Foliate Oak May 2014
Fiction
My Side of Damascus
By CG Fewston

We were freshmen in high school when Samantha drank her milk with bleach. About the fourth trip back to the kitchen for a fresh glass my twin sister collapsed. I didn’t hear her scream or anything. Just heard a thud in the hall. When I found her, she was curled up holding her stomach. Her legs kicked a little. In the hall’s low light, her cardinal red hair was a real mess. Looking at Sam, I could see my own brown eyes pleading for mercy and my own freckled face turning pale. She grimaced and moaned my name. ‘Jack,’ Sam said. Her eyes squeezed tighter as I placed a hand on her shoulder. I asked her what was wrong. Mom was at the grocer buying more milk. I never thought that part was ironic, or funny. But it was true. Sam had drunk all the milk. 

Three years later I visited my sister Sam for the first time. I was a senior in high school and we had to bury my Grandmommy alongside Wright’s Chapel in Sunset Memorial Park. I walked up the hill and turned to see the afternoon sun over the Blue Ridge Mountains I had known since we moved there ten years back. Dad had left Texas and brought us to Virginia and to the Friendliest Town on the Appalachian Trail. To Sam and me it was anything but. After Sam died, things fell apart and we hadn’t heard from Dad since. Mom said he was back working the oil rigs near Lubbock.  

Down below near the red-bricked chapel with its white steeple, I could see Grandmommy’s funeral letting out into the parking lot. All the black suits and black dresses were too grim for me that day. Mom held a hand to her forehead and scanned the hillside looking and I wasn’t sure she saw me. I held a hand up but didn’t wave. Some young boys and girls about my age got in their cars and trucks and headed back to Damascus with their stereos loud and cigarettes ashing out the side windows. I turned and continued up the hill to Sam’s grave.

Sam was buried up near Susan G. Edmondson who was born on Dec. 2, 1856, Sam’s birthday, as well as mine. Susan died on Dec. 10, 1937. I always found it odd how most people died near their birthdays. Except for Sam. She died on May 23. Strange. Not even close. I thought about when I would die and if I would know it was coming like a train slowing into the station. The way Sam must have known. 

You can spot Sam’s grave easy enough because Mom didn’t buy the usual tombstone. She went ahead and emptied my college savings, which wasn’t much anyway. Mom bought Sam a stone angel that sat on its knees with its head bowed, hands folded in its lap. I fell to the ground and began ripping out the weeds with my bare hands and cleaning an outline around the foundation. I remembered my pocket knife Dad had given me for my eleventh birthday and started using that instead of my fingers. The statue didn’t look anything like Sam. For a time I sat there thinking of Sam’s red hair and freckles and how they were similar to mine. The stone angel seemed to be smiling but I knew it wasn’t. It was a trick of the sun. That was all it was.

I heard Mom’s voice calling me to come over. To throw dirt on the coffin. I didn’t look. I had had enough saying good-bye. After a while Mom came and put a hand on my head. It was then I knew they were finished burying my Grandmommy, the one who had read bedtime stories to me when I was a kid. I felt a bit guilty about not wanting to see her put in the ground proper. When Mom said something I had to wipe my face and clear my nose to hear what she was saying.

‘Coming for supper, Jack?’

I disliked my name and didn’t know why my parents had named me that.

‘Honey?’ Mom said. 

I couldn’t bring myself to answer and I didn’t feel like eating anything. My eyes stayed on the object all blurry in front of me. I curled my arms around my knees, pulled myself in a ball the way Sam did that night she died. Leaves were burning off in the woods somewhere. The smoke smelled nice. Like when I would rake the yard with Sam teasing me. She would laugh as she dropped the match onto the pile of leaves. Right then, though, I hated the smoke for smelling so good. 

‘If you get hungry,’ Mom said, ‘we’ll be at Old Mill.’ Mom said it as though it were another Sunday after church. How could she? I imagined her in less than an hour standing on the deck outside Old Mill Restaurant and Inn. She’d be listening to Mock’s Mill Falls and watching the geese swim Laurel Creek. That wasn’t something I was in the mood for right then.

‘Samantha was a happy child, wasn’t she?’ Mom asked. But she didn’t stay to hear my answer. She headed down the hill, wiping her face with the back of her hand. She wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. I couldn’t remember when she had taken it off.

I let the parking lot empty before I went down. I stood up, wiped the back of my pants, and leaned over and touched the angel’s head. There were words wanting to come out of me but none sounded good and I kept quiet. It seemed more proper than anything I could have said at the time.

I walked down the hill with the sun warming my neck. I thought of how Sam was a happy child. Yes. We were happy for the most part. She got mixed in with the wrong crowd. Rumors had gone around that Sam was a slut and that she was pregnant but Mom denied it as much as I did. Sam never looked pregnant to me. Principal Sinclair couldn’t stop the bullies from gossiping. Hands were tied, that sort of legal excuse for not giving a good goddamn. Even so, I couldn’t blame the principal. Sam had told me most everything. She never said anything like what those jocks were whispering about her in the locker room. As far as I knew she was a virgin. But bullies had a way of making life miserable for Sam. For me too, I reckon.   

I turned the key in the ignition to my truck, pumped the gas a few times to rev the engine and drove out onto Highway 91. I remembered one of Sam’s favorite places to go when she got down, when she felt sad or out of it. I headed there.  

Backbone Rock was in Tennessee and only a ten minute drive from Damascus. No matter how many times Sam and me drove that road through what some claimed the shortest tunnel in the world it put us at ease. I arrived, paid the two dollars to park, and headed up the rock staircase to the lookout point. The woods smelled fresh. Like right after the morning dew settles. 

The trail was narrow and of smooth stone where Sam used to sit at the top edge. She’d dangle her feet and watch cars pass through the tunnel on the paved road beneath. Sometimes she’d try and spit on the cars. Sam and me had some good times when we’d hike the half mile to the falls, but today I didn’t feel like doing it. Instead I stood at the top with my sneakers half off the side. Looking down one could see that my shoes were of two different sizes. I remembered how I was ridiculed growing up and figured no one would really miss me and my club foot.

In a month I’d be graduating high school and I hadn’t even applied to any universities yet. Mom had her full-time job at the Bank of Damascus. I figured she would miss me and I didn’t feel right leaving her all alone. I stepped from the edge and began to walk to my truck when a young man and woman a few years older than me came down the path holding hands. I didn’t look at the couple when they went by but they cheered me up a bit and made me smile a little because they were happy. That meant something. Funny though. Seeing them made me think of Madison. How we would never be more than friends. When Madison practiced cheerleading routines in front of me in her backyard, her hair would be like sunflowers being whipped by the wind. Her waist was so thin it seemed like there were perfect slots on her hips for my hands, if we ever got our first dance. I looked down at my club foot hidden in my shoe. I wished to hell it could’ve been Sam standing there at Backbone Rock instead of me.   

Driving back on the road toward Virginia and to Damascus I thought of how the doctors told my mother I came out happy and screaming but what I can remember about that time was all the pain. Pain like nothing people want to believe could happen to a baby. Sometimes I wake in the night and find the bed sheets tangled around my right foot where the scars pulse even after all that time. My heart would be growing, trying not to burst because of all the pain shooting out my club foot and up my calf, a good size smaller than its mate. The pain ever present. A nail stamped into the ankle bone. A little like that I guess. The doctors told Mom and me that the pain would go away. It never did. It never does. 

Sam came out first by a whole minute and I’m glad she did. She was the strong one. When I came out, the doctors rushed me off to surgery without even weighing me, which my mother said was uncommon. For the next few years I had surgery after surgery. I grew up learning to walk with a cast and small wooden crutches. Hell. I ran faster with those crutches than some kids without. Sill proud of that fact. 

Through it all, Sam was the one to pick me up when I took a misstep and crumbled to the ground. Or when the other boys pointed their fingers, mocking my deformity by limping about. No. Sam had called my foot special. She was the beautiful one. I held her back. So I’m partly to blame for what happened to her. Or that’s the story I told Madison. Madison seemed to believe me despite we were just friends and weren’t going out or anything. I decided I’d go over to Madison’s and see if she was at home. It was worth a shot.

I pulled up and parked in Madison’s drive. I was standing on the front porch knocking when I heard Ben’s voice from next door. He had been one of the jocks that spread rumors about Sam. That was what Madison told me once. I never did anything about it. Just too afraid to believe it was true. 

‘Hey, Jackie!’

I heard Ben slurp his drink. I didn’t want to turn because I knew Madison’s neighbor would be ready to give me some hell. Again I knocked. No answer. No Madison stirring inside. How I wanted her to be there. 

I looked over the shrubs. Saw he was drinking a coke. He wore a Metallica t-shirt. I never cared much for rock music. Madison liked Christian rock as crazy as that sounds. She liked it more than I did, which wasn’t saying much. With Madison I felt anything could happen. But usually nothing special ever did.

‘Madison’s not home, Jack-ass!’ Ben called out. ‘She’s at the hospital helping real cripples.’

I raised my hand. Ben flinched and grew a bit angry as if he were expecting me to give him the middle finger. I didn’t. I kept my hand there the way I had done with Mom. For that instant I thought of my pocket knife. How I wanted to pull it out and show Ben. How my name was Jack and not Jackie. Nor Jack-shit. Not even Jack-ass. Jack. Plain and simple. And yes I was—

‘Freak!’ Ben shouted.

My hand was still in the air and I had to make myself bring it down. It was like my hand hadn’t belonged to me for that moment and it refused to obey.

‘At least Samantha,’ Ben said, grabbing his crotch, ‘was my kind of —’

I hopped off Madison’s porch and as I jumped the dividing hedge I saw the look in Ben’s eyes grow wild. I caught him by the shoulder as he turned to go. My knife was out. I stuck the blade right up under Ben’s chin. Blood trickled down across my thumb gripping the handle. My heart was beating mad. Felt damn good to hear it so loud and strong.

Ben wetted himself. His hips and legs shook, like he couldn’t control his bodily functions. His coke splashed to the concrete steps.

‘Say it,’ I said. I didn’t know what I wanted him to say but he needed to say something. ‘Say it,’ I said.

He started to speak. Apologize perhaps. But Madison’s voice called out to me.

‘Jack!’ she screamed. ‘Don’t!’

I turned. Saw Madison in her cheerleader’s outfit. Her fists clinched at her side. Her eyes wet. Standing behind her was her dad, Brian. He looked a bit shocked, reserved. I lowered my knife and walked by Madison. When I shifted out of reverse and into drive, Madison and her dad were still staring at me from their front yard. Ben was no longer on his porch. 

At the Country Corner I got some gas for my truck and tossed my knife in the trash between the pumps. I drove up Damascus Drive. I turned left on East Laurel because I wanted to see all the churches there. I imagined Sam next to me in my truck with her feet up in the seat like she used to do when Dad was driving. I wanted to talk to her, the way we could begin and end each other’s sentences or knew what the other person was going to say next. But I hadn’t known Sam would kill herself. And now I knew she wasn’t there beside me in the truck when I pointed to one of the churches and said that was where we had her service. I imagined Sam nodding as if she hadn’t been the one we buried. Made me feel good to be talking to my sister again.  

I turned right on North Reynolds. Headed straight to parking near Laurel Creek. Wanted to get out, walk around a bit. I reckoned Mom and Uncle Jim and the rest would still be down the street at Old Mill. Though I wasn’t hungry, I figured it would feel good to be near my family.

I sat on a bench facing the water, where Madison and me would come and talk about what it was like to be picked on at school. She would gossip, though I never cared much for it. Her voice soothed me. Reminded me of Sam at times.   

