Foliate Oak October 2012
Prose
Absolution
By Heather Adams

When I meet him, from the moment of shaking his hand, I know what it would be like to kiss him. I see into the future. I feel his hand on my back and I taste the scotch on his tongue. So that, when the kiss and the rest of it, what comes after, happens, it is as though it has happened before, and I am re-living it in a vague dream, half-asleep. On the flight home, I think only of how something small, like the freckle on his wrist, could have been an invitation, or even permission.

At home, Peter hands me a glass of pinot noir and reminds me that the DeWalts are coming over at seven o’clock. He says that Chelsea is upstairs with her door closed, and he confesses that she did not work on her college applications while I was gone. It is the one thing I asked her to do as I was leaving, and yesterday I texted Peter between meetings asking him to check in with her. I take a sip of wine and shrug, giving him a small smile. “It’s no big deal,” I say. “She’ll get to them eventually.” It takes effort, but I am rewarded when he raises an eyebrow, surprised to be getting off so easily. He asks me how the conference was. “Boring,” I tell him. “Financial projections and budget stuff, you know how it is,” and he nods.

A few days later, Peter and I start to argue about whether to change our pool maintenance package. They are over-charging us and I know it. They haven’t been doing what they promised. Peter is surprised when I relent abruptly. Remembering, the guilt coiled inside me, a heavy thing at the bottom of my stomach.

Sometimes at night, instead of sleeping, I lie in bed beside Peter and think about what I’ve done. I am forty-six years old and I have traveled for work for almost twenty years. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It has seemed impossible, something that other people might do, but not me. Not to Peter. Until this time, when something about it felt inescapable, when I could barely stand up under the weight of the inevitability. And I know that blaming Peter for my mistake wouldn’t be fair. It would be like waking up with a grudge against someone simply because of a bad dream you’ve had about them, not because of anything they’ve actually done.

At church, I pay particular attention to the confession. Even though I am speaking softly like everyone else in the pews around me, I mean what I say, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed. The priest says “Almighty God have mercy on you” to everyone in the church and I imagine the words settling on my shoulders like a comforting blanket. But nothing happens; I feel the same way I did walking in. When we leave, the sky is low and cloudy and the air is hot. Peter asks if we’re ever going to get a break from the heat, and even though I’m aware that he doesn’t expect me to answer, I do. I say I don’t know. Because I don’t; I can’t see that far ahead.

Several weeks later I sit at the doctor’s office, looking around the waiting room at the other women flipping through magazines or looking at their phones. Somehow I know that, out of all of them, I’m the one who will get the phone call explaining that I need to come in for a meeting with the doctor. The kind of meeting where the doctor will sit at his desk, his white coat draped on the back of his chair, trying to create a more comfortable environment, trying not to be intimidating as he shares what he has seen. 

Peter is there, tapping his foot because he’s nervous, even though he doesn’t want me to see it. The doctor points to a shadow on the picture, and Peter reaches for my hand. As the doctor taps a line on the page of biopsy results, I uncurl my fingers, meeting Peter’s. I can’t help thinking that there is something right about what the doctor is saying, what he refers to as the trials ahead. He stacks the papers on his desk over and over again, squaring the corners carefully, and I hear him saying phrases like “treatment options” and “state of the art.” Part of me knew this, or something like it, was coming. Like a judgment. Or penance. On some level I know that isn’t how it works, that redemption doesn’t look like this. But I can’t be sure, which is why, instead of railing against this dark thing, it is like a cool wind on my face and I rise up to meet it.
Heather Adams lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes short fiction and practices law, not necessarily in that order.
* * *
 
A Casual Lunch
By Carrie Lynn Barker
 
“So, what are you going to order?” she asked.

The blonde across from her smiled and said, “I was thinking breakfast.”

Sally sighed and answered, “You read my mind.”

“So why did you ask?” Viv said.

Sally shrugged.  “I dunno.  Because I could.”

The two girls giggled like the old friends they were.

The waitress approached, tray in hand, and gave them the typical, “Whaddya want?” when asking for their order.  After asking for eggs, bacon, grits and biscuits, the two girls settled back into casual conversation.  It had been a while.  No one gets out much these days, you know.

Outside the window of the café, they watched a very large man and a skinny woman play checkers.  She obviously was confused and he was teaching her.  Who doesn’t know how to play checkers?  A few minutes later, the misters came on.

“Seriously?” Viv said.  “It’s like two hundred degrees out there.  And they still come out?”

Sally gave a shrug.  “Well, you know what they say.  Zombies are the mindless, brainless bits of society!”

Again, they laughed in unison.

The couple playing checkers got up very quickly and hurried inside.  The little boy at the table next to them stuck his nose against the window.  His mother tried to scrape him off but he just kept squashing his face on the glass.

“Look, Mama!  Here they come!” he yelled.

A collective groan filled the café.  The waitress delivered food to our two favorite diners. 

Outside, a low moaning sound filled the air.  In the hot sun, the asphalt sizzled but it didn’t seem to bother the ones that now dragged their rotting corpses towards the café.  The bullet proof glass would keep them out but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to get inside.

While Sally and Viv enjoyed their breakfasts, a group of twenty to twenty-five of the zombified creatures, once human beings, began making their way onto the wooden patio in from of the café.  Conversation began to ebb and flow again inside, but outside the monsters crept closer and closer to the windows.

“Ooh,” said the little boy.  “Look at that one, Momma!  He’s missing an arm!”

Sure enough, there he was.  Probably no more than thirty years old when he’d turned into one of the menacing horde, the young man was still wearing his suit and tie from his work day. His last work day.  His left arm was missing, his jacket frayed where it had been torn from his body.  What was left of his hair stuck up in comical angles from his head, half of which had been scalped completely at some point so that the white bone of his skull showed. 

The others were in no better shape.  Skin was grayish green and sloughing in some areas.  Zombies don’t bleed due to their lack of circulation but some of them showed blood on their clothing from the attacks that had turned them in the first place.  One woman was missing her shirt and her misshapen breasts were barely hiding within her dirty, white cotton bra.  One man’s leg was turned at an odd angle, where the bone had been broken.  He walked in an Igor-style drag.  Another was missing his bottom jaw.  Now how did that happen?

Viv buttered a biscuit and dipped it in some gravy.  “Really?” she said quietly.  “You think parents would teach their kids not to comment on the zombies in a restaurant.”

Sally snorted laughter.  “Seriously.  I mean, we all have to deal with them but that doesn’t mean we need to discuss them.”

Together, they sniveled behind their respective forks.

“At least they turned on the zombie misters,” Viv said with her mouth around a piece of crispy bacon. 

“Yeah, thank God for that,” Sally said.  “I hate it when places don’t even have misters and you have to sit around and wait until they go away.”

Viv sighed.  “Places like that should at least give you some sort of zombie raid discount when these guys show up.”

One elderly zombie, his white hair matted around his head and one eye hanging gently on his cheek, reached the window.  His skin began to bubble suddenly and the moan that escaped him could have been one of pain had he had any sensation at all left in his fried brain.  His nails clacked on the unbreakable glass window and he gave one pound with a balled up fist.  Then his head hit the glass and he slid down, saliva streaking the pane from the point where he hit to the point where he disappeared onto the ground.

Sally put a forkful of eggs into her mouth, the yolk running down her chin.  She gave a laugh and used her napkin to wipe it from her face.  “Yummy,” she said.  “These are good eggs.”

Slowly, one by one, she and Viv watched the zombies begin to collapse under the effect of the zombie mist. The little boy was talking non-stop, giving a running commentary on the bodies as they fell.  Sally and Viv just rolled their eyes and finished up their meals. 

When all the zombies were nothing but the rotting corpses they were, an elderly gentleman appeared outside on the patio.  In his hand, he held a very large, very firm broom.  While customers who were waiting began heading to their cars out in the parking lot, the old man began to push the bodies out of sight, using only his broom.  All the while he was grumbling but neither Viv nor Sally could hear what he was saying through the thick glass.  It didn’t matter though because they both were more interested in ordering dessert. 
 
Carrie Lynn Barker is an avid writer who has been writing all her life. She is the author of four novels, the second of which was nominated in the paranormal category at EPICon 2012. Her fifth novel will be released in February 2013. 
* * * 
The American
By CL Bledsoe
 
The American came in to the donut shop every morning with his nanny, a haggard, nervous little Vietnamese woman who deferred to him as though he were a prince, and not a shrunken man-child. Cao, the other girl who worked in the shop, always giggled when she saw him – “look at his giant head! He’s going to fall over!” – she would say in Vietnamese, and maybe that’s why he would only speak or acknowledge Linh when she asked if he’d like to order something, though Linh didn’t think he spoke Vietnamese. Maybe he recognized mockery, even in other languages.

He would waddle up to the display case and stare it over like it was an exhibit in a museum, lingering over each item, while the nanny stayed back by the door. She never got anything, which made Linh sad. One thing that she hated about her job was that most of her customers were foreigners – tourists -- or so obviously rich that they might as well be foreigners; not that she disliked foreigners, but it bothered her that very few Vietnamese were able to afford extravagant things like pastries. The only reason her parents had ever eaten donuts, for example, was because Linh had given them some old ones. Donuts were still thought of as a delicacy in Vietnam. The store had only been open for two years, and it was the first in Ho Chi Minh city.

The American never came in when it was busy. After he stared at each of the pastries, he’d catch Linh’s eye (she would be waiting for this) and point at one.

“What’s that?” he’d ask in English.

“Banh Mi,” Linh might say. “It’s a kind of baguette.” Linh liked to practice her English with him. Cao’s English was terrible.

He’d motion for her to give him one, and she would. He’d try it and, maybe, make a face like a surprised child. “Not sweet,” he might say. “It’s good. Very French. I thought you people hated the French.”

Linh would smile and not respond. He would finish the pastry and pay her, make a little motion it took Linh weeks to realize was an imitation of flipping his hat to her (she only knew because she’d seen it in an American movie) and leave.

