Incongruence
By Sudha Balagopal

Lila, my sister, flings her arms around the startled real estate agent and gushes, “Oh, I love you! I love this house.” She tends to ladle out this weighty emotion, love, like a plentiful commodity. I cringe. When someone offers affection, I feel beholden to accept, honor and return the gift.
           
Lila has her highs and lows. Three months ago, she screamed, ranted and attacked a policeman who stopped her for speeding in a school zone. Anxious and worried, I bailed her out. The doctor explained what ails her is invisible and he prescribed medication. Understanding doesn't make the lump in my heart go away.
           
My sister liked the previous property we saw today. I'm tempted to say, “You said the same thing before.” I bite my tongue, hard, to stop myself. It hurts, but I know she won't listen.
           
The realtor's phone rings. She glances in my direction, hurries out. “Glad you like this place. Go on in with your mother . . . I won't be a moment.”
           
I flush, embarrassed, and look down at my comfortable clothes —loose pants, tunic, flat shoes. The agent thinks I'm Lila's mother. I'm thirty-eight, plump and my job in insurance matches my appearance. My sister's a decade younger, lovelier. Lila's eyes shine.
           
 
Afternoon sun spills through the open window, casting bands of light on grungy carpet. The air-conditioning is not on although it's 102 degrees outside. The odor of onion and garlic escaping an unseen trash can permeates the air. I go after the agent, to ask her why she's showing us this smelly,
filthy house. She's already outside in earnest conversation.
                                                                                                                                                             
Today, Lila has assumed the role of a home buyer. A flowery summer dress accentuates her curves, white sandals strap manicured feet, and a handbag dangles from her elbow.
           
I wish otherwise, but I know she won't— can't—buy this house and still indulge her fantasy. She's had her current job for eight months. Already, she's lodged a complaint to Human Resources about her boss who questions tardiness. Employers eventually tire of her work habits or she quits after throwing a tantrum.
           
“The aura,” she inhales as if auras can be sniffed out. “I feel such good vibes coming at me.”
           
Through the open door in the living room, I see dirty dishes packed into a sink. Making my way to the kitchen, I stumble on a Lego piece, left by an absent child.
           
Lila picks it up and kisses it. “This is what I mean,” she says. “It's a happy house.”
           
My mind struggles against the incongruence. She utters words that are not based on fact and I concede, knowing the truth is otherwise. Reality and perception are not often friends. I know love means drawing boundaries, but I tiptoe around her sentiments.                                                                                                                                                 
           
“Don't you think so?” She opens a window.  
           
I sort through words. “It's lived in.”
           
“There are children around,” she raves. “That makes me so happy. And, the price!”
           
She doesn't have children, and the price won't matter without an income.
           
A garbage truck trundles down the road. Through the window I see kids on bicycles, screeching and laughing. I should tell her the street is too noisy. Instead, I turn and run my index finger on the television screen. It comes away coated with dust.
           
“This is great,” she says climbing out through the window. She's bubbling; my mouth hangs open.                                                                                                                                               
 
“I love this house!” She has one leg on each side of the window. “And I love you.”
 
She meshes concepts like this. Equating her reaction to the house with the feeling she has for                                                                                                                                                          
me. I'm powerless; powerless to take away her delusion. I've learned love is asynchronous.
           
“Please, come inside,” I say.
           
The perfectly made bed in the master bedroom contrasts starkly with the rest of the abode. In the bathroom, fluffy, monogrammed towels stand out against grimy tiles. “Look at this huge shower head!” She turns it on, squealing when the spray drenches her. When Lila gets excited, she speaks with rapid gasps as if she has just finished a run. “Made for a couple!”
           
She has a date later this evening with a man she met in a bar last night. Her last boyfriend took off with her credit cards and her meager savings. She has a predilection for unhealthy dalliances. When I summon determination and tell her she shouldn't bring strangers into my home, she sulks. Since Mama died, the spare room in my house is Lila's refuge. Where else can she go?
           
I imagine she's thinking of her date.
           
The other two bedrooms belong to children. In one, a tot's crayon art squiggles its way up a wall. In the other, Lila picks up a doll buried beneath furry stuffed animals from a toy box.  
           
The realtor rattles the lock on the front door. 
           
“I want this house,” my sister shouts, shaking out her wet hair. “I'll pay the asking price.”
           
“Maybe you should think about it?” My feeble attempt to put on the brakes.
           
“Why?” She scoffs.
           
“Great,” the agent says, “I'll inform the owners and get paperwork started.”
           
Lila hums as we walk to my car. “Give them to me,” she stops and holds out her hand.
           
“What?”  I know what she wants and I don't know how to refuse.
           
“The keys, silly!” she says. “I'll drive.”
           
I don't want a confrontation. As she speeds along narrow streets, barely avoiding mailboxes perched at the ends of driveways, I clench my seatbelt and sag under the burden of responsibility.
           
I relax my fingers when she merges on to the highway without incident. Thankfully, there's not
much traffic.
           
“Faster, you fool, faster,” she shouts at a lumbering truck, her foot jamming into the accelerator. Cursing, she swerves to pass the vehicle. In moments, I hear a thunderous crash and my body bucks against the seatbelt. My last thought before the airbag inflates: Mama, is this how she killed you?
 

Sudha Balagopal's short fiction has appeared in Gravel Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Superstition Review, The Tishman Review and The MacGuffin among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories.
 

 

* * *

 

Razzmatazz
By Sarah Bowen


“I never get to choose what we play,” his sister Angie said. The past few afternoons, Mark and his sister had built houses out of Legos which had once made-up the grey body of a Death Star.
 
So today Mark let her pick. He didn’t want to clean up the Legos, anyway. Or else Daddy tripped on them when he came to shut the bedroom window and the next day Daddy’d be mad. Didn’t Mark understand how pointy the corners were? Didn’t Mark think it was important to keep a floor clean? Didn’t Daddy tell Mark to pick-up the toys many times before? And Mark’s voice would come out all squeaky-like when he said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and then Mark had to scoop the pieces into grocery bags or plastic orange bins or Angie’s miniature purple purse or the empty fish tank so Daddy wouldn’t get more mad.
 
Plus, Mark realized, they had run out of purple flower pieces for the gardens.
           
Angie wanted to play dolls today.
           
“Dolls?” said Mark.
           
Angie normally liked sword-fights or pillow-forts or racecars on tracks which went upside-down.
           
“Make me into a doll!” she said.
           
Grammy had given Angie a doll, once. It had mustard-yellow hair, which stretched instead of broke when Mark pulled on it. It didn’t have underwear or private parts. It lived in the pile of dress-up capes under Angie’s desk, and sometimes its eyes reflected the moon onto the ceiling. The tag, never removed, dubbed it ‘Jess.’
           
“Make me into a doll!” Angie said. Her overgrown eyebrows pulled together. “Make a doll factory!”
           
Mark buzzed his lips for the assembly belt and hit two Nalgenes together as he pretended to hammer Angie’s head onto her shoulders. She giggled, half-closed her eyes and declared that he had put the head on sideways. He spread red watercolor paint over her lips and drew pink circles on her cheeks with the ‘Razzmatazz’ crayon. He raided his Ancient Egypt mummy kit of the plaster-wrap strips.
           
“Hold still!” said Mark. He wet each strip in the bathroom sink and ran back to their room before the whitish water could dry. He stuck the plaster on Angie’s leg. She flinched.
 
“It tickles,” she said.
 
“Dolls don’t get to move,” Mark said. “Hold still.”
 
Mark ran out of strips; he had only coated one leg up to the knee. Angie sat still and upright, unblinking. Jess watched from under her desk.
 
“I don’t like being a doll,” Angie said.

Earlier that morning, Daddy took Mark to Cafe Javasti before school. Daddy said the cheaper coffee was in little local places, and that no Seattleite knew how to drive. He said the drivers were too nice and didn’t know anything about right-of-way and Ma shouldn’t have picked a neighborhood where they used their Bluetooths so much. He said that the public schools were corrupt. He said the United States should stop funding rebellions with his taxes. He said  the minimum wage was stupidly low and no hard-working honest man could raise a family on that.
 
Daddy’s voice was steady and reminded Mark of stories at bedtime. Mark wondered what minimum wage was. He would look it up in Mrs. Marison’s dictionary, he decided. He wasn’t allowed to drink caffeine until middle school, but he liked to scrape the whipped cream off his hot chocolate with a stir stick.
 
Mark watched the dogs in the window of Mrs. Pets, the shop across the street. Shaggy dogs went into the shop and came out groomed. According to the paint on the window, small dogs cost $34.99. They had the shrillest barks. The ones with the gravelly voices cost $89.99. Every day there was one black poodle and one white poodle, and two dogs with short white hair which gradually littered the floor until someone vacuumed and made the carpet black again. Mark secretly named the black one Cocoa. The two poodles yapped at dogs who were tied to the pipes outside the shop. The glass muffled their speech and the exterior pets stood silent but agitated. The dogs on the outside of the window walked away with their owners and left the poodles to their cacophony. The two white dogs laid on the couch, bored with the poodles’ game. They waited for life to pass.
 
“Your mother wants a dog,” Daddy said. “Look how loud they bark. It’d wake me at night.”
 
Mark had a pet lizard, once, but it died when Angie poked it too hard with a pencil.
 
That day at recess, Mark played kickball with the other boys and girls. One brown-haired girl was always picked for teams first. Mark was somewhere in the middle of the picking order; sometimes when he kicked the purple ball, it went into the hands of the pitcher, and sometimes it went into the wood-chips near the slides, far away.
 
Occasionally the recess bell blared before it was his turn to kick. His ears sang in annoyance but he pushed it aside. He hurried to the lines at the edge of the brick building. It was easy to run back with the rest. It was almost nice to know he did the right thing.
 
After recess Mrs. Marison drew big and little rectangles with different numbers inside. “It’s time for multiplication,” she said.        
 
Mark couldn’t make the boxes the right size, so he multiplied the numbers together in his head and wrote the answer at the bottom of the page before drawing the squares above it. Today, Mrs. Marison told him to do 42x63 on the board and he walked up and wrote 2646 in green Expo marker. Mrs. Marison said he had to show his work; he drew four rectangles above the number but he accidentally made the box for the 3 bigger than the box for the 60.
 
Mrs. Marison told him that he cheated and he wasn’t allowed to use calculators in this class, didn’t he know that?
 
Front-row-seat Claudia laughed loudly.
 
Mark did know this. “I don’t have a calculator,” he said.
 
Mrs. Marison said Mark had to take a bright pink note the color of Razzmatazz with lots of Mrs. Marison’s cursive writing home to Daddy, and he had to sign it and Mark had to bring it back to her tomorrow.
 
Mark said okay.         
 
But when he sat down he leaned over to Andy and whispered that he didn’t have a calculator, he promised.
 
Ma made fruit gummies and a cheese stick for after-school snack. Mark sat next to Angie by the bay window. Her polka-dot socks swung without brushing the ground.
 
Ma wanted to know how Mark’s day at school was.
 
“Fine,” he said.
 
Ma’s work was fine, too. She had driven the 66 route today instead of the 250, and it was nice not to go on the freeway. Mark ripped the cheese in half before pulling a strand off, winding it around his tongue three times, and swallowing.
           
The microwave clock blinked 4:15. Mark had an hour before Daddy came home. It was in this hour that he plastered Angie’s legs and painted her doll cheeks and hammered on her head.
 
The front door slammed. Daddy left his brown boots, soiled with engine grease, by the entrance. Mark wondered if Mrs. Marison thought he had a calculator in his backpack. Or perhaps that he had remembered the number because a calculator told him one time? Mark wondered if he would ever own a calculator.
 