Sam would come out here alone in the months leading up to her death. She’d sit until the sun went down. I’d pull up on my bicycle and find her still sitting in the dark. My sister told me time after time she was fine. Nothing was bothering her. I believed her. Why wouldn’t I?

I had been doing the same thing for the past few weeks, coming out here and sitting. Thinking of the taunts at high school. How I didn’t want any more of it.

I leaned back on the bench, the smell of creek in my nose, the ducks and geese somewhere having a grand time out there on the water. I felt like I wasn’t me any more. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be.

The sun started down. Shadows getting darker and longer. The air colder and heavier. I kept thinking of Sam holding her stomach and telling me that she was sorry, so very sorry. How she didn’t want to die. How I held her hair away from her face. Told her she wasn’t going to. How she would be all right. How I would get her to the hospital and this would pass. And Sam nodded along to each of my lies.

She had groaned then vomited on the carpet by my knees. I hated myself for thinking that she was not my sister. That some stranger was sick in our house. All I wanted was Sam back. My Sam. The one who had poured barbecue sauce in my bed and put peanut butter in my hair as I slept. My sister who had carried me when I couldn’t walk across the snow. I wanted that Sam. But it was Sam.

Now I was the one. The one to sit and see Old Mill’s lights hitting the ducks floating over the dark water. I couldn’t forget Sam. No matter how hard I tried. There would always be people to remind me that the pain was mine alone. That was fine. All so very fine.  
 
CG Fewston C.G. Fewston has an M.A. in Literature from Stony Brook University, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership and Administration, and from Southern New Hampshire University he has an M.F.A. in Fiction. He has stories and essays published in Bohemia, The Writer's Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, Travelmag: The Independent Spirit, and Go Nomad and is a contributor to the Ho Chi Minh City’s premier English newspaper, Tuoi Tre.
* * *
Home for the Holidays
By Julie Gilbert

She twisted the final bit of tinsel around the top branch and wiped the last of the tears from her eyes.  There was a scuff of gravel on the path behind her, too loud to be a squirrel.

“I wondered who did this,” he said, rocking on his toes.  His jacket was thin for the November weather.  “I finally caught you.”

She waded through the waist-high grass, seedpods whispering against her jeans. She planned to walk right past him but he kept talking.

“I look forward to the tree every year.  A sign that the holidays are coming, you know?”

“No,” she said, her eyes on the path.  She was past him now, her dark hair nestled against her red coat, her shoulders sloping as she burrowed her hands in her pockets.

“You must love Christmas, right?  I bet you’ve got lights up at your house.  I used to put them up at mine but that was before, well, it was before,” he finished.

“Everything was before,” she said, only because he seemed to be waiting for a response. 

He fell into step beside her.  The park was an empty swath of overgrown grass and toppled benches.  Her car hunched alone on the edge of the lot.

“I see you’re no longer following the Conglomeration Disease Control guidelines,” he said, waving a hand at his unmasked mouth.  “Me either.  I figure, if I didn’t get it by now, I’m not going to get it.”

“Look, I’m sure you’re a nice guy and all but I just wanted to finish my tree in peace and then go home.”

He ducked his head.  His brown hair was thinning

“You’re right. Sorry to bother you.  It’s just been so long since I talked to anyone,” he murmured.

She glanced overhead, feeling a burst of anger that the sky still dared to be so blue.

“I don’t remember the last time I saw an airplane,” she blurted.

“I’d almost forgotten about airplanes,” he said.  “My grandparents used to talk about the days after 9/11 when planes were grounded and the skies were empty.  At my old job, my office was on the fifteenth floor.  I used to watch planes go by and wonder about the people on them, where they were going.” 

She didn’t ask about his job.  The Conglomeration provided food and supplies, palliative care until everyone finally died out and the continent could be reclaimed.  There was no need to work, unless you were one of those crazies holed up in the mountains somewhere.

“I’m sorry I was rude,” she said.  “I think it’s Thanksgiving. Would you like to come over for dinner?”

As she slid behind the wheel of her car, she had a flash from the time before, when a woman never went anywhere with a strange man.

“You’re not going to murder me, are you?”

He shrugged, the gesture revealing the outline of a handgun strapped his waist. “What would be the point?  At least you don’t have to worry about rape.”

When they reached her house, he wandered around the living room while she prepared two Conglomeration-issued microwave meals.

“Spanakopita or pad thai?” 

“Pad thai, please.”

For a few minutes there was nothing but the scrape of metal against plastic.

“So how did it start for you?  Was it the cough or the rash?”

She stared at him, aghast.

“For me it was the rash,” he continued.  “My littlest one kept scratching her behind.  We thought it was poison ivy.  Then we heard the reports.”

“Cough,” she said finally, her throat closing around the word.  She pictured the tiny Christmas tree bobbing alone in the park.  It was easier than remembering dark, fever-filled eyes.

“No pictures,” he said, gesturing at her empty walls.

“No.”

“It’s easier that way.  When eighty-three percent of the population dies in fourteen months and the rest of us are rendered infertile, it’s hardly fair to expect that we’ll carry all those memories.”

"The Conglomeration has records,”she said.  “They won’t be forgotten.”

“You really believe that, huh?  I think they just told us that to make us feel better.  When the rest of us die out, no one’s going to care.”

“Then I suppose it doesn’t matter,”she said, the last tiny dream dying in her heart.

There was a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” she asked, aware that the question was irrelevant.  She was the only living soul for miles.  There was only one answer.

“It’s past curfew,” the Conglomeration Officer said, standing in the doorway.  Snow floated from the sky, settling on his combat boots.

“It’s been years since you enforced curfew,” the man said behind her.  His hand hovered near his hip.

“The quarantine’s been lifted.  They discovered a vaccine.  Relocation starts next month.  We’re training now to enforce the new laws.”

She felt dizzy as bullets of information pierced the fog in her mind.

“I’m just leaving now,” the man said.  The officer withdrew to darkness at the edge of her driveway.

“You knew, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I heard rumors.”

She flinched, imagining the neighborhood lit with garish Christmas lights, the whoosh of cars on the road and the clatter of unfamiliar languages yelled across chemical lawns in the summer.

“That’s why I came to you.  I don’t want to be here when those people arrive.  I’m taking care of it tomorrow.  If you feel the same, meet me by your tree at daybreak.”  He fingered the bulge beneath his jacket.

She closed the door behind him and carried the dishes to the sink.  A sense of calm settled in her stomach.  She would choose a gunshot ripping through the air over the children of outsiders laughing in the street.  A strand of tinsel fell from her shoulder, curling on the counter. Her fingers hesitated over it for a second and then she turned off the lights and went to bed.

 
Julie Gilbert is a recovering academic writer and librarian. Julie crafted her first novel in the margins of grad school notes, meeting minutes and grocery lists.  While working on her second novel, Julie wandered through cemeteries, dragging family and friends along for the ride.
 
* * *

Sometimes We Forget
By Keshaune Hatchett

It was a brisk summer night; Riley Frank was packing his suitcase preparing for a business trip while his wife, Candice watched with a scornful eye. Their eight year old son, Justin observed from the doorway while clutching his favorite stuffed animal, a teddy bear that was void of both eyes and was missing an ear.

Riley looked over his shoulder at Justin whose face exuded anguish, because he was leaving for the fourth time that summer.

Candice turned toward the doorway and peered into her son’s teary eyes. She walked over and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “How are you doing, baby?”

“I’m okay,” Justin replied with a low somber voice.

She knelt down in front of him and ran her fingers through his hair. “Why don’t you go to your room and work on that card for your daddy.”

Justin looked down at the floor then wiped the tears from his eyes; he then turned around and walked slowly and entered his bedroom quietly closing the door behind him.

After watching her son enter his room, Candice turned her fury in Riley’s direction. She slammed the bedroom door clearly startling him as he dropped his socks on the floor.

“Do you know what you’re doing to our son?” she asked with venom in her voice. “He worships the ground you walk on and you pay very little attention to him.”

Riley rolled his eyes then turned to face his angry wife. “I have to work.” He shook his head clearly exasperated. “Why do we have to keep going through this every time I have to leave town.”

“All you do is work, if you aren’t at the office all day; you are going out of town.”

Riley picked his socks up off the floor then placed them neatly in the upper right hand corner of his suitcase. Before he could grab his dress shirts, Candice placed her hand over his.

“Justin is just a little boy; he doesn’t understand that you have to work.” She walked over to his suit case and picked up a pair of his neatly folded socks. “Which is more important, your career or your son?”

Riley walked over and snatched the socks out of her hands. “How could you even ask a question like that?” He returned the socks back to suitcase. “Of course my son is more important than my job.” He paused for a second and took a deep breath. “But without my job we would have nothing.”

“We would have each other.” She shook her head in disgust then walked toward the door. Before opening it, she turned and looked into her husband’s eyes. “It’s too bad that your whole world is wrapped up in your career.” After saying her peace, she calmly walked out the door and headed to Justin’s room.

Riley stood by the bed staring at the door from which his wife just exited. He took a second and stared at the plane ticket that was resting on the nightstand, while his wife’s words pierced through his mind as if it were a hot knife through butter. He didn’t want to leave with his family in such disarray, but his flight was due to leave in three hours, and work couldn’t wait.

He walked into the bathroom to gather a few things, unbeknownst to him, the temperature in the bedroom began to plummet.

Candice entered the room and a chill immediately came over her. “Did you turn the air down or something?” She feverishly rubbed her arms while her teeth chattered.

Riley entered the room and noticed his breath flowing from his mouth. “Why is it so cold in here?” He blew in his hands trying to warm them. “Is the thermostat broken?”

“It’s just cold in here.”

She walked toward his suitcase noticing something lying on top of his shirts. “What’s this?”

Riley slowly approached her and took the picture from her chilled fingers. He sat down on the bed, as his emotions overcame him. Tears flooded his eyes while small shards of his breath floated into the chilly air. “Where did you get this?”

Candice stared at her husband with a dumbfounded look on her face. She shook her head in disbelief at the question then sat down on the bed beside him.

“I’ve never seen that picture before,” she said looking at the photo.” She looked into her husband’s face and noticed the tears flowing from his eyes.

Riley stared at the little boy and the man in the photo holding fishing rods with huge smiles on their faces, and a glimmer in their eyes. “It’s me and my dad,” he muttered softly.

He took a deep breath then exhaled heavily; Riley wiped the tears from his eyes but they were quickly replaced by new ones. While fixating on the picture, his mind took a trip back into time twenty five years.

A nine year old Riley and his father, Jack arrived at the lake for their annual fishing trip. After the car came to a stop, the exuberant boy jumped out of the car with a huge smile on his face. “Let’s go, Dad. We have fish to catch.”

Jack looked at his son, with a matching smile then slowly exited the car. After closing his car door, he began to cough and immediately turned his back to his son. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his mouth then looked down and saw the blood that was on the rag.

“Let’s get the rods out of the trunk,” Jack said, as he stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket.

As they met at the rear of the car, Jack placed his arm around Riley’s shoulder and pulled him into an embrace. “I love you with all of my heart, son.” He took a breath and squeezed him one more time. “I don’t ever want you to forget that.”

“I love you too, daddy.” Riley replied then looked up and saw tears rolling down his father’s cheeks. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying, Daddy?”

Jack looked down into the concerned eyes of his son. “Nothing is wrong, I’m right as rain.”

“What does that mean, right as rain?”

Jack chuckled then ran his fingers through his son’s curly, black hair. “It just means everything is alright.” He opened the trunk. “Now let’s grab these rods and go catch some fish.”

Moments later, they were sitting in a boat patiently waiting for the fish to bite. Riley was looking around the water trying to see if any fish are circling around his line, while Jack had a blanket around him trying to stay warm in the cold morning air.

