resides in the Chicagoland area, has blondish hair, brownish eyes, a graying beard, and a penchant for bad poetry writing and even worse bassoon playing. All else is subject to change without notice.

* * * 

Ashes
By Andrew Pryor

They didn’t appear in the dead of night, when no one was looking. It was the middle of June, a Friday. The beach wasn’t packed, but there were enough people to have plenty of reliable witnesses.

Depending on where you were, sitting on top of a lifeguard tower or on a towel near the tallgrass-choked fence with the sign NO TRESPASSING AFTER HOURS or stomach-down and six-years-old facing the inch-high waves head-on, they could have been taken to be any number of things. Plastic water jugs, messages-in-a-bottle, perhaps jellyfish. Some people in the shallower water picked up their feet and shrieked away from the shore before they realized what they were.

Jars, glass jars. Hundreds of them, all washed up on the beach within a matter of minutes.
It wasn’t a fear they felt, it was more of a surreal feeling, like sitting down at the dinner table to eat a music box, or trying to paint a mural with a live raccoon as your brush. Three hundred people subjected to dream logic while they were wide awake.

Everyone at the beach that day took one home, whether in that moment in the daytime, or later at night when no one else was looking. The people who took more than one gave them to loved ones, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, parents who collected sea glass and sand dollars and dried-up starfish.

All of them were exactly the same, wide jars made of clear glass, almost too clear, like they were missing any of the natural imperfections that a glassworker couldn’t help but make. All of them were sealed tight with a gasket and a clamp lid that no one could open. Younger kids would put them on the ground and stomp on the metal lever. Older kids would throw them at trees. Not only would they not open, they didn’t break. Not when tossed in the air or thrown in a fireplace or run over with a car. They stuck around in people’s lives the way things do when they don’t grow old or split in half or stop working.

Soon, you couldn’t go to anyone’s house without seeing one of them on a mantel, or next to jars marked “Flour” and “Sugar”, and anyone who saw one of the jars felt that they shared something with their neighbors, a shared morbidity that descended on the small seaside town.
Because the jars weren’t completely clear—they were all labeled with one word, in capital letters: ASHES.
          
It was marked on the front of every jar, scratched into the glass in such a way that brought to mind schools of fish—one thin line becoming several distinct ones, swimming against each other to form the up-and-down slant of the A, the hook of an S, the skyward curve of the H, like two arms outstretched. It made you want to feel the texture of the letters on your fingertips, in the same way a person might pinch themselves to prove a dream—but the letters were scratched on the inside.
 
“Sometimes, as mere human beings, there are things we cannot explain.”
Pastor Doherty rested his wrists on the edge of the pulpit in the middle of his sermon and looked out at his congregation. It was summer, well after Easter had ended, and it was a week after his wife had packed all of her belongings into her suitcase. It matched the one that was still under his bed, collecting dust.

The pews were filled with empty spaces, lines of ghost parishioners separating the few regulars. Pastor Doherty spoke to both groups as he continued his sermon: “There are gaps in our line of sight as a human race, but there are also presences, weighted presences of things or people that we cannot explain even when they are right in front of us—whether they walk through our front door, or tap us on the shoulder when we’re walking from home to work, or wash up on the beach when we’re just trying to lose ourselves in the noises of the ocean.”

Several people in the congregation tittered to themselves. Doherty kept going: “But why do we, as humans, as mortals, as creatures of a just and loving God—why do we fear the unknown, the mysterious? What threatens us so much about the things that not only challenge our perceptions, but envelop them altogether?”

Doherty paused. He’d gained a somewhat notorious reputation for dragging out his sermons by pausing after rhetorical questions, as though—in the words of Deacon Matthews—he expected everyone in front of him to answer, thoughtfully and thoroughly, one at a time. Deacon Shustinger joked that when he’d married Angie, he’d paused five separate times during his wedding vows.

The pastor took a breath, then asked another question: “Well, where do we go when we die? That’s a question that countless civilizations have struggled and failed to answer, a question that so many wars have been fought over, a question that has spurred on the deaths of so many people—and it’s still a question that has no answer. It is the greatest unknown of all, and every time we’re confronted with something we can’t explain, that unexplained facet of life runs across the surface of our being, hinting at the afterlife that awaits us all, like a fissure in the layer of ice above the cold water of a lake.”

The pastor coughed. He’d lately felt like just leaving them there at the lowest point of his sermons, like the disgruntled driver of a school bus, dropping kids off on the wrong side of town and telling them to walk. But it was a pastor’s job to provide comfort above all. Comfort through faith.

“But we are blessed, because we, as followers of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, know exactly what is waiting for us on the other side.” He coughed, cleared his throat. “We are chosen by the light of the Lord to walk in His footsteps, to follow Him in our actions and our daily life. And in that way, the greatest unknown of all is revealed to us, and in the depth of that knowledge, we can revel in all of the mysteries life flaunts before us as the workings of God himself.”

“So my mission for you, as a follower of Christianity, is thus: go forth and illuminate your lives with the light of the Lord, not necessarily by proselytizing or grandstanding, but by being a known presence in the lives of those you love. Fill them with the warmth and light of your kindness and compassion, and together, you can stand without fear of that which you cannot explain or place within your lives.” The pastor bowed his head. “Let us pray. Dear God, thank you for…”
 
Doherty didn’t arrive home from church until later that evening, when the sun hung low and small and red against the sky, like a coin from a forge. A few of the churchgoers had asked him how he was doing—he said he was doing fine—and if he needed any help—he said no, because those two answers were the correct ones, even if they weren’t the right ones.

He didn’t feel particularly hungry, just tired, so he bypassed the kitchen and went straight to the bedroom, taking care to remove his Sunday shoes and socks and place them against the wall near the door. He sat on the bed in his undershirt and boxers and looked at the windowsill, where Angie’s jar sat. His was in the kitchen, sitting on top of the microwave.

The jar was the only thing Angie had left behind, and other than the suitcase under the bed, it was the only thing they had in common anymore.

He remembered that day at the beach. He had gone, and Angie had stayed home to read a book. He told her before he left that she might like reading on the beach, and she’d refused, saying that even with sunglasses, the sunlight made it impossible to trap the words on the page.

He’d picked up two of the jars as they’d washed up on the beach, laughing softly as people watched, joking that he’d found early His and Hers anniversary presents for him and Angie. Angie’d said nothing about them when he brought them home, then one morning a couple days after, he’d found hers on the cement walkway outside the window, unbroken next to the drainpipe. He’d asked her about it then, and she’d answered his question with another question: “Why did you bring them home in the first place?”
“I don’t know,” he’d said. “I thought it’d be funny.”
“You have the Cryptkeeper’s definition of funny,” she said.
“What, you can’t picture us growing old together?” Doherty said.
“That’s not growing old, that’s growing grass,” she said. “I don’t want to roll over and see that in the morning anymore.”

He didn’t know why he’d put it back the next day. Maybe he just wanted her to finally crack a smile, or get even angrier, something that would loosen the clot between their two hearts. Maybe he just wanted to win the argument. She didn’t mention it at all when he put it back on the windowsill. He didn’t even know for sure if it was the reason she’d left. A sudden absence wasn’t the kind of answer he could explain, it was just another unknown that he preferred to keep in the background of his mind.