The Razzmatazz note was read through clear-framed glasses.
 
“Did you use a calculator?” Daddy said.
 
Mark shook his head. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry he said and he studied the grey and blue clumps which decorated the baseboards and wondered if a calculator could count all of the dust specks.
 
“What’s forty-two times sixty-three?” Daddy said.
 
2646.
 
“Fifty-seven times eighty-five?”
 
4845.
 
How did Mark do that?
 
Mark didn’t know.
 
Daddy mumbled about the corruption of public schools. Stifling natural talent. Investigative discovery math was a load of bullshit. Mark didn’t know what investigative math was, but he knew what bullshit was. Merriam-Webster said it meant “nonsense.”
 
Daddy stomped all the way down the stairs with the Razzmatazz note.
 
“Wait!” Mark said. He slid his palms quickly down the handrail. He needed the note back.
 
Daddy said that Mark didn’t need a fucking note to learn math. Mark knew what fucking meant, too. It meant “damned.” He wondered if God wanted the note to live in hell.
           
But Mark said again that he needed the note back and Mrs. Marison told him he had to return it and he had already made Mrs. Marison mad enough so wouldn’t Daddy give it back?
 
“No fucking bitch is going to get this note.” The spit hit the staircase wall with a tick.
           
The scabbed lips were taut within the graphite beard. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry Mark whimpered with his voice squeaky and rising and he ran upstairs to the room where Angie still sat with white plaster over her leg.
           
“I’d rather be dead than a stiff old doll,” said Angie. “Now anyone can do anything to me.”
           
“Anything?” Mark said.
 
“What if they do something awful?” said Angie.
 
Mark agreed.
           
Dinner was fish-sticks and asparagus. Ma scrubbed the watercolor off of Angie’s lips but left the crayon in faint circles over her cheeks. Daddy emerged from the basement just in time for “we thank Lord Jesus for our food,” and after they said Amen, Daddy told Mark he could have his note back. The Razzmatazz had been stapled to a single-spaced white sheet. Mark tried to read it, but it had too many big words like “circumvent” and “fatuous accusation” and “vacuous, unqualified instructor.”
 
Ma grabbed the letter and her eyes skimmed back and forth and she said she didn’t quite think it was appropriate.
           
Daddy said it was more than appropriate and just about time for someone to put that teacher back where she belonged.
           
Ma said they shouldn’t drag Mark into it.
           
Mark said he wanted the note back because he had already messed up enough anyway and he would never do multiplication in his head again if it meant that Ma and Daddy would please be quiet please.
           
Daddy said he didn’t care what that fucking bitch thought and certainly not you fucking bitch either.
           
Ma ate a fish stick.
           
Angie sank lower into her chair until her polka-dot toes dragged on the floor.
           
Daddy leaned over the table with a toothy smile. “Mark, you can take the note back to Mrs. Marison. Say you told your father what happened.” Mark took the Razzmatazz and put it in his lap.
           
Angie’s bottom slid across the wooden floor.           
           
“I—” Ma said. She inhaled to silence. Angie wrapped her arms around Ma’s calves.
           
After another helping of fish, Daddy asked Ma about work today.
           
“Horrible,” she said.
      
Mark awoke to Ma’s voice, high-pitched and strained. He pushed aside his comforter and crept across the Lego-free floor to turn on the light.
           
“What is it?” said Angie.
           
Mark hushed her.
           
He opened the door to their room. Ma was screaming, no words that he could tell, to the rhythm of a cracking. Mark grabbed his crocheted Blanky and secured it over his head. Blanky peeked around the refrigerator. Ma at the counter. Pounding into the wooden cutting board. A chef’s knife. It smelled like dish soap and the countertops were sudsy. The lights rattled when the tip of the knife made contact. Crack! rattle-hiss. Crack! rattle-hiss. Crack!
           
“Ma, no! Ma, stop!” Mark said.
           
Ma brought the knife – Crack! – into the wood of the cutting board.
           
“Ma, no!” he said. The squeakiness in his voice grew. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry he said and he slumped onto the tiles and covered his face with Blanky. Ma put the knife in the sink with a small clicking noise. She took his quaking arm and walked him back to his room. She sang “Edelweiss” slightly faster than normal and turned out the lights.
          
The next day, after school, Mark and Angie played zoo. They set up the Jenga blocks in cages around the animals. Blond Jess was the zookeeper. The five-inch giraffes and the painted zebras were in the same pen. Mark learned on a field trip that they should never put predators and prey in the same exhibit. The pouncing cheetah was fenced off from the gazelles. The hippopotamus lived in a small “The Wiggles” bowl filled with tap water. Mark didn’t actually have a plastic hippo so he substituted a rhinoceros instead.
           
“Look, Ma!” Angie pointed at the bowl. “It’s a hippo!”
           
Ma looked at Angie, and then at Mark. “That’s a rhino.”
           
“No, Ma, that’s a hippo,” Angie said.
           
Mark tugged at the soft cashmere of Ma’s elbow. “We’re playing pretend,” he whispered in his best explaining voice. “Except she doesn’t know we’re pretending, yet.”
           
Ma chuckled. Ma laughed. Angie threw a marble at the rhino-hippo. The rhino-hippo’s nostrils sank beneath the water along with the marble.
           
“Don’t hurt the hippo,” said Mark. 
           
“Anyone can do anything to a hippo in a cage,” said Ma.

​​

 Sarah Bowen studies violin performance and creative writing at Northwestern University. As a true Seattleite, she is snobby about her coffee, plays ultimate Frisbee in her spare time, and uses neither rain boots nor umbrellas. She has a pet cactus named Jeremiah.
 

 

* * * 
 
 


                                                                                                                                            

The Randolph Hotel
by Vincent Chabany Douarre


My assumption when someone calls is that something has gone horribly wrong. I have visions of hedgehogs flattened on the highway. A coffee pot's shards sticking out of a child's blistered arm. An electric crackle running up the wall.

That, and I did not particularly know Gregory. We were Facebook friends.

“Hello?” He paused, searching for words
.
“Hey. You, uh... You need to come see Blake.”

There was a windswept silence. Oxford's late autumn air is a vehicle for fresher's flu. A woman walked past me, her shoulders draped by a heavy scarf. I must've said something to the effect of what or why, I don't remember.

“He's in the hospital. He's fine,” he added hurriedly, stammering, “something.... Frankie, uh... There's some- something happened.”

And so I was right.

I was standing on Beaumont road, in front of the Randolph Hotel. I could see antique wooden ceilings through the tall Gothic windows. Three large Union Jacks drooped like orchids above the art deco steel and glass porch roof.

This all presupposed a sense of history. A fiction. As did the thick oil portraits. And the white gloves pouring bottles of Saumur.

The Randolph Hotel burned down two years ago.

This narrative is false.
 
Blake did not say much when I got there. I did not say much when I got there. I think I mentioned Greg calling, and that was enough. Blake did not know I was in Oxford for the weekend.

I had not told him.

He hugged me. I sat down with my knees together.

Blake and Frankie were childhood friends. They both went to Eton. Blake often told me about the things Frankie would never do. He'd never wear a pocket-square, even if his girlfriend Emily bought him one (too nouveau). He'd never put sugar in his coffee (too infantile). He'd never turn down a Corona (too haughty to do so).

Attempting suicide did not make the list.

I did not ask for details. Instead, I stroked Blake's large crouched back. Instead, I offered him a hospital coffee that smelled like water. Instead, I stayed silent. There was talk around us of stitches, of tubes and stomachs. Medication? Dunno. History? Signs? No. Yes.

I pretended not to notice.

Blake's hands were clasped. He straightened his back. I could stroke it no more.
So I clutched the edge of the plastic marigold chair instead.
 
Frankie's family came. His mother had spiky silver hair. His sister had been crying. His father was carrying her Moschino purse. They assumed I was one of Frankie's friends.

I did not say anything.

I did not know Frankie.

I only knew Blake.

I knew Blake.

I did not know Blake.

Blake had broken up with me and I had realized, in the times when I needed to make sense of him the most, when I needed to comprehend the precise workings of his mind, like the golden arcs flights draw from an airport to another, that I could not.

I did not know Blake.

I did not know Frankie.

So I said nothing. Instead, I asked Blake if he wanted to get something to eat. He did not answer but stood up.

“Who's going to feed the dog?” asked Frankie's sister.

And then his father started crying.
 
In the taxi, I determined that we could not go to Pierre Victoire, on Little Clarendon Street. Pierre Victoire was where we used to eat after we handed in big papers. Where he ordered off the menu in French to make me laugh. Where we split a slice of plum pie.

“White Rabbit?”

I realized I had never been in a car with Blake. There are many things we never did. We never saw the ocean. Or watched the latest season of Drag Race.

“Sure.”

We had never been to the hospital.

He had never cried. Not in front of me.

He was not crying in the taxi.

The windows were dusty.

I kept wondering who was going to feed the dog. That is always the point. What remains, and responsibility.
 
Blake fiddled with the wick of a red candle.

“You don't have to stay with me if you don't want to.”

“That's fine,” I answered, pouring him a large glass of Sancerres.

He asked me about my life since we broke up.

I told him about the new apartment he never got to see. The large, wooden white doors of my wardrobe he would never shut. The oblong mirror on the wall he would never reflect in. I did not tell him about that bottom drawer and all its neatly organized letters I never sent. They always failed me. Paper does not carry screams. I am too proper to do that face to face anyway. And so that failed me too.

I had no idea if he would've cared or understood. If our past existed for me only.

As I said, we had not seen each other in months.

As I said, I did not know Blake.
 
He did not eat much. Many report an intense sensation of hunger when in close contact with death. My grandfather died, and my mother, standing in the formaldehyde-scented hallway, gestured at her Empire-waisted dress. The pattern was floral.

I can't see my father die dressed like this.

And yet she did.

Over the wooden table, I reached for Blake's hand. He did not pull it away.

That is the instinct, physically hold on.

That was my one regret.

I kept thinking back to the late nights or mornings spent in his bed. How the room was tinted blue by the curtains that were always drawn. How he brewed weaker coffee than I liked.

How I should've clung on to him tighter.

That would, I was sure, change the whole deal.

If I were better equipped, I would see that this contains no logic.

Blake's hand was still familiar.
 
Consider, then, the fact that Blake and I never went dancing. The occasion simply never came up.

Consider me dancing yesterday at Saint Anthony's Halloween party. Consider me smiling at a girl in a clean white wig. Wondering if this would be different if Blake were here. Kissing me.

Consider the gin I drank.

Consider his last text: emojis. Boy, heart, kiss, boy.

Consider what was lost.

Consider the hand I now touch.
 
After Blake took care of the check, we walked back to his place. He still lived in the same room. Long indigo curtains filtered the street lights. On the walls, like celluloid, there were photos in the Merzouga dunes, photos in Puerto Vallarta's Andales, photos in Hong-Kong's botanical gardens. Grinning. Frankie's hand, or face, or part of his knee.

I stretched out of bed. Blake was sleeping. His large back seemed heavier. Grief is said to make people shrink. I needed a glass of water. The kitchen was downstairs, and I groped my way through the dark and turned on the tap.

We had had our first kiss on Beaumont road, in front of the Randolph Hotel.

I did not want to see the Randolph.

But I was at a neighboring Tesco, buying a red velvet cake because it was on offer.

And there it was. Seeing it felt like a physical pressure behind my eyes.

As if coins had been slipped behind them.

And then Gregory called. And something went wrong.

I did not want to accept that this bit of sidewalk still existed. That the narrative ran beyond me.
Consider the absence of hands.
 