Trying not to quail his son’s excitement, Jack reached into his pocket to retrieve his blood ridden handkerchief. He placed it over his mouth trying to stymie the coughs, but was unsuccessful.

After a series of coughs, one more violent than the last, Jack stared at the rag and noticed the top was completely covered in red. He slowly wiped his mouth and stared into his son’s horrified eyes. “I’m okay son.”

“You’re bleeding, Daddy.” A tear fell from his eyes. “If you are okay, why are you bleeding?”

Jack placed a fake smile on his face in an attempt to soothe his son’s uneasy feelings. “The cold air is playing a trick on your old man.” He winked at him. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

Satisfied with his father’s answer, Riley turned his attention back to the water. He took a few deep breaths and Jack noticed the perplexed look on his face.

“Is something on your mind, son?” Jack inquired.

Riley looked over at his father. “How did you know you were in love with Mom?”

“I knew I loved your mother when I saw her in her prom dress.” Jack closed his eyes and the image of his wife appeared. “She took my breath away.” He opened his eyes then stared at his son with a baffled look on his face. “Why are you asking me this?”

A warm feeling began to permeate inside Riley’s stomach and his palms began to sweat. He looked down at the water avoiding eye contact with his father. “There’s this girl.”

Before Riley could finish his sentence, Jack told him to look him in the eyes while he is talking to him.

Hearing the sternness of his father’s voice, Riley quickly made eye contact with his father. He swallowed the excess saliva that had built up in his mouth then took a deep breath. “There’s this girl in school that I really like.” He paused for a few seconds trying to gather his thoughts. “She’s so pretty dad and I like being around her.”

“Ahhh, my son’s first girlfriend” Jack began to chuckle. “You should take your time and enjoy her company.” He laughed once again. “She will be the first of many.”

“Is the feeling that I’m feeling love?”

Jack slowly shook his head. “No, son, you are what is called enamored with her.”

“She told me I was her true love,” Riley said.

“You are too young to know what true love is all about.”

“Is Mom your true love?”

“No”

Riley stared at his father with a confused look on his face. “You love someone other than mommy?”

“I love you.”

“I’m talking about another girl, Dad.”

Amidst a chuckle, Jack look at his son. “Your mother is the only one for me, but she is not my true love.”

“Who’s your true love?”

A smile appeared on Jack’s face. “You’re my true love.”

“How can I be your true love, Daddy?”

Jack placed his fishing rod carefully on the inside of the boat then motioned for his son to come sit beside him. After doing so, Riley waited with bated breath for his father’s explanation.

“I love your mother; I love your mother with all of my heart, but men and women can fall out of love.” He paused for a second. “She could decide to leave me tomorrow and in time; I could meet another woman and fall in love with her.”

Jack gazed into Riley’s big, brown eyes. “But the love I have for you will never fade.” He smiled. “It will last for all of eternity, so therefore you are my true love.” He grabbed another blanket and immersed himself in it. “I would do anything for you; I would give my life for you.” Jack paused for a few seconds. “Someday when you have kids of your own, you will know the true meaning of love.”

Riley looked at his father’s stringy gray hair, and into his sickly eyes. He then wrapped his arms around him. “I love you too, Daddy.”

After fishing had come to a conclusion, Riley and Jack were walking toward the car where Jack’s wife, Tonya was waiting.

His coughing had become more frequent and violent, and he labored with every step he took. He tried to be strong, not wanting to show weakness in front of his son who had rushed to give his mother a hug.

Noticing her husband was in peril, she ordered Riley to go sit in her car, and then she rushed over to Jack who had collapsed to the ground.

A few days later, Riley was sitting outside his father’s hospital room. He was too young to understand the seriousness of the word cancer, as it was being whispered by the adults in the area.

Jack’s door slowly opened and his mother emerged. Her eyes were as red as beets, from the tears she had shed. She extended her hand to her son guiding him into the room.

As Riley slowly approached his father, a hush came over the room. He stared at his father, noticing the tubes that were emitting from him. The man that he thought to be invincible was anything but.

Jack slowly turned his head in Riley’s direction and put a smile on his face. He wiped away the tears that had formed in his son’s eyes. “Everything will be alright son; remember, true love never goes away.”

Before Riley could reply, he was quickly rushed out of the room, as the machines started to make a loud noise. He watched as doctors flooded his room and a few minutes later; he heard his mother let out an ear piercing scream.

Hearing that scream brought Riley’s mind back to present day. He wiped the tears from his eyes then looked over Candice.

Without uttering a word, he placed the picture back into his suitcase then walked over and grabbed the plane ticket. He placed it in his back pocket then walked out of the room with an intrigued Candice close behind.

Riley entered Justin’s room and finds him sitting on the bed clutching his teddy bear. He knelt down beside him and smiled at his son. “You know I love you very much.”

“I know you do, Daddy.” Justin reached over and grabbed a piece of paper then handed it to Riley.

“What’s this?” Riley inquired, while looking at the two stick figures looking up to the sky.

“It’s a picture of me and mommy watching your plane fly away.” Justin leaned over and wrapped his arms around his father’s neck. “I’m going to miss you.”

Riley swallowed hard and remembered how he felt about his father. After breaking the embrace he shook his head. “You’re not going to miss me.” Justin looked at his father with a confused look.

He reached into his back pocket and retrieved the plane ticket, and in one motion tore it up. “You’re not going to miss me because I’m not going.”

Justin’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “I thought you were spose to leave tonight.”

“I am, but the only place I’m going is taking you fishing.” Riley smiled, “And as soon as you and your mother can pack, we’ll be leaving.”

Justin erupted with a joyous cheer then quickly ran over to his closet to pack. As Riley was about to exit the room, he was stopped by Candice.

“What about work?” she inquired.

“Some things are more important.” He looked over and reveled at the smile on his son’s face. “I just needed to be reminded.” He kissed her on the cheek. “You need to pack your things; the sooner you pack, the sooner we leave.”

Riley entered his bedroom and noticed the chill that was radiating had disappeared. He walked over to his suitcase and noticed the picture had suffered the same fate as the cold air.

He placed his hand over his heart then looked up to the sky, and simply uttered. “Thank you, Daddy”
 
Keshaune Hatchett was born in Canton, Ohio in 1975. He graduated from McKinley high school in 1993. He served his country in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged in 1997. He obtained his Associates degree in Criminal Justice from Beckfield college in 2012, and will attain his BA in June 2014. He had a short story titled, "Angel Among Us" published in the June 2013 issue of Cigale Magazine.
* * *
Fall Up
By Jeannette Leopold

In a sunlit field, light streaming around intermittant stalks of corn and reflecting off blades of yellowing grass, Maggie danced. She raised her arms to the heavens and tilted her head back so it pulled and hung on her neck. She sawthe sky, so clear pale blue it looked like a miracle, she saw the clouds so white fluffy bunchy like a careful little drawing. She moved through stalks like a puppet pulled along on strings. Effortless. 

***

When her dad died, Maggie had sunk. The day she found out, she’d come home from choir practice at school, seventh grade. Mark had been standing behind her on the risers and he smiled at her before she left. Asked her if she had plans for the dance that Friday. Eyes wide, Maggie had stuttered and smiled. All the way home, long walk, she’d thought about dancing with Mark. All the way home, feet padding along the sidewalk light breeze swirling around her making her feel like part of a painting, leaves kicking up before her feet, white white houses with green shutters to her left and there, far ahead, to her right, it all seemed so beautiful. 

And when she found out she sank sank sank into the ground, dirt, puddled, nothing, white house green shutters mocked her saying, “Don’t you think we’re beautiful, Maggie? Don’t you think so, now?”
 
She did she did she did they were brilliant and bright but the leaves didn’t kick up around her feet because she couldn’t walk, puddles can’t walk they trickle down the sidewalk to school, to the school dance on Friday, and leaves fall trapped into the puddles and get soggy and tear apart. 
 
At the dance at the dance she stood there in her new yellow dress in her pretty white shoes and her hair hung down, limp, straggly, unwashed uncombed unbrushed unappealing understandably so, but that didn’t make Mark think to ask her to dance, not once, not once. 

***

One of Maggie’s favorite things to do with her mom was build a fire outside in a little fire pit they’d dug and filled with wood they collected from the trees out back. Branches that fell to the ground, twigs that littered the dirt. One day, early spring, it was chilly outside and Maggie and her mom spent an hour collecting wood and dry leaves and twigs. They filled up that fire pit and Maggie’s mom lit a match and stuck it under the tinder. 
 
Maggie wore jeans and a sweatshirt, always. Converse. She sat with mom on a log and pulled her knees close to herself and hugged her arms around them. The fire started, whoosh the flames licked at the air and Maggie felt a rush of joy and excitement, the thrill, the fire hadn’t been there before and now it was, it existed, she and mom had created! She ran a hand back over her hair, buzzed off now, so short under her fingers. Her friends at school--why’d you do that, Magz? Your pretty hair and the odd kids, the ones who laughed a lot in class and smoked cigarettes outside the school--looking good, right on, wanna join? But she didn’t want to join. She pulled her sweatshirt hood up over her head and went on in to class. 
 
Now her mom sat next to her and pulled Maggie close, arm around her
shoulder. They watched the fire. 

***

“Tell us about a challenge you’ve faced.” 
 
Maggie tried to smile. College. Great. Interview: required. She had fine grades, good scores, nice essays. Writing style? Weird. Undeniably. But they liked that at these liberal arts places. 
 
Maggie tried to smile. The man tried to smile back. He flicked his pen against his notebook. Discretely checked his phone. 
 
“One time,” Maggie began. 

“Yes…?”

Her head filled with fog, thick. Dense, hard to move through. Thoughts tried to travel from one side to the other and got stuck in the middle, thought crash with ones coming from the other side and jumbled, obscured too thick can’t think senses fail what what what she should be over this over over over it that’s what they said. They said. 
 
“That’s what they said,” Maggie said, “They said it obscure middle. That’s what—over.” 

***

Sometimes life it pressed her down. Like a weight—like a huge weight of bricks, rocks, books, sticks, thoughts? One night snow fell thick fast. She stood face pressed to the glass of the living room window, nose pushed right up flat against it. She could only see the snow where it fell under the street lamp so that’s where she watched. So thick, snow, it could turn the whole world white if the world just held on and let it fall. No need to drive through walk through kick up the dirt splash make a mess. No need. Just let the snow fall and cover everything and create create create beauty. 
 
She stood by the window in a dark room with a fire in the hearth to her right side. The fire flickered light into the room and created warmth. It was cozy, nice. Outside the world was white and soft and in here there was the warming comfort of darkness. Outside she could lie in the pillow snow and let it fall over her until it buried her deep, deep and she could lay there surrounded by that gentle smothering blanket, she could lay and lay there forever.

In here it was warm, though, and comforting, and there was Nathan in the bedroom down the hall softly sleeping, sleeping softer than the snow fell. There was Nathan and he was a nice man, so kind, big heart, softly sleeping gently snoring big chest rising falling but the snow only fell it didn’t rise. 
 
Maggie leaned against the wall beside the window and felt the heat from the fire against her right side. She watched the snow fall gently down. 

***

When she held her first child it was as though God himself were speaking to her. Beside her, the baby’s father put his hand on her arm.

***

Christmastime! Her grandchildren sprinted around her living room trying to catch each other, grabbing cookies from the kitchen, ignoring their mothers’ yells of “Watch out for the fire!” or their exasperated, “Would you leave Billy alone, please?” The children ran out the back door to play in the snow.