As he flicked the light switch, there was a soft hissing noise, then a pop. Doherty sat in the darkness for a split-second, then flicked the light switch on and off a few times. It worked perfectly. He turned away from the switch in bewilderment and glanced to his right. His eyes caught the windowsill, then stayed there, fixed.

The jar was open. The metal lever had been raised, and the lid rested loose and askew on the top of the jar. He stood up and walked over to the jar, inspected it. Lifted the lid and looked inside. It was empty. He brought his nose to the lip of the jar and inhaled. Nothing.

As he stood there, the phone beside his bed rang, once, twice, three times. Doherty heard the noise in the back of his mind, and then it rushed to the front, barreled its way through any other thought he could have had and stood at the front edge of his psyche, blaring itself over and over again, a ringing phone on a stage hung with a backdrop of the scrawled word ASHES, twenty-feet tall, scratched frantically like a man trying to write his Last Will and Testament with his fingernails on the inside of a well.

The phone rang three more times, then stopped. Doherty stood, his hands folded over the jar, gripping it, the blood rushing out of the tips of his fingers. He thought of Angie, only Angie, of the last time he saw her, laying upon her side of the bed, asleep in the morning light as he got ready for work, undisturbed, how that all she needed was some rest, some sleep to unmoor her mind and give everything a new perspective, and how when he came home he would be a new man, and she a new woman, and they would both start over again, their arms around each other, their hearts facing each other.
The phone rang again.

Andrew Pryor lives in Essex Fells, New Jersey, a small town with no traffic lights. He is a recent graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, and currently works as a package sorter for UPS to pay the bills. His work has previously been published in apt and Abbreviate Journal.

* * * 

Played
By Laura Robb

Paula could smell the outdoors in her office.  It made her giddy, the scent of summer lingering around her computer screen.  It reminded her of when she first understood the idea of sin, something heady and dangerous but tempting.  She closed the window.  The Dean of Students should be the last person to contemplate summer and all its liberties.  Yet her inner secretary, heedless of propriety, reminded her that only one more PTA meeting, one more Evaluations meeting, and one more state report on attendance remained before school closed for the longest vacation of the year.

First things first.  Tonight was the open house for new parents, the crop of parents who would present a freshman next September– or in some cases, two, as Paula had noted that no less than three sets of twins were registered.  Tonight would be so sweet an occasion.  The new principal, Bradley Hilken, would have his first chance to preside over bringing in new blood, and the lucky man would do so without the influence of Her Excellency, the unconscionable H.E.  

Paula and a few of her best pals (only three really) referred to the head of Advanced Learning as H.E., and they enjoyed a silent cheer when H.E. announced her retirement the week before. Bradley’s announcing her successor this evening would mean placing his brand on the faculty.  

Bradley, Paula thought fondly, might be headed in the right direction but still had so much to learn. True, he was unimpressed by H.E., rarely sought out her advice, and seemed almost relieved that she was retiring.  He listened when Paula explained staff politics to him and let him know that H.E., though she certainly had had some successes, was terribly overrated and frankly, not a staff favorite.  No one, but no one, (Paula had rolled her eyes when she told this to Bradley) was going to miss her pronouncements at Teacher Leader meetings.  (No one would miss Teacher Leader meetings, Paula thought, harking back to the great days when staff expected to be told what to teach to whom.)  

Who had died and made H.E. the Queen?  Everyone noticed that she sat at the corner table and waited patiently as each department head weighed in on the issue of the moment.  Only then would she deign to make a comment, and lo and behold the others would line up behind her as if POTUS had phoned in.  Of course, she was meticulous about not appearing to be self-serving.  Her ideas were always couched in terms of what the students needed, what was best for the students.   If things were up to her, the students would run the frigging building.  Unbelievable.

And what did she gain by influencing school policy to such an unbearable degree?  Paula knew she had an ego as big as a house and would not be satisfied until every student and every parent had heard of her programs.  She had, as Paula had documented some time before, actually approached students in the Special Education department to suggest to them that they take an Advanced Learning course.  Art, she said, might be a place for these students to start.  Even students who can’t read can sometimes do fine art work, she mewed at Paula.  H.E. thought she was purring, but Paula heard it as the mewing it was, her undying efforts to have her program front and center.  Always.

Nearly every teacher worked unstintingly for the students; there was no question about that fact.  Paula counted herself among the most ambitious cheerleaders for the motley group of society’s backwash who landed upon the shores of this high school.  They were immigrant children, or poor children, or the wrong color children, or, as in many cases, all three.  Where to begin with this group?  Certainly not with Advanced Learning.   Some of the school’s students naturally had it in them, it was true, but you could spot them a mile off.  Their parents attended the PTA meetings, and they had been taken to libraries, and museums and parks and theaters from the moment they could toddle.  They mixed with grace among the rest of the students but they were easy to identify and Paula didn’t begrudge them their Trigonometry and Creative Writing.  But, because of H.E.’s efforts to mesmerize the parents and staff into her magical thinking, Paula had to energetically inform Bradley and others that more than half of the students were in such a pathetic academic state that they had no business learning to run before they could walk.  Hello!  Advanced Learning has that name because it is advanced – not everyone can do it.  

Not as if Paula hadn’t herself attempted some remedial programs for this lower half of the school population.  She had organized a film discussion club after school and on her own time to help the students grasp some of the history and culture that had, due to their immersion in poverty, eluded them.  She lined up great American classics like the Wizard of Oz and Little Women.  A few students straggled into the brand new school theater with its impressive large screen and asked if they could get credit for staying to watch.  When Paula said no, that wasn’t the point, they straggled right out again and that was that.

The disappearance of the film discussion club marked the beginning of Paula’s use of H.E. to refer to the Advanced Learning chief.  Paula had overheard her comment to another staff member that the film discussion group had collapsed “of its own weight.”  What a simpering, sniggling comment.  That’s what passes for constructive criticism in her universe?  She, who speaks so convincingly of collaboration any time she can gather an audience of one or more, collaborates only on her ideas, her woolly-brained ideas of a “curriculum for all.”  All what?  All pop culture fanatics?  Meet them on their own ground, H.E. brays.  Mix in the books and music and movies they know to get to the more complex ideas.  Her advanced learning students wouldn’t know a classic if it stood in the doorway and howled.

Thank goodness for the likes of Bradley who follows a sane policy of steady-as-you-go management with realistic goals.  He was the right replacement for Jim, the last principal.  Paula had suffered seven long years under Jim’s direction and still trembled at the thought of the anxious administrative meetings where Jim would examine staff’s projects there, in front of everyone.  If she had to attend one more meeting where H.E.’s programs were held up as models and praised for their  “vision”, Paula would throw in the towel and go back to classroom teaching.

So it wouldn’t be long now.  H.E. would be gone and her replacement named.  Paula had pointed out that H.E.’s office space was a tad large, and that such an area could be better utilized as a counseling and tutoring center, aka, timeout room.  Bradley agreed and carved out a postage stamp space next to the mailboxes for the new head of Advanced Learning.  Paula was the first to say that an office does not a program make, and that the real power resides in the halls and classrooms with the students and teachers, but she also did not see the harm in sending a distinct message that Advanced Learning was no longer to be the flagship program of the school.  It could take its place among the rank and file.  Anyway, it was H.E. that said the best should be in the classroom as she ostentatiously grabbed two classes each semester so that she wouldn’t lose touch with the kids or with teaching.  What serious person does that?  Paula knew she herself was a better educator since she had begun to focus on the tasks of the Dean’s Office. Let H.E. burn the candle and both ends and look ridiculous.