I thought of the right saints to pray to. Lost causes, mental illness, swift recoveries. Gamblers. Travelers. Academics. Amnesiacs. Lovers. The right clothes to wear. The right food to eat.
The right body there.

I put the glass of water down and wondered if we should've offered to feed the dog.

Except there was no 'we'. Just spaces.

The light here is too blue to last.

Vincent Chabany Douarre is a student at La Sorbonne, Paris. His work has been featured in The Belleville Park Pages; The Bastille; The Birds We Piled Loosely; Gravel; 45th Parallel; Thrice Fiction Magazine; the podcast No Extra Words, Glassworks Magazine, Cecile Writer's Magazine; and will be featured in Junto Magazine.

* * *

Tug Hill
By R. E. Hengsterman


There's a boy, and he does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he sits cross-legged in space. His arrival is troublesome, but I have no fear. In silence, I wait, until the moment comes when I can't wait any longer. I scream, dance, cry, and laugh - outlandish pantomimes to break his silence, but still he never speaks. This ritual goes on throughout the night.
 
Until I wake.
 
Three days ago, a boyhood friend died. The news of his death, though not a complete surprise, disrupted my sleep. To be honest, I'm ill-equipped to handle any emotional problems beyond my own. The news of his death presents a troubling situation to the fragility of my psyche.
 
Eric hadn't crossed my mind in years. In fact, I didn't realize I'd had any lingering feelings other than a few withered childhood memories until a one-sided conversation with my mother reminded me of the true depths of my baggage.
 
"Eric's dead," she said, "Died at home. Guess I'll see you at the funeral." Click.
 
My mother became a skilled emotional assassin after dealing with thirty years of my bullshit.
 
After the call, I sifted through the local news until I found his obituary. I knew enough to know when it says, "died at home," and the deceased individual had been dealing with issues, only two options existed. Eric overdosed or committed suicide. I made a few calls, old friends, awkward conversations. The talks were brief and unwelcome. After much reservation, I learned Eric had hung himself with the electrical cord on his vacuum.
 
"He had issues," an old classmate confirmed.
 
On a side note, for years I'd counted on my obituary reading, "John Doe died at home, alone." Up to this point, I've avoided this prophetic, morbid conclusion, though I've tried my damnedest.
 
The hour drive from the airport unraveled a mass of childhood memories. Overhead weather approached. The winters in the Northeast always threatened. If you wanted to kill yourself, winter was the perfect time of year, bleak and dirty.
 
When you haven't been home for a decade or more, there's a reason lurking somewhere. And mine lay hidden under a pile of excuses called failed adulthood. The closer I got, the more uncomfortable I became in my skin; annoyed with the seat belt touching my neck. Frustrated with the rolled collar of my shirt and baffled by the fluctuating temperature.
 
It was another thirty minutes and a wrong turn before I came upon the intersection where Eric and I caught the bus as children. I knew it was time to park the car and walk.
 
Tug Hill is a stretch of road from the bus stop to my old house. I assume it's still called Tug Hill today. The single lane gravel road connected the memories of Eric and my consciousness. From sixth grade on, we walked home together, and I hung on every word. There were none of the usual conversations. With Eric, his words, hushed and intense, harbored a secret. Something he explained one day in a voiced filled with confidence.
 
 "I'm a superhero," he said, "With an underground hideout."
 
He sketched an imaginary map in the air with his fingers as he spoke.
 
"It's between two telephone poles. Numbers five and six, there's a trap door."
 
There was no hesitation in his voice. And his facial expression remained faithful.
 
 "I save people," he said, "From danger."
 
Eric lived in two worlds, one where he was a human punching bag for an alcoholic father and another where he was a savior. He spoke of his lair with incredible detail - from the color of the buttons on his costume to the number of rings on the ladder leading to his underground hideout. And I believed every word because I wanted it to be true for Eric. If his home life wasn't tragic enough, school life was troublesome. I saw this first hand, the ridicule over his odd, reclusive behavior. I never heard him speak to anyone beyond a simple yes or no, or raise his voice to his tormentors. When I was eleven, I thought we'd be friends forever, and one day he'd share his secret life. I'd thought of us as partners, a Batman and Robin relationship. And someday that life would become my escape.
 
There were five of us who caught the bus at the bottom of Tug Hill. There was DJ, who once told me he'd seen a doctor because his dick was so large he couldn't get hard. After our conversation, I'd spend the following week peering into my underwear. Maybe it was contagious. It was not.
 
There was Jeff, who I pretend to drink Vodka with one day on the way to school - taking swigs but not swallowing and then developing what I deemed a proper stagger for a drunk. Back then I hated the taste of alcohol. And there was Ronald - the newcomer. He left scars. On the days he bothered to attend school, Ronald made my life hell. A full-on chase ensued the moment I stepped off the bus, and it didn't stop until I reached my front door. Ronald was a large boy with a body resembling a fleshy Ape. Rumor around the school was that he had failed a grade or two, which explained his impressive physical attributes for a sixth grader. The remaining two were Eric and me.
 
It was only twenty yards from where I parked the car, and a chill descends my internal skeleton I couldn't shake. I lit a fresh cigarette and pulled the inhale until I became lightheaded. There's something surreal, being in a place that holds your childhood memories hostage as if time preserved them until you return one day and claim ownership. The further I walk the gravel road the more I let go.
 
I now realize Eric had no value at home or school, so he developed an alternate identity. I counted the telephones poles as they approached. Houses constructed between one and two changed the landscape. I tugged hard on the cigarette, filling my lungs with frigid air and nicotine. Somewhere after my fifteenth birthday, Eric had become irrelevant. The other Tug Hill kids gave me flack. It was no longer cool to be his friend.
 
The closer I got to pole number three the higher my heart rate skyrocketed. Eric opened his soul, and I abandoned him, just as I had everyone else in my life. I didn't have the strength to fight for Eric.
 
I chip away at the frozen gravel with the point of my shoe. Poles four and five were in view.
 
I pause and imagine the likeness of a young boy. It's Eric; he's alone and waiting for me to join him. After a few minutes, he turns with a sheepish look, dragging the eyes of everyone at the Tug Hill bus stop in my direction. The pressure to expel him erupts and cackles from the peanut gallery break erupt.
 
"Let him go. He's a loser," DJ says.
 
"Freak" Jeff yells.
 
At fifteen I succumb to the peer pressure. "Go on," I shout. "Leave me alone." Eric continues his walk alone, and I never speak to him again.
 
I've reached pole five and find myself in a full-blown panic. My breathing is fast and undisciplined. My hands, blotchy and tremulous, spill hot ash from my Marlboro Red onto the fresh snow with a soft hiss. Numbness spreads across my face and lips, my chest spasms with sharp, crippling pain. The world around me spirals out control until I fall into a dreamy darkness between telephone poles five and six. I land face first in the snow.
 
From where I lay, I see a boy, and he does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he glides across space and takes my hand. Fifteen years later it's settled, and I am nothing.

R. E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and the written word. He writes under the beautiful Carolina sky. You can see more of his work at www.ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.

* * *

A Straight Arrow
By Nathan Leslie


Kevin is the only one who doesn’t sit.  The others are pleated, tan and olive-drab and gray, sitting in arm chairs, discussing the latest film version of Wuthering Heights.
 
His shoulders slump forward, not out of any lack of confidence, mind-you.  His body is hunched on the edge of the hearth, gargoyle-like.  He is wearing a Bill Belichick-style ripped sweatshirt (Kevin’s features ARMY, however) and his jeans are spotted with oil or grease blotches.  He wears his VT baseball cap backwards.  I wonder if college sports fans would find his dual-allegiances disturbingly contradictory—I’m in the dark on such matters.
 
I’m standing in the doorway at the edge of enlightened conversation.  Kevin glances at me and offers me a snappy one-fingered salute—back to his temple and then forward.  As usual he’s listening.  I watch his eyes dart back and forth from speaker to speaker.  He doesn’t look bored at all, even when the conversation turns to which actor made a better Heathcliff.  And so forth.
 
My sister, who sits next to him in a wingback, pats his knee in sympathy.  To me this gesture communicates something essential about their relationship.  She understands his outsider stance.  He never ushers a complaint or seek to change subjects to something more closely akin to one of his interests.
 
Kevin nods and briefly tips the side edge of his maroon Tech cap upwards.
 
“Out of all the literary characters, which one do you find the most compelling?’
 
The lists—Kevin loves rankings, pecking orders.
 
“Well, Hamlet of course.  Lear and Othello,” my father says.  “Most of the Shakespearean tragedies and histories feature extremely compelling heroes.”
 
“Bloom and Daedalus,” my mother chimes in.  She sips gently from her slender champagne flute.  “Mrs. Dalloway.  Emma.”
 
“Jason from The Sound and the Fury,” my sister says.  The fire crackles and hisses behind Kevin.
He half-turns his head.  He nods, takes it all in.
 
“Nothing surprising here,” I say.
 
“I don’t know, we could blabber on and on,” my mother says.   “What do you think?”
 
“Daffy Duck.  Followed by Elmer Fudd,” Kevin says, flashing a sly smile.
 
“Can never be serious, even in answering his own question.”
 
Kevin officially entered into the family proper, of course, on the day he wed my sister some years back.  However, his unofficial entrance into our circle occurred several years before, during the stage in Claire’s relationship which was at one time called courtship.
 
Kevin comes from a rougher family (to use my mother’s terminology).  His father owns a cinder block business and Kevin grew up believing in the potential of the cinder block.  He ate cinder block food, slept under cinder block walls—not literally, of course, but this is the general idea.  One balmy night (moths pinging against the exterior sunroom lighting) Kevin confided in me that when he grew up he knew he would eventually fill his father’s footsteps, even if he didn’t want to.  He did not utter the word “trapped,” and perhaps I am reading too much into it.  On the other hand…
 
Kevin’s mindset strikes me as simultaneously medieval and fatalistic, but also refreshingly devoid of pretense and East Coast intellectual striving (what is left of it).  As a counterpoint, I told Kevin that I grew up not knowing if I would be a doctor or a lawyer or an investment banker or an academic of some stripe (one must have a contingency).  That I chose the latter path was perhaps as much a matter of slap dash luck as anything.  Fate for Kevin; luck for me.
 
However, Kevin went to college anyway.  When I asked him for what purpose (and implicitly if he felt predetermined to take over the cinder block business) he admitted he didn’t know:  that’s just what people my age did after high school.
 
“I didn’t make it.  Three semesters in and I found myself distracted for lack of a better word.  I partied too hard—that’s a definite.”
 
Unlike many other people I know, Kevin thinks about what he says before he says it.  He’s never knee-jerk.
 
In college he played rugby (he went on scholarship).  In high school he played football, but competition being what it was he found an entry point into rugby much easier (and profitable).
 
Kevin looks like a rugby player.  He’s six feet four and two forty three; muscles upon muscles;   head like a buffalo.  But his eyes are alert and penetrating and his face sharp and defined by a rather muted intelligence:  I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but Kevin is a lot smarter than he seems upon first glance.
 
Initially I thought he would find himself overwhelmed intellectually by “the family.”  In a sense, he’s marginalized by topics which are too bookish for his educational background, but then when the topic shifts closer to Kevin’s comfort point he’s as insightful as anyone else in the room, if not moreso.

I am aware that I sound like a condescending prick.
 
 
All of this is to say that initially we thought Claire and Kevin’s union was a mismatch, at least socially.

I’d see Kevin surrounded by our modern and Asian art, seated at our antique Arts and Crafts table—our house is very Lloyd Wright, late period—and I’d think “fish out of water.”

But he never embarrassed himself early on.