Christmastime! The table covered in the nice white cloth, laden with food the big roast and the pumpkin soup and buttered asparagus, big meatballs that broke apart under your fork and crusty bread, steaming when you broke the loaf and that risotto that Gemma always brought, Gemma who couldn’t keep a secret and wore too-bright sequinny shirts and went outside to play with the children, coming back in her cheeks ruddy and laughter dancing in her eyes. 
 
Crying, crying! One of the boys came running inside, looked around for a second then ran over to Maggie and buried his face in her belly. Maggie ran a hand over his hair and pressed him to her.“There there, sweetheart,” she said. She sat down in her chair by the fire and pulled him onto her lap. Through the window they could see the boys and girls pushing each other into the snow and throwing back their heads with laughter. Billy sniffled and wiped a hand under his nose. 

“Look at the fire, sweet pea,”Maggie told him, and he did. “Doesn’t it look nice? You can’t tell where it’s gonna go. It never tells you, it just moves where it wants.” They watched the flames flicker and spin and dance, the logs fall, sparks fling upwards, heard the crackle and snap. 
 
“I’m going back outside!” said Billy, and he wriggled out of grandma’s lap and headed for the door. He reached for the doorknob and paused, and looked back at her. “I love you grandma!” he said. And he was out.

***

Maggie Maggie, the years flew by! Twirling through stalks of corn under a big bright sun. Blades of grass are yellowing green, the color of that old soccer ball they used to kick around. Maybe it’s her fading memory but that old soccer ball and maybe a smile, a fleeting image, possibly invented, of him watching her at a ballet concert are all she remembers. All all all that’s left. Maybe maybe Maggie Maggie someday he’ll be there waiting you’ll see him. Today today, alive here now, she twirls and dances in that field. She raises her arms to the blue and white, she lets pure joy sweep her up and she rises rises rises to the sky. 
Jeannette Leopold is a 22-year-old woman who teaches fourth grade. She loves fantasy novels and ice hockey.
* * *
Masked Suffering
By Emilio Minichiello

Twelve billion human beings inhabit and torture the delicate remains of a writhing and dying world, as if they were school children, pulling at the tail of some sick feline. I wait in a frigid waiting room, sitting on some luxuriant fabric, non-allergenic and uncomfortably pliant. How may I describe my emotional well-being, my discomfort and anxieties that follow me like vultures, ready to sink into my tepid flesh?

Not that my emotions matter. Not that anything I do or say or think or feel will have any effect on the obsessively compulsive and boorishly consumerist country in which I was bred and raised for upwards of eighteen years. No action--except those perverse acts of infamous delinquency, possibly nearing a terrorist-like display--could render myself worthy of the entertained respect of my compatriots.

The social structure of the present day is a fabricated lie that weaves a web of good will, hopes and dreams into a cocoon that not only paralyzes, but destroys. One may find themselves revered by the closely related, the geographically near, and the intimately befriended. Beyond those limitations however, lies the cold and horrid axiom, "Nobody knows you." Such is the so-called bane of present society. We the people are no longer people. Only the stars, the beautiful and inhumanly grandiose, can ever truly be considered people. How may we judge each other, if our only measure of personal character are the infinitely cruel, infinitely trained Übermensch who have been rendered perfect by nostalgic parents and coaches who want a second chance at greatness?

I sit, rubbing my newly shaven head, feeling the coarse spots where the bored, overworked barber had misused his razor. It feels pleasant to the touch. Around me, young men and women who are exactly eighteen on this day sit with equally bald heads, and downward gazes. There is no music playing on the speakers above us, implanted into the coffered, milk-white ceiling. A high-definition television as thick as a piece of paper and as wide as the length of a door is inset in one wall. It runs a looped, muted scene of children playing in a meadow, thanking Genetic Societal Placement Judgement Operations (GSPJO) for allowing them the opportunity to succeed in society, and find their place.

I have been watching this looped video/commercial for what I feel is at least a hour now, but I cannot be sure. There is no time-telling instrument anywhere, and we had to forfeit all our electronics before entering the waiting room. Some of the other children have been watching the video as well. Most have been playing with their fingers, tugging at their uncomfortable GSPJO-ordered linen gowns, or staring off into space. Nobody has attempted communication, which is standard now-a-days. To talk to strangers, no matter what the occasion, appears awkward and oftentimes rude.

Every twenty minutes or so, a single door opens, it is facing us, but we sit in chairs to face perpendicular from it. We have to crane our necks to see the fat, bovine-looking woman call in the next person for evaluation and judgement. So far four people have been called in, and after evaluation, return through the same door, either sobbing, grinning slyly, or with blank stares. They walk in between the two rows of seats that we now rest in, our heads following their bodies as they glide along, out to the opposite facing door, where they leave forever, now a true citizen, with a valid purpose and specification.

The fourth person has been inside maybe twenty minutes or so. I cannot hear anything that is going on behind the closed door, and when the door occasionally opens, the bovine woman blocks off all attempts at sneaking a peek of what is waiting for us beyond.

I wonder what my judgement could be. I have done well in public high school, but that is it, I have done well. I am not valedictorian, nor am I an amazing athlete. I have done well. The rich and pompous owners of the prestigious universities would laugh at my transcript, at my GSPJO-official documentation over the last eighteen years. I have not discovered the cure to any disease, I have not written papers on sociological malformations or have juxtaposed some kind of cultural issue to literary characterization. I have simply done well. I know that I am at a disadvantage, but there is nothing to be done. I have tried hard to do well, to stay above the lower-level compatriots and show myself as a hard-working and able citizen. This of course, is not enough.

Whether a man or woman rises to the top is either from parental funds, sheer luck, or by stripping away every social or joyous element of that person's livelihood and leaving only their aspect of skill, to grow and develop in a terrifically inhuman and nearly mutated way. The best are only good at doing a singular thing. There are no top-tier tennis players who can solve an algebraic equation. There are no genius scientists who have ever heard of a relaxing vacation. These people, who live at the tippity-top of society, who are actually valued and applauded by the masses, are so cordoned off by society, and kept incubated in such remote ways, that they can barely be considered real people. They are missing the element of humanity that allows them free will. They simply do what they have been bred and trained to do for all their years.

I have not had this treatment. My parents are Class-L Major citizens, according them about a 14 point societal and economic advantage. In other words, they are far, far above the mean citizen in terms of skill set. This also means that they are 11 classes below what can then be considered a real, noticeable citizen. On reaching Class-A Major citizenship, a person would then be given superb rights and currency beyond their deepest desires, and could do practically anything. They are the people who appear on television. They are what we show to the world and what we pretend is really our society.

The door opens, and a thin, black-skinned girl walks out, her large lips curled in distaste, and her eyes watery. She trots past us, her eyes never leaving the floor, until she finally exits and leaves the GSPJO building forever.

"No. L-7990."

That is my number, taught from birth and recited through childhood. Wordlessly I get up, and flatten the linen robe that hangs down to my knees so as not to reveal the curves of my thick body. I then walk towards the fat woman, who has tiny, angry looking eyes. She pushes me forward, and closes the door behind me. I play with the thick pill clenched in my cheek using my tongue, it reassures me.

"Please adorn the customary GSPJO-licensed masking apparel, used of course to eliminate judgmental bias," says the woman, checking something on an electronic clipboard.

Sitting limp on a wooden table is a single mask. It is made of some thin, white cloth, and has no pattern or decoration on it. It is a blank face, with a single string used to keep it on the head. I put it on, instantly able to see a muffled, less-detailed but still usable view of my world. I can see out, but nobody can see in. The room around me is small and colorless, with a single lamp illuminating it. It is more an anti-chamber, leading through a single door into the real room.

The bovine woman checks something else, then flicks a finger across the electronic clipboards touch screen.

"You will now be brought into the Genetic Societal Placement Judgement Operations facility for determination. You will be placed in front of three GSPJO professional administration officers who will look through your documentation and scholastic transcripts and determine your Societal Class; good luck."

Then the woman knocked on a door, and an older man opened it, motioning for me to enter. Through my mask, I could only make out the less-fine details of his face. It was round, pinkish, and lacking hair.

"Welcome L-7990," says another flabby, pinkish man sitting behind a large desk.

"Yes, welcome, I hope you will manage better than our former compatriot," laughs a third, younger looking man, but equally pinkish in nature.

"Ah yes, let's hope."

"Please, take a seat," says the original man, pointing towards a small unbacked stool directly in front of the judge's desk. I sit down, my bare feet hardly touching the cold ground.

"Alright," says one of the other judges, as the first judge goes to take his seat in between the others. "Lets look at your papers, shall we?"

A moment of silence, and I wiggle the pill in my mouth. Nobody knows about this pill, and while I stay silent, nobody will ever know about it. Hopefully, I will not have to use it, but there is a strong possibility that I will.

"Lets start with Cultural Aspects," says the right judge, the young one. "Mhmm, lets see. Ethnicity caucasian, ancestors heeding from Eastern Italy, Ireland, and Russia. Not too commonplace, yet not too spectacular."

"Not too many Russian-breds since the Second Arab Spring," says the left judge.

"Enough not to raise eyebrows," says the middle judge. "If only you turned eighteen in like ten years, your Russian ancestry could have proven more spectacular. Unfortunately, in present day America, we cannot consider your ancestry to be unprivileged and warranting advantage."

There was some scribbling on some electronic pads from all three judges. Then the right judge turned to me again.

"Academic Aspects, my favorite! Ninety-seven GPA, recommendations from the principal and Senator Charleston, all advanced placement courses since the start of high school. You have done well in school, but your GPA is a little low to be considered for advanced Social Class increase. Still, the courses and recommendations are impressive for a Class L."

More scribbling.

"Next," said the middle judge. "Social Aspects. Ooh, this doesn't look too good. Some fighting here, detentions in elementary school and reported domestic violence. Says here his father beat him for a long time."

"That's not good, not what we like to see. Class L should be well past that kind of behavior."

Scribbling again. What kind of judgement is this, where my families secrets are used against me, as if I had wanted to be beaten by my drunken father after school every night, as if I had asked him to do me in, and limit my chances of success in the future.

"Finally, and most critically, Genetic Aspects!" sang the left judge, turning to me. "We have some increased risk of cardio-vascular trouble."

"Ouch," said the right judge with a chuckle.

"Some interesting intellectual capacities for language, but beyond that, I'm not seeing much else."

"Is that it?"

"It appears so."

"Alright, thats it No. L-7990. We will tally your Aspects and see whether you are eligible for Social Class increase."

There was some scribbling, some sounds of computations and tapping of touch screens.

"Okay, we've come to a conclusion," said the middle judge. "We've analyzed your Aspects, and have found you ineligible. Too bad, you're still L-7990, but hey, maybe your children will have better luck!"

"It was really the domestic violence that killed your score," said the right judge.

I closed my eyes, and bit down on the pill. A gush of metal-tasting substance filled my mouth, and swam down my throat. The middle judge got up and opened the door.

"Out you go," he said with a happy tone.

I ripped my mask off as the cyanide slid down my esophagus. It was illegal to be seen by GSPJO judges unmasked. They gasped, as my face was revealed to them, as my humanity rendered itself upon their gaze.

"I have a name," I say, as I have rehearsed in my mirror hundreds of times. "It is not No. L-7990. It is John. You hold sway over me no longer, as I do not wish to live in such a corrupt world. I will be the martyr on your doorstep. I will be the face of every child who has been denied by the GSPJO, and I will bring down this soci-"

I fall off the stool as I struggle to breath.

"Another one?" says the rightward judge, flicking some hair off his forehead.

"Fourth one this month," sings the left judge.

"Marilynne, bring in the Cleanup Crew, and when they are done, call in the next person," says the middle judge, staring down at me with his head swinging left and right, left and right.