Some mornings, he was very chatty. He enjoyed the Bahn Tieu, though he said the sesame seeds reminded him of a hamburger bun.

“Like McDonalds,” Linh had said.

“No, dear, much better than that,” he’d said and laughed a little. She felt her face grow hot at the endearment, which sounded so out of place for someone younger than her. When she related the experience to Cao, the other girl teased her for the rest of the day, saying, “Linh’s marrying the American! She’ll be his wife and his mother!”

The American’s favorite was Bahn Cam, a traditional pastry stuffed with fruit, usually apricots. He always ordered the traditional pastries, never the Spiderman donuts (which were made from sugary dough and decorated with a web of powdered sugar – it was the most popular among foreigners because it was so American, though it made Linh sick to even think about eating one – or the Lotus Blossum, which all the Chinese bought, picking off each petal to share among friends.

“Those are for tourists,” he said the first time she’d offered him one. “I want the real deal.”

Linh liked her job much more than Cao did. Cao would mope around and talk about her dreams, which were very unrealistic, it seemed to Linh. She wanted to marry a rich man and move to Paris. Linh wanted to tell her that rich men don’t marry girls like her, but she held her tongue. And at least Cao didn’t complain as much as the American. He was always grumbling when he came in. Linh would ask how he was doing, and he’d respond with some tirade about the weather or his relationship with his parents.

“How can someone who has so much be so unhappy?” Linh asked Cao.

The other girl shrugged. “He’s American. They’re all miserable.”

There were other foreigners who were regulars. They all made sure that Linh and Cao and anyone else in the shop knew how busy they were, that they really didn’t have time to stop for a donut, but they deserved it. Some would say this very thing, but most just acted frantic and impatient with the girls, no matter how quickly they packaged the orders. The American was the only one who took his time. He was also the nicest customer Linh had.

“You guys should put out a tip jar,” he said one day.

Linh shook her head. “I don’t know what that is.”

He explained. “In America, every coffee shop has one.”

She thought maybe he was mocking her, but then, when he paid, he gave her a few extra dong. ”Your first tip,” he said. He leaned in, and Linh leaned down to hear. “Don’t share it with the other girl, though. It’s just for you.”

When she straightened back up, she saw Cao smiling at her and blushed.

The American was the son of a diplomat, according to Cao. His parents were rich, which explained the nanny – the American looked to be in his early teens to Linh, though it was hard to tell because of his foreignness and unusual physique; when Linh was a young teen, she was already expected to fend for herself much like an adult. She worked weekends and evenings to pay for her school books and clothes.

“Your English is very good,” the American said the day after he taught Linh about the tip jar.

“Thank you,” she said. “I learned in school.”

“Say something in Vietnamese,” he said.

“I…don’t know what to say.”

“Say that. Say anything.”

“Why don’t you share with your nanny?” she said.

“Because she’s diabetic,” he answered.

Linh blushed and refused to speak until after the American left.

Cao laughed for days about the American knowing Vietnamese. “He will make a much better husband that way,” she said.

“Don’t be disgusting,” Linh said. “He’s shorter than I am!”

The next time he came in, Linh apologized to him.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You never said anything mean.”

Linh continued to bow her head in shame.

“So why did you study English?” the American asked.

“I want to study in America someday.”

He nodded and looked around. “So you’re saving up money? How long have you worked here?”

“Yes,” she said. “For fifteen months.” It made Linh nervous to talk about this. She considered it rude.

“You seem very intelligent,” he said, which made her blush.

“I got some scholarships to American colleges,” she said.

“So why didn’t you go?”

“They weren’t enough.” She explained that her parents worked for a tobacco company – Linh’s mother sold cigarettes in the company store, and Linh’s father drove a delivery truck. Linh had learned to read from the tobacco packages her mother sold, and learned to count cigarettes. Her father would take her to school on his routes each morning. She’d graduated at the top of her class and had been offered scholarships at several American colleges, but even with full tuition paid, Linh’s parents couldn’t afford the airfare, housing, meals, and all the other expenses. When Linh interviewed at the colleges to win additional scholarships, all of them had asked what her parents did for a living.

“They work for a tobacco company,” she’d said.

Each admission representative at each college had looked at her as though she were unclean, a terrible person. Usually, they lectured her about how many people died from tobacco smoke.

“I know,” Linh had said. “My parents have health problems because of their work.”

“Well they should change jobs,” the representative would say.

Linh would smile and apologize and never be awarded the additional scholarships necessary for her to study in America.

“What do you want to study?” The American asked.

“Medicine,” she said. “I want to help people.” It sounded silly when she said it, but she said it anyway.

“It’s overrated,” he said.

“What is?” she asked, confused.

“Education. In America, everyone goes to college. They all have degrees and then they go work in a coffee shop or something.”

She smiled and didn’t answer.

After he left, Cao came over and asked what they’d talked about. “Maybe he’ll pay for your college to entice you to marry him,” she said.

Linh ignored Cao, but she considered the possibility. Would it be so terrible to be married to the American dwarf? He seemed kind, and he really wasn’t that much shorter than Linh, though his head and hands were disproportionally large. He was younger than Linh, but, as her father said, in America, wealth forgives all wrongs.

The American didn’t return the next day, or the next. This wasn’t unusual with foreigners; they often left the city or even the country. On the third day, the nanny came into the shop. She looked around nervously and approached Linh with her head bowed. She offered a note written in Vietnamese and waited while Linh read it.

Hi Linh,

My family has to return to the U.S. for a while. I told my father about you. He knows the director of admissions at Yale and is willing to put in a good word for you, but he wants to meet you. Qui can give you directions.

It was signed: Lukas Atherton

Linh read the note three times before she realized the nanny was watching her.

“What are the directions?” Linh asked in Vietnamese. She scribbled them down, searching the woman’s face for any clues as to whether this was some kind of joke or something worse. The woman bowed and left. Cao came over and asked Linh what that had been all about.

“Nothing,” Linh said.

Linh was almost certain the American was going to try to seduce her or something worse. The question was whether he might still help her. She had to wait until after work, and by then, she’d convinced herself to risk it. She went home and cleaned up and changed into the shortest skirt she had, which still wasn’t very short. Her parents were still working, so she left a note for them saying she was working late.

Linh had had a boyfriend for a little while in high school, but she’d always been too busy for anything serious. But she’d learned some things from classmates and movies, and she hoped it would be enough. Maybe the American was infatuated with her. Maybe he wanted to take advantage of her. It wouldn’t be so bad, maybe, she thought. If it would help her get to America, to be a doctor.

She arrived at the address after riding on four different buses. It took her more than an hour. There was a Vietnamese doorman outside the building who gave Linh an evil look. She thought about trying to trick him or run past him, but finally decided to just tell him the truth.

She walked up, smiling, and introduced herself.

“I’m supposed to meet with Lukas Atherton,” she said in Vietnamese. The man scowled and then took off his hat. He took an envelope out of it and handed it to her. “I need to go inside to meet with him,” she said.

The man shook his head. “He’s gone,” he said.

“But—“ she started to argue, but the man took his hat off and shooed her away from the building with it, as though she were a pigeon.

She walked a little away and sat on a bench and read the card.

Hi Linh,

We got a sooner flight, so we had to go.

Linh read over that one sentence several times. The rest of the letter was about how much Lukas had enjoyed his time in Vietnam and how much he enjoyed the culture, etc. At the end – Linh almost missed it – was the name of Lukas’ father’s friend at Yale, and his contact information.

“I told him about you,” Lukas said. “He’s very interested. You should call or write him immediately.”

Beneath that, it said, “Thank you for being so kind to me.” That was it. Linh stared at that sentence and felt herself blush.

She caught the bus back to the donut shop and borrowed her boss’s computer to send the email. It took her over an hour to compose it, plus she’d been composing it on the bus ride as well. Cao kept ducking in to bother her.

“Are you going on a date with the American?” she asked.

Linh snapped. “He’s a sweet and thoughtful man.” That made Cao laugh, but Linh didn’t care. A customer came in, and Cao had to go work. Linh finished the email and hit send. She’d never been so nervous. When she finished, Cao was busy, so Linh walked out. The further away from the donut shop she got, the more she began to worry that maybe this was some kind of trick, or that it just wouldn’t work. But she decided to forget those thoughts. She was going to be a doctor someday, after all.
 
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available here. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writer's Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, here. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland. 
* * *
A Literary Romance
By Lisa Braxton
 
Not long after I became engaged, my fiancé and I began discussing plans for our future: where we would live, how we would set up our bank accounts, whether we’d rent a house for a while or purchase one, the type of wedding ceremony we’d have considering that we were a “mature” couple. Toward the end of one of those conversations it occurred to me that there was another important matter we needed to address.

“You should come home with me to meet my parents,” I said.

It was mid October. My parents lived one state away. It was an easy two-and-a- half-hour drive to their home. I visited them for all the major holidays and sometimes in between. The next time I planned to see them was Thanksgiving.

“Sure,” my fiancé said, “I was thinking the same thing.”

As I mentally marked off the days on the calendar I looked forward to Thanksgiving with a nervous giddiness I hadn’t felt before. My parents would get to meet the bookish man I had met in my Adult Sunday School class, who I had fallen in love with over long talks about scripture, the novels we had read, the experiences we had had as journalists, and the respective writing projects we were pursuing.

My fiancé would become acquainted with my parents, who had celebrated 50-plus anniversaries and were a testament to what it took to make a marriage work. Through getting to know them he would develop a deeper understanding of me. He would also get to meet some of my extended family, which would offer him a glimpse of the type of gatherings he’d be a part of once we married.

I imagined that on Thanksgiving Day I would be in the kitchen helping my mother prepare the stuffing and candied yams while my father and my fiancé would watch football on the large-screen television in the basement.