Then about three months into his relationship with Claire he arrived at dinner with a nicely bound edition of Edmund Wilson.  We were all ve-ry impressed—believing he couldn’t possibly know who Edmund Wilson was (college drop-out and all).  But he did.  He gave the book to my parents as a gesture of my gratitude, he said.
 
“Be still my beating heart,” my mother said.
 
“Sting?  Really mother?” Claire said, jibbing.
 
“No, he got that from Shakespeare, I think,” I said.
 
My father nodded.
 
“A very nice touch, Kevin,” my father said.  Kevin doffed an invisible cap, a sign of humor and humility. 
This was a turning point for me.
 
Then we ate.  I’m sure it was an oyster stew, plus chicken fricassee, and three grain bread.
I can’t at this remove recall the topic of mealtime conversation exactly, but I do remember that after dinner, father drank his Martell and Kevin asked about the art.
 
“I never really took an art history class in school,” he said.
 
“It’s okay,” Claire said—my mother was in the kitchen arranging the mouse and preparing espresso.  She pointed around the room with a self-pleased sashay.
 
“That is a Picasso print.  That’s a late Matisse rip-off.  But that little one over there that’s an original Modigliani.  It’s no big deal though:  who doesn’t own a Modigliani?”
 
Kevin formed a querying facial expression.  He didn’t say anything.
 
I felt for him; at this moment we became brothers.
               
Kevin’s ability to rise above the fray of pithy conversation and superficial witticisms made him, in fact, superbly suited to entry into our family.  He became a kind of voyeur to our pseudo-intellectual blather.   If he was not able to either (a) participate or (b) ignore, Kevin’s entire union with Claire would collapse.  In fact, though my family remains dear to me, Kevin was the one who first opened my eyes to the rather artificial nature of our traditions.
 
All of this is to say that Kevin and I began spending time together apart from family gatherings.  Kevin’s idea initially, but one which I quickly embraced.
 
Though I was indoctrinated into the belief that sports were the bastion of the ignorant—Kevin asked if I wouldn’t just like to go “shoot some hoops.”  I realized after a minute or two that this had nothing to do with actual shooting—it referred to basketball, and after a lull I understood it to be common parlance.
“Sure,” I said.  I had played basketball a total of maybe six or seven times in my life, but I did always find it enjoyable.  Diversions—and sports are, if nothing else a kind of mindless diversion—are part of human nature, also.  Why not experience this?  Why not live?
 
So I sat in Kevin’s dusty Jeep and we rolled along to a park with two courts side-by-side and Kevin pulled out two tall water bottles and the basketball.  The courts—from what I knew at the time—were rough:  weeds sticking out from cracks; the nets were down.  As an uncoordinated, not-particularly-competitive guy I didn’t really know what to do out there.  I couldn’t dribble the ball.  I could barely shoot.  I ran lethargically and stumbled or tripped half the time (Kevin graciously blamed my shoddy footwear).  Despite his girth, Kevin moved beautifully.  He would jump up and shoot the ball in one smooth motion, the ball rising and falling and sinking right through the chain.
 
I have never had so much fun in my life.
 
Our sweaty clothes heavy on our backs, we sat on the hot asphalt and talked.
 
“There’s no reason to judge you,” I said. 
 
“Glad you’re in the family.  Gives me some hope.”
 
“What do you mean?”
 
“You’re different than Claire and especially my parents.  But it’s working anyway.”
 
“Is it?  I’m not sure.  I mean your folks are good people.  It’s just not knowing where I stand sometimes.”
 
“They are subtle, you know.”
 
“That’s a good word for it,” he said.  “Do me a favor, tell me if I’m ever headed on the wrong track.  I
don’t want to do that.”
 
“You got it,” I said.
 
We drank water and dripped with sweat.
               
I would have days like this with Kevin frequently.  But when he and Claire had children, I saw him less, and then more later on when he needed a few hours to unwind.
 
Inevitably he’d destroy me at basketball (or some such) and then we’d talk.  Sometimes if it was too cold or two hot or rainy—we’d go shoot pool instead (he always won at that, also).
 
“The children,” he said once.  “They’re changing everything.  I mean….”
 
“In a positive manner, correct?”
 
“Well…you know how it goes.”
 
“No, not at all,” I said.  And I didn’t.  A lifelong bachelor, I had no idea how it goes.
 
“I mean sex,” he said.  “It’s not…”
 
“Different than before?”
 
“You could say that.”
 
“Sorry.”
 
“This isn’t something you want to discuss, I’m sure.”
 
“No, but…”
 
“There are other things as well.  Your sister—well, you know her better than me.”
 
“Not anymore,” I said.
 
He said the children made him feel like an orphan somehow.  He was secondary, all of a sudden, to his own progeny.  Kevin’s crisis was that he felt forced to compete for time and space.  Often he felt shut out, at a loss.  His feelings, he said, were taking over his own best instincts.  I’m paraphrasing.
 
Often I’d change the subject.  In those days Kevin particularly enjoyed discussing speculative historical theories (if he had completed college, I wonder if these wouldn’t have withered).  I patiently listened to his latest explanation for the emergence of the Easter Island statues, the Sphinx and so forth.  He believed Neanderthals walked the Earth in the late 1600’s.  At the end of his conjectures he’d admit: “These are just theories though.” 
 
At family gatherings Kevin loved to ask sweeping questions, point blank.  He was especially fond of rankings.

--Who do you think is the best musician of all time?
--What is the best movie ever made?
--Who was the greatest football player ever to play the game?
--What is the most delicious type of cheese?
--What is the tastiest beer you’ve ever had?

Part of me thinks his questions were designed not to promote discussion so much as to provoke it.  Or—put another way—Kevin excelled at steering the conversation into his comfort zone with these simple (simplistic?) queries.  To me they were and are also indicative of some key aspect of Kevin.  He’s a straight arrow.  He wanted all cards laid on the table.  They rarely ever were.  I hemmed and hawed and I was trying to appease him.  My father often demurred and my mother shrugged and said “it’s not a contest, is it?”
 
Five years and change after the birth of their second child, my mother called me to relay the news:  Claire was leaving Kevin.  She presumed it was her decision, and that such a decision was based on her desire for a more “like-minded” match.  It had to do with compatibility, she related; this was not an issue of high drama.
 
My mother was and is, I’m sure, torn.  On the one hand she detested the idea of divorce and believed that couples who entered that level of commitment should not break it.  On the other hand, my parents looked down upon Kevin, despite his attempts otherwise.
 
“This is a man who traffics in cinder blocks,” she said.  “That’s who he is.”
 
“Traffics—you make them sound like narcotics.”
 
“He’s not exactly an intellect, as you well know.”
 
“I know nothing of the sort.  I could feel my grip on the telephone tightening.  He’s a smart guy.  He’s just not in your mold, that’s all.  He’s not a doctor or a lawyer.”
 
“I’m not arguing with you, Daniel,” she said.  “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
 
“Sorry, isn’t there some quote from Shakespeare you can pull out of your hat to illustrate that particular point?”
               
I still meet up with Kevin maybe once a month or so for basketball.  Perhaps it’s his best means of communicating with Claire.  He has visiting rights with their children twice a month, which he explains as a strange circumstance.
 
Claire has—in my view—turned into a different kind of person.  I love my sister of course, but the divorce has diluted her.  She has an edge now—and a wicked cackle she never displayed prior.  She has a new husband—a pediatrician (“only a pediatrician,” my mother says), who is okay though I find him overly distant and of course tainted by the adulterous courtship.  I play nice.
 
I’ve told Kevin, however, that he is still a brother to me and that if he ever needs anything I’m at his everlasting disposal.  He must have, in his sincere way, taken me at my word.
 
“I need a place to stay,” he admitted.

He’s sleeping in my guest room indefinitely.  My honored guest.
 
Often I will lurk outside the room after I’m certain he has fallen asleep.  If I listen closely I can hear the soft whistle of air through his nostrils.  It calms me somehow.  We all endure in ways strange and unusual.
                 
 Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Drivers. He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as here.
               

 

* * *

 

Asal
By Shannon Lowe


In the three years I knew Asal, I had never seen her face. It remained hidden behind the black fabric of her niqab with only her blue-green eyes visible. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Asal arrived at our house for English lessons with Mom, always waving at me as I worked on my homework in the living room, before she disappeared into the study where her and Mom’s muffled voices would fill the air for the next two hours.
 
We shared very few words. Of course, that could be because she was in her late-seventies and I was only ten years old. I didn’t find most “old people” interesting. So what I did learn about Asal was from overheard conversations she had with Mom: she had three children, all living in Seattle, and eight grandchildren; she had emigrated from Saudi Arabia a few years after her youngest did; and she prayed several times a week, especially on Fridays.
 
When I met Asal, it was the summer after first grade. The sun blazed for three months in a row, with the average temperature in the mid-80s, and I spent most of my time cannon balling into the nearby YMCA pool. So, when I saw her wearing her face veil and boysenberry, long-sleeve dress, I thought--boy, she must be hot!
 
She hobbled up the driveway to our two-story A-frame, as I dribbled a basketball in the carport, and she asked in a thick, unfamiliar accent where Mom was. I directed her to the study without much thought. After all, Mom always had strange people coming to our house for English lessons. I didn’t find Asal any different than the Spanish speakers or the Thai speakers or the Korean speakers.
 
It was after six months or so that she joined us for dinner. Platters of mostly noodle and vegetable dishes squished together in the center of the kitchen table, and a piping-hot pot of freshly brewed coffee sat between Mom’s and Asal’s spots. There was no meat except for in a long but shallow ceramic bowl, shaped like a boat, that Asal brought. Steam rose from blackened chicken on a bed of yellow-brown rice, dotted with red and green peppers and cashews.
 
“What’s that?” I pointed to the dish.
 
“Kabsa,” Asal said. “Traditional dish in my country.”
 
“Mmmm,” I licked my lips with anticipation.
 
She continued to have dinner with us, once a month, and brought other exotic foods: kleichat tamur, cookies filled with dates; murtabak, minced meat and eggs stuffed inside a folded pancake; muhallabia, rice pudding topped with crushed nuts; and dozens of others with names I couldn’t remember. Trying whatever Asal cooked became something that I looked forward to.
 
That changed soon enough.
 
After school one day, my best friend, Mac, and I walked to the town’s Shell station and spent ten dollars on Pepsi sodas, Nerd Ropes, and Big League Chew. Then we headed to a nearby park, kicking rocks at cars along the way, and climbed onto one of the slide’s roofs before seeing who could spit sugary saliva the farthest as we chomped on our gum. The overcast sky sprinkled rain but soon drenched us with fat, icy drops. Goosebumps formed on my bare arms, and I asked Mac if he wanted to play Xbox, maybe watch a movie or two, at my house.
 
“I’m not allowed to go to your house,” he said.
 
“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t recall doing anything that would warrant a ban from my house. Was it the time we got caught looking at nude photos? Those belonged to Mac’s brother. If anything, Mr. and Mrs. Conley should be mad at him for having them, not at us for finding them.
 
“Dude, the girl your mom’s teaching—she’s Muslim.”
 
I blinked, confused.
 
“What does that have to do with anything?”
 
“Don’t you watch the news?” Mac asked.
 
So we went to his house on a mission. It was only a couple blocks from mine and a similar A-frame style but tan instead of deep blue. While Mr. Conley worked-out in the basement and Mrs. Conley chatted theatrically over the phone, we snuck to his older brother’s bedroom and hopped onto his laptop. For the next hour, Mac showed me video after video, article after article, of the most gruesome, terrifying, and downright inhumane acts involving people who looked just like Asal. Stomach churning, I could feel bile rise in my throat, the burning bitterness nearly causing me to gag. I begged Mac to stop.
 