I struggle to stay conscious, I struggle to breath, I struggle to remain human and alive and a person, but all I can do is struggle. All I can do is struggle, and die.

Emilio Minichiello is a novice writer, trying to break through to the larger world. He lives in North Bellmore, Long Island.
* * *
Life Lessons
By Kelly Morris

Once when I was little, maybe five or six, my mom called us all into the bathroom. My sisters and I crowded around the bathtub and watched silently as she tied a dry cleaning bag to the shower rod. She knotted the bag from top to bottom with what looked like mathematical precision before placing a bucket of water in the tub below.

“Watch,” she said, and then she lit the bottom knot with a lighter she pulled from her apron. 

The flames scaled the plastic ladder, and the balls caught fire, crinkling before falling into the bucket waiting below. My little sister Brynn, who was scared of everything back then, didn’t cry out. Even my sister Halle, was came out of the womb disdainful and jaded, looked astonished.

The smell was enough to make us squirm, but we didn’t talk as we watched those plastic balls burn. Even at that age I knew that our mom was different, and I knew it in the same way I knew she had blonde hair and brown eyes. Sometimes dinner was homemade soup and homemade bread and a salad, and other nights our mom would lie on the sofa and tell us to make our own goddamn dinner, was she ever allowed a night off, could we not fend for ourselves just this one fucking time?

We ate cereal on those nights. Halle poured the milk because she was the oldest, and as I remember, we didn’t mind those cereal dinners all that much. Maybe we preferred them. 

“Well,” our mom said with a disappointed sigh as the last of the dry cleaning bag fell into the water with a silent whoosh. “It’s really quite spectacular when you’re high. It really is something to see then.”
 
* * *
Sam Damn
By John Sindell

I was Sam at birth, and my very first words were “Sam I am,” spoken on Mom’s lap as she pointed at my favorite book. But as soon as I toddled Dad dubbed me Champ for my heroic deeds with a plastic sword. I remained Champ in preschool, and the other kids bought it. It was not an exclusive preschool—Dad was overruled on preschool selection by Mom, the lone representative of the democratic impulse in our family—and my fellow toddlers absorbed their parents’ deference to Dad’s money and presence and deferred to me. I grabbed their toys with little resistance.

I remained Champ at my pricey day school—Mom’s influence had faded along with her health and the marriage—and the kids were too gentle to challenge the name. “Pampered princes,” Dad called those kids, holding his hands up as targets for huge boxing gloves that swallowed my hands. I strutted around school with my chest thrust out and my head erect, as my father did when he roamed his office looking like a Roman senator with his striated hair that looked carved from white marble. Other kids at Prentiss had nicknames too. There was Robert Wilson, a jaundiced, bloated kid we called SpongeBob, and Twist, a skinny little full– scholarship case whose real name was Oliver, who was taunted by the important boys for his sunken eyes and drawn cheeks and the sandwiches made from store–brand tuna fish on white bread that he ate every day.

*

When I was thirteen, Twist and SpongeBob and I walked over to an ice cream parlor on Fillmore near the housing projects. We were under the supervision of an English teacher with wild frizzy hair and a heavy gray coat who felt it would broaden our outlook to mix with all types. I bought a mint chocolate–chip cone for myself and a strawberry cone for Twist, who rewarded me with his usual monkey–hopping “Thanks, Champ!” routine. We took our cones to a park across the street while our teacher wrote poetry on a bench sufficiently distant to promote our independence. A group of five or six black boys a year or two older than us were lounging on a concrete wall nearby, and Twist said, much too loudly, “How’s your cone, Champ!”

The tallest kid hopped off the wall. “Is that your cone, Champ?”

“It’s in my hands,” I said with a smart smile.

“Ooo!” said another. “He dissed you, Darnell!”

“No, he didn’t. Champ wouldn’t diss me. Champ’s a champ! Right, Champ?”

“Chump,” said a voice.

“Can I see your cone?” said Darnell. Another boy said, “Can I see your wallet,” and reached toward my pocket in a tentative way. They had sliced through the gap between SpongeBob and Twist and were leaning in from every side. I half raised my hands as my father had taught me, but felt silly and unsure since one hand held a cone. “Ooo, Champ wants to fight!” said one guy. “Hey there, Champ, show us what you got!” A guy tapped the back of my head, and I turned and he grinned, and I turned back around to the one called Darnell, and he punched my mouth. Our teacher came clomping over in her chunky shoes, and the boys scattered like birds as blood from my mouth dripped onto my shirt and onto ice cream I’d lost to the ground.

The next day at school, Twist said, “How are you, Champ?” with utter sympathy in saucer–sized eyes. “Don’t ever call me that!” I said, and punched him hard in the shoulder. He never did again, nor did anyone else.

The teacher was fired at my father’s behest.

I withdrew into schoolwork and discovered biology. “I want to be a doctor,” I told Dad. He frowned contemplatively. “A fine field,” he said in the tone he used when appraising a business deal. “Very lucrative, especially in the specialties.” He looked down at me. “And of course helping people.” He bought me a legitimate first–aid kit, and when his girlfriend cut her finger slicing choice tuna for sashimi, he insisted that I dress the wound. She rested her slender hand on the marble top, and I stuck my tongue out the side of my mouth and cleaned the wound, and applied a gauze pad and secured it with tape. Dad appraised my work. “Not bad, Doc.” His girlfriend Christine, a tall, slender young Chinese women from his office, said, “Thank you, Doc,” with a smile that I interpret in recall as guardedly mocking.

I stayed Doc until eleventh grade, when a paid college counselor sat down with my dad and Christine, who was now my stepmom. Having considered my transcript and aptitude tests, and my years of lessons with private tutors, he had determined, he said with a philosophic chuckle, that medicine “might not be the best path for our young friend.”

“But—” I said, fighting back tears.

“Then what is?” asked my dad, his fingers intertwined with my stepmother’s fingers.

“He’s good with numbers,” the counselor said, based on an extremely liberal reading of my transcript.

Dad took me to his eighteenth–floor office. Christine, who had been Dad’s secretary and was now his general assistant, brought in cocktail glasses and ice and said, “I’ll leave you two men alone.” Dad poured one finger of whiskey for me and three for himself. “To the future,” he said. The drink burned my throat but I told Dad I liked it. Dad stood before the floor–to–ceiling window and pointed to properties that he owned a piece of. “See that office building?” he said. “And those luxury apartments out by the water? Those were all built by numbers. Amortization. Prime rate. Capital gains. Tax basis and triple net rent.” He raised his glass to me. “But there’s only one number that counts.” He appraised me narrowly. “That number is one. One like--Ace.” He winked at Ace, and clinked Ace’s glass.

With extra tutoring and post–midnight hours I managed to earn a low B in calculus. I was legacied into the Ivy League, then Dad bought my way into business school, then brought me back home to learn real estate development at the feet of the master. Like my father I dated my secretary, a beauty who gave flattering nicknames to “her private possession:” Iron Man. Redwood. Joystick. Big Boy. I bought her a Big Boy diamond in Carmel on a whim, and we took a honeymoon cruise to Mexico. The moon was so bright off Puerto Vallarta that we could see dolphins leaping in channels of moonlight.

Now I’m forty–four and bald. We have evictions, deals, firings, audits, lawyers, meetings, mountains of money. I eat due to stress, and pouches of fat surround my eyes. Hard–driving men who have made it on their own, lean, hard–jawed men, ambitious and aggressive, see weakness in my eyes and grin with contempt.

Karina, Karina, my beautiful wife, pretends she’s asleep when I reach for her waist, as she has done for years. She keeps a vibrator hidden in her lingerie drawer, and wears scooped–back gowns at the opera and smiles at men when she thinks I’m not looking. But we’ve got a pre–nup, so she’s not going anywhere—not with my son she isn’t.

Dad lingers with a dying liver and a full head of hair that mocks my baldness, and a still–lean jaw that mocks my soft chin, and an appraising eye that refuses to see the defeat in my eyes.

“Ace,” he says, frowning at the Bushmills in his glass. “Whiskey’s cut me down. Are you listening, Ace?”

“I’m Sam, god damn. I’m god damn Sam.”
 
Jon Sindell a human, he earns his bread as a humanities tutor. His short fiction has appeared or will appear in dozens of publications, including Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, New South, Prick Of The Spindle, and Weave. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco.
* * *
Exposure
By Parnell Stultz

Congressman Lionel Foster eased himself into the white enamel tub and did his best to avoid rippling the water as he clenched his jaw against the urge to cry out.  His skin quickly became a sheath of something inhuman beneath his touch--rubbery and numb--already enduring, in a way, its own expiration.  The block of ice, floating awkwardly between his knees, radiated a constant aura of strangeness.  Frostbite might be treated with suspicion; he couldn’t allow the ice to rest against his skin.  Slowly, inevitably, the drain allowed gravity to adjust the sudden elevation in the water, drinking steadily until equilibrium returned.

They said the overnight temperature would be somewhere in the mid-fifties, but there was no need turn off the furnace as an additional precaution.  The spring days had been warm enough for the past few weeks not to require the use of central heating.  He’d opened the window and filled the bathtub an hour prior to retrieving the slightly frosted block of ice.  His best guess placed the temperature of the room around sixty degrees.

His arrangements had been put into action with the calm deliberation of forethought.  The bag in which he’d purchased the steadily melting block of ice had been disposed of along with the morning trash, and would already be lost among the detritus of the nearest landfill.  The chunk of dry-ice, gently wafting frigid vapor from the floor beside him, had been purchased in bulk so that Leo Jr. could exhume his science project volcano to impress friends whenever the moment seemed ripe; Lionel didn’t think potential investigators would miss the small amount he’d liberated from the freezer.  The life insurance was in order, or at least it should be.  He hadn’t felt comfortable checking the particulars on the off chance a digital record might also rouse suspicion.  His wife would be well into valium’s dreamless repose, and his son could sleep through a train wreck.  No one would interrupt him.

Lionel leaned forward to start a thin, silent stream of cold water into the tub.  Though it would increase the rate at which his block of ice melted, the slight convection would insure a consistent loss of heat from his body.

The first tremors were making a vain attempt to warm his aching limbs, and Lionel momentarily dipped his head to muffle the sound of his clacking molars.  Beneath the inky blackness, the staccato rhythm of his teeth inspired vague fantasies which waxed and waned unpredictably behind his closed eyes.  He’d become trapped in some inexplicable depth--a collapsed mineshaft perhaps--but it was not the steady digging of rescuers that rattled in his ears.  Some ravenous little animal sensed him in this deep place.  He could envision, with disturbing clarity, the forward slanted teeth of a mole as it chewed through layers of stone in a blind urge to find him and gorge on his warmth.  The image vanished when he lifted his head above water. 

He felt a sudden impulse to leap from the tub, and resisted it with difficulty.  The body, he knew, had a basic wisdom that did not need to be learned.  It did not require conscious action to remove a wayward limb from the heat of a flame.  A drowning man would be protected, temporarily, by the mammalian diving reflex and finally, as the will to avoid breathing underwater failed, might be further protected by laryngospasm with the constriction of the larynx and vocal chords to prevent liquid from entering the lungs.  Lionel gripped the edge of the tub as if to hoist himself out, and then, slowly, let his hand slip back beneath the water.

There were other unpleasant rodents waiting for him in the relative warmth of the real world, and they were not delusions.  His predicament would have been easier to cope with had the principle rodent wanted nothing more than a payout.  Jacob Xavier Macintosh wanted control over his own personal Congressman. 