At any rate, the strife, the tension, the sheer unworkability of H.E.’s ideas would be ending soon and as awkwardly as possible for her. H.E.’s attempt to crown her own successor had been rejected by Bradley.   Roundly and succinctly rejected.  Paula had had no small hand in the humiliation.  She and H.E. had been talking, going over paperwork, and H.E. must have been fatigued.  She openly wondered if Bradley were accepting personal recommendations for the new Advanced Learning head.  Paula knew just what to do.  Casually, she asked H.E. if she had a recommendation or two to make to Bradley.  H.E. mentioned Matthew, a youngish science teacher who had been teaching Advanced Learning Biology.   Paula had smiled conspiratorially with H.E. What a fine idea! Matthew, of course.

Bradley heard about H.E.’s campaign to undercut his leadership the next day.  Matthew, Paula explained, was a fine teacher but headstrong.  Once Paula had happened into his classroom and a student was delivering a presentation while Matthew sat in the back tutoring one of the boys she recognized as a purely vocational student – as apt to go to college as she was to swim the English Channel.  Matthew had good academics but bad instincts, and H.E. ‘s wanting to name him the head of Advanced Learning was nothing less than sabotage of all Bradley stood for.

Paula made her recommendation to Bradley with confident reasoning.  Lillian (one of her three buds but this was of no consequence) had just the profile they needed.   Ten years in the classroom with an itch to get out, she was younger than H.E. by twenty years.  She got the students much better, could talk to them easily, but had no intention of letting them take over.  A pat on the back, a joke at the right time, but the student was a student, and not all of them were pre-ordained to greatness, as H.E. might have you believe.  Lillian wouldn’t pretend that Advanced Learning was for everybody.  Lillian would not set up a program that jockeyed for dominance.  Inclusion of all kinds of kids did not have to mean foolhardiness, no matter what H.E. wanted.

That evening, Lillian rose gracefully from her seat and joined Bradley on the auditorium stage when he announced her new role.  There had already been a tiresome round of applause for H.E.’s service to the school, led, if you asked Paula, by a bunch of students who clapped simply because it allowed them to jump out of their seats and make noise.  Lillian was more than generous when she claimed it would be difficult to fill H.E.’s shoes, but she was determined to try.  Parents surrounded Lillian after the program to pepper her with questions, and Paula had to wait at the bar an extra half hour before Lillian arrived to celebrate her new job.

“Happy?” Paula asked.

“Very,” Lillian answered.  “Program management is going to be more fun than teaching, I think.  And no papers to correct.”

“There is that,” said Paula.  “Any blowback?”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw Matthew moving towards you afterwards.  I took off.”

“Oh,” said Lillian.  “No, he congratulated me.  Why?”

“He didn’t get it.  You know, get the position.”

“Did Bradley ask him?  I mean did he interview us both?” Lillian asked.

“H.E. pushed for him,” Paula smirked.

Lillian drank down a mouthful of beer and looked perplexed.

“Odd,” Lillian said.  “H.E. was the one who told me I’d be good for the job.  It shocked me because she never seemed to be a fan.  Always babbling about doing projects or some other Holy Grail.  I got the feeling she’d rather I didn’t teach in Advanced Learning.”

“Who cares?” Paula said.  “She’s not the principal.”

“Exactly,” said Lillian.  “But out of the blue she said I should consider program management.  Lots of organizational challenges, she said.”

“That’s why you brought it up to me?” asked Paula.

“Basically, yeah.  Same pay and teaching optional?  Sounded like a good deal.”

“So it was H.E.’s idea?” asked Paula.

“Totally.”

Laura Kelly Robb attended the University of Toronto and taught in Spain for several years. She completed the Screenwriting Program at the University of Washington, and once optioned a script. She considers her Hollywood phase something of a wild hair. She self-published the novel China Rock in 2013.

* * * 
Poetry

This is Your Task
By Melissa Banyacski

This is the task
Of which bravely, we cannot forget
The bodies beneath us
We cannot refuse to walk on
The quiet pleasures will not overtake
The chaos of lifetimes below us
And the soil is serious and silent
We too shall die

 Missy Banyacski graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing. She currently resides in her hometown of Edison, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in journals such as the White Ash Literary Magazine, Red Fez, the Forge Journal, and others.

* * * 
Two Poems by Victoria Barycz

Born

While I was crowning
my mother gritting her teeth
through one last contraction
my father was down the hall at the cheapest snack machine
pressing P10 for a KitKat
 
My mother’s first and only daughter
after five miscarriages
but as my mother saw the matted black hair
covering my scalp 
she touched her own dark braid
and began to weep
 
I thought of my mother last night
wondering if at that moment
when the beads of sweat
dotted her upper lip
and the bar of chocolate slowly slid forward
in the snack machine
she knew all I would endure
because I wasn’t born with the tangerine wisps
of my brothers
or the calves of Atlas

Stigmata

Looking out the smudged glass
on the 23rd floor
of Henry Ford Hospital
I have a religious experience
 
The last one had been at nine
having discovered Michael
in our backyard
ear to the ground
to better hear God
at eleven he was wise
in way only little sisters could understand
 
Now staring out at the crude rendition
of the Virgin Mary
breasts exposed on the crumbling brick
of another abandoned Detroit project
I wonder if he’s even going to visit today
 
Climbing into my mother’s hospital bed
I press my ear
to her chest
holding my breath
I listen by myself
to the grating phlegm in my mother’s chest.
 
 V.L. Barycz is a twenty-four year old who isn't sure what identifier fits her anymore. When she isn't having an existential crisis she's punishing the characters in her stories with them. She prefers painful topics for poetry and overly sweetened coffee. Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel and The Voices Project.
 
* * * 

Two Poems by A.S. Coomer

For the City of Light

There is an emptiness
some try to fill with bullets,
with things that pop or go boom.
There is an emptiness
some try to fill with fire, with burning,
with blades and gas and black masks.
There is an emptiness
that some try to fill with darkness
but it is already filled with darkness,
to the metaphoric brim, with the darkness.
There is enough of that in the world
without your malice.
There is enough suffering
without your ill intent,
without your rabid power grabbing,
without your delusions of grandeur,
without your senselessness,
without your utter selfishness.
With the strongest voice in my quiet self
I will sing,
and the song will not do justice,
it will right no wrongs,
it will not praise or declaim,
it will not be enough.
But I will sing.


Maybe the Burning Bush

I’m going to miss that smell,
grass blades as sharp as shattered glass shards from the cutting,
when it’s gone.
And it’s going to be going quickly now.
Summer simmered into Fall.
Fall will fizzle into Winter.
 
The burning bush in the front yard is already hard at work,
going through the motions,
doing what needs doing.
I regret seeing it,
the gearing up for the slowing down;
the dying,
yet cherish its swan song at the same time.
 
The more I live, the more I breath,
I see this is the only way.
Marching constantly towards the bleak,
towards the ever expanding gulf
--the void--
but seeking out and exalting
in the briefest of flashes.
 
What is it? That we really have?
Pops in the night,
firecrackers making you jerk and flinch,
barking their cacophonous snatches of melody.
Something from nothing?
Nothing for something?
Doesn’t it end up being one in the same?
 