At some point after the meal, my mother would pull out my baby album and be sure to show my fiancé the 1960s Polaroid snapshot of me wearing nothing but a smile on a miniature bear skin rug. She’d regale him with stories about what a champ I was at filling up my diaper to indicate how pampered and well fed I was, and my penchant for sending my glass baby bottles crashing to the kitchen floor from my high chair once I’d finished with them.

But the week of Thanksgiving, my father came down with a cold. My mother insisted that he stay in bed and only get up when Thanksgiving dinner was served–so much for my father and my fiancé bonding over football.  My fiancé had to cheer on his favorite teams by himself.

A cousin and aunt joined us for the meal. Afterward, we women gathered in the kitchen for pumpkin streusel, coffee, and an intense discussion about the decisions that needed to be made about one of my aunts being considered for hospice care. By the time the conversation ended, the football games were over.  I went looking for my fiancé. I feared he was bored, wishing he had stayed home. I thought he might feel that I wasn’t being a good hostess.

He wasn’t in the basement. The lights and television were off. I jogged up the stairs to the second floor and found him there in my old room. He was stretched out on my bed, his brow in a knot as he read the pages of a book. He’d taken his glasses off and held the tip of one arm between pursed lips.

“Are you okay?” I asked softly.

He peered up at me over the top of the book. I moved in closer to see what it was, a soft-cover volume, The Book of Psalms. My fiancé’s eyes were wide like those of a child who’d just discovered where all the Christmas presents were hidden.

“Can I borrow this?” he said, urgency in his voice.

I looked around him. The bed was littered with books. My books. He’d discovered them in my headboard that doubled as a bookcase.

They were all books I had read when I was in high school. I hadn’t thought about them in years.  It turns out that he thought they were refreshing, a treasure trove into my past. The Art of Shyness, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I Can Do Anything Career Book for Girls were among them. Through the yellowed pages he discovered the shy, socially awkward teenager who spent long weekend hours with books that provided her with an escape, that helped her understand the world around her, that guided her as she explored the career possibilities she would pursue in the not-too-distant future. Through my old books, my fiancé got to know me as the girl whose passion for reading would grow into a passion for writing. He got to know me that Thanksgiving Day on a level that months of dating couldn’t have accomplished.

We stayed up late into the night, lounging on my bed, books all about us, and talking– not about family or wedding details, houses or bank accounts–but about books.
 
Lisa Braxton, a native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. She is the immediate past president of the Women’s National Book Association/Boston Chapter and an Emmy-nominated journalist. She is a former television news anchor and reporter and spent her television career at stations in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. She is also a former newspaper reporter and radio reporter. She currently lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area. Lisa has been published in numerous literary journals, including Snake Nation Review, Foliate Oak, Meetinghouse: A Journal of New England Fiction, and Clockhouse Review.
* * *
The Fetish
By Gina DeLorenzo
 
I want the world to go away. She dances under my bedroom window every night. Some nights she’s more roused than others. I know that others can see her, and I want the rest of the world to go away. I want her to dance only for me, but I realize that’s impossible. Yet I find some comfort in the fact that they love her in a pure, non-carnal way. Unlike myself, you see. I love her so impurely that it borders on obscene. Some would say it is obscene...this love I have for her. Sadly, they would say it’s obscene only because of who I am, and what she is.

There must have been a full moon the night it first began, although I’m not certain. Lying in bed, enduring yet another sleepless night, I found it odd that my bedroom was so illuminated, it seemed as if fifty invisible candles were burning.

Tossing and turning, thinking and hoping. Hoping to just close my eyes and fall asleep. My memories taking me back to when I was a small child. I was such a peaceful sleeper that I would awake in the morning in the same position that I fell asleep in. Nine or ten hours of undisturbed sleep later, I would rise, with a smile on my face and full recollection of my dreams. Wonderful, colorful dreams of running through blossom-studded fields and then spreading my arms and soaring ten feet off the ground. And then there were the trees. I always dreamt of trees as a child. Climbing and more climbing. The trees of my dreams surged one hundred feet or more into the sky, and I scaled them with ease, feeling every inch of the rough bark on my bare soles. I would sometimes awaken with tiny cuts on the bottom of my feet, but I would convince myself they were caused from walking around the yard barefoot. 

All I was left with now were sleepless nights and yearnings. I yearned, yet did not know for what. That’s the thing that tortured me the most. For how could I fulfill my desire when I did not know what I desired? The answer came to me that freezing, end of March-night. I desired her. It was a yearning that I had to fulfill. 

There she was. She spoke to me without words. Danced for me without music. Reached for me without arms. Right there outside my bedroom window. The light of the moon frolicked on her limbs. Every reflected beam was like a wink across a room intended for a soon-to-be lover. The dance she danced was so slight yet so sensual. Barely moving yet it was a wild dance. She danced only for me, it seemed. Surely many other men had been attracted to her before me, I presumed. Yet in my mind, I and I alone deserved her. They all had their normal, sleep-filled lives. Perhaps most were married, in love, had children. They did not need her or want her the way I did. Therefore, she had to be mine.

In the realization of my fetish, I felt so sick and abnormal. How could I lust after her? Although I had read nothing describing my adoration of her as a fetish, I wanted to wear this branding...this badge of having a fetish, around my neck for the rest of my life. Like a pyromaniac or a pedophile, I justified it. The yearning was so strong that I had to give in. I justified it by thinking that I wasn’t hurting anyone. For in my lust for her, she would not be hurt. She could feel no physical or psychological pain, you see.

So there I lay. Every shimmy and quiver she made compelled the moonlight to blink off my window. I could hear the wind whispering, but it sounded as if she was moaning. I wished it were true, and therefore, it was. One thing I knew for sure was that the yearning was mutual. In my mind, at least, she wanted me just as much as I wanted her. 

I didn’t fall asleep that night until the sun began to rise and night turned into day. Once the sun began to twinkle onto her limbs, she seemed like a child to me. Off-limits to my sick fetish. I would not, and could not, subject her to my compulsion in the daylight. She would have to be my night lover only, for my desire waned once the sun ascended into the sky.

A few evenings later, and hours before our imminent consummation, my breathing became deep and almost guttural. Pacing around, and long, ice-cold showers that numbed my fingertips and toes could not put an end to my arousal. Nightfall could not come fast enough. If given the option, I would have gladly forsaken the sun forever, if only the twilight would arrive immediately.

Mother nature was my cohort that night. Although according to the calendar, spring officially began days before, it was a bitterly cold end of March evening that entered the record books. This hopefully ensured virtually empty sidewalks and streets. I wore a dark-blue cashmere pullover with nothing underneath, and a pair of overly-worn, soft as felt, button-fly jeans. My fingers quivered so much that it took me more than ten minutes to fasten all the buttons. I theorized that this was the least amount of clothing I could get away with, given the temperature, without seeming downright loony if spotted on the street by a passerby.

Making my way down the corridor of my building toward the door leading outside at 3:15 A.M., I didn’t even know what I would do, exactly, once I got to her. Like a mother reaching out to hold her newborn baby, still covered in greasy vernix, or a fly committing suicide in a bowl of scrumptious syrup, I just knew that my actions would come naturally. Without thought, planning or consequence, and definitely with the promise of pure bliss.

Once outside, I immediately spotted her. 
Her long, naked branches resembled the limbs of an unusually lanky, angelic looking young girl, undoubtedly destined to become a fashion model. I took a quick glance upwards and to my right to look at my bedroom window. Until then, I had only pined over her through that glass pane, thirty feet above. A quick roll of my eyes, left, then right, established the fact that the sidewalk was devoid of people. As I approached, a short and frigid burst of wind bent one of her lower limbs downward and I was instantly overwhelmed with desire, as it was apparent that she was eagerly reaching down towards me.

I rubbed the back of my right hand gently across the lower part of her trunk. Her bark was gorgeously caramel-colored and rough. How on earth, I asked myself, could any man, including myself, ever have been turned on by moist, smooth flesh, or warm, wet kisses? At this second, a human woman’s warm, soft flesh seemed as repulsive as the bloody side of a freshly stripped piece of animal skin, and human female lips, like two plump, pink maggots. 

Her dark, hard roughness added a welcome sensation to my mushy cold skin. In one smooth downward motion, my hand turned around so that my palm was now caressing her. After several seconds, my left hand came up and wrapped around her waist, which was slim and couldn’t have been more than seventy centimeters around. Holding on tight, I pulled myself close to her and pressed my chest into her lovely brown bark. The delicate fibers of the cashmere locked into the jagged furrows of her body. I could not detach myself from her even if I wanted to, it seemed, for each and every minuscule curl of goat wool had latched itself onto her tiny jutted bark imperfections. 

In my newly twisted psyche, she was a warm-blooded, breathing, panting being. I turned my head and pressed my left cheek into her. Like a child making bark rubbings with tracing paper and pencil, I pressed long and hard until I was sure an impression was made onto my flesh. Our embrace lasted five to six minutes and it was enough to seal our love.

My lover is a Honey Locust. Deciduous by nature, our affair began that cold, end of March night, when she was still in her bare stage. As I made my way back to the entrance of my building that night, I became quite giddy with the thought of what striking beauty she would present to me in the warmth of spring, when her light green buds would burst forth and tease me with every night-time rustle, seemingly whispering my name. I was sure it would be— and it was—intoxicating.​
Gina DeLorenzo is an almost-50 year old native New Yorker, born and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan. She loves to write, cook, and hang out with her son, Angelo, and dog, Shadow.  Gina is a kidney transplant recipient and believes that positive thoughts lead to positive actions and outcomes.
* * *
The Test
By Leighanne Ellenson
 
“Bennet, Hannah!” The voice was called out through the full waiting room from one of the nurses shielded behind plexi-glass windows. A hand squeezed hers tightly and she pulled away from it, not looking at the person that tried to comfort her. She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then went into the back hallway, looking for the door she’d gone to three months prior, all to be told that she would have to wait. She knocked on the heavy wooden door and it opened a moment later.