Making sure our browsing history was deleted, Mac guided me to his brother’s futon, and we watched TV for the rest of the afternoon. Yet, my thoughts lingered on the videos. The violence ingrained so deeply in my mind. At any moment, it felt like we’d be attacked. Like I would be one of those lifeless faces staring into the sympathetic lens of a journalist or news broadcaster.
 
I had to get out.
 
Pretending Mom had texted me to come home, I left his house. Rain still plunged from the darkening, gray sky. My tennis shoes slipped on the roads, slick with putrid car oil and grime, and I couldn’t care less when my jeans soaked up to my knees with water. All I wanted was to get to my house, my room, my bed.
 
On Tuesday, ten minutes before Asal’s next lesson, light taps on the front door alerted me that she was here. I snatched up my homework that sprawled the glass coffee table in the living room and stuffed it into my bookbag. I wasn’t fast enough, though. Asal let herself into the house, and her eyes locked onto mine.
 
Asal looked just like them.
 
Spinning around, I abandoned my bookbag and raced upstairs to my room. My chest heaved as I dove into bed and covered my head with a pillow. There was no way I could face her or listen to her practice English—not after … .
 
I avoided her from that day on.
 
During her lessons, I stayed in my room; during our monthly dinners, I snuck off to Mac’s house. On the rare occasions that I came face-to-face with Asal, I kept my gaze to the floor and hid behind Mom. I pretended that her delicious meals didn’t fill the house’s air with spices. And as December approached, I looked forward to the three weeks that Mom designated for “winter break.”
 
One evening, deep into the final month of year, pots clattered and sizzled in the kitchen, and I could taste the garlic even from my room. Thundering down the stairs, I found Mom hovering over the gas stove of our checkered floor, wood panel kitchen, stirring pasta in her mini wok. Her heart-shaped face pinched together, and sweat dotted her forehead. A floral headband pushed back her chin-length, sandy hair. She grinned at me before pointing to the table.
 
It was set for three.
 
“I invited Asal,” Mom said.
 
My heart dropped.
 
“We’ll have pasta with pesto, garlic shrimp, boiled baby potatoes, a salad, and a fruit bowl,” she said.
 
“I-I’m not really hungry.” It was the truth. I lost my appetite.
 
“Are you feeling sick?” Mom asked.
 
Puckering out my lower lip, I nodded and wrapped my arm around my stomach. I don’t know if Mom actually bought my act, but she grabbed a popcorn bowl from on top of the refrigerator. Handing it to me, she pointed to the living room.
 
“At least say goodnight to Asal before you head up to bed.”
 
“She’s here right now?” I must’ve walked right past her.
 
“Yep,” said Mom. “No TV, no computer. If you’re sick, you stay in bed.”
 
I hesitated. Did I really want to spend the rest of the night bored in bed? It was just after six o’clock, several hours until I normally went to bed. Before I could negotiate, Mom disappeared to the basement, saying something about needing to find the tea kettle. My breaths came out short and fast at the idea that I was alone with Asal. Peeking through the archway that led to the living room, I saw the top of her head over the tall backrest of an oatmeal recliner. I bit my lip to bottle the panic that bubbled inside of me.
 
She looked just like them.
 
Holding my breath, I tiptoed along the wall and behind the chair she sat in. If I was extra quiet, I could get to the stairs without any confrontation.
 
“I know you are afraid of me,” Asal said.
 
I froze and cursed for being caught.
 
“Because of this, most people are,” she stroked her niqab. “They act like I have something to hide—like I am a monster, strapped with bombs and guns under my skirt.”
 
My tongue felt too heavy to offer some lame excuse for my behavior. For a moment, I considered ignoring her and retreating to my room, pretending that she hadn’t spoken to me. Yet, an inkling of guilt kept me from cowering. A voice in my head whispered, I know who this woman is. I’ve known her for years.
 
“It would be easier to just take this off, but I refuse to silence my beliefs,” she said. “To express one’s self—isn’t that what everyone wants? To let the world know ‘this is who I am.’”
 
“Sensationalism often hides the truth,” Asal said.
 
Clutching her niqab, she slowly pulled it down.
 
Her face was like the tawny-beige surface of a mountain cliff, jagged and riddled with thousands of cracks—striking and beautiful—and illuminated by her wiry, gray hair. Her blue-green eyes which had always seemed expressionless twinkled with bemusement as I leaned forward with mouth-dropping awe, and her cheeks protruded as her thin lips tugged into a wide smile.
 
“Now tell me, do you see a monster?” Asal asked.
 

Shanna P. Lowe is an ESL tutor for Thai speakers, living in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared in Teen Ink printed magazine, and her poetry has won an award from Scholastic’s Alliance of Young Artists & Writers.
 

* * *


The Sand Colored Subject
By A. A. Relnecke

It was cold in the room and seven o’clock at night. There were chestnuts in the pewter tray in the toaster oven. From the lip of the fireplace Keats said ‘Who dares call down my will from its high purpose?’ A girl, in black equestrian pants and a black cotton sweater and black quilted vest and brown equestrian boots, laid beside the book from which he spoke. An eiderdown separated the vertebrae of her back from the hardwood.

A voice called from the kitchen.

“What?” The girl was in the process of kicking her left foot against her riding crop, a habit she often divulged in.

“They’re burning,” said the voice, “The chestnuts—you’re burning them.”

She stood. “I’m not burning anything.” She pulled one calve to her leg as she stood. “The oven’s burning them if they’re burning.” She set her crop beside the Copperfield Millbury ash brush set, and walked past the sunroom.
The sunroom was a simple room for its size and contained a considerably small sum of objects. It wore three windows arranged like a flattened coat, with the large one a rectangle and the other two slanted triangles like connected arms. They were done in yellow, geometric pattern glass. In afternoons they cast an amber hue that made people aged photograph subjects. They were dark, then, with night and made no film of the man in the chair.

The chair was one of a 1930 gray Deco set, bought with the house. Between them was a chest of drawers that might have, in another life, belonged to an Indian general. Parsons, the man in the chair, had a leather writing set and a packet of cigarettes atop the chest.

Eyde cut the chestnuts in halves. They were mahogany inside. She brought them in with milk to follow them with and thought they must taste like lead.

“Thanks.” Parsons took the plate.

“Thanks for the coal?” this to her equestrian toes.

“Just thanks.”

Eyde sat and pulled one of her calves up on the seat with her. “Any good?”

Parsons bit into one. “Good.”

“You would say that.”

“I can stand them.” He leaned back in the chair, shifting a little the soft cover book he had tucked in the chair side. “Used to use newspapers for sheets.”

“France’s hardship,” said Eyde, pulling her calves tighter to her on the chair, “Tale of Alsatian boy turned New York poet. A story of depth and dejection—”

“The lost equestrian,” said Parsons, comfortably, “Failure on the New Hampshire circuit. Tale of long legs and a wall of unused helmets—”

“Mr. Atkinson,” she said, enveloped in talk, “The poet. A man of letters. A man of deficiency.”

“The lost equestrian,” said Parsons, “belongs to a rare breed of incapable liar.” He spoke fluidly. He was familiar with this activity, this habit they had of whittling the other’s Ego like birch or pine or oak. “She is unable to conceal emotion and carries a crop as means of defense against those whose murders she has let on about.”

“It is of the general opinion,” said Eyde, speaking more to the right sleeve window than anywhere else, “that the Poet would write clearer verse if he were to ease his use of stimulant.”

Parsons coughed. “Don’t you have to be up early?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Maybe you should get to bed. And actually try and sleep some?” He stood and pulled his sweater, a light blue colored cotton sweater, over his head. “Try not and just stare up at the ceiling for an hour?”

“Maybe,” said Eyde. “You want the cards?” She was looking at the white line down from his shoulder, the scar from when he’d fractured his collarbone as a boy and had it reset.

“Any decent ones?”

“Yeah. Interesting one from Thursday.”

“You bring them up?”

“Yeah.”

Parsons went up to his office. It had two windows, one facing the lawn and one facing the driveway, the former giving the better view, but the latter interesting to watch guests through, guests adjusting coats and pant legs and limbs as people do upon sitting and standing. Through the other he could see the Hudson, blue, and gray sometimes in the fog.  

His writing desk was one he was allowed when his father died après-guerre, darkened with years of water marks and a burn in one place where his brother had held a lighter. He felt the words as he sat, the French his brother kept like a pocket knife, sharpened always, used only in martial effort. Voulez-vous l'enfer, Parsons? Voulez-vous aller en enfer? Do you want hell, Parsons? Do you want to go to hell?

There was a silver framed photograph on the right; an image of he and his father and brother standing, stiff and formal before the Minnesota house which they called always ‘small house’ in wool coats and boots. The room was white and had bare walls. Although he’d used the address three years, the house belonged to Eyde’s family, and Parsons felt hanging anything invasive.

There was a knocking.

“Come in.” He was flipping through the index cards.

The knocking again.

“Should be open,” he said, not looking up.

“It’s locked.”

Parsons stood and undid the latch and allowed Eyde into the well-lit room.

She handed him a new stack of cards, then folded her arms over her chest. Against her black equestrian pants and a black cotton sweater and black quilted vest, her skin looked stark white.

“Thanks.” He felt the white scar on his collarbone with his hand. His skin was cold to the writing. He’d done two lines. “Getting to bed?”

“In a minute.” She turned to go and took three strides before turning back. “Almost forgot.” She stepped into the office, crossing past the book case. She took from the pocket of her black quilted vest a large handful of almost ripe blueberries. “Gene brought them yesterday from Hebert’s.”

She put the blueberries on the worn, gray wood of the desk. Parsons was writing something and didn’t look up. The radiator was on and his hands cracked, as they always were in the winters, from the heat.

“I’m going to bed.”

“And don’t just and stare at the ceiling.”

“I’ll try and sleep.” When she went out she closed the door softly behind her and thought how she’d known his hands eight winters.

                                                                                            * * *

Parsons woke in the morning at his desk. He went downstairs, made himself an English muffin with apricot jam and sat in a chair in the living room. He saw the eiderdown beside the fireplace and loved Eyde for having left it. He loved her for strange things, and she him; for the manner their physical selves filled cotton sweaters and for the very dark brown hair they both had and for the small choler and sin each saw mirrored in the other’s cheekbones.

He sat quietly while she finished her session.

She had started the practice five years before, after the first miscarriage, when she decided if she couldn’t succeed in piecing life together, she might succeed in dismantling it, in analyzing it, in breaking it into bite sized, digestible pieces. She’d used her Wellesley degree to put up a “Psychiatric Services” sign. It was almost lunch time. She and the patient sat in the gray chairs.

“I mean a commodity,” she was saying. “Anything, I mean. Don’t you believe anything a commodity?”

“I don’t know,” said the boy. He was very thin and sand colored all over. His hair was a dull brown and his eyes a dull brown and his nose an equine one, small in size. He looked in every way what one would expect an English equestrian’s diminutive son to look like.

“What about sleep?” said Eyde, “Don’t you like sleep?”

“I guess so.” The boy pulled his legs onto the chair.

“And food? Don’t you like cold chicken and rice with butter melted in and granola squares? The granola squares with chocolate chips.”

“I guess,” this to the red lacquer chest.

“What I mean is, why don’t you try and get more of those things?” she said, standing, “Why don’t you try and focus yourself in on those things?”

“Focus myself?”

“On granola bars and sleep and things. Simplicities.”

The boy took his sand colored legs down from the chair. “Why?”

“Some people find comfort in that, Wade. Solace. Solace in hot shower and sleep and cold milk and things like it. Some people find it takes away the grief. The heaviness of everything,” this she said tiredly, and though her practice was largely a distraction from herself and not an intended service, with the integrity of advice tried.