The wind, the sun, the firecrackers,
the freshly cut grass
--it’s slowing now, slower now, the time is nearly at hand now--
might be about the only answers I can find in a panoply of unanswerable questions.
There’s Truth in the dying
as well as in the quick wisps of the brief living.
Oh, and maybe the burning bush.

A.S. Coomer is a writer of fiction and poetry. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in issues of Red Fez, Literary Orphans Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Quill, The Broadkill Review, Oxford Magazine, Thirteen Myna Birds, Intrinsick Magazine and Serving House Journal. You can find him here. ​

* * *  

The Account
By James Diaz
 
This is how things really began
a voice calling out to you
from another room down the hall
it was impatient and not really calling
for “you” at all
 
mid morning
how some particle in the center of things
clasps on too tightly
until you can't feel it
against your own body
the trembling and the fault line of the tremble
marking clear out posts
across the field and blue sky
and the talk of the town
drowning you out
 
trying to hold onto yourself
you see how difficult this can be
how deep in reverse
time is
and how those scars on your arm
tell a very different story
than the one you are trying to tell
 
there is at least one thing that you do know
will not fail you when you need it most
a voice on the telephone
who will say, “Tell me what happened.”
And they will mean it.

James Diaz lives in Upstate New York. His poems and stories have appeared in Chronogram, Cheap Pop Lit, Ditch and A Long Story Short.

* * * 

Moonshine
By Patricia Hanahoe-Dosch

The angel enters a room, or tries. She can’t
quite fit through the door. She folds
her wings tightly across her back
but the outer lines, curved like the frame
of a violin, still spread behind her,
frame her body, translucent with feathers
and cream instead of skin. She turns
sideways, sidles into the bar.
Two men have been watching. 
Both have imagined her
in a different sexual position every seven seconds 
since she opened the door. 

It is evening, but the sun has not quite
sputtered out, and the angel dearly wants a taste
of the local moonshine though she doesn’t
quite understand it’s just whiskey.
The bartender, a woman, sees
only another woman undressed by the eyes
of the men watching her flow through the room.

Each man’s fantasy centers on his own
preference for feathers or cream. One
wants to lick froth from her fingers and legs
as he watches her wings spread out toward the dying purple horizon.
The other wants to cling to her back, arms
wrapped around her neck, his body
poured between the thrusting pulse of her terrible,
white, plumed wings soaring them both into the haze of light dying
along the horizon. But the angel sits
at the bar, lifts a glass of moonshine
into the dim light of the room,
and stares in wonder
at the orange tint of malted rye.

Pat Hanahoe-Dosch is the author of a collection of poems, Fleeing Back (FutureCycle Press. She was a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poems have been published in Rattle, The Paterson Literary Review, The Atticus Review, War, Art and Literature, Confrontation, The Red River Review, San Pedro River Review, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Red Ochre Lit, Nervous Breakdown, Quantum Poetry Magazine, Abalone Moon, Apt, Switched-on Gutenberg, and Paterson: The Poets’ City (an anthology edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan), among others.

* * * 
The First Time I Met The Blues
​By Arika Elizenberry

He trekked
from the woods
of Louisiana to Chicago,
a guitar in tow.
The initials B.G.
flashed on his ring finger
making hard brushing
strokes over the strings
and running his other hand
along the guitar's neck.
He plucked and strummed,
throwing his head about,
tossing sweat,
gritting his teeth.
Out his mouth came a voice -
gritty and coarse,
like what grew on his head.
The first time I-I...
echoed harmoniously
in my veins
with the low
thumping tempos and--
every word
he sang
became my own.

Arika Elizenberry is a native of Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently an editor at Helen: A Literary Magazine. Her work has appeared in journals such as Burningword Literary Journal, Crab Fat Lit, Linden Avenue, 300 Days of Sun, and Toasted Cheese. She has an associates in Creative Writing and is working on her bachelors in English.

* * * 

Okeechobee
By Jennifer Mazur

They found her under the spreading oak tree
That’s the family lore
White dress, hem black (heavy)  with lake dirt
Poison in one  fine china hand
freckled with a doomed constellation
the other hand palm side up among the leaves
and damp soil
 
One black fly
landing and taking off
landing and taking off
of her pale cheek
 
Too many mouths
Too many responsibilities
 
My grandmother found her
didn’t tell her sisters
the truth
Their mother was too delicate
to deal with
one husband
five daughters
and
Okeechobee

Jennifer Mazur is a teacher, writer, and procrastinator that lives in Ocala, Florida. She works at a local college while raising her kids and rescue cat. She enjoys poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction. 

* * * 

In Eclipse
By Donna Pucciani
 
Just when I was tired
of all that Midwest sky,
all that useless blue
filling and emptying the day,
the moon appeared,
 
a "blue moon" until she became
a red and swollen orb, cradled
by a crescent silver carapace
that slowly shed itself around
her crimson mystery, a globe
both seen and unseen.
——--
The neighbors have camped out
in their driveway, their children
swarming on skateboards
with cell phones in hand.
Laughter spills into the night
making ready for theatre.
So the summer ends.
——--
My cousins from Italy left
tonight for Milan. Will they see
the same moon hovering
just outside the giant wingspan,
tucked among the engines?
Will they vibrate to its crimson
song? They themselves are now
in eclipse, invisible yet glowing
in there-ness, hanging in the cosmos
like lost constellations.
——--
This blue moon eclipse
will not happen again until 2033.
I'll be dead, or wishing I were,
and you will be ninety-five, not knowing
me or the moon or the neighbors
or the cousins that live far away,
hidden under the same lunar red.
 
 Donna Pucciani, a Chicago-based writer, has published poetry on four continents in such diverse journals as Poetry Salzburg, America, Istanbul Literary Review, Shi Chao Poetry, and Gradiva. Her work has been translated into Italian, Chinese, Japanese and German. In addition to five Pushcart nominations, she has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and The National Federation of State Poetry Societies, among others. Her sixth and most recent collection of poems is A Light Dusting of Breath.

* * * 
The Intruder Overhead
By Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

​There is a tiger in the attic.
Its paws thud across floorboards that groan in protest.
The glass in the windows rattles in its frames;
the amulets bequeathed to you by Gran rustle in their blankets.
Directed by Blume with the crown of black braids and the bisque face,
your dolls, the Lorelei of long ago, trill lullabies in tinny unison
in an effort to temper the thunder of the tiger’s march.
For all the sturdiness of its foundation, for all the grace of its lines
envisioned by your grandfather and built with the men of the village,
this house can surely not long withstand the tiger’s insistence.
Mother, I tremble in tempo with the foundation, and I am afraid.
 
There is a tiger in the attic.
Foam drips from its whiskers.
Its black stripes have magnified a thousand fold and
transformed into tentacles tight around my skull.
The orange negative space between the stripes
has scorched the barbed wire looming over our once-sturdy shelter.
Hacking into the secrets of our paltry pantry,
its blue eyes penetrate the abyss of my dread. 
The gloom you’ve polished into gleam
buckles under the clarity of its knowing. 
Mother, I gaze upon the inferno of its determination, and I am afraid.
 
There is a tiger in the attic.
Sounds emanate from between the ridges of its jagged throat.
First there is mewling,
as if its younger, domesticated alter-ego is exploring hay in a barn.
Then, with greater certainty, there is displeasure expressed,
deceptive in the abruptness of its brevity.
Finally, a roar relentless batters the Lady Baltimore cakes that cool
on the marble sideboard.  The lemon frosting must still be applied.
The tranquility you’ve embroidered these many decades
dangles rent beneath the transoms.
Mother, I absorb the staccato of these proclamations, and I am afraid.
 