The older woman that had opened the door looked down at the waif of a girl, barely old enough to even need these services. This appointment had been haunting Hannah for the last three months and every day of it showed on her face. “Good morning, Mrs. Bennett.” She tried to speak as calmly as she could, tried to hold back her own hope and worry for Hannah’s test.

“Dr. Hall,” Hannah greeted, forcing a smile that came out as more of a grimace. Dr. Hall moved back and Hannah stepped into the office, sitting in the stiff-backed chair that the clinic provided. Dr. Hall busied herself with going through cabinets, pulling out a small white package, about the size of a small book, then gloves. The gloves were blue, the thick kind that was hard to rip. The ones that she’d seen other doctors use with other people that could have diseases. The gloves practically screamed, ‘infected,’ at her, so Hannah looked away from them.

Dr. Hall opened the package by ripping down the ‘tear here’ line and set the two tests out on the movable tray. She rolled it to Hannah, the package still on the table. The blue words, “HIV -1/2 Antibody Test,” were bare for the entire room to see. “Open your mouth, dear,” Dr. Hall requested. Hannah licked her lips and opened her mouth, watching Dr. Hall. A blue glove lifted a white stick. It looked like a pregnancy test to Hannah, but the results were more permanent with this stick. Hannah felt the thin end of the test scraping against her gums and cheeks, so she closed her eyes. The first one was removed and then the second stick replaced it, sampling from the other side of her mouth. When she felt it leave her mouth, she curled up in the chair, her part done.

“How long?” She spoke quietly, wrapping her arms around her legs. She looked up at Dr. Hall, but the woman was just staring at the tests that she had put into little vials of a solution.

“Twenty minutes. There will be a line beside the C on both, that’s the control line. It’s normal. The T-line is the one that shows the results. If the T-line appears...”

“I know,” Hannah nodded, cutting her off. She looked down at her watch and watched the slim hands move in the circle, a gift from the same man that had put a ring on her finger. The same man that sat in the waiting room, waiting to see if he had infected her with the disease he swore he hadn’t known about. The second hand slowed, then stopped completely.
Leighanne Ellenson is a Junior at UAM and is currently seeking a Bachelors degree in English with a concentration in creative writing.
* * *
Buddy
By Grant Flint
Finally I am taken through a huge, high-ceilinged lobby to a cell on the back wall, cell number eight. I have a cellmate.  “My name is ‘Tank,'” he says.

"Tank?" I repeat.

"Tank."

He looks somewhat like his name. Rusting, not oiled for a long time. He sits Buddha-like on the top bunk. The door clanks shut. The cell is small, 8 feet by 11 feet, contains a desk, chair, a steel-screened opaque window, a sink and open toilet in one corner.

"Hope you don't mind if I use the bottom bunk a while," I say. "I got this bum knee. Operation."

"I always have the upper bunk," my cellmate says. "It’s what I want, upper bunk."

Tank doesn't say much after that. Would say nothing ever, I guess, if not spoken to. 37. Second oldest inmate in here, he says, now that I’m here. He’s half my age. Ponytail, broad face, pig eyes, huge acne scars on the sides of his throat. A big man, inches over 6 feet, about 240 pounds. Looks like a former bodybuilder gone to fat, but retaining the narrow waist and enormous shoulders. T-shaped body.
Tank belches, breaks air, later slurps his food, snores atrociously and constantly, sleeps 20 to 22 hours a day, groans, suffers terribly from acid reflux, belching like death after any food intake. When he turns desperately to find a new position on the upper bunk with its minuscule mattress, it sounds like a giant turning over in "Jack and the Beanstalk."

"Excuse me," he says after every belch, every windbreak. "'Excus’ me... Excus’ me’." He is very stern, very polite. I begin to hope the man will one day forget to say the "Excus’ me." As is, I don't know whether to remain silent, or say "That's okay" or "Forget about it." Not knowing how to respond, sometimes I merely say imperceptibly, "Uh huh."

"Breakfast," Tank says when the light comes on from outside control at 5 a.m.  Tank jumps down from the upper bunk, terrible kaplunk, is efficiently at the door when it is unlocked. He brings the dual servings of juice, oatmeal, milk, bananas on a tray for both of us.
"316 days," Tank says, pointing to the calendar on the desk. Each day has a number on it. "Waiting for my trial."

"Trial," I say.

Tank nods, offers no more.

I volunteer why I’m here. Simple assault.

"That's one count," Tank says. "I got five counts. Only the first one true. The other four -- lies."

I struggle to find a way to sleep. Right side -- sore hip. Left side--

"Assault," Tank says. "Everybody in this module is assault. They don't let us go nowhere else. This is assault. This -- we –- we’re physical harm -- not white-collar crime, that stuff. This is bodily harm.  "My brother’s in prison," Tank says. "My uncle’s in prison. My stepfather was in prison, dope addict. My best friend is doing my fiancé. They got a restraining order out on me about her. She's a liar. Her psychologist will testify to that. If I can get my so-called lawyer to subpoena her. And my dog is dying. Buddy. Buddy’s dying. You see his picture on the mirror?"

"Yes. Nice-looking doggie. Very intelligent eyes."

"That Buddy, you know? He couldn't stand my hollering at Virginia. My fiancé? Or anybody. He’d run out the room, get on my bed, stay there. And I would apologize. I'd come in there later and say, ‘It's all right, Buddy. I'm not mad at you. Never."

"Good dog."

"Only he's 14. 14 years old. Gray startin’ on his chin, chin whiskers, you know? 10 months since I've seen him. That's the worst part. He’s getting old, you know? Dogs don't live too long. 14. That's the worst part. Bein’ here, not seeing Buddy. 10 months. He’s gettin’ old. That's the worst part."

Breakfast at 5 a.m., lunch at 11:30, dinner at 5:30 p.m., no wristwatch, but Tank knows the times. Meal slurped down ravenously. Plain, balanced food. Corn bread, beans, a pear, four slices of bread, cheese slices, baloney. Perfectly balanced and plain. Devoured silently in five minutes, Tank at the desk, me on the edge of my bunk, ducking the top bunk.

"Excuse me," Tank says as the food hits his tortured stomach, enormous belch. Sometimes a belch and windbreak like an echo. "'cuse me’."

"Uh huh," I mutter faintly. How do you respond to incidents occurring 100 times a day? And night.

"Free time," a deputy sheriff says dismally, opening the cell door. 

Locked in the cell is safe to me. Except for Tank, whoever Tank is. But "free-time," an hour in the morning, hour in the afternoon, is dangerous. A relief from monotony, but dangerous.

"Not me," Tank says. "I don't go out there. I'm different. I'm not like them. You -- you're different, too."

"Yeah -- I guess," I say. "I guess so. Hope so."

I welcome, look forward, to each "free-time." But as eagerly welcome the safety, it seems, comparative safety of the cell. 21 and a half of the 24 hours here in the cell. Locked in. But the assaulters are locked out. Except for Tank.

Urinating is difficult. In front of another human being. I attempt to do this only when Tank is asleep, shrouded up there in his sheet on the top bunk, ghost, mummy, asleep most of the time.

"That's how I do my time," Tank says. "I learned to do it. Sleep."

Tank opens up on the second night. It is about his dog, "Buddy.  He's more than human," Tank says. "He's better than any human, anybody. He loves me. He always loves me. He forgives me, never is cruel. Never lies. Not like people. I can't stand lies."

"I know," I say. "I had a dog who was like that, better than anyone. Any human. When I was a kid. She got run over. Changed me. I've never been the same since. Can't love like that again."

"That's right," Tank says.

"Even my mother knew I loved that dog more than anything. She made my dog get out of the car, 50 miles from home. Was car sick. My dog. I begged my mother not to leave her."

"Yeah," Tank says. His voice is different now. Not that tough sound, not cold.

"Only she made it home," I say. "My doggy. 50 miles. Three days. Paws all cut up. I loved her more than any person, any human. Then or now."

"Yeah," Tank says. He is there on the upper bunk. "Dogs don't lie. Buddy never lied."

"People lie," I say.

"Yeah."

"I used to call it 'the people game'," I say. "My grandma would say nice things to the person who was visiting. And then when they were gone, she would tell how worthless that person was. It was mean to do that. A bad game."

"Dogs don't do that," Tank says. "My Buddy -- he's the best. I just hope I can get out, see him, before he dies. He's 14, you know."

"Some dogs live long," I said. "17? 18? Even more."

"You think so?"

"Oh, yeah. You'll get to see Buddy. And he'll be so glad to see you! Won't that be great?"

"Yeah." Tank’s voice is soft now. Tears in his voice. "Well --" he says -- "I might not get out. I hope so, I hope I get out. Soon. But I'm in trouble. It's worse now, after 10 months. They put a restraining order on me. Can’t call my fiancé anymore."

"-- So -- that must be really tough," I say. "10 months here. And now you can’t talk to her."

"Only I got to get it ‘rescinded', the restraining order. Or, even if I get out of here, and they only get me for the first count, and my time here already would pay for that -- even if I get out, I can't go home. Because of that restraining order. That's my only home. I'd be homeless."

"Oh now. That's really tough."

"And my best friend? So-called friend? He's doing Virginia. My fiancé? Right now. I mean I can't blame her so much, she has to do whoever is paying the bills, and he is now. And he visits me here once a week. He's not restrained by that order? He brings money for me, some, so I can buy stuff from the commissary. Thursday nights. Candy bars, tums, stuff like that."

"And Buddy? Buddy is with them?"

"Yeah. They treat him okay, Buddy. Send me pictures. They put him on a new dog food. For old dogs? Trouble with digestion? They did that."

"Buddy will be so glad to see you."

"He will. If I can just get outta this place. My trial’s next month. And they been putting it off, over and over. All this 10 months."

"How come?"

"Well -- I won't cooperate. I'll only cop to that first charge. Not the other four. I did the first one, banged her around a little. But the nosebleed was from her high blood pressure."