“Hot shower and sleep,” said Wade, also tiredly. “Okay.”

When the gold box clock on the counter said eleven o’clock Wade’s mother came. She was also largely sand colored and thin and it would be more correct to say she gathered him, because she completed life’s tasks by gathering instead of executing. This was a new appendage to herself, this gathering, and she’d been a decent equestrian, a person, before she succumbed to tending lawn basil and participating in the Westchester Botanical Society and following other idiosyncratic attempts at resurrecting her late husband.

“We’ve a lesson at twelve,” she said to Wade, rushing him, the neck of her beige wool coat like the ruffle close of a suet dumpling.

“At Mr. Schroeder’s?” said Wade.

“Yes. To learn some concerto today. Your cousins are coming for the weekend from Hanover and you’re to play some things.” She took a checkbook from her wallet, and a pen from her coat. “One-twenty?”

“What?” said Eyde, who’d been looking at Parsons.

“One-twenty? For the session.”  
       
“One-twenty?” she adjusted her attention. “Right. Yes. One-twenty.”

The checkbook was blue with the names and lines in black. The sum was written and slid across the table.

There were toasted crumbs on it from Parsons’ English muffin and a coffee cup filled halfway and cold. “We’ll see you next week, then?”

Eyde nodded. “You wouldn’t want any tea? I was going to put a pan on for black tea.”

“That’s alright,” said Wade’s mother. “Wade’s a piano lesson.” She stepped her thin, sand colored body so more was outside than inside the glass door. “You have a good day now. You and Parsons.”

“See you Tuesday.”

“See you Tuesday.” She nodded out the door.

Parsons joined Eyde in the kitchen. He took out the leather box of index cards. “You have today’s?”

“In on the seat of the chair. I filled two.”

“With anything decent?”

“Yes.”

Parsons went to the chair. The card heavy with words more or less the same, more or less expounding on fear and exhaustion and “thirty chews before swallowing” and insomnia. Eyde hadn’t thought of the cards, it was Parson’s idea, but she hadn’t thought against it either.

The sessions were a distraction and she’d always been thorough in her distractions. She was so thorough in them they become concrete by her attention. And so, like any mistake or like any deliberate action, things pulled in the sessions, from the depths of the boy’s sand colored mind—she’d taken to viewing it as a grain field, his mind—were set down, clear and exact. This same practice was followed with other patients, but the sand colored Wade was the most analyzed subject. He had been for three months, since his father had killed himself by hanging.

“You say you were making tea?” said Parsons.

“Yeah. Black. Unless you want green. I can make both.”

“Black’s fine. Can you call me when the water’s ready?”

“Yeah,” said Eyde, “I’ll call you.”

Parsons went with the cards to his office. Eyde went to the back lawn and he watched her from the window. They had a little over an acre, most of it on the hill, and she went to the bottom part of it, where there was a granite bit and where snow came down the rock face in streams. She packed snow into the pan and returned inside, thinking how pure each color was in their acre, the snow very white and the slate very gray and the trees hunter and solid.

She turned the stove on and let out the smell of gas through the valve and let flames into the air, blue and white and orange waving like silk scraps in unnatural wind. She brought the tea and set the cup down beside his radiator abused hands. 

“Thanks,” said Parsons to the cup.

“Tell me if it tastes like lambskin. I used lambskin gloves this time.”

He took a pen from the face of his butternut wood desk and stirred the tea, to let some of the heat off. “I talked to Ian yesterday,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. They’re good people, he and Emily.”

“Yeah, they are.”

“They asked again why we weren’t there Sunday. How we weren’t at church and how we haven’t been a while.”

Eyde coughed. “We’ll go sometime,” she said, looking down at her feet, “Yeah. Tell them that we’ll go sometime. We will.”

“Okay we will. I’ll tell Ian we will.” He said it with his face lowered over the writing set. He would. He’d tell Ian but he wouldn’t mean it.

They didn’t go to church. They’d been before, though, and the pastor liked them. When they had a child three years later the pastor came to the house to look in the crib, came also in sickness one time to bless him. He knew Parsons would die without a religion and that he’d exist in his stanza when he passed. He knew Eyde too would die Godless but that she’d be featured in a series of photographs at the Smithsonian. He knew the child would become a known radio debater. They were not a family concerned with morals.

The child one time would bury his father and do a radio show the same day. The pastor would listen.
Parsons and Eyde and the child, Francis, yet unborn, were, of course, unaware of such things. Eyde knew little beyond that she lived by simplicity, that she lived by the way the snow in the pan died slowly from mountain to lake. Parsons knew a lot and he lived by a lot; by more than what five men’s minds put together might live by. He was writing a new chapbook, a revolutionary thing of many forms—tanka and senryu and haiku and ode—about the sand colored Wade and his father, the equestrian dead and hanged.

The reviews called it full of torment and truth. There was something human in his work, they said, something raw others couldn’t get down on paper. 

​Alexandra A. Reinecke is a writer and journalist who uses writing as a tool to encourage empathy and affect positive change. ​
​​

* * *

 


 

The Oldest Story There Is
By A.R. Robins

When you see your face in the mirror with its deep craters and dark circles, you are reminded of the story of the moon and all her struggle and all her strength and all her vanity.

She was a strong moon, the strongest of all the moons in the universe. She made work on her Earth seem easy, though she was the only being in the universe who could do such work. With her large, dark arms she pulled the waves of her Earth’s water forward and back, doing much more than the work of sixty-seven. For her, it was like pulling a sheet from a bed and letting it dance in front of her.  

She could also hold the heavy bowl of light and dreams above her and let it pour slowly into her Earth’s mouth. This was her most important work, and only she could do it. If her sisters attempted to hold her bowl, it would have been poured unevenly, which would have led to only some parts of the world knowing the pain of dreams and light. This would not do because pain is the unifying force of life. Her strong arms made this task easy, and without her, there would be no life.

This is why there are trees outside your window, and this is why there are apricots in your oatmeal, and this is why the grass makes your eyes itch, and this is why all your ideas come to you before you sleep, and this is why love burns in your throat when you close your eyes in the dark.  

The moon was not satisfied with herself. She could hold her bowl longer and pour it more slowly than the other moons, yet she became ambitious. It was not enough that she gave her Earth life because when her bowl grew empty, she would have to leave to fill it again with the yellow and blue gases of the universe. Her Earth would forget her. Life ended for all.  When she returned, she would have to start over again from the beginning.

She did not know that this was beautiful and perfect. She did not know that without ambition, life on her Earth would have remained beautiful and perfect forever. If only she had been wise enough to know the beauty of watching the one she loves fall in love with her all over again.  She did not know that she had invented love. She knew only that she was forgotten, and for all her strength, she could not endure it.  

This is why there are deserts and forests, and this why you insist on keeping strangers in your life, and this is why dog faces make you cry, and this is why there is only so much matter in the universe that can be burned up and turned to dust.

 “My bowl is too small,” she said to the stars, who were her only friends, “If it were larger, it would not empty so quickly. I am strong enough to hold a larger bowl.”

The stars said to her, “Yes, you are stronger than all the moons put together. Create for yourself a bowl so large that you will never stop pouring, and your Earth can never forget you.”  They did not know what they were saying because a star’s natural state is that of the sycophant. Their voices were already dead echoes by the time they hit her ears, and she could not recognize their empty voices as reflections of herself.

She weaved a new bowl from bits of the sky.  She carved out pieces of herself, packing them around the edges, leaving holes in her face and chest. She filled the bowl with all the gases around her—blue, yellow, red—taking what the universe was willing to give her and more. Her bowl was so large that the other moons pulled their Earths around her; it was magnificent to see her work.

This is why you drink whiskey in the morning as your mothers did before you, and this is why there are some creatures with many legs and some creatures with two, and this is why there is always hunger and sickness even when food is thrown in the trash, and this is why you are always too tired to sleep.

When she was done, all the moons lined up with their Earths in no order of importance, and they all danced around her and told her she was the grandest moon of them all. She held up her creation with both of her strong arms and began pouring her light into all their hungry mouths, which grew hungrier with every new millennium. She was proud as long as she could be proud, and they admired her for millions of years.

This is why the cactus suffers more than the mushroom, and this is why we seek the approval of strangers, and this is why there is pain in childbirth, and this is why man created both bifocals and the nuclear bomb, and this is why poetry is read out loud, and this is why our very atoms keep us from touching each other.    

It was not long, just a giga-annum, before her Earth betrayed her and gave her creation a name. She never intended to name it. She could not see that what she had done was more important than her strength and talent. She could not see that it had become be a symbol to all, though it was never a symbol to her. Worst of all, her Earth had forgotten those early days when she had first poured dreams into his throat, and he said that it was the Sun who gave him life. His earliest memories of them together seemed devoid of life entirely, which hurt her so much that she could not bear to hold her creation any longer.

She dropped her bowl, the most indecent crime a moon can commit, hoping it would be swallowed by the forever-gaping mouth of the universe, but it was so large, and so beautiful, and so full of light, and pain, and love that the other Earths could not bear to part with it, so they pulled their arms together and cradled it in place.

This is why your back aches in the morning, and this is why your fingers scream with pain, and this is why your children no longer call you, and this is why you have forgotten their names.

Despite her magnificence, the moon now spends the rest of her days shrinking smaller and smaller, hiding her face in the dark sheets of the sky.  Someday she will gather the courage to suffocate herself in the billows of the night, and the life that she so carefully poured into her Earth will suffer without her.

This is why you will blame yourself after it is all done, when you swallow your last gift of night air and push out a sigh, letting the darkness swallow you in its old comforting way. Your story is the first story and all the stories told after it, and all the stories told after that. Your story is the oldest story there is.

A. R. Robins is a Missouri public school teacher who is acquiring a master's in English studies. Currently, she is working on a short story collection. Robins' fiction has also been featured in the literary podcast Second Hand Stories.

 

* * *

 

Birthday Games 
By Christi R. Suzanne 


On my thirty-third birthday, I took a mental health day and went to the discount grocery store. I meandered like a river through aisles of produce. Someone behind me sighed. I turned around. A waif-like woman pushed a cart and wore all pink, bright pink, her shirt matched her capri pants exactly. Even her lip and nail shades matched. She glanced away when I tried to make eye contact with her. I wondered if she did this every day, wore a different bright color that matched everything, even her underwear. I decided it was the only color she ever wore. It reminded me of my sister. She hated pink. In fact, the last time I talked to her, she told me she had given away the pink coin purse I crocheted for her. She said she didn’t like the color because it reminded her of watery blood. She didn’t say thank you.

I wondered if I would ever look like the pink lady. Kind of glamorous. Overdone, really, but still pretty. She wore a ring on her index finger, it looked like a fake eyeball and seemed out of place. I walked slowly, deliberately. Considering a tomato then an avocado I felt the woman’s impatience and her loud sighs swept up dust bunnies around me. I lingered by the grapes.

Normally I hated grocery shopping. The glaring fluorescent lights made human faces look greasy and harsh. Hideous. Plus, I didn’t like the way other people meandered, but it was my birthday. I was allowed this simple pleasure, a digressive birthday wandering. Besides, this past year hadn’t been my best. After getting fired from the coffee shop, I’d had trouble paying rent. And then I got hit by a truck, my car was totaled.

I headed for the bananas and added a bunch to my basket. When we were kids my sister and I used to play unicorns, it entailed holding bananas up to our foreheads. Our unicorns were fighting ones, bred to defend our honor. After a while, we ended up with limp mushy horns in our hands. Her unicorn often defeated mine and I usually ended up with a sore eye socket. That was fun. It had been over a month since we’d last talked. I lived ten miles away. She had been generous with helping me out, rent-wise. I had yet to pay her back, but I did have a new job, cashier at a yarn and café store. That’s where I learned to crochet. My beta fish died the first day I started. He was blue with one long red streak. Like I said, I’d had a rough year.