There is a tiger in the attic.
And yes we know of its loss of lair,
the power of those in pursuit of its skin’s warmth, its fur’s glory.
And thus we are the latest witnesses to the tiger’s fate,
to the vulnerability belied by rippling flanks and cerulean depths,
to the scarlet streak of the macaw’s plumage against the jungle wall so
evident in the tiger’s yowl.   And yes we believe in co-existence, as we’ve
discussed while the milk bottles rattled in their crates on the threshold.
What shall become of this house?
How shall we fortify the fragility of home?
Mother, I pose these questions, and I am afraid.
 
And so I stagger up the twisted staircase to the attic to face the feline
whose plight has grown no less dire while I have been dithering.
A candle’s flame shielded by glass flickers in my hand;
its shadows gyrate over the wainscoting and the veins in the ceiling.
The tiger pauses in its pacing.  In that respite, in that intake of breath,
I search for the fuel for the transformation of fear, so carefully cultivated
these many years, for the determination to continue on towards a clearing
in which the tiger and I lie entwined under a midnight moon.
I imagine the tiger’s crouch as I approach.
The lace of your encouragement flutters as a veil before me, Mother,
and a shawl all around.

Return of the Repressed
By Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

​Leaves, long since no-longer-gold, flutter across the circular drive.
You observe that its shape so suitable for a horse-drawn carriage or a
Model T seems less so for a lone straggler without a suitcase or valise. 
Your heels, although flat and without taps, sound thunderous to your ear
on edge.  The wind whisks echoes of your steps into its own bitter refrain. 
Perhaps you shouldn’t be here, you would once have thought. 
 
The shrubbery and foliage, formerly the pride of the neighborhood, shiver
raggedly across a pouting sky.  Weeds and unidentified scrub growth
flourish madly.  You think, I can’t bear to look up to see the state of the
shutters and the cupola from where Sylvie declaimed your new oratory
to unseen adoring crowds.  This was where Sylvie mastered inflection;
this was where you came to accept backdrop, or to drop back. 
 
But you do look up as if drawn by a force beyond yourself.  And your
worst fears are confirmed.  There’s no way around it—the shutters are
chipped, lopsided, missing many louvers, hanging by a rusty thread as it
were.   The cupola, missing its signature pointed roof and many railings,
has met an even worse fate.  You are not surprised, even if you wish you
had maintained a level gaze.  You’ve always fetishized neutrality.
 
You approach the front door, its carvings strangely still gleaming. You
look into its high window.  Despite the gray of the day, sunlight is
refracted through the stained glass windows above the circular staircase. 
You strain for echoes of Thanksgiving dinners past in the room just to
the staircase’s left.  You make out the click of silver against china,
the communication through gesture, the interplay of staccato and silence. 
 
You reach for the cranberry sauce that your mother flecked so sparingly
with cinnamon and cloves.  Your mouth waters, despite your father’s
invocations against excess.  This time you will not be lauded for your
discipline.  You hear the chimes of Sylvie’s laughter at this display of
bravura; you glimpse the flash of her auburn locks as she floats up the
stairs.  Even here, even now in this rust sun, Sylvie will become the day.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of four books of poetry, including Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres (2013). Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. 

* * * 
Flash

The Last Fortune Teller in Cleveland
By Rich Ives

I’m not the one who confessed I was flibberjabbered out and out and rubadubbed with the
what now. I refused the paper shoes and plastic pants. I wouldn’t discuss caressing ungulates, so I wasn’t exactly the life of the party the two of us were having, but sometimes when I’m going along I can smell my participation in the swamp. I don’t like the way it lingers after the joke’s over.

It’s true I had been walking on the frozen lake, which was way bigger than I am, for such a long time that I thought I should be arriving at something. The man I was that way was only a shadow of a man, although a man that I had learned to irritate. I had to consider which mistake a person might have been in that elevated shadow that could have been worthy of my misattentions.

I wasn’t thinking about collecting signposts, but I was sleepy, and my portable attention was driving me into it, so my job title became Amplifier of Silence and Generous Oversight.

I had already turned to crime, but when crime turned back to me, I turned docile, not wanting to support anything I could so easily accomplish, which became a different kind of crime. Ordinary people turn to extraordinary devices to save them from ordinary discoveries that wait for a response.

The other man I had become stole his porn name from his neglected goldfish. Inside his understanding of his selves, the windows had grown cloudy with self-sustaining milkiness. A child is outside, usually, and won’t let him in. Her face is made of a pleasant rubber. She can remove it, but she seldom does.

The other woman wore a cardigan made of lint from a mouse filter. She always said hello using an ant farm containing sleepwalking fog sounds. The painting of herself that she gave me I mounted on the wall. It makes a hole I can disappear in.

So now my deciduous ardor returns with a surprising force just when she has accepted its absence. (My secret life began in Victorian England before I had a deeper self to keep myself from.) My ardor responds to the moon and often confuses the planets.

Only self-deception warrants this kind of attention.

Rich Ives is a winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. Tunneling to the Moon, a book of days with a work for each day of the year, is available from Silenced Press, Sharpen, a fiction chapbook, is available form Newer York Press, Light from a Small Brown Bird, a book of poems, is available from Bitter Oleander Press, and his story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, is now available from What Books.

* * * 

Get Your Gun, Annie
​By Christine Kavanagh

Annie found the gun in the desk drawer. It was heavier than she expected, and the grip was rough against her palm. There was something good about it though, holding the weapon in her delicate little hands. Blake had always admired her hands. So small and soft, he would tell her, just perfect.
Annie wondered if that other bitch’s hands were just as small and soft.

She turned it over, admiring its simplicity, its sleek outline. She felt the trigger, cautiously though, she wasn’t sure how it worked, and didn’t fancy shooting herself. It weighed less than the bottle of brandy in her other hand. That would have to be fixed.

She didn’t notice taking it back to the sofa with her, although she found it laying in her lap three swigs later. It was comfortable. Reassuring. Five swigs and she reckoned it weighed about the same as her bottle. It wouldn’t do to have it much heavier, it was Blake’s gun after all and Blake never liked heavy things. Probably why he was two timing her with some slip of a girl half his age. Willowy and fragile, but so easy to break. Annie had been like that once, but no more, booze and cigarettes and late night shifts do put a few extra pounds on a girl. She had a comfortable spare tyre round her midriff and the beginnings of a double chin now.

It’s never what’s on the inside that counts.

She wondered what was inside the gun. One bullet? Three bullets? Six bullets? She didn’t know how to open it up, and didn’t care to test it. How many bullets would it take to kill someone? One to kill her. Through the head, splatter all over his favourite chair. She hoped it would stain. She guessed three to kill him. Her hand would shake, despite the alcohol. She had always been weak and booze could only do so much. The first one would miss. The second one… well she doubted the second one would do the job, so one final bullet for her to waltz over to him as he lay on the floor and finish him off. Point blank.

Could she do that? She had a sister who wouldn’t ask questions a few states away. Her sister had always hated Blake, said he was a brute. It would be easy to disappear. Take the box of cash he thought she didn’t know about under the kitchen floor. Change her name. Start again. She had always wanted to run her own business, but somehow time had just slipped away from her. The bastard deserved no less. She would be doing the world a favour.