"So -- what happens in October? Next month? You said the trial’s next month.”

"Maybe. He wants me, that bastard D.A. wants me to confess to all five counts, says it will only be three years. Plea bargain. Three years! I can’t do that. That's prison. Real prison. I'm afraid of prison. I'll get hurt. And Buddy. Buddy can't wait that long."

"So -- if you don't accept the three years --"

"He, that bastard D.A. says I'll get five or eight. He wants me off the street…

"What’d you do? The assault?" he suddenly asks me.

"Do? To be here? Somebody picked on me. I was half asleep and on painkillers. I ended up hitting him. But the wrong man."

"Pain killers? Half asleep," Tank asked. "But lots of people are on painkillers. Or half asleep. But they don't do assault."

"You're smart," I said. "You know what? You're right. I had a head of steam build up over the years -- of taking it. And then, all at once, it was too much. You're right," I said.

"Take responsibility," Tank said. "That's what I learned. Take responsibility."

"You're smart. I see it. I had that pressure built up. It wasn't the painkillers or anything else."

"Yeah, I learned that. I did charge one, I admit that. That's a year time, I've done my year time, right here. Ouch!"

"What happened?" I asked.

"Hear that pop?"

"Yeah, maybe."

“That's my trick elbow. I brought it down hard on a guy’s head one time, ended that problem -- But now I got a trick elbow. Also my back -- fell off a ladder, broke two vertebrae. No money for a doctor. So they fused on their own, the vertebrae. And now I got sciatica. And my fist? My right fist?"

"Yeah?"

"Arthritis. I slugged a guy. Broke all the knuckles on my right hand. See?"  He hung it down over the bunk so I could see it.

"Wow.”

"Can't close my fist all the way anymore."

"That's rough, man."

"I gained 40 pounds in here. In 10 months? Too much candy on the side, no exercise. Want a Life Saver?"

"Thanks."

"Yeah, I've been to trial before."

"You have?"

"Yeah," Tank said. "Helped the lawyer pick the jury. And I testified. Child molestation."

"Wow."

"Yeah. And the jury came in. 11 to one, for me. Believed me. Then, all 12. Know what I did?"

"What?"

"I broke down and cried. Right there. And my attorney, that public defender?"

"Yeah?"

"She did a little jig right there. Her first big case. And we won. I testified."

"Maybe you should testify this time, too."

"Yeah. If my screwed-up lawyer lets me. What an idiot. So far he's done everything wrong. And my family?"

“Yes.”

"They all deserted me. Won't have anything to do with me."

"But you got Buddy."

"Yes. Buddy. If he'll just stay alive."

"He will. He's got plenty of years left. You'll be together."

"You think so?" Trembling voice.  Tears, quiet sob, on the bunk up there.

We are more alike than different, Tank and me. Both of us had a dog better than people. Both hated the lying, the game, the people game. Both vulnerable, wanting to love the world, people, as much as Buddy. And my own dog lost so long ago.

That night, Thursday night, I went over Tank’s case with him, strategies, how to handle the D.A. And once again, the last time it turned out to be, we talked of Buddy. And Tank cried like a child -- "Maybe I'll never get to see Buddy again."

"You will,” I said. "You will."

The next day, Friday, at 5 a.m., breakfast time, the light came on. Tank and I struggled up to get the food, the deputy opened the door -- "Your lucky day," he said to me. "You're goin’ home. Get your bedding. Hurry up."

"Hey, pal," I said quickly to Tank. "You're the best, man." I touched his shoulder. "You're a good man. You'll get out of here. You'll get to see Buddy."

"Thank you," Hank said. "I hope so."

"Be thinking of you, pal," I said, clutching the huge armful of bedding. "Say hello to Buddy. So long."

Four days and nights over in one minute.

They gave me back my street clothes and a bus and BART ticket to get home, and released me through the three sets of doors until I was out in the pre-dawn fresh air.

The bus driver let me ride even though the pass was for another line. And there was a black man with a briefcase on BART, reading his newspaper. I cherished both of them, wanted to rush up and tell them, because they were good man, I could feel it, safe, sound, good men, and it was so good to feel it.

From BART I walked the mile home as the sun rose. It was beautiful to be out this time of day.

But I didn't feel free yet. Tank wasn't free. There was an old dog, Buddy, waiting out there somewhere. Tank would be lying on the top bunk about now, sleeping to pass the time. Dreaming of Buddy.
 
Grant Flint has been published in Story Quarterly, The Nation, The King’s English, Poetry, Weber, The Courtland Review, The Sun, Slow Trains, Northwind, and 37 other print and online journals. He won the memoir prize in the 2007 "Soul Making Literary Contest," was published in the 2007 "Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition Collection,” and nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. He has been writing for 60 years, does stand-up comedy, composes jazz on the keyboard, and meets wonderful women in the personal ads. His seven E-books are on Amazon.
* * *
Sweet Land of Liberty
By Paul Germano
 
Davey stood in the center of the family room, his arms down at his side, waiting patiently for the full attention of his brothers. 

Don and Dennis laid their sticks on the pool table, then plopped down hard on the sofa, making Doug bounce just a little. Doug shifted his weight, but remained focused on his magazine. Dennis elbowed Doug, who grumbled “wait a minute” and continued reading the Sports Illustrated article until he reached the end of the page. Then he dropped the magazine to the floor.

All eyes were now on Davey. “Okay, go ahead little man,” Don said. Davey cleared his throat, smiled nervously and started to sing. “My-y-y-y country ...”  

When he finished singing, he said “thank you” and took an exaggerated bow. All three of his brothers politely applauded Davey’s rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee,” even though he sang it too fast, mumbled many of the words and was mostly off-key. 

“Good job,” Don said. “Yeah, good job,” Dennis echoed. “Excellent,” Doug chimed in.

Davey stood there, a smile stretching across his little face. “It’s a good song, huh guys, a real good song.” Davey felt so proud. “It’s all about America. We learnt it in school. Ms. Nancy, she taught it to us. She’s our music teacher.” He leaned forward like he was about to divulge a big secret. “Y’know what? Her first name is Nancy. She’s got a real long last name. That’s because she got married; so now she’s got two last names and it’s really, really long. It’s like this long,” he said, extending his arms to illustrate his point. “So that’s why she lets us call her Ms. Nancy. She’s real nice. And pretty too. She’s not our regular teacher, just music. It’s lots of fun. Sometimes when the whole class is singing, she starts flinging her arms all over the place; she calls it conducting.” 

Doug hooted. “Oh yeah, like this,” he said, moving his arms around like a conductor. “Yeah, just like that,” Davey said. “And y’know what else guys, when she’s doing her conducting, sometimes she raises her arms so high, you can see the slip that’s under her dress. Yesterday she had the leopard slip on again. She wears that one a lot. It’s cool. It’s got leopard spots on it just like the leopards at the zoo.” 

The three brothers eyed each other. “Leopard slip,” Don said in a half-whisper. 

“Sounds like little Davey‘s getting himself quite an education,” Dennis said with a sinister laugh, turning to high-five Doug on his left, then Don on his right. Doug let out a hoot and Don and Dennis joined in, getting a good laugh going. 

“Yeah, that’s pretty funny, huh guys,” Davey said, even though he didn’t see what was so funny about Ms. Nancy’s slip showing. But he figured it must be funny if his brothers were laughing, so he laughed too.

“Okay, show’s over,” Don announced, jumping up from the sofa. “C’mon bro’,” he said, motioning Dennis to follow him over to the pool table. “The couch is all yours Dougster,” Don said. Doug fidgeted to get himself back into a comfortable reading position.

Davey, still standing in the center of the room, waited patiently for Don to take his shot and then said: “Hey Don, I got a question. What does ‘tisafee’ mean?” Don turned around, the pool stick still in his hand. “Huh? Say what?” 

“Y’know, ‘tisafee,’ from the song, ‘My Country Tisafee’,” Davey said. Dennis made a face and walked around the pool table so that he was standing right next to Don. “What did he say?” Dennis asked. Doug set down his Sports Illustrated and sat up straight. All eyes were on Davey.

Davey was exasperated. “So, what’s a tisafee? Is that what they called America back in George Washington’s time? Or is it like a happy feeling or something else?"

Don and Dennis eyed each other. “Tisafee don’t mean squat,” Dennis snorted. Doug slapped at his knee. “Oh boy!” he shouted. Don shook his head. “You little dope, it’s not tisafee, it’s tis of thee. Tisafee isn’t even a word!”

Davey got defensive, throwing his arms back. “Well it sure sounded like a word when Ms. Nancy was teaching it to us. And that’s how it sounded when the whole class sung it at school!”

Don, now leaning on his pool stick, shook his head. “No, what she was saying was tis of thee. It’s three words dummy, tis of thee.” 

“Tisa three?” Davey whispered.

“No! Not three!” Don shouted. “The word is thee!” Davey’s eyes blinked rapidly. 

“Didn’t mean to yell,” Don said in a normal-volume voice. “It’s tis of thee,” he said, stretching out the words. “Tis of thee, got it?”

Davey scowled, scratched at his head, then said “oh” as if he understood. But he didn’t understand. Tis of thee didn’t make any more sense to him than tisafee. He knew “of” was a word, but he never heard anyone say “tis” or “thee.” But at least his brothers had  stopped laughing. Then Doug had to go and open his big mouth.

“Oh boy, tisafee, that’s a good one,” Doug hooted. “We gotta tell Mom and Dad that one, they’ll ll get a big kick out of it.” Again, Doug slapped at his knee, hooting with laughter and egging Don and Dennis to join in, which they did.