The second-term Washington State Congressman’s sterling reputation--long cultivated since early adolescence in a deliberate effort to avoid all possible vices--would remain intact as long as he cowed to his principle campaign contributor whenever J.X. Macintosh felt the need to pick up the phone and secure a vote. 

The party, attended the week before, might not have been set-up with the purpose of maneuvering Lionel into foolish action, but the result would probably have been the same.  It shamed him to recall how easily he’d allowed himself to be swept up by the bacchanalia of sexual and chemical excesses, especially after having avoided their allure for so long.   

He could easily recall the carved scrollwork of the estate’s massive double doors as they opened before him.  A plethora of green suffused everything within: balloons of every possible viridigenous hue from which glittering emerald streamers dangled like the trailing tentacles of airborne jellyfish; men in lime-green bowler hats, each trying to hide how self-conscious they were about the absurdity atop their heads; the multitude of beautiful women clad in sleek, ethereal fabrics with their delicate novelty fairy wings stirring the air as they sipped at absinthe or Chartreuse cocktails.  Lionel reached out to take one of the derby hats from the stack on the entryway table, and felt puzzled to find his knuckles jammed against cold, unyielding, bathroom tiles.

He wasn’t shivering anymore.  There was no way to tell how much time had elapsed, but the block of ice, when he grasped it, seemed about half as large as it had been.  His eyes wandered among the speckles of feeble light which leaked in through the small basement window, and fastened on two white dots glinting from the edge of the nearby hamper.  Although he couldn’t say why, they seemed important.  He continued to stare at them in a state of mind eerily similar to the one he’d been consumed by when J.X. Macintosh showed him the video of his drunken romp with one of the Kentucky Derby party nymphs.  The girl had been underage, or so the malicious rodent had said.

The abrupt recollection of what he was doing prompted Lionel to reach out for the two capsules of Valium he’d smuggled away from his wife’s bedside table.  It was impossible to grasp the minute objects with his insensate fingers.  After a few moments of indecision, he leaned his other arm out of the water to brush the pills into one numbly cupped hand.  He placed them on his tongue, took a gulp from the frigid darkness beneath his chin, and swallowed.

His family would be able to live comfortably on the life insurance if his wife used less than half of it to pay off the mortgage and auto loans.  Between her substantial income, and what remained of the insurance, Leo Jr. should be able to attend the college of his choice when the time came.  They would never see him shamed--the good guy everyone could always count on brought low--and he would never endure the degradation of becoming a kind of political prostitute.  He couldn’t choose between losing his family and being forever at the end of a monomaniac’s diamond studded leash.  The first, unconscionable decision of his life, made the week before, would be his last.

He settled back into the water, idly deflecting the much diminished block of ice into a more comfortable position.  The taste of the Valium lingered on his tongue, and evoked memories of childhood illness, his mother, and long afternoons spent cocooned in idle warmth.  He recalled how the vicissitudes of a preadolescent fever engendered a kind of hypnotic window into the picture books he’d loved at the time: searching for rabbits amid the surreal images of Kit Williams’s Masquerade as if each scene could be journeyed through rather than simply observed; wallowing with King Bidgood in his bathtub as battles with toy soldiers and little boats among the suds became a twisted mire of bug-ridden reeds disturbed by the frantic leap of a fish caught at the end of the monarch’s line; scheming along with Ul De Rico’s greedy little goblins as they conspired to steal pure colors from the rainbow to make their magical paints.

“Help, Help,” mumbled Lionel through lips that scarcely parted, “King Bidgood’s in the bathtub and he won’t get out!”

It seemed perfectly natural to see the rotund monarch lounging at the far end of the tub.  Steam rose from the water in gentle wisps as Lionel and the king sampled dainties from the tray floating between them.  The warmth of the bath in his mind instilled a calm, contented somnolence, and he found it easy to understand why the jolly old man would want to linger in it.  Lionel dipped his head repeatedly to cleanse the sweat that must be dripping from his brow.  So warm--so, comfortable....  

The phantasms gained depth and detail when he closed his eyes once again.  The rainbow goblins lounged at the margins of the tub between Lionel and the king, and had, apparently, upended their little pots of stolen color so that the surface of the water beneath the steam transformed into an oily mélange of swirling crimson and violet and gold.  Lionel’s breathing grew short; the space between each slight respiration longer than the last.  Gradually, the storybook images faded behind his closed eyes as an approaching wall of rain might eclipse a landscape until everything within view is indistinct and without depth.

Excerpts from The Olympian:

Congressman Lionel Foster found dead at his home on Bay drive.

Initial report from the coroner’s office is that the second-term congressman fell asleep in his bathtub and succumbed to complications arising from hypothermia.  A local representative of the police department said, “Though it is the oddest example of a person dying from exposure I’ve ever come across, it appears to be nothing more than an unfortunate accident.”

Lionel Foster is survived by....

Auto accident causes four-alarm-fire at the estate of local business magnate.

At some point between the hours of 2 and 3 A.M., according to information provided by arson investigators, the well-known millionaire, Jacob Xavier Macintosh, appears to have lost control of his sports car and crashed into the natural gas meter adjacent to his home.  Due to the estate’s isolation, a majority of the structure was destroyed before emergency equipment arrived on scene to contain the conflagration.  It is unclear if alcohol was a contributing factor, and Mr. Macintosh’s remains have been transferred to...
 
Parnell Stultz is an author of novels and short fiction currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter.
* * *
Poetry
Three House Poems
By John Davis Jr
 
Finish Carpentry
In our heart pine handmade farm house,
my grandparents were window weights:

cast iron bars tethered in country wood,
plumb and place-holding pendulums.

Constants in the frame, their parallel
gravity stayed our panes and perspectives.

Traditional counter-heft kept us
high-open for heat, tight-sashed for cold.

When their cotton ropes tore, the bang
of their fall shook and skewed our structure.

Remodeling: springs and high-tech hydraulics
secure a new generation’s tempered glass.


Loaner Living
Everywhere we go is borrowed.
This is not our place repeated each season
maintains our perfect-guest behavior.

Awkward copy keys scrape into others’
brass pins and tumblers, grind violation
to remind us – You don’t belong to here.

Summer beach house smell: far-off cedar.
Its crooked sliding glass doors on all four sides
reek of elbow grease – pushing, pulling too hard.

Fall mountain cabin shrinks and cracks
its joints in coming cold. Foreign breaks
wake us from slumber almost like home.

Winter city condo confines
flavors of another family’s baking.
Our tongues catch cloves and nutmeg off the air.

Spring farm shack makes us dust
its wood, deep-laden in skin cells not ours
collected on rough cloth the texture of work.

Strange bed sheets’ and pantries’ must hangs
from our pores and down countenances.
Everything we have is borrowed.


On Deciding to Build a New House
Too long we have lived with elder ghosts.
We feel their urges in door knobs and drawer pulls.
We turn window latches and light switches from them.

Our desire: Fresh handles and hinges darkened
by our little rituals’ seizable legacies –
that one day the youngers might grasp our habits
and push toward their own simple levers.
We long to press spirits alone, all owned by us.
 
John Davis Jr. is a Florida poet whose work has been published in literary journals internationally. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and will receive his MFA in creative writing from University of Tampa in January 2014.
* * *
Poems by Andrea Farber-De Zubiria
 
True
I want to tell you something that’s true
I want to tell you
that it might not be safe
to take even one more step.
That the sidewalk could explode under your feet,
that a bullet called Random and a person you love,
might be traveling towards each other,
even now

I want to tell you
that there are so many ways for things to go wrong--
a driver about to wipe up spilled milk,
the word "cancer" forming in a doctor's mind,
a husband ready to confess when you answer that phone.

This morning, I want to tell you to just stay still.
I know…

I know…
Even not moving is a stone laid down to make a dim path
So I'll tell you something else.
that the first berry might be sweet on your tongue,
that the lawn can feel cool to your hot feet in summer,
that the next song you hear might make you sing,
that we are all bits of ancient stars,
gathered to light each other's way...

This is also true.

Sunflowers—Late Summer
In June
they’d lift eager faces to her all day.
But now when their mother rises each morning
with her cheerful offers of attention
they mostly stare at the ground
pick at their food
mumble and slouch.
By mid-day her smile’s a hot glare at their backs
meant to correct lousy posture
and their tendency to drop wrinkled clothes everywhere.
She knows that soon their whole world will turn
away from her--
a little more each day.
They’ll keep changing
from the pretty imitations of her they once were
until one day
they’ll just be gone.
And she’ll still be hanging around--
a little dull
keeping their room ready and their dinner warm
til next spring
when they’ll show up in new yellow skirts
heads high, grinning and waving.
And she’ll brighten
She’ll glow.   For them
she will burn

She’ll keep dragging herself out of bed
and one morning 
they’ll suddenly be back.
Heads high
grinning and waving in their new outfits
more beautiful than ever.
It’s a familiar cycle by now
and this time of year she’s not sure
its still worth all the energy she puts out.
She’s starting to fantasize
shutting off the lights
sneaking off where no one will find her
leaving them in the cold.
Or blowing up everything in a dramatic gesture
and herself with it.
But it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
When summer comes around
she’ll act like they never left.
She’ll get up smiling
kiss and admire each one
and mean it.
She’ll laugh at their antics
and make sure they get all their vitamins.
It's been like this since the beginning
And hopefully she's not getting too burnt out.
Everyone loves her kids.

Elegia
There’s a poem waiting in the tiny cakes from my Easy Bake Oven 
and another in the colored pegs of the Light Bright and my Spiro graph designs
There’s a poem waiting in my brothers’ Lincoln Log cabins  
their games of hotbox in the yard, air guitar contests over the garage 
There’s a poem in the school merry go round  
how we’d spin each other sick and collapse on the ground to watch the world swirl by
There’s a poem waiting in the hardbound dictionary where I looked up their dirty words
so I wouldn't be called stupid
how they warned me of herds of spiders in my bed
and the probability of dying young
There’s a poem in the letters they wrote me when they left for college
how we spun around until we all landed on this opposite coast
where Redwoods grow
how for awhile we would meet in restaurants
eating Pho or Kung Pao and playing Remember When
And now there’s this poem that waits forever
in the hillside cemetery where they lie head to foot  
how I watch brown kids play chase around pink bakery boxes on grandparents’ graves
 
Andrea Farber-DeZubiria is a physical therapist living in Fresno, California with her husband, teen daughters, cats and backyard chickens.
* * *

Poetry by Cristine Gruber
Artist 
for Roman

The artist sits
in the corner booth,
head bowed, forehead furrowed.

His hand never stops moving
as the canvas comes to life
before his eyes.

All who walk past
marvel at his gift,
some placing a few coins

in the donation tin,
others offering
to buy him a cup of coffee.

He graciously accepts
the coffee, secretly wishing
someone would buy him a sandwich.


Found

This evening I found
the time I had lost,

those precious few hours
I so wished back.

They hadn’t traveled far,
just around the bend,

and indeed seemed happy
to find me as well.

They looked a bit older,
but no worse for wear,

having taken good care,
these past twenty years.

But when asked,
“Why now, what makes you return?”

The response was simple…
they’d never really left.
 
Christine Gruber has had work featured in: North American Review, Writer's Digest, Writers' Journal, The Endicott Review, Thema, and Westward Quarterly.
* * *
Creative Nonfiction
 
Rescuing Elena
By Mary W. Bridgman

Elena's father shot himself during our senior year in high school. The brief account that appeared in the local newspaper said he’d been cleaning his gun when it accidentally discharged. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, more than 30 years later. It happened during the wee hours of the morning. As far as anyone knew, he hadn’t had a hunting trip planned. No one could explain why he chose that particular time to clean his rifle.