There wasn’t much time, he would be home soon, and she needed to be ready. She packed her suitcase, her meagre possessions fitting easily inside its small frame. The brandy went down the sink, along with the rest of the alcohol in the kitchen. After this she would stop drinking, stop the cigarettes and the takeouts and join a gym. Tidy herself up, maybe get a haircut. Starting today she would be a new woman.

She left the gun on the kitchen table. Took the cash. He wasn’t worth the effort.​

Christine is an enthusiastic procrastinator and sometime writer. Born and raised in London, she has been writing since her teens and has recently returned to active writing after a hiatus during which she completed a degree in law at the University of London.

* * *

The Finish Line
By J.D. Kotzman

“Zed,” Wally shouted from the locker room doorway.  “Zed, are you in there?  I need to talk to you.”
 
“Can’t I take a shower first?” Zed yelled back to him.  “Christ, Wally.  I’m an old man.  Give me a fucking break.”
 
“All right, I’ll see you outside.  Good driving out there tonight.”
 
“Yeah, good driving,” Zed muttered.
 
Zed peeled away his grease-stained jumpsuit and long underwear and inspected his withered frame in the mirror.  As his eyes traced over the sagging, pale flesh, he struggled to remember the days when he stood taut and tan, the days when he didn’t ache after every race.  And when he saw his face, he barely recognized the wrinkled, tired visage that scowled back at him.  Women used to pounce on him—his sparkling baby blue eyes, chiseled jaw, and inviting smile were like catnip to them—but they didn’t notice him anymore.  After three divorces in as many decades, he’d put on too many miles, endured too much wear and tear.
 
Zed lumbered to the shower and turned on the faucet, testing the water before stepping into the dank chamber.  For a few glorious minutes, he stood motionless, letting the warm, soothing stream rush over him.  The dirt and grime rolled off his body and into the waiting drain, but try as he might, he couldn’t wash away the years.
 
Wally paced for half an hour in the parking lot, screwing up the courage to break the news to Zed, before at last settling with his back against the grill of the old man’s battered Dodge pickup.  Still fidgety, he dug around in the inside pocket of his leather jacket for a pack of Marlboros and a lighter.  When he unearthed them, he gave the Bic a couple of nervous flicks, fired up a cigarette, and took a long drag.  He’d known Zed for going on eight years, ever since the unceremonious end to his stint at community college, but Wally had idolized him for much longer.  He didn’t want to have to tell the old man it was over.
 
As a teenager, Wally spent his weekends hanging around the local drag strip, where his infatuation with racing bloomed into a full-grown love affair.  He loved the pre-race rituals:  smelling the mix of melted rubber and gasoline as the drivers did their burnouts, then, while they revved their engines by the Christmas tree, waiting, breathless, for the thunderous roar they’d unleash after the lights flashed from amber to green.  And he loved the races themselves:  tracking the dragsters as they careened down the raceway, two wild streaks of color chased by smoky tails, their velocity at last tamed only by the steely scrape of their carbon-fiber disc brakes and the hard drag of their billowing chutes.  Most of all, though, he loved cheering on Zed—even then, many fans regarded him as a kind of folk hero—as he thrashed his often much younger competition.  Wally helped manage Zed’s race team now, and over the years, the old man had become a surrogate father to him, his biological dad long since dead and buried from his two-pack-a-day habit.
 
“What’s up, kid?”
 
“Jesus, you scared the shit out me,” Wally said as he wheeled around to face the old man.  He took one last puff of his cigarette and tossed it to the asphalt, stamping out the glowing embers with his steel-toed boot.  “Zed, we need to talk.”
 
“So you said.”
 
“Zed, it’s not easy to say this, but, well … maybe it’s time you retired,” Wally croaked, almost choking on his words.  “You know, maybe you should get on with your life, take those fishing trips you always talk about.”
 
“Wally, I don’t have a life to get on with.  In case you’ve forgotten, I don’t have a wife anymore.  My kids, wherever they are, don’t speak to me.  All I have left is racing,” Zed told him.  “What’s this about?”
 
“You’re having sponsor trouble.”
 
“Goddamned corporate America.  I should have known.”
 
“They just aren’t sure they want to sign a new contract with you at your age,” Wally said, treading carefully.  “After the season, they’re dropping you.  We’ll try to find another sponsor, but I have to be honest … no one is looking to back a 70-year-old driver.”
 
“Sixty-nine,” Zed corrected.  From the pocket of his jeans, he fished out a set of keys, which dangled from a sterling silver keychain.  His first wife, Darla, gave it to him on their 10th wedding anniversary, the last one they shared before the ovarian cancer ravaged her—a brutal crash even he couldn’t avoid.  Shaped like a flourished “Z,” the totem now served as both a good luck charm and an unofficial trademark for him.  He ran his fingers over its burnished surface, watching it glisten under the sodium lights.  And as he stood there, mesmerized, he could feel himself hurtling toward another inevitable wreck.  He looked up at Wally with a wry grin.  “You think I can’t hack it anymore.  Is that it?”
 
“No, I didn’t say …”
 
“I need to get out of here,” Zed interrupted.  “Can I give you a ride somewhere, Wally?”
 
“Yeah, take me back to the motel,” Wally replied, his shoulders drooping.  “I should make some calls.”
 
“My pleasure.”
 
“So you’re OK with this?”
 
“Yeah, kid,” Zed said.  He let his misty gaze drift past the edge of the fenced-in lot, beyond the glittering lights that wound along the freeway, to the massive peaks silhouetted against the horizon and considered, not for the first time, what might lie on the other side.  “Don’t worry about it.”

J.D. Kotzman works in the health policy field and lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his girlfriend and two pugs, Grendel and Ginger. Previously, he has served as an editor and writer for several print and online news publications. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Inscape, Kentucky Review, Pidgeonholes, Slink Chunk Press, The Speculative Edge, Straylight, and the An Unlikely Companion collection (a project of Spark). 

* * * 

I am Him
By Marc Rich

Every day is the same routine.  I turn the keys to my tenth floor apartment, and there he is, drowning in a bottle of liquor and swimming in self-pity.  He asks me where I’ve been, knowing that the answer is work, and he chuckles and takes another long gulp from his liquor bottle.

I pity him, even more than he does himself, I really do.  I’d imagine it’s hard to live each day with no direction or motivation to accomplish anything in your life, other than trying to drink more than you had the day before and trying not to pass out this time.  Yet I have no sympathy for him.  I can’t sympathize for someone who repeatedly does it every day with no attempt to change their life for the better.  He has nobody to blame but himself.

This is why I find it a bit insulting to hear when someone mistakes us for one another.  If you can get past his mangled beard with food stuck in it, and his disgusting shaggy hair, then I guess I can see how we look a bit similar, but it’s a stretch.  Where I dress the best I can every day, he’s content with wearing the same dirty underwear he’s had on for a week.  When I go to work every day to be a productive member of society, he sits on his ass in the apartment, alone.  The differences are endless.

It’s even worse that we share the same exact name: first, middle, and last.  It makes it a hassle to deal with the incoming mail, although it’s not like he ever gets any.  But he has no shame in tearing open mail that he knows is addressed to me and throwing it away after he’s given it a quick read.  Occasionally he’ll remember what the bill was for and let me know how much it was for the day that it’s due.  At least he hasn’t drowned all of his brain cells with liquor.