Davey looked down at his shoes. They were all laughing at him. He was so embarrassed he felt like crying. So he pressed his lips together real hard so he wouldn’t cry. And it worked. He didn’t dare ask them anything else. They had laughed about tisafee, so he knew they’d laugh even more if he said he still didn’t know what tis of thee meant. So he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t about to let his brothers make him feel stupid twice on the same day.
Paul Germano lives in Syracuse, NY; with his dog April, a strong, muscular and lovable pit bull. Germano’s fiction (flash and otherwise) has been published in roughly 25 print and online magazines including the Journal of Microliterature, Marco Polo, the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette and the Vestal Review.
* * *
Stardom
By Charles Haddox
 
Two narrow windows gaze out on the sameness of Kearny, year after year, the stale ironing, soiled screens to keep pigeons out of roof joists, bird nests peeking through broken windows, and the spider’s swift weaving industry in abandoned doorways.  The apartment smells like the chicken soup that Desi served her daughter, along with dollar store saltines, for dinner.  Yellow label on the can.  Yellow label on the box.  A noodle in her daughter’s hair.  Six months ago Desi was playing with a band at venues all over town.  The band ended when her bassist committed suicide.  Now she’s folded in on herself, a bird of darkness in her disorderly mechanic’s sweater.  She’s trying to puff the smoke from a cigarette out an open window, but the breeze blows it back on her.  The windowsill is her ashtray.  Her black bangs need trimming.  Night falls with the hour reckoned by the chime of a nearby church; outside her window a bridge stained with dying shadows, knife-wide against a weakening sky, rumbles with traffic headed for Happy Hour.  An amber gravid moon floats on the varnished bay.

No one will play with her because of a drunken incident at The Black Box that took place a short while after the suicide, during a set by a power metal band from out of town, who happened to be singing about lovers that were buried alive at the moment she decided to rage.  She laid a beating on one of her girlfriends and took one from the cops.  I want to blame it on the Jäger.  She almost had her three year-old daughter taken away, and she’s still on probation.  The bassist was probably the father of her kid.  Desi assaulted a friend and a cop, a major altercation in a tight venue, one last decisive screw-up in a whole string of implosions after the suicide.  She vomited all over herself in the back of a patrol car.  When they got to the annex, she wouldn’t take her shoes off at the intake desk, and ended up in an administrative unit instead of general holding on a Saturday night.  Singers and musicians who were jealous of her saw the chance to shove her out the door. 

     Drink with me in a revelation,

     your cheap soap smells like wine.

     Take me to a foreign nation,

     the purlieus of your mind.

Now she works part-time at an Italian place populated by hipsters and frat boys from the university, pack animals who have no idea how to tip, who make comments about her body and what they’d do to her in bed, as they unwittingly munch on pizza garnished with her congealed sea-foam spit.  Before the bassist killed himself the band was on the way to making it big.

The apartment looks surprisingly tidy compared to the state of her life.  We sit together on a couch drinking coffee.  It’s one of those flavored coffees that taste like flat cream soda.  Six months ago it would have been tequila.  Her couch looks like something you’d find in the alley behind Goodwill; the smell of piss combines with chicken soup to create a bitter bouquet.  The upholstery is so badly stained that it’s almost impossible to tell the original color.  Mayonnaise white, I’m guessing.  Or maybe a hopeful almond.  The table lamp with a blue glass shade flickers a little, reminding me of maize leaves rustling or water in the sun.  The pizza job pays for rent and gas, but she struggles to feed her child and pay the premium on her state health insurance plan. 

“The only way I can feed her is to only eat once or twice a day myself.”

The color of her skin has gone from cream to yellow.  She’s wearing a thin red undershirt under the coal mechanic’s sweater, which for some reason makes her look even yellower.  I read an article in Psychology Today about some scientists who did a study that “proved” women wear red to signify they want sex.  Right now, Desi looks like she’d be content with an orange or a glass of beer.

Her daughter, Aletta, is sitting on the linoleum floor with crayons and a coloring book.  Instead of coloring the pictures she scribbles on them.  The edges of her scrawls are marking the linoleum.  The crayons make her little hands smell like lighter fluid.  She’s been eating the tips, and flecks of color stain her teeth.

Desi and I worked together at a bar before her short-lived rise to fame as a local singer.  They hired us at The Well even though the two of us were underage.  It was a country-western place, with a house band and a dance floor and pool tables in the back.  We were just friends, but there was a rumor going around that we were an item.  One of the elder bartenders whose whole life was a country song had bought a dozen yellow roses for me to give to her.  Someone took a photo that ended up in a cheap frame behind the bar of the two of us kissing, yellow roses in-between.  The thank-you kiss started the rumors, and it gave us an act we could play to the hilt. 

“Two seven sevens and a rum and coke, my adorable baby,” she would say to me.

“Coming up.  Have I told you how gorgeous your eyes look this evening, perfect princess?”

“Lookin’ pretty fit yourself, boy doll.”

We would retreat to a storeroom where the mix tanks were stored during our break and secretly do shots, emerging a short while later pretending to be out of breath and with disheveled clothes and hair.  Our act gave us plenty of attention, and at one point the manager married us, using the ship captain’s privilege.  All the flattery and games never led to anything real, but at the end of a long shift she would sit on my lap and rest her head on my chest. 

“You smell good,” she would whisper to me, without the audience in attendance.

We both knew the problem.

Desi’s a dime and I’m at best a five.  Desiree Alvarado has long black hair and cruel blue eyes.  Her perfect dancer’s body is the subtle perianth of an orchid.  We’d only be together in a fairy tale. 

She always looked spectacular on stage during her brief singing career, her words hard fragments, her voice a knife of obsidian or flint, belligerent, lacerating, peeling appearances back as it made slow progress through newly-turned clay.  She wore iridescent beads like dragon scales in her hair, and sang barefoot for luck, standing high on tiptoe with tattooed ankles taut and anxious.  Desi the performer was extermination in a brilliant bottle, all of her pain set in the throat.  Her beauty made the instant holy, and underneath the Dionysian frenzy, a sober artist’s calculation, a cold exacting need to make the ritual faultless, the forfeiture of limits absolute, the screams and the tears and rage pitch-perfect, agonizingly apposite, the wrath transformed to skill, desire.

I lean back on the couch.  It’s been a long week.   Under her right eye, at the top of her cheekbone, Desi has a tiny white scar in the shape of a crescent moon.   She once told me that as a child she had fallen off of a wall and struck her face on a metal pipe that was buried in the ground.  The razor-sharp edge of the pipe had cut into her face all the way to the bone.  I used to wonder why she never had the scar repaired.  Desi would just laugh.  She wore her mystic little moon with pride.   In the tentative light of her apartment the scar looks like a teardrop.

“The guy across the hall, the short guy, tried to kill his wife last week.”  Desi bites the fingernail of her pinkie.  “He’ll probably get less community service than me.”

“He didn’t assault a cop.”

“Resisting, not assault.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“From whom?”

“That guy who wears the kilt.”

“Rana?  He wasn’t even there.  Your loser friends better shut up about me.  He can’t even play a d-minor without it sounding like shit.”

“He’s not my friend.  I only see him at shows.  He’s just saying what everyone else is saying.”

“And you’re going around repeating it, too.”

“I defend you.  I can’t control what other people say.”

“Then don’t say it to me.”

“Besides, it wasn’t your first time at the rodeo.”  She has a couple of drug misdemeanors in her past.

“You don’t know me.  You don’t know anything.”

She’s invited me over to ask a favor.  A couple of cases of CDs sit next to her on the couch.  The guy who owns her former band’s label gave her a few dozen copies of their CD, Hired Gun Truce, at no charge, when he heard about her tough circumstances.  He owns a chain of computer repair stores that are doing very well.  The music business is just a hobby. 

Desi wants me to take a case and try to sell them for her.

“What?” I say to her as something moves at the corner of my eye.

“If you can get eight dollars a copy, I’ll be happy.”

Who wants this crap? I’m thinking to myself.

“You’re trying to turn me into a capitalist-roader.”  She doesn’t get the humor.

I could just give her a couple of hundred dollars, but things wouldn’t be right after that.  She’d always feel like I, in one way or another, expected her to pay me back, and that’s not a burden I want her to carry.  She has enough in her life to make her feel guilty and stressed.  Besides, there’s already something toxic between us.

“I’ll see what I can do.  But what happens after that?”

“I’ve got the word out, and ads all over.  I’ll get another gig.”

I could see Desi and her kid ending up like the bass player.  Another American tragedy.  How did she get here?  How did we all get here?

“Can I buy you a drink?”
“What would I do with my girl?  My mom’s out of town.”

For a few seconds I feel like the game that Desi and I used to play in the bar wasn’t a joke; that her daughter could be my kid.  A few more minutes of small talk and I make for the door with the box of CDs.  I want to get away.

“You know, they say CDs are becoming obsolete.  It’s all going to be digital audio files.”

“But vinyl’s also coming back,” she says hopefully.

“For collectors.  That’s why they color the vinyl.  It’s not actually made to be played.”

“You’re an expert.  You’re always the expert.”

A tiny trail of black ants is making its way across the floor, in pursuit of soggy noodles scattered over the linoleum by her daughter.  Too many singers out there—too many bands.  The ants appear out of nowhere and wait until they’re all over you before they sting, as if on signal.  They attack for excitement.  The bassist’s life must have been hell, even with stardom.

I give Desi a hug.  My chest hurts.  Her eyes are defiant.  I realize that even though she’s asking for a favor, and even though I’m one of the only people who’s a part of the scene that will even talk to her, there’s an undercurrent of hostility towards me that comes out almost every time I’m with her.  She’s always civil, and eats up my compliments and encouragement, but I know that underneath it all she actually detests me.  I wish that I could hate her back.  Instead, I just get sour.  I have no idea what I did to deserve her hatred.  I don’t claim innocence.  Sometimes a blameless joke is like stepping on somebody’s heart.  “But you hurt me, and that, I suppose, makes it easy for a man to forget.”  I remember those awful words of the little singer in George MacDonald’s Phantastes.  Underneath all the smiles and politeness, she abhors me.