I met Elena when we were in the fifth grade. My family had just moved from a small country town to a larger city where I felt like a fish out of water. While the kids made jokes about LSD and marijuana, things I knew nothing about, I made no
effort to hide my conservative Christian beliefs, which had been unquestioned where I’d come from. My new classmates
called me a Bible-thumper. Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to make friends. I vacillated between fantasizing about blossoming into a pretty, popular girl and hoping I would someday gain acceptance through wit and intellect, despite my homely appearance and lack of social skills. Fat chance.

Elena was oblivious to the cliques that were the bane of my existence. She was the shortest girl in the class, which certainly made her stand out. She had dark, lovely hair and skin that bespoke her Latin heritage. Even though pretty much every other kid in the school was a WASP, richer, and made better grades, none of this seemed to bother her. Almost every other kid also had a mother at home. Elena did not—a fact I quickly picked up, although not from her. One of the girls who lived in my neighborhood told me Elena’s mother had died of breast cancer about a year before I met her.

Elena’s motherless status, her small stature, and her exotic heritage intrigued me. The motherless part really puzzled me. I could not conceive of life without my mother. She was like the sun in our family, with all of us suspended in orbit around
her. Just one day with Mother sick in bed and everything fell apart. Yet, here was Elena, apparently happy, the bubbliest person I had ever encountered. Elena was the only kid I knew who ignored the rigid social strata of the kid world. I figured she must have gotten some kind of special dispensation because her mother was dead.

Elena knew everybody in our school and seemed to know everything about them too. She loved to talk about the other kids, always happy to relate whatever she knew with plenty of giggles included in the telling. We made a Mutt-and-Jeff type
pair. She was short, plump, and vivacious and I was tall, skinny, and dour.

We were really just school friends—we didn’t do things together after school or on weekends—until her father killed himself. I heard about it from my father, who was principal at the middle school that Elena’s younger brother Rudy attended. Someone, probably a police officer, called Daddy at home early that morning to let him know. Daddy told me about it before breakfast. I didn’t ask questions, just tried to absorb the news. We decided we would go over to their house after school to offer our condolences.

When we arrived, the house was packed. I had always known where Elena lived, but had never been inside. Rudy spotted us, ran over to Daddy and wrapped his arms around him. Rudy was short like Elena, and his head came only a little above
Daddy’s waist. His arms were not long enough to encircle him. Daddy was not a demonstrative person, but he put his arms around Rudy and held him tightly for awhile. I felt sorry for Rudy; I wanted to share my father with him, even though I knew it could never make up for the father he had lost.

We didn’t go to the funeral; it was during school hours. But in the days that followed, I stuck to Elena like glue. If she wondered what I was doing or why, she never said so. She just accepted me and my efforts to help her. I don’t know why I
thought I could help—I had no firsthand experience with death or the grief that goes with it. Everyone in my immediate family, including my grandparents, was still alive.

On some level, I was trying to be a parent to Elena, to make up for what she had lost. I never considered the absurdity of the idea—I just wanted to fix things for her, even though anyone could see that what was wrong couldn’t be fixed. After Elena’s father died, she was pretty much on her own. The live-in housekeeper moved out, and the only adult left in the home was Elena’s older brother. He wasn’t in college and didn’t have a job. As far as I could tell, his main pastime was harassing Elena and hanging out with his girlfriend, who was younger than Elena and I. I thought Elena would have been better off if she had been alone.

I’m not sure whether anyone was ever legally appointed guardian for Elena and her younger brother, but a friend of their father’s who had no wife or children of his own took over management of their finances.

I tried to do things with Elena that a mother would do, even though I hadn’t done them before. I had never made Christmas cookies without my mother’s help, but Elena wanted to do it so we did. I had never had a piano student, but Elena wanted to learn, so I tried to teach her. We never got beyond “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”—probably because Elena didn’t have a piano so she couldn’t practice at home. I knew our lessons weren’t going anywhere, but I plodded on for about a year.

Elena never spoke to me of all the sadness and hurt she must have felt over the loss of her parents. She never mentioned her mother to me at all. She mothered her younger brother as best she could, with very little help.

Elena and I started college together at the local university. It was huge and I didn’t have any hope of becoming a part of the social life, student government, or prominent clubs. Elena was un-fazed by all of it, applied for several of the prestigious clubs, didn’t get accepted by any of them, and didn’t seem to care. I applied at her urging, didn’t get accepted, and couldn’t help but care.

One Christmas, Elena gave me a pair of pierced earrings. Even though I was nineteen years old, I still wore clip-ons. Elena’s ears had been pierced since she was a baby. “Let’s go to the mall in Orange Park,” she said. “There’s a store there where you can get your ears pierced.”

Orange Park was located on the fringe of the big city of Jacksonville, a ninety-minute drive from our town.

“Uh, I’m not sure I want to do that,” I said.

“How come? It’ll be fun!” she said. Of course she said that. She thought everything was fun.

“You don’t understand,” I stammered.

“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt!”

“That’s not it, Elena.” I took a deep breath, horribly embarrassed by what I had to say.

“I’m afraid I might pass out. Needles make me faint.”

Elena told me not to worry, she would go with me, and everything would be fine.

When we got to the mall, Elena decided to use a pay phone to call a friend who lived in the area. The conversation dragged on and on, so I decided to go get my ears pierced by myself. Elena didn’t seem to notice when I left.

When I got through, Elena was still yakking away on the phone. I tried to get her attention by waving my arms, but she was oblivious. I started to feel lightheaded and made a dash for the restroom. I sat on one of the toilets with my head between my legs until the feeling passed. After lots of deep breathing, I staggered to the lavatory and splashed cold water on my face.

When I returned to the mall, Elena was exactly where I’d left her, still jabbering away on the phone. After several minutes of standing around on one foot and then the other, Elena finally hung up. She turned to look for me and said, “Oh, there you are. Ready to get your ears pierced?” she asked.

I brushed my hair away from my earlobes, which were beginning to throb. “I already did it, no thanks to you.” I filled her in on what she had missed.

Elena just laughed, even though I was clearly put out with her. She hadn’t even noticed that I had left, returned, turned white, and fled to the restroom. Despite my irritation, I had to admit I never would have had my ears pierced without Elena, even though I pretty much did do it without her.
 
Elena moved away when we finished our undergraduate degrees. I stayed in town and went on to law school. One summer, I took a temporary job near her new home and invited her to come visit me. She had car trouble, or so she said, and never made it. We kept in touch sporadically after that, but she wrote me the Christmas before I took the state bar exam to let me know she had married and had a baby girl. The bar exam was given in the city where she lived, so I arranged to see her and meet her baby daughter, who looked like a miniature Elena, all dark hair and eyes, plump, and happy. I couldn’t help but notice that the baby’s ears were already pierced.

After a while, I stopped hearing from Elena. I tried to track her down, but that was before the Internet, and I didn’t have any luck. I hoped to see her at our 30th high school class reunion—in fact, she was the only person I truly hoped would be there, but she wasn’t.

Looking back, I think Elena understood more about me than I did about her. I remember one conversation in particular, probably one of many we shared about various people we knew who were attractive, popular, or accomplished. She mentioned someone by name, and I said I didn’t like whoever it was. Elena must have heard that type of comment from me one time too many. She paused, and without letting any hint of irritation creep into her voice said, “You don’t like more people than I know."
 
It stopped me cold. Elena had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances—and she knew I knew it. She must have known that I, like many teenaged girls, wanted to be normal, accepted, and popular. Somehow she figured out that I coped with my shortcomings by criticizing or judging others before I gave them a chance to prove they weren’t the shallow, thoughtless people I wanted to believe they were.

How had I become so judgmental?

The answer to that was pretty clear. 

I had let it happen. Elena’s guileless comment stopped me cold and changed my outlook. From that point on, I tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Elena had more reasons than I to resent the good fortune of others, but she didn’t. She assumed good intent on everyone’s part and responded in kind. Despite all her disadvantages, she had much more self-confidence, more self-respect, than I did. Those qualities freed her to be more concerned about how she treated others than how they treated her.

Eventually, I stopped trying to help Elena. I finally figured out she didn’t need or want to be rescued. Although I didn’t realize it until many years later, I’d been the one who’d been drowning, sinking in a morass of teenaged angst, self-pity and jealousy. Elena, the orphan with no one to care for her, threw me a lifeline.

Thank goodness, I caught it. I’d wanted desperately to rescue Elena, but in the end, she rescued me.
Mary Wood Bridgman is a lawyer and former corporate executive turned professional writer.  Her work has appeared in national, regional, and local publications, from Chicken Soup for the Soul to her hometown newspaper, The Bradford County Telegraph.  
* * *
Empire
By Helene Lovett
           
There was a girl who lost control over her body. She let her mind become distracted and in the meantime her body kept dancing and running until her muscles began to break down from exhaustion. She eventually got plugged into the wall. Doctors poured over her heart to make sure it would not collapse. The muscles were rebuilt. Essentially, new, stronger innards came into being underneath the same skin sac. The girl’s mind remained removed from what was happening to the rest of her. It looked on, an idle observer as the body strengthened. The only part of her, the girl felt, that was entirely in her possession, was her head. And not even her whole head, because her face was out of her control as well. Eyelashes and flakes of dry skin fell into her lap like leaves. Their departure demonstrated to her that these body parts ran on their own clocks — clocks embedded like tiny coins inside of her so that she could not see them.

But if each body part was autonomous, she wondered, was her mind the only thing that was hers, presiding over the rest of her like the dictator of a multistate, satellite empire? How much of an empire has to be retained for the empire to maintain its name? If the central state is cut out, but the satellite states’ governments continue to coexist peacefully, can those states retain their name as an empire?

A chicken named Ralph had his head cut off, but continued running around the pen as it always had before. He was still referred to as Ralph.

Amoeba, starfish, and coral lack brains and anything that can be defined as a head. How much of a coral must be severed so that it is no longer the same coral?  If you chipped off a piece of coral, would the small piece be its own coral? If you sliced a coral in half, would it become two corals? When a nucleus divides in mitosis, there is never a point when the nucleus dies. The original nucleus simply ceases to be as it is converted into two identical daughter nuclei who may also divide themselves. The distinction between single identity, multiple identities, or no identity is a permeable membrane.

There was once a man who lost his head in a war in the sense that he went crazy. There was a hole in his head and the doctors decided to cut the whole infected head off because, with their advanced technology, they thought they would be able to keep him alive. They wanted to see if the feat could be pulled off.

They were successful, and plugged the man into a wall to keep him preserve. Though he could not think or speak, he would live peacefully for many years before dying of old age. "His bed plate," said Ted, the name the doctors gave him because they did not know his real name when they found him, and their database didn’t have a DNA profile that matched his. His real name was Scott, and his family thought he was dead. But to the doctors, the only ones who knew of his existence, he ceased to be Ted after a few weeks and was referred to as the corner bed thereafter.

What name would you give this man if you had to refer to him in a conversation?

“The anonymous person?”  This would be the name of all of us on the banks of an infinite river of strangers’ bodies. Names are the plastic packaging on cadavers.

If names are extraneous, and the label “stranger” is derived from the Latin “extraneous,” then each of our names is a stranger. Stranger still, is the ease with which we shed and accumulate names as we move through space. I have shed “child,” “girlfriend,” and “sleeper” only to be plunged back into these identities when context rises like water around me. It is hard to estrange a name, though they come and go like strangers.