Flies congregated around the strawberry display. The Pink Lady pursed her perfectly painted lips and passed me. The distinct smell of overripe fruit hit my nostrils. That’s when I noticed the little white paper sticking out of the woman’s back pocket. It moved up slightly at every step, her butt cheek pushing it, almost out, of her pocket. Something was written on it. That’s when the urge came over me. I reached out and snatched up the paper. That simple. Besides, it was about to fall to the ground. I pretended to bump into her. She turned toward me and threw me a drop-dead look. I smiled as brightly as I could and pretended like the paper was my grocery list.

There was a note written in blue ink, in a light feathery script, that was so delicate I had to squint to read it. Imports in. Ice cream section. 2:35 sharp, it said. It was signed: Together we could rule the world, Shirley. I looked at my phone. 2:34.

A woman wearing a hairnet stood behind a table next to a freezer. All of her hair was pulled back except for a clump of dark bangs. Small white paper cups of ice cream lined the freezer next to her.
“Looks good,” I said.
“Would you like a sample of some triple strawberry cherry delight ice cream?” the woman asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“It’s very good if I do say so myself.” The woman looked past me, around the store, as if she were looking for someone. Her make-up was caked below her chin and around her nose. The red rouge was too high on her cheekbones and went up in a great swoop toward her crow’s feet. She turned toward the freezer to grab me a sample.
“Is your name Shirley?” I asked.
Her whole body went rigid. She turned around with the sample in her hand and forced a smile. Her lips quivered around the gap in her teeth and the rouged crow’s feet deepened. “Who may I ask is inquiring?”
“Someone lost a note.” I held it up. “Thought it was important.”
She softened a little. “Oh, I see. Yes, it’s important. My sister, she left her keys at my house. I hope she didn’t forget to come pick them up.” The woman winked like I was in on some bad joke.
“I have a sister too.”
“Isn’t it nice?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. “I guess. I wish we were closer.”
“Make time. Sisters may last a lifetime, but you never know how long you have.”
She was right. I should try harder. “I guess we never really got along. We’re different,” I said. I pulled out my phone and checked it. Nothing. I punched out a quick text to my sister, just a hello to see if she would respond.
“Different can be good when you get older. I’ve always had a close friendship with mine, but I guess we were lucky. Any special plans for the rest of your day?”
“I’m taking the day off. It’s my birthday.”
 “Never hurts to take some time for yourself. Wait,” the woman said. She crouched down to grab an oversized bag she had sitting next to her and pulled out a small ring. “My birthday gift to you.”
I opened my palm and she dropped something into it. A small pinkie-sized ring¾a green eyeball. “Thanks.” I pushed it into my pocket.
“No, try it on. We make them, me and my sister. It’s our thing.” A small black and green tattoo in the shape of a cat’s eye peeked out from under her t-shirt sleeve.
“Oh, cool.” I tried it on my right-hand pinkie finger. It fit. I tapped the top of the eyeball. Glitter circled the outside edge and it felt pliable.
“It’s a yen ring. We’re just starting out. It’s kind of underground right now,” Shirley said and smiled a strange smile, a knowing smile, but I was left confused.
I held my ring hand up. Yen. I looked down at my phone. “I don’t think anyone remembered,” I said. “No messages yet.”
“You didn’t remind them?”
I bit my lower lip.
“That’s no way to feel sorry for yourself.”
“I’m going to make my own cake and see if anyone calls. If they do, I’ll invite them over.”
“Sounds like you’re in for a night of solitaire.”
Maybe she was right. I looked at my phone. No calls. No texts. “Or Russian roulette, since there’s only one bullet, my chances are pretty good,” I said.
“Except, you’re the only one playing a winner’s the loser game. That bullet has your name on it.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I said. I tapped out another quick message to my sister: Just wondering what you’re up to later. Today’s my birthday.
“Have another sample?” she asked pushing another one my way.  “The cherry chunks look like bloody flesh, don’t they?” She studied the ice cream, “Though, really, if you think about it, flesh wouldn’t freeze this way,” she said pointing to one of the cherry chunks. “It wouldn’t be this dark red.” She smiled and tongued the open space where her canine no longer lived.
“That’s some way to sell a pint of ice cream,” I said.
“Oh, I’m no good at sales. I always say the wrong thing,” she said. “Call your sister today. Connect.”
Shirley was right. I knew my sister cared about me in some way. Sometimes I couldn’t feel it though and I had to make sure. I hated doing that. She always took it the wrong way like I was bothering her or that I was too needy. Last week I asked her if she could bring me some orange juice because I was sick. When I hadn’t heard from her I followed up and said that I was okay and didn’t need anything anymore. I did stuff like that just to let her know I was still around, I guess. Maybe it was a bad habit, but it felt important.

I found the cake mix aisle. My back felt tight and my stomach churned like I had eaten something rotten. I selected a box of yellow cake. I checked my phone again. I saw a couple of texts, one from my friend Meredith and another from a guy at work. Nothing from her,I had known her all of my life, over thirty years. I mean, geez, we played UNICORNS together. I started to sweat. I pulled the yellow cake mix close to my chest. My throat felt thick. Maybe if I could pay her back that might help.

I looped back to where Shirley had been. The aisle was empty. A small swarm of flies hovered where her table had been. I caught a glimpse of the Pink Lady walking down aisle seven, paper towels and toilet paper. She followed Shirley. They were laughing and talking to each other. The last time I had laughed with my sister was half a year ago. It was that time I spilled chocolate ice cream down the front of my shirt,the whole top scoop landed at my feet. She had moved away to avoid getting splattered.

I followed Pink Lady toward the back of the store. They looked so happy together. She ditched her cart and they both darted through a swinging door into what looked like a stock room. I waited a few minutes before I followed.

There were stacks of brown boxes on shelves. A ledge of what looked like jars full of pickled vegetables lined one of them. Then I heard mumbling and the very distinct crrrup sound a box makes when you rip open the top and reveal what’s inside. The two women sat crouched low in the middle of the shelving area.

“Imported from Italy,” Shirley said.
“They look perfect,” Pink Lady said. “You’re the best at getting the best.”

The sound of their laughter was like flutes in a duet. The Pink Lady gave Shirley a side hug. The last time I hugged my sister was the day she graduated with a Master’s in Forensic Science about five years ago.

Then I saw each of them hold up a jar of what looked like albino olives in a yellowish substance. I tried to get a closer look.

A matching cat’s eye tattoo on Pink Lady’s left arm under her t-shirt revealed itself.
I held my breath. Would my sister ever get a tattoo with me?

“Let’s get these loaded in your car, ” Shirley said. I immediately turned and walked out of the storeroom the way I came.

I made my way to the self-checkout and paid. The whole time I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching me. I twisted the small ring on my finger and watched the green iris closely. Maybe it was a cat’s eye, but it was too small. I walked into a sunny spot and watched the eye’s pupil contract. Impossible. I stuffed my hand deep into my pocket and then checked my phone. Still nothing from her and it was past noon.

On my walk home I texted my sister again: come over for cake and strawberries tonight. I rubbed the eye ring willing my sister to text me back then weighed the chances of her showing up. This time I had a story to tell her about Pink Lady and her sister. She would never believe me. If I could only share this story with her, I knew it would change us, make us better. Like we were both in on the secret eyeball ring business and she could go back with me and meet the two sisters, see how strange yet how close they were.

The eyeball ring glinted in the sun and I rubbed its squishy pupil hoping for a better birthday and a better year. There was no way the pupil had contracted. I shook my head and pushed the eyeball, felt it squish down. The sisters from the grocery store drove by in their van and Shirley waved.

A text from my sister came through: Iris, stop texting me. I’m in a meeting. I know it’s your birthday. I’ll see you tonight.

My eyes grew wide. She had texted back. Maybe this year would be different. I rubbed the pliable pupil ring. The corners of my mouth formed into a smile.


Christi R. Suzanne has work in Midwestern Gothic, the online journals The Gravity of the Thing, 101 Words, and The

Splinter Generation. Incidentally, she is a sleeping dog enthusiast.

​​

* * *

 

The Falling Girls
By Cathy Ulrich


The first girl that jumped was Mary Song. She dressed herself up in her mother’s wedding gown, which was too long for her and had a stain that the dry cleaners could never get out. She climbed out her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and her neighbor Warner Helmer saw her go. He figured she was eloping.

Why else would she be in a wedding dress? he said later.

He watched her run down the street, holding the gown up so she wouldn’t trip. He thought she was running toward love.

Later, we found a torn piece of her mother’s wedding dress caught on the chain-link fence surrounding the school, so we knew she must have climbed it to get inside. There was a door with a stubborn latch that didn’t always catch (the first thing the school fixed, after Mary Song), which she used to get inside the school.

Mary Song, running through the empty hallways, barefoot and wan. She hadn’t left a note for her parents or anybody. Her best friends all said: We didn’t know. How could we have known? She ran through the school, and we found her dirty footprints later. Some of the boys took photos with their cellphones before the floors were cleaned, and shared them round the school. We all saw Mary Song’s footprints. We all saw how fast she ran.

After Mary Song, the school installed security cameras. We could see the rest of them as they went through the school (and when we saw the video of Shelly Pease, we all wept and called for her to turn back, but she had gone long beyond the sound of our voices), but for the first, for Mary Song, we could only imagine how it was.

She was beautiful, said Warner Helmer. Like a fairy-tale princess.

We imagined Mary Song in glass slippers, cavorting with enchanted animals. We wrote poetry in her honor. We dreamed of her, and woke with our arms embracing air. Dead Mary Song in her wedding dress. We all loved her then. We knew her better, we thought, than ourselves, Mary Song who sat in the last row, Mary Song who twirled her black hair round her fingers.

After her death, the girls began seeing Mary Song. Mary Song was a flicker in the corners of their eyes, an apparition in a wedding gown.

At school, the girls whispered to each other in the restroom: Did you see? Did you see her too?
The girls held séances in the school restrooms, flickering flashlights underneath their chins.
Mary Song, are you there? they said. Mary Song, can you hear us?

When hot water poured into the sinks though the faucets were set to cold, the girls said that was Mary Song, trying to reach them from the other side.

Are you happy, Mary Song? the girls whispered in the restrooms. Are you happy now?

The boys didn’t see Mary Song. The boys didn’t hear the whispers. It was a secret only for the girls, the appearance of Mary Song, barefoot Mary, running through the hallways, running faster than she’d ever done, running to meet her destiny.

Madelyn Strever was the next. She broke in through one of the windows. We all saw the glass on the floor in the chemistry lab, and flecks of blood where she had cut herself. The security cameras were still being installed when she took her turn, and only the one in the main hallway was functional. We saw her stop to admire her reflection in the glass of the trophy case, and tuck her hair behind her ear. Then she went round the corner and was gone.

We played the video over and over. Some said you could see the reflection of Mary Song beside Madelyn’s in the trophy case, that she was a troubled spirit leading other young girls to their doom.
The girls flushed pinky rings down the toilets as offerings to Mary Song, till finally the principal said they were wrecking the pipes. They held hands in the restrooms and called out to Mary Song: Is Madelyn there with you? Is she happy too?

Madelyn Strever’s ghost, if it occupied the school, was quieter than Mary Song’s. Only cold water flowed into the sinks.

The faulty boiler has been repaired, the principal announced. We remind you not to flush anything down the toilet that doesn’t belong.