I want to talk to her, but I know she’ll just deny it.  Nobody ever admits to anything, especially if it puts them even remotely in the wrong.  She used to be one of the popular kids, but now she’s just like me:  passed over.

Chemical messages, the smudged air smells like rain in the indigo false night.  She hugs me back, but it feels as fraudulent as her banter.  I want to leave her with some kind word just to make her feel worse about hating me, but nothing comes to mind.

“Man, you smell so good,” she says to me.   She doesn’t even care enough to waste her venom as she opens the door to let me out into the clangor of the city, half curled up, arms folded, trembling a little in her charcoal-grey sweater, a wasp that’s been poisoned with avermectin, safeguarding her sting for another time.

The echoes of dogs barking through the streets lined with sooty brick apartment buildings, blocks of lighted windows and overhanging iron balconies showing touches of Art Deco and the obsession in the twenties with Moorish design, breaking up the night like glass splinters, cries of abandonment and ache.  Piles of poor-quality Chinese cardboard boxes tossed out on the sidewalks in front of dollar stores look like mining tips waiting to be picked over by scavengers.  The city has installed, at God-knows what cost, trash barrels designed to use solar energy to compact their contents.  The doors on the fronts of the army green boxes only open as wide as a mail box.  The unit on the corner has vomit from a night of celebration covering the silicon patchwork that makes light into energy by handing off electrons.  I stand in the breeze that is driven by the seasonal rains, ash-colored heat lightning erupting all around me, as I stuff the plastic cases, one by one, into the opening that smells like orange peels and tobacco and cheap stale beer.
 
Charles Haddox's work has appeared in a number of literary journals including Folio, The Sierra Nevada Review and The Summerset Review.
* * *
She's So Unusual
By Beppy Huls
 
In my early to mid-teens, I was big into vintage clothing.  I had this one dress that I LOVED.  It was a size 18 – I was a size 8 back then and I’m a size 6 now, no major changing of poundage, they just keep going down over the years to make fat people feel better about themselves.  Yeah, I said it.  Anyway, it was leopard print, zipped up in the front so you could show as much or little cleavage as you desired.  One could image its previous owner with the zipper down all the way to her belly button, eyes caked in charcoal liner, dropping acid with Andy Warhol.  I’m fairly certain I have a picture of it somewhere; I’ll be sure to post it.  So what shoes are worthy of this dress?  What shoes did you picture?  Matching leopard print boots?  Well I didn’t have those.  What I did have was a pair of strappy heels that were of a dark, bronzy hue, with a sort of swirly pattern.  I thought they would go perfect with the dress.

I couldn’t wear it to school.  I was limited to my regulation Mary Catherine Gallagher uniform, and even if I wore it on a “civies day” I would probably end up the subject of ridicule by that clique of total bitches who loved getting laughs at my expense.  Actually, my mother probably would have flat out refused to let me to wear it to school.  I needed an event.  The public school was putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my best friend Eric was part of the lighting crew, so I decided it would be a perfect occasion to debut the outfit.  I asked a boy I liked to go with me and he said no.  Fine, I said, screw it, I’ll go myself.  That righteous anger led to me tarting myself up more than I probably would have if he had said yes.  I put on a ton of makeup, without any real knowledge of how to put on makeup.  This was freshman year, and being without a date or a driver’s license, I had to get a ride from my mother.  I was 14, so we were at odds about pretty much everything, but the two big points of contention were I shouldn’t like boys “like that,” and she didn’t like the way I dressed.  On rare occasions, it was “that is WAY too revealing!” but was mostly, “Beppy, that just looks . . . it looks . . . weird.”  So I came downstairs with my makeup and the leopard dress and the strappy heels and said, “Okay, I’m ready, can we go now?”  The look on her face was priceless.

After a few moments of stunned silence, she asked, "That's what you're wearing to the play?"

I said, with that classic contempt teenagers have for adults, "No, I just put it on 5 minutes before we left so I could change out of it."

My mother's eyes narrowed. "You're not going anywhere with that attitude, Missy."

"Okay, I'm sorry, can we go? We're gonna be late."

She looked me up and down with confusion and disapproval, and stopped at my feet.

"You don't have other shoes?"

"Not that match this dress."

"But those shoes don't match that dress."

"Well I think they do and I don't have any other shoes, so can we please go?"

She sighed and got her keys.

The car ride was quiet except for the music. My mother has this habit of buying a new CD and then listening to it over and over again in her car until someone - myself, my father, or my brother - can't take it anymore and snaps. That week it was Cyndi Lauper's "She's So Unusual." You almost don't need to get a "best of" CD for her, because almost all of her hits are on that album - Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Time After Time, and that classic little ditty about masturbation, She Bop. I picked up the CD Case and looked at Cyndi's outfit. Her dress was crazy. The skirt was bright red flared out like a Spanish dancer's, its shape kept by layers of pink tulle underneath. The top part was a vintage-looking corset, pink with frilly red lace. Her hair was a bright orange-red mullet, which sounds hideous but it worked on her. She was barefoot except for fishnet stockings, with a pair of red heels lying on the ground next to her as if she had kicked them off so she could dance. I held the CD case up to my mother. "Look, Cyndi Lauper's got a way crazier dress and she seems to be doing all right." She sighed again and kept her eyes on the road. I got out of the car when "All Through the Night" was playing and walked into the school making a point of looking straight ahead and not back at her.

The first thing I did when I got inside was scan the lobby for the boy I liked, like maybe he realized at the last minute that he loved me and was going to come surprise me. I wasn't very rational when it came to boys. I bought my tickets and wandered around the lobby, still visibly upset from my spat with my mother and hiding my face with my hair when I saw some of my middle school bullies that had inspired me to switch to private high school, until a line started to form. My mother's comments had gotten to me more than I liked to admit; I kept staring at my shoes and wondering if other people were staring at them too. Then a sweet looking old lady with a long skirt and a cross around her neck got in line behind me.

"Dear," she said, "I just have to tell you I love your outfit."

That was the last thing I had expected to hear from anyone. It caught me off guard. "Uh, thanks," I stammered. I thought her compliment was odd in light of my mother's disapproval, but the next thing she said astounded me even further.

"And I love those shoes! Those are the perfect shoes for that dress." I just stood there and stared at her for a few seconds. She asked me if I was all right and I mumbled something about my mother not liking them, and she said again that she thought my shoes matched my dress perfectly. Once I got over the initial shock, I smiled and thanked her again. This would be a great story to tell my mother, I thought - as long as I could get her to believe me.

Fast forward a few months. It was summer and I was working at my father's law firm, moving boxes in the basement for $6.00 an hour, when I felt a sharp pain in my lower abdomen. I told myself it was just gas, but when I woke up the next morning the pain was excruciating and the area looked bruised and swollen. So I went in for a sonogram and they found a cyst the size of a grapefruit on my right ovary. Awesome. The next week I had it surgically removed and had to stay hospitalized for the next 24 hours (I got zero sleep, lying there thinking "somebody died in this bed"). The day after the surgery, Eric and my other friend James came to visit. We goofed around and took funny pictures and they left. I was alone with my mother, watching TV, when a sweet looking old lady with a long skirt and a cross around her neck entered the room.

"Hello," she said, "are you Beppy?"

"Yes, that's me," I said, trying to figure out where I had seen her before.

"I'm Sister Rosemary. I'm here to bring you Communion." (Contemporary nuns don’t usually wear the habit outside of the Abbey.)  My mother must have listed me as Catholic on some form when I was admitted. I thought it strange that someone would come to bring me Communion on a Friday, but I guess they just did that with all the Catholic patients. She asked me what church I went to, and when I told her, she said, "Oh, do you know Eric Greene?"

I let out a laugh of surprise and stopped abruptly when it hurt. "He's my best friend! He was here; you just missed him!"

It turned out she was an old friend of the Greene family, and had known Eric "since his mother was crying because she couldn't get pregnant with him."

"Do you go to his high school, then?" she asked.

As I was telling her I went to an all-girls Catholic school, I suddenly realized where I had seen her before. "Did you go see 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Eric’s school?"

"Why yes, I did. Eric was -"

"doing the lighting," we said in unison.

"You were next to me in line! You told me how much you liked my outfit and how my shoes matched my dress."

She smiled. "Oh, of course, you had on that leopard print dress with the strappy heels. Well isn't that something?"

"It sure is," I said. "You know that was exactly what I needed to hear that night. I had just gotten into it with my mother about how she didn't like the outfit and especially didn't think the shoes matched my dress." At this point I had sort of forgotten my mother was in the room, until Sister Rosemary turned and looked at her.

My mother, looking embarrassed, sighed and said, "She's my little Cyndi Lauper, I guess."

"Ha," I thought. "I win." After that, my mother still complained about my outfits from time to time, but not nearly as much as before. Oh, and ten years later I found out that boy I liked was gay.
 
Beppy Huls An administrative assistant by day, Beppy Huls enjoys both reminiscing about past "adventures" and looking for new ones to write about. She lives in Overland Park, KS with her husband, dog, and two cats.
* * *
Strike Not
By Scott Jones

Las esperanzas engordan pero no maintienen.  Hope fattens, but it doesn't keep you alive.

It turned noon as David Alvarez raised the roof of the Crusher.  With short little explosive sounds, the Rambler lying in the Crusher’s bed released tension from its new shape, as if it tried to pop its bones back into its joints.  The compressor topped up its pressure, and when the gauge showed right for a fast restart, David turned off the diesel.

He removed his earmuffs and hardhat, and the sound in the air flipped from deadness to singing quiet.  At that moment, in the time between the crush and the removal of the metal block that had been a car, things felt preternaturally frozen.  Then a woman cried out.

They had parked the Crusher in a byway beside the river road, on a tributary that fed down east into the Rio Grande.  The little river carried onlyl snowmelt just now, fast but thin, quick and not yet quiet as it would be in summer.  Cottonwoods stood up shaggy and gray on all sides, the emigrants who had survived in a dry canyon by burrowing their feet into the river. 