A stranger that goes to my school recently got a concussion in a football game. However, no one guessed until, on the sidelines, another stranger asked him for his name and he said “Blueberry.” Had he become what he claimed to be? His body parts had become meaningless. His brain was not functioning well enough to emit anything else, regardless of whether he meant to identify himself. Over the next few days, the story of Blueberry circulated throughout the school so rapidly that the boy’s real name was lost in the process.                
People who had never even known his first name were telling Blueberry’s tale. Fewer knew if he had since remembered who he was before Blueberry. We still do not know if he has any will to remember. He might not even recall “Blueberry.” How much more of himself can he lose? I asked a friend who Blueberry was and discovered that I had already been storing two pieces of him since elementary school. His name and face had been floating inside of me, unattached to anything but the other half of the identity fragment. The boy is back at school now, with brain damage. He leaves class every thirty minutes to go sit in a vacant classroom. I peer through the memory of the girl who told me this to watch him sit at his cluster of empty desks. Perhaps he tries to remember who he is there. In turning him into a character I have stripped him of his body and buried his real name.
             
A mirage of the boy plays with the girl who lost control of her body in a cavity inside my head. She asks him why they are alone. Perpetually shy, he tells her quietly that everyone is already here and gives her a stare like obsidian before folding into the air. The girl looks for these others in every corner of the brain before she looks inside her mouth and finds them, every possible person in the universe, every possible character, born and unborn, and folds herself into her own mouth.
             
Though I feel no kinship with this girl who was plugged into the wall, she and I were once one. She was me and I was her, until one day the passage of time allowed me to peel myself away from her. This process allowed me to separate the mind of the past girl from her heart and view them as separate entities the girl had no control over. They were only connected to her in the sense that they both inhabited her body; she had no raw evidence that they existed. She could not feel her heart decaying inside of her. She was only told it was so. She wished to see her body cut in half in order to prove definitively that the doctors had not fabricated the existence of her organs.
             
If the dissociation between the present “I” and the different parts of the past “I” had not occurred, I would not be able to see past pieces of myself as characters. On the other hand, I am using the present I as a character too, and could even invent a life for a future I, a hypothetical I inside of a black hole, a time-traveling dead I who has returned to haunt the present, or an I reincarnated as a god in control of our thoughts at this moment. In other words, with a pencil in my hand, the I is wildly out of control. The hand controlling the I is much like the headless chicken in its abandon, its surrender of identity, and its urge to be in many places at once.
             
Time, at some point, came in like a scalpel and carved a new mind from the old one belonging to the girl in a way that allowed me to dissect the old mind the way I might take apart and judge a sad old friend lying dead on the table in front of me.
Helene Lovett is a writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. She has been published in Cadaverine Magazine and The Double Dealer.​
* * *
Brass Bookends and the New Canadian Currency
By Bill Schroeder
            
On the desk in my father's study, a sanctum his kids were not scared to enter though we dared not disturb so much as a single paper clip without his knowledge, he had a pair of sturdy brass bookends whose design featured  a three-masted clipper ship with all sails unfurled.  Serious looking folders and documents, whose import I could only dimly speculate, were held in place between these bookends.  I do not recall ever knowing where the bookends came from;  there did not seem to be any profound family story behind their purchase but they did accompany us through half a dozen moves during our childhoods and always ended up in a prime spot in his new study.  In hindsight, the nautical motif seems a bit unusual.  My father grew up in southern Manitoba, a little south and only a few of kilometres west of a sign on the Trans Canada Highway proclaiming the longitudinal centre of Canada - in other words, about as far from an ocean as is physically possible to be on this continent.

A couple of years after my father passed away, several of us siblings met in Manitoba to help clean out mother's condo ahead of her move to an assisted living facility.  Of course, this required some serious downsizing.  Big ticket items were divided up appropriately, there were numerous trips to the landfill and Value Village, and we held a draw to divvy up some of the knick-knacks and keepsakes that we couldn't bear send to a thrift store.  Among other items, I ended up with father's old bookends.

I will admit that not nearly all of things retrieved during that exercise have found uses to match the fond, nostalgic memories the three of us felt as we cleaned up the condo, and the bookends are a typical example.  They have sat on my desk for almost a year but have not been required to keep my documents in place and there is seldom enough of a draft in that room for their other obvious use as a paperweight.   But then a light bulb went off in my head and now I am glad I have them.

The last year or two has seen the rolling out of new Canadian currency and as each new denomination comes on stream there have been news reports of people expressing frustration with the new bills.  A much reported observation is that the bills melt when heated but I have never noticed that to be a real problem and this compliant strikes me as a contrived issue, similar to the reports when the toonie first came out of people bashing them with sledgehammers to see if the centre piece would dislodge.

A much more real annoyance, one that I am surprised has not received more press since it surely is being felt nationwide by small business operators and others who regularly handle bundles of currency, is the fact that the new bills do not stack properly.  My wife runs a school cafeteria and dealing with her daily cash receipts typically involves sorting a wad of several dozen bills of various denominations.  In the BNC (before new currency) period it was easy to place the 5's, 10's and 20's in their respective piles and count each stack when done.  If you encountered an especially crumpled or folded bill, you could simply make a quick lengthwise crease and add it to the stack where it remained in place till you finished the operation and started to count them up.

This does not work ANC (I'm sure you can figure out what that means).  Once one of the new bills has been folded, the crease endures.  The most common fold is the shorter one along the width of a bill which makes it easier  to fit into a wallet, purse, or pocket.  However bill-counters prefer lengthwise folds to facilitate stacking.  A collection of bills with varying folds will flop all over the desk top.  If you try to make a lengthwise fold on a bill that already has a crease along the width, the result will be neatly divided into quadrants, but it will not stay in place on top of a pile of bills, especially if the pile already has other bills with random bends and folds.  Perhaps an analogy would be a deck of playing cards - once one card has been noticeably bent it is forever "marked" and will subsequently impact dealing and shuffling.

A few weeks ago I  needed to catch up on several days of bill sorting and had a larger than usual collection of cash to count.  I was getting frustrated when the piles of 10's and the new 5's kept tumbling over and not staying where I put them.  Suddenly I noticed the old brass bookend out of the corner of my eye and grabbed it and put it on top of the pile.  It worked.  The pile stayed in place, even through a quick up-and-under manoeuvre when the next bill of that denomination needed to be added to the pile.  I now make sure these bookends are handy whenever I am doing this job.  I still prefer the older, less slippery, bills but at least I have found a way to deal with the stacking problem of the new ones.  Thanks Dad.
 
Bill Schroeder is a widely traveled Canadian educator with varied interests. His previous publishing credits include the Journal of the African Literature Association, the Ottawa Citizen, Country Connection magazine, and others.
* * *
The Book of Todd
By Vivian Wallace
            
1 “The root of all suffering is desire.”1 Buddha taught this and Jesus agreed.2
Think of that moment when you believed a detective stood before you,3 or at least someone who fit the stereotype.4 Think of how he sat and observed the passersby, how he garbed himself in that unique kind of coat,5 and how he spoke said observations into a recorder.6
But then think of that opportune moment when the detective was seemingly relaxing in the mall.7 You realized this was your chance. Then imagine how you interrupted his surveillances by asking the question you have always wanted to ask a detective:8 What is the craziest thing that you have ever experienced?9
To which he does not regale you with crazy stories about murder and  cheating spouses spying on each other.10 No,11 he’s a different kind of detective.12 This man has taken it upon himself to search for signs of God -the Christian God- in our lives.13

2 This was the sequence of events I followed as I sought an interview at the mall.1 On this day the mall was resounding.2 The voices of people were everywhere; there were lines of them and tables of them and some going from store to store.3 In all this chaos I had been searching the crowds of people sitting at tables and I kept dismissing potential interviewees.4 The old woman was reading a newspaper,5 the middle-aged guy over there wearing a trim white coat looked hard and sharp,6 and that guy with the darting eyes looked just plain seedy.7

Finally I settled on Mr. Detective.8 He didn’t have any harsh edges, but there was an alertness to his dark green eyes.9 He was the kind of person you could glance over repeatedly if you weren’t searching for a friendly face like I was,10 yet the longer I looked at him when we spoke the more I distinguished him.11 He was very unique.12

This was proven again and again as we spoke.13 He started out by thinking of how to answer my question and then began with a question of his own.14

“Have you found God?”15

I answered no, but thought about how I have brushed against Him a few times in my life.16

He asked me about my interests and major and life goals until he determined that I enjoy reading works of fiction.17

With this, he decided to answer my question while trying to show me a little of God that he had discovered in his detective work; a case he has solved.18

It started out with him telling me my first clue:19 there was only one survivor in one of the classrooms in the Sandy Hook shooting which occurred at an elementary school.20 This is like how there is only supposed to be one survivor in The Hunger Games.21

At that point, hearing something that seems like such a loose connection, I considered that maybe deciding to interview a random person was not a good idea.22 Not only am I not a believer in Christ, I’ve also had run-ins with conspiracy theorists before that ended with me being lectured about my “ignorance.”23

But he continued to speak and I kept smiling.24 He gave the next clue: even though the shooting is called the Sandy Hook shooting, it happened in a town called Newtown, which is true.25 Why is the town particularly interesting?26

The third clue: Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, lives in Newtown.27

Yes, this basically sounds like a conspiracy theory and my previous comments make it sound like this should be the end of the conversation.28 But my problem usually doesn’t lay so much with a theory as it does with a theorist.29 Like I said, I’ve been lectured because they won’t see a logical argument for what it is.30 This detective, though, listened to my questions and thought about them.31 He didn’t just push them away.32
So I kept listening.33 For someone like me who is still, in spite of myself, open to the idea of a higher power or forces at work that can’t be explained, I found this interesting.34

He goes into the motives behind the case.35 “Things like this happen for a reason,” he said.36 He explains that yes, the children dying was a tragedy and something no one wants, but it happened for a reason and maybe God was trying to tell us something and make us think.37 We reap what we sow, seeds of hate, but at the same time God doesn’t let things happen for no good reason.38 We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.39

5 Throughout our conversation he was also making references to Buddhism, not just Christianity.1 This intrigued me and when someone, like him, seems open, as though he had looked at all the options before deciding something, I want to believe the person even more.2 He even said he believes that every religion has truth in it, an extension of Christianity that is naturally there because as humans we naturally seek God.3 It is just that sometimes we stray.4 I enjoy these views because they are things I have contemplated myself, in the past.5

However, then my logic steps in and while Suzanne Collins does in fact live there according to the local online paper, the shooting didn’t happen quite like he had explained.6

I then think about how even if all religions have some truth to them, who are we to pick out the truths from the lies?7 A Christian would only be able to reliably go by views that the Bible backs up.8

But either way, these are still interesting to think about.9

4 So from saying that things happen for a reason, he then goes on to talk about 1 John 3:15 from the Bible1 which states, Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in Him.2 So he believes the feelings we project on the world will have an effect.3 Hate literally brings about murder.4

He also brought up how as a society we focus on scarcity thinking rather than abundance thinking.5 Basically, we always want more as though we didn’t already have enough.6 In reality, the world is rich and full and abundant.7 To not experience all the negatives in life we, as a global community, need to try and work desires out of our lives.8 We just need that mirror in front of us to show the good and the bad inside ourselves.9 This will never happen, but I can see how it would be lovely.10

He also said we need to focus on the we and not the me.11 I set out with the goal of learning of someone’s craziest experience and ended up with a person’s observations that profoundly affected his life by adding to the discoveries of God he had uncovered.12 Rather than just something about him it was something that he shares to hopefully have an effect on others, just like he tried to do with me,13 and it may have worked were I not so hardheaded.14

And then the conversation ended as abruptly as it began.15 His brother called, needing him for something, and I left.16
 
Vivian Wallace considers herself Californian but has experienced several other places as well. She is currently studying English at the University of Iowa with intent to apply for the creative writing track.

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