I might feel different about him if he didn’t have any loved ones that cared about him enough to try and help.  At least then I might understand why he’s like this, but our mom and sister call him every day to get him help and check up on him.  He refuses their calls all day and sits in the apartment drinking and playing video games.  Every day they call over and over again, only to be ignored like every other day.  He always tells them that he’s been working from home, but everyone knows that he’s full of shit.  There isn’t really anything else we can do if he doesn’t want to change, except just being there for him and show him support.

He thrives on being alone.  He uses the feeling of loneliness to fuel him in his quest to complete nothing with his life.  He stands for all of the things that I'm against, yet we are so close to another.  His motives are lacking and he strives to succeed in nothing, yet I feel a certain connection to him.

We’re completely opposite from one another, but it’s easy to see myself slipping down the same path and turn into him.  It’s scary, but it’s possible.  That’s what happens when we’re the same.  I am him, and he is me, but we’re completely different.

Marc is currently a Creative Writing student at SUNY Adirondack in upstate New York. He currently resides in Hudson Falls, a small town in upstate New York near Lake George, but plans on moving to New York City in the near future. While this is his first publication, he hopes that this will lead to future opportunities with his writing. He enjoys writing short, quirky stories that make you think, with an occasional dash of magic realism.

* * * 

Muzzle
By Robin White

What made the events of the evening even more startling for the assembled onlookers were the words the man said, as his date removed her hood.

‘You look just like your profile picture,’ he said.

This doesn’t often happen on dating websites. Not that most people are attempting to intentionally mislead -- not at all. It’s largely to do with a combination of the desire to look one’s best and the misleading nature of photography. In one picture, taken from, let’s say, beneath your chin (if your phone is in selfie mode, for example, taken by mistake when you attempt to take a picture of the lake in central park) you’re a bulbous-chinned, oval-cheeked monstrosity. In another, taken in the right light and from a suitable angle, with your hair in the perfect place and your jaw set just-so, you’re the reincarnation of James Dean, the embodiment of unobtainable celebrity perfection. 

This phenomenon of some-pictures-being-better-than-others could apply only loosely to this man’s date. No fiddling with angles, dimming of lights or application of tasteful makeup could hide what sat across the table, studying the extensive wine list with the air of a connoisseur. The dim lights of the restaurant, at which the man kept a perpetual reservation, did nothing to conceal her flaws. Though flaws might be the incorrect word, for she was perfectly acceptable looking, for what she was.

Her legs were long, shapely, and attractive. The spot in which her thighs met her waist was a masterpiece of biological carpentry and her backside, though it was currently being sat upon, was a marvellous thing, featuring two shapely buttocks as close to perfect as any buttock ever was.

All of that aside, and aside it must go, she also had the head, though not the neck, of a polar bear. Sat atop a perfect neck, not at all far from a splendid pair of absolutely symmetrical breasts, a polar bear’s head, all fur, and snout, and teeth, gazed out at the world with docile self-assurety. 

‘Would you care for a drink?’ the man asked.  

The Bear-Woman nodded, grunted and reclined. Her beady eyes were totally black, but for a ring of translucent brown around their edges. The other diners, an elite clientele, gaped. Each waited for the other to set some kind of alarm. None did. 

The man, closing his menu, reached over and placed his hand on the Bear-Woman’s wrist. His two forefingers stroked the fine hair of her forearm. 

‘Or,’ he said, ‘we could pick up a bottle of wine on the way back to my apartment. Do that thing we spoke about in your message?’ 

The Bear-Woman released a low, seemingly agonised moan, shook her almighty head upon a neck which looked unable to hold its weight, and stood. She leant over the table, exposing wondrous cleavage in a tight-black dress, and snapped her jaws shut just inches from the man’s face. He grinned lasciviously, and stood, taking her exquisite hand and leading her from the restaurant so quickly that she forgot her purse.

A waiter, figuring that his professional capacity gave him authority over the situation, went through it, in search of answers.

‘Half a salmon,’ he said, ‘and a collection of twigs, leaves, and other assembled foresty-looking crap.’

A woman three tables over, an animal behaviorist by trade, spoke up.

‘That’s perfect material for bedding, if she’s raising young.’

‘Raising young with that guy?’ asked a well-known Hip-Hop star from another table.

'It’s not natural! It’s against God!’

‘It’s against nature!’

‘It’s against sense!’

‘This is insanity,’ they collectively mumbled.

‘An abomination,’ they decided.

‘We’ll never forget this,’ they all agreed. 

But all of them did, very, very quickly.

From down the block, the sounds of a woman with the head of a polar bear, falling in love with a man she’d met on the internet, echoed into the night. They wanted only to live without judgement. The sound she made as they consummated their love, though not so easy to reproduce here, was something like ‘Burrruuuuarghhhhhhhhuummmm.’ 

Robin is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. His heroes include Haruki Murakami, Teddy Roosevelt, and the new Titanosaur at the Museum of Natural History. When he’s not writing, he pursues his love of astrophysics, and thinks he might finally understand special relativity. He hopes one day to persuade Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explain it to him. He has over a dozen fiction publications to his name, and credits that success to his wife’s excellent proofreading. He is twenty-six.

* * * 
Creative Nonfiction

In Rome
By Andrew Bertaina

We stood underneath a grey portico in Rome, watching rain fall on cobblestones. She said I should write about the rain, how it came from nowhere, drenching us, confirming the futility of our plans. She said the rain was like a line of ants walking across the cement, which you spray with Windex and wipe with a paper towel.

“I’m confused,” I said. I was often confused at things she said, but she was beautiful, and I was young, which should explain most things. The rain fell in sheets, wrapping itself around the city like the cloak of a Centurion.

As a child, I played “Centurion Defender of Rome,” a video game that took players from Rome and out into the known world—fighting off marauding armies, keeping the populace pacified by staging games, and collecting taxes from outlying countries. The Dalmatians are a hostile people. Centurion Defender of Rome is the reason I knew the name of the generals, who’d been memorialized in stone, and why I wasn’t surprised by their exploits, which were recounted in our guidebook. Hannibal had those elephants, I’d say, which is why you’ll want to outflank his forces with Scipio’s defense.

Of course, I can’t be certain that everything in the video game was accurate. And yet, I remember more from that video game than I do from any of my history classes. To be fair, we didn’t study Rome. We studied American history, which is boring, in large part because it is so recent. What are 200 year old cities in the shadows of 2,000 year old monuments? At the Forum, one can point to a narrow strip of dirt and say, that spot is where Caesar was betrayed. This is the lectern where Cicero delivered his oratories. Caesar! Cicero! The names ring through history.

I read a story about Rome in which the Forum and the Colosseum started fading from view, like milk that had passed its expiration date. All those eyes, making the sites disappear. And yet, sitting in the shade of an olive tree, spreading cream cheese on bread, it was hard to imagine that we were anything but voyagers in a new land. Can you imagine?  They used to flood the valleys here and stage naval battles!

I told her that I wouldn’t write of the rain, or her, or that afternoon. I planned to write about Agrippa, or Trajan, or Mark Antony, but I don’t remember enough about them now, only that Agrippa and Anthony had a voice rating of 8 and were excellent at defensive positions. That’s a lie. I remember Cleopatra, but don’t we all.