After Madelyn Strever, it was Timber Hansen, then Charlotte Gibbs, Shelly Pease and Lucinda Watkins. We wept for all of them. We pinned their yearbook photos to our walls. Timber Hansen’s prom date scratched her name into his forearm with a thumbtack. We saw the scar heal and fade. We fell asleep with their smiling faces watching us. We loved them all, but especially Mary Song, the first.

Something must be done, said parents to the school, and security lights were installed, and alarms, and extra locks, and even a security guard who caught the hem of Lucinda Watkins’ dress when she fluttered backward off the roof. The security guard clutched the torn piece of fabric in his hand and shouted: Wait, please wait, as if it could be taken back, even then.

Parents began holding protests at the school, carrying signs that read Protect Our Children. We watched them through our classroom windows. We listened to their chants.

Pay them no mind, the teachers said, but their eyes, too, were inevitably drawn to the roof, and to the place on the pavement where the stains had been washed clean. Mrs. Halverson, the algebra teacher, put her head into her hands and wept.

I can’t, she said. I just can’t.

The other teachers helped her away to the lounge. Both Mary Song and Timber Hansen had been in her first period class. She remembered their aptitude for numbers.

After a while, the parents packed up their signs and returned to their homes. Mothers took their wedding dresses from their closets and tucked them into trunks. The photos on our walls curled and yellowed. We thought about taking them down. We thought about track meets and tennis games and going to college in the fall. The girls said they no longer saw Mary Song. They said she must have gone. They twisted rings on their pinky fingers and said how quiet the school seemed now, how empty.

The school newspaper ran an opinion piece about how sometimes it seems like it’s the end of the world, but it’s really not, and things will always get better, and you should talk to somebody if you’re feeling sad, even a teacher if you had to, and our parents all clipped the article and said to us at family dinnertime: Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

We wanted to talk about Mary Song. We wanted to say did you even know she existed before she died? Did we ever mention her? We couldn’t remember if we ever had, quiet Mary Song from our literature classes, from the hallways, tugging her skirt down, twisting her hair.

Our parents said: Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

And we, eating our buttered peas, shook our heads, mentioned a tough teacher, dropped our spoons on the floor and listened to them clatter.

Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

No, we said.

Ella Jenkins was the last, a week before graduation. Her mother had never been married, so she found her grandmother’s dress in a storage facility and sneaked it home to alter it. Her friends said she must have been bringing it to school with her too, to work on it in the home ec room. They had seen, they said, when she opened her backpack, a flash of white fabric.

If only we’d known, they said. If only we’d known.

Ella Jenkins lay in the parking lot over the weekend while her mother worriedly telephoned her friends. Mrs. Halverson came early to prep for finals and found her. She turned in her resignation letter that afternoon, and was taken from the school by her husband, arm over her shoulder.
That poor girl, she said. Those poor girls.

We all talked about Ella Jenkins that day. We all loved Ella Jenkins that day, as much as Mary Song and the rest. We had a moment of silence for her, like we’d done for the others. We traced her name onto our desks, looping it with Mary Song’s.

Ella Jenkins was the only one to leave a note. She was clutching it in her hands when she was found, and the coroner put it with her other belongings: one wristwatch, a pair of pearl earrings (fake), ponytail holder, stationary.

There were two versions of the note that went round the school: the real one and the fake one. No one knew which was which. We read them over and over again, looking for clues.

The one said goodbye forever and the other said See you soon. Neither note was addressed to anyone in particular, and we went round the school saying to each other see you soon and goodbye forever when we went our separate ways at the gate. We felt what Ella Jenkins had felt. Or we felt the opposite. We called our friends that evening. We never said Ella Jenkins’ name. We said see you soon. We said goodbye forever. We pinned her picture up next to the others’. Our parents wrung their ineffectual hands. Our little brothers and sisters played video games, or colored in coloring books, or wanted horsey rides.

Not tonight, we said.

They said: Why not?

We said: We’re sad. We’re so very sad.

We lay in our beds with the lights turned off and willed the dreams of Mary Song to return, beautiful Mary Song. Mary Song the wisp. Mary Song the first. We held crumpled copies of the real note, or the fake one. Mary Song didn’t come to us that night, not in dreams, not in visions. The girls gathered in the restrooms at school in the morning. They saw graffiti scratched into the handicap stall of the girls’ restroom that read: Goodbye Mary Song.

That, too, might have been written by Ella Jenkins.

 

Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Lunch Ticket, Knee-Jerk and Booth.

 
* * *

 

Vecinos
By Darren Young


“¡Muchísimas gracias!” I say to my new neighbor, Miguel. We're standing in the doorway. I reach forward and give his hand a firm shake.
 
“De nada,” Miguel says with a huge grin. He releases his grip and drops his arm. But before he turns, his smile fades. And he sulks away.
 
To me, the behavior seemed intentional. I wonder if he had expected a tip? The separation of rich and poor is vast in this country. But Miguel wasn't dressed as a poor man. I throw my shoulders up and shut the door.
 
I walk straight through the apartment across the office area and to the exterior side. The entire wall is a window. I open the curtains all the way and stand behind it. From my fifth floor flat, lines upon lines of clothing litter my direct line of sight. Windows are open across the street and I can see inside furniture. I shift my gaze over and beyond the multi-colored tin-roofed housing complexes and up toward the eastern mountain.
 
Monserrate, number one tourist destination, is perched atop. Cable cars are gliding above the trees and a train inserts into the mountain – both carrying passengers toward the top for a premium, but the gate to the walking path is closed. I take in a deep breath and exhale. This view was the highlight of the listing. I close the curtains.
 
The unit itself is basic, white tile floors and matching drywall. It has all of the necessities – bed, couch, desk, full kitchen. And it's sanitized. (Miguel did a good job scrubbing.) But, it's not clean. Remnants from the previous tenant are scattered throughout.
 
There is a large wooden desk in the office. Under it's glass-top, pressed flat are several delivery menus, an address handwritten in cursive, and a lawyer's business card. I walk into the kitchen and open the fridge. A few styrofoam containers are on the top shelf. I lift the lid of one and reveal a half eaten chicken. There is a jar of coffee in a drawer and a opened bag of yogurt in the egg compartment.  When I shut the door, I notice a couple of post-it notes with latina names and telephone numbers stuck to the exterior.
 
As I begin to reach for my backpack, I realize that the only meal I've eaten in the past twelve hours was a bag of fiesta blend peanuts and a liter of Jamaica tea. I grab my passport, a fifty-thousand peso bill and a hand-full of change. Then I hit the streets.
 
Traffic of all makes and models rush by the one-way street in front of my Candelaria apartment. I walk to the nearest corner and stop by a stand. I point to a roll behind a glass shelf and say, “Dos.” The merchant hands me a plate with two steaming chunks of bread. I take a seat on a plastic stool. Then I bite into one and discover a gewy center. There is some sort of cheese in the middle, it's delicious. Without asking, the merchant hands me a cup of coffee and I take a swig. She smiles at my broken Spanish, in a good-natured way. She doesn't have change for my 50k bill, so I dig out a few coins and pay. She gives me a bag for my uneaten roll.
 
There is an indigenous woman scraping up and down on a tin can, producing a galloping sound, sitting on the sidewalk nearby. As I approach her, I notice that she has a baby wrapped up in a blanket. I hand her the bread and the rest of my change, and continue back to my apartment.
 
In my flat, as I'm finishing unpacking my things, the door-chime rings. I grab my cash and passport off of the desk and pocket it, then I walk to the front door. I open the peephole cover and see Miguel standing outside. I smile and open the door.
 
Miguel extends his arm and says, “Here.” He opens his hand and reveals a cell phone.
 
“Ah, the twenty thousand peso special,” I say. I reach into my pocket and pull out a bill.
 
“No, no.” Miguel says and continues, “call me.” Then he asks, “tomorrow?”
 
“¿Qué?” I ask.
 
“Café and market?” he says, “early.”
 
“Oh yeah, sure,” I say. “I'll be ready.”
 
I change my mind about him wanting money, and consider that he is expecting something else in return. I plug the phone in and then walk to the fridge. I remove the half-eaten chicken and a moldy sandwich, but keep the coffee. Then I separate the organic from the non-disposables and toss everything into garbage bags.
 
I check the local news online. The big headline reads that a seven year old girl's body was found, molested. The killer is still at large. I scroll down the page. The guerrilla group FARC has signed a peace agreement with the government. I continue further down. Something odd catches my eye and click on a link to the video. It's security footage of an assassination attempt on a plastic surgeon in Medellín. The article states that it was the third attempt on his life in less than ninety days.
 
Miguel and I walk Carrera 7 through the centro the next day. The street is closed to traffic. Cyclists and runners rush by us.
 
“Ciclovía,” he says.
 
“Yeah it's nice,” I say, “they do the same thing in Mexico.”
 
He points toward an indoor parking garage and tells me that he has a Land Rover stored there, but that walking is easier. I recall how heavy the midday traffic was during my cab ride from the airport the day before, and I tell him that I would do the same if I lived here.
 
We cross Calle 19 and stop on the corner. Miguel holds up his arm and waves his hand toward the oncoming traffic. Less than a second later a pale yellow cab pulls up on the curb in front of us. We hop in the back.
 
As the taxi heads northwest Miguel points to the right and tells me to avoid that section of town. I look down a cross street and observe a handful of women dressed to kill. “It's legal here right?” I ask. “Yes,” he says and then adds, “but very dangerous.”
 
Miguel insists on paying when the taxi drops us off.
 
The market is dirty, and packed with people, animals, and produce. We stop and take seats in front of one of the bread roll places. “Pandebono,” he informs me when the steaming morsels are presented to us. We drink cups of coffee along with the bread.
 
Walking through the market, Miguel points out some exotic fruit. “Maracuyá y tomate de árbol,” he says. He hands me a small oval shaped tomato and tells me to start kneading it.
 
“The women are beautiful here,” I say.
 
“Yes, but better in Medellín,” he says.
 
We pass by some caged chickens and I pose while he snaps my photo.
 
“So this tomato grows on a tree?” I ask as we exit the market.
 
“Yes,” he says and grabs it from my hand. He checks the firmness and then motions for me to take a bite off of the top and tilt and squeeze the juice out into my mouth.
 
I follow his orders. It isn't sweet like I expected, but it is refreshing.
 
We cross a street and walk toward a large building.
 
“It's new,” Miguel says as he points up toward the structure, “built two years ago.”
 
As the large glass doors open to the centro comercial, I step through and remark, “This is modern.”
 
“Yes, just like in the United States,” he says.
 
I look around and comment, “but empty.”
 
We stop at a coffee shop and take seats. After placing the order Miguel pulls out his cell phone.
 
“My ex-wife,” he says.
 
I look at the picture and say, “She's beautiful.”
 
“Yes,” he says and scrolls to the next photo. “This is my girlfriend.”
 
She looks nineteen. “Muy linda,” I say.
 
Then he shows me pictures of his kids. I ask how old they are.
 
“The oldest is 32,” he says.
 
My age, I think.
 
“Do you have kids?” he asks.
 
“No, my brother has a couple though,” I say.
 
“Families cause health problems,” he says and points to himself. “Diabetes.”
 
“Yeah, my family doesn't talk,” I say. “It's better that way.”
 
He makes a hand motion toward the waitress and reaches for his billfold.
 
“No,” I say. “I've got this.”


​​
Darren L Young was born and raised in the rural midwest. He served 10 years in the United State Army National Guard before moving west, where he earned a Master of Science from Arizona State University. Darren has publications in Dual Coast Magazine, Heater, Gravel, Turk's Head Review, and Black Mirror Magazine. They can be found here.

 


 

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