Trajan, Agrippa and Africanus, I said, all have something in common. The rain had passed and we stood at the McDonald’s across the street. The column on the Pantheon was restored by Hadrian, but he retained the inscription which read, “Agrippa made this.” The rain started again. We pictured Roman generals walking across these same cobbles, not having French fries, but wiping the dust and blood of a thousand barbarian nations from their boots as they made their way home. Do you know what we have in common with them? I asked her, this sometimes distant woman. She turned back to me, a wisp of hair hanging loose across her forehead, and said, “Of course. I’m not stupid.”

And there we stood, bathed in rain, history, and memory an unknown future stretching before us like some impeccable Roman road, her not stupid, and me trying to get a grasp on her, on the moment, on the rain, on how I'd frame it all if I were a painter, or the sort of person who scribbles words. I used my left finger to remove the wisp of hair and kissed her on the forehead. Just then a bit of filmy light shone through the clouds, illuminating the centuries old building, the Pantheon in all its glory. It didn't happen like that at all—the light never came through the clouds—but imagine if it had, imagine a world like that one, almost perfect.

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC where he obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University. His work has appeared in: Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Manifest-Station, Literary Orphans, The Journal of Microliterature, The Broadkill Review, Big Lucks, Whiskey Paper, and elsewhere.

* * * 

Outside the Quotes
By Matt Muilenburg

The clothespin dangled from my backpack like Cupid’s last resort after discovering he’d forgotten his quiver in the closet. I didn’t see it until after class, the clothespin’s wooden teeth biting my strap like a ravenous lover. I set the backpack on my dorm room floor, plucked off the clothespin, and read the name written on it—“David.”

The “i” had been dotted with a black heart, its insides colored in with zig-zags that looked like scars, like the heart had been broken before “David” drew it. “David” hid his name in quotation marks, sketching his phone number below. There was a message on the opposite side of the clothespin, five words free of poetry, ambiguity, or constraint, a circumcised screed of solicitation capped by neither question mark nor exclamation point, but by two male symbols: “Call me if you’re interested.” 

I was flattered by the gesture—more than I realized at the time—but wasn’t interested in the things “David” offered, namely facial hair and a penis. Beyond that, on a much deeper level, “David’s” self-assurance unnerved me, the confidence he owned akin to that which I pretended to possess. I had dated and propositioned plenty by then with all the bravado of a freshly-dipped Achilles, but did so knowing that the biggest inconvenience I faced was one syllable in length--No. I needed neither map nor guide when I explored, but “David’s” compass didn’t allow him to navigate that way—it had a question mark-shaped needle, one which pointed at each male it came across without giving direction. “David” faced the kind of rejection I will never understand, risking not just the denial of sex, but the denial of hope. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, to be attracted to someone but not be able to express that feeling without fear of recourse, to affix my yearnings to a clothespin. I had known only acceptance, not necessarily from the girls I pursued, but from the society that forced “David” into using clothespins.

I should have called "David" to let him know that my desires lied elsewhere, but I didn’t. Instead, I stood there for a moment squeezing the clothespin, its mouth opening and shutting like it was trying to tell me something, begging me to understand its pleas. I couldn’t comprehend the language, however. So I left.

When I arrived in the lobby of the girls’ dorm a few minutes later, I read the same sign I had read dozens of times before, a sign that had but two decrees: (1) Stop at the front desk and (2) Call a resident to check you in. I didn’t stop though, not at the desk nor at the phone on the table by the door. I dropped the clothespin in the trash, turned the knob, and went in.​

Then, as was custom, I explored.

Matt Muilenburg teaches writing at the University of Dubuque. His prose has been featured in Superstition Review, Southern Humanities Review, New Plains Review, South85 Journal, and others. A graduate of the Wichita State MFA program, Matt lives in Iowa near the Field of Dreams.

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The Family Truth
By C.N. Smallwood

Who constructed the view of families as a holy, almost religious and glorious personification? Families have always been quite the opposite. Despite the old photos of American nuclear families with a smiling mother and father with children, their only common qualities are blood and an absence of uniqueness. It was rather different before in the times where people were thought of as undeveloped. These families consisted of several families creating a clan or tribe with the duty to protect one’s own kin. Of course given this there was also an absence of singularity. Cooperation was necessary and if not used, the person was considered useless. Everyone worked toward a common goal. But why hasn’t a family ever been a group of people who do not share blood or common characteristics. They hold each a uniqueness and dysfunction along with them, but in spite of these facts they remain loving, although a rather chaotic yet unconditional love it would be.

Families are not holy and glorious. They are disasters in the mist, emotions and feelings of individual souls flowing chaotically together like a tropical storm. They are messy and wild and impossible to get rid of. Although they may hold a quiet outward appearance, humans are not holy or glorious and if you love someone you will fight with them. 

I came upon the topic of families – disregarding my own – while in my sophomore year of college. At only eighteen, I was the youngest among my second family which consisted of several other students. Friends, but not quite, I found it an impossible task to rid myself of some of them despite their offensive tendencies. It was a sort of unspoken bond tied between all of us. Even while we drove each other up the walls and straight out mad, we would still speak and attempt to keep the bonds. Of course not all bonds are that of family, some melted away as they should like wax disguised as rope. However a gravitation seemed to exist that one could simply not shake off. 

I recall Jordan, an art major in her ending teens with blue streaks in her hair and piercings in her lip and nose. A rather cheerful person who much like myself was racked the instability of anxiety and depressions. We became friends quickly. Throughout the first two semesters of our friendship we were both walking on ice like a deer trying to get a feel for the solid steps. However in the middle of spring semester she became distant. I understood, the need for one to possess their own space. She mistook my distance as dislike and I did the same. We finally miss-stepped and fell into the ice. Our friendship coming to an end through an overreaction. We did not speak over the summer. 

The beginning of my sophomore year, on the second day of school we met once again. Like several times before I expected melted wax hardening into a rough puddle, but I was wrong. 

We embraced and forgave helping each other escape the ice as if a steel rod hung above to pull us out.

This is when I came upon a realization of family that is not of blood. A group of people possessing dysfunction, but remaining together through invisible ties so that it takes heavy sawing to break. That is a family.

C. N. Smallwood born and raised in Macon, Georgia grew up with a pure passion for stories which originally manifested in dramatic escapades with toys and tales written into her school notebooks. Years of festering creativity led to the goal of being a published author with a dream of creating a series of novels. She has worked as an advocate for abandoned animals and human equality. At the current age of eighteen, she is a sophomore at Middle Georgia State University in her hometown. This is her first publication.

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Art

Jace Bradshaw
Jace Bradshaw is a Premed student at Ouachita Baptist University. His love for nature, biology, and the health profession spills over into art. He enjoys showing people that science can be beautiful with pictures of the wonders of life.
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Moon Blast
By Richard Ong

RICHARD ONG's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of Bewildering Stories, Yesterday's Magazette, and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has also appeared in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered.” He was also an executive producer of the promotional movie short, “A.R.C. Angel: Kalina,” as well as a screenwriter for Redcape Cinema Productions. 
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Revisiting the Old Timers
By Fabrice Poussin

Fabrice Poussin is assistant professor of French and English at Shorter University, Rome, Georgia. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in France at La Pensee Universelle, and in the United States in Kestrel, and Symposium. His photography work has also been published photographer in Kestrel, and is scheduled for upcoming publications as well.









 
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