They’d lined the trucks up with safety cones laid out front and back.  Mickey Johnstone acted as flagman for traffic that crawled up from the flats far below.  The waiting cars had been sorted into the communal parking lot of a diner across the way, and the crew stacked their auto victims one by on onto the transport semi parked downhill.

The sun held that bright sharpness that cut through with no weight.  The cold air bit at their ears and noses.  Real spring waited for shade; the cottonwoods had just flashed out their first sign of leaves.  Across a wooden bridge and under its own naked trees, an adobe settled into the ground.  The cry had come from the house.

David and the others stared across the stream.  They had all heard it.  They all wondered what trouble a woman had.  The closed windows and doors of the adobe said nothing.

With the Rambler onboard its transport, David broke his crew for lunch.  He gave Frankie five dollars and asked for a burger from the diner.  The men strode stiff legged across the road to their meal, left their boss at the Crusher.  He opened a toolbox in the pickup and fished out a grease gun.  With one eye on the adobe, he sidestepped around the Crusher, greased fittings that didn’t need attention.  He twitched his head, more than he had to, back at the house.

Like most houses on the river road, the adobe bore generational marks, but this one had been scarred by different families come and gone, from folks that had drifted in and then out.  The core of the house stood square, with damaged plaster and a bad roof drain, a canaleja with its boards askew and seams opened.  They had built a lean-to addition out of wood on the upriver side, and a second addition downriver, out of cinder block.  Two vehicles stood in front – A Ram pickup, covered in dust but quite new, and a white Neon, showing its battered fenders and trunk to the road.  The real king of the house, a grey dish for satellite TV, poised on the roof pointing south. 

Before David had worked all the way around the Crusher, the screen door of the adobe banged open and a man strolled out.  He stood beneath the porch and stretched, then ambled into the light.  Taller than six foot, solid-built and big across the shoulders.  He scratched a beard, grey and brown, with a bit of curliness to it.  His eyes lurked behind a beaky nose, concealed under a cap.  The man strode to the truck through the sagging yard gate, opened his door and slid in.  He slammed it behind him, and backed out with a spray of dust.  Within a moment he disappeared down the road towards the Rio Grande.

While waiting for his crew David checked the fluids for the diesel and then unbuttoned the metal cover to an auxiliary pump that had broken down.  His brain wouldn’t leave him alone.  Mierda, the feeling from that house.  Just like before.  A man should do something.  No fix would make it right.  To try?

Resolved, he turned from the pump and marched quick to the bridge, across it and the stream to the driveway of the house.  He slowed past the dead flowers in their tubs on the porch.  Keeping back two respectful steps from the door, he leaned forward and knocked.  No sound from inside – he scuffed his boot on the sand that dusted the porch and then knocked again. 

He barely heard a shuffle, like a whisper or a little prayer.  Someone stood on the other side of the door, waited.  He leaned forward and knocked, soft.  The door crept open; a woman barely revealed, hiding in the gloom.  David squinted to see her in the dark as he stood out on the bright porch.  She held the door half open, with her shoulder and hip behind.

“Hello, I’m the foreman for the crew there.  I know we’ve been making a lot of noise this morning.  I hope it hasn’t disturbed you.”

She inched forward, and the door opened wider.  She stood shorter than David’s height, five and a half feet, and she was thin.  He knew what she could see, a man in coveralls, with a balding, shaved head, big through the shoulders, with the paunch of a middle-aged workman.  He pulled his neck in and ducked his head so he would appear less physical.

“I know it’s noisy, and it will be for awhile more this afternoon.  I hope we haven’t been disturbing you.”  She had long dark hair that lay tangled on the right shoulder, pulled back around from the left side of her face. 

She halfstepped forward and let the door open beside her.  “No, it’s no trouble.  You haven’t bothered us.”  He could see now that no one stood behind her.  He had a chance.

“We don’t often work right beside someone’s house unless they are giving us a car to crush.  I know we can cause some noise and some dust.”

She replied with more of a hum or ahem than actual words.  She lingered back in there, concealed by a dark room.  David wanted a better view of her. 

He knew he appeared bear-like to her, that his mustache hid his face.  He wrinkled his forehead.  “See, we’re required by the Department to let people know who we are, in case there are any complaints or we haven’t cleaned up or something.  Let me leave you my card.  It’s got the number of our office on it.”  He fumbled in his coveralls pocket, came up with his wallet, dug out a business card.

She moved forward to the screen door and opened it a crack.  He inched forward, card extended.  She was white, not only Anglo, but also pale.  Her hair, full and dark, looked unkempt but not dirty.  Her face, without a sign of makeup, drawn, emaciated, and her lips, sad thin lines turned down across her face.

She reached around the edge of the screen door and pinched the card between thin fingers and thumb.  “Thank you.”  Even as she retreated back into the house and closed the screen, David could see her.  Her hair swung back from the right side of her face.  He glimpsed a cheek dark and bruised, and a new red highlight up around the eye.  The door closed.  The lock clicked.

The man in the truck, he must be left handed.

Across the little bridge, he found his crew straggling back from lunch, smoking and laughing together as they crossed the blacktop.  Frankie gave him his burger wrapped in paper, and forty-three cents in change.  He also gave David a quizzical glance.  “So, you were over at the house.  Maybe you were visiting an abularia, no?

“No, just saying hi.”

“David,” said Matt, “I wouldn’t be messing around that house.  In the diner they say que the man there, he is muncho malo.”

“Why did they tell you?”

“We asked.”  The guys gazed down at the ground or away.

“Well, that muncho malo is a big man because he hits women.  I didn’t talk to him, but I saw her, gave her my card.”

“Por qué you would give her your card.  How did you get cards?  You never gave us no card.”

David ignored that.  “It was just to get her to open the door, to see what was going on.  I told her we were required to give out phone numbers if there was a complaint.”

“Sí, like we would help the guys in Santa Fe bust our chops, by wrapping up complaints like presents.  But what about the woman?”

“What about her?”

The men shuffled their feet, gazed down the road.  Matt broke first.  “But, in the diner, they did say that tipo, he does las luchas on her, and nobody will say nothing to him.  They say it’s not their business, but in the diner they all chur talk about the business in that house.”

David stared levelly at Matt, then said, “Well, back to it.  Achaques quire la muerte.”  Their white crew-member Mickey wrinkled his forehead, so David added, “Death needs no excuses – but we will if we don’t get back to work.”

By mid afternoon they had demolished all the cars and loaded them up on transport.  The crew raked up the litter from their crushing.  David stood, hands on his hips, watched the blank face of the adobe.  After some consideration he said to Frankie, “I think I’ll get some water to prime the broke pump.  When you’re done, get Mickey to load the tractor.  I’ll be back before you’re finished.  Then we’ll all go down to the highway yard to park for the night.”  Lame excuse.  Who needed water for a busted pump?

He trudged once again to the adobe’s door and knocked.  Again, she opened it, and again stood back in the shadow, the dark of that house.  David said, “Hi.  I was here earlier.  I wonder if I could trouble you for a bucket of water?  We need to start a pump, and I don’t want to use water from the river because of the sand.”

She let a silence hang between them.  He knew that silence. 

She nodded.  She opened the screen door.  “Ok.  You’d better come in to get it.”  He scuffed his boots on the mat, and then followed her in, into the cuartito.  The room owned sad furniture with round sags and depressions, conforming to where people had dumped their bodies down.  A large, newish TV loomed in the corner, with speakers scattered around it.  A swinging door sagged in the corner, led into the kitchen.  She glanced back over her shoulder at him, and then shambled into the cocina through the louvered door.  It banged behind her.  Diffident, he trudged across the room, pulled the door back.  He could smell old bacon grease.

She shuffled into the corner of the room, removed a mop from a bucket, then took it at the sink.  David stood back across the room from her, and said, “That’s a bad bruise you’ve got.”

The only sound in the room was the water rushing into the bucket.  In a small voice, she said, “I walked into a door.”

“The door walked into you twice, on two separate days.”

She turned from the sink with the bucket bail in both hands.  With a step forward she set it on the table between them.  It sloshed water back and forth.  She flashed her eyes up at him.  “That wouldn’t be for you to say, would it?”

“Listen, in these rincónes, there is only one thing you can do.  Get out.”

A long pause.  She stared unflinching at him.  Under the florescent lights, the mark on her face appeared much worse, green around the edges.  “Assuming I had a reason to get out, where would I go?  Where would we go?”  He glanced around the dingy kitchen, with its tiny window and its drainer full of plastic dishes. 

Now that he wasn’t fixated on her, David could see children’s toys shoveled into one corner of the room and kid cups on the table.  “You can’t go on like this forever.  There must be some place.”

“You’d better go,” she said.  She pointed at the bucket and water.  “The kids will be back real soon.  They might tell my husband there someone had been in the house.”  He hefted up the plastic pail of water.  As he reached the front door, she said, “I need the bucket back.”

He stood in the doorway.  “Look, you don’t know me, but you have my number now.  If you need me to drive you somewhere.”  An empty gesture.  Said for her, or him?

The crew was ready to go when he got back to the Crusher.  He poured the water on the ground near a tire, out of sight of the adobe.  Then he handed the bucket to Mickey.  “Set this down on the porch of the casita over there.  Then lead by taking the first semi down the canyon.”
Scott Jones  currently lives in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway, and believes that this exposure to other cultures makes him well suited to tell a story of a rural area, a battered woman, and cultural clashes.
* * *
Prelude: The Sledders, 1955
By Rosalind Kaliden
The hill was unlit but for a solitary street lamp at midpoint. The rest of the steeply-inclined roadway was brightened by the moonlight reflecting off the unblemished snow-covered surface of the road, already nicely packed by drivers making it home hours ago. The sky was dark, all inky and star-filled; the air was clear, crisp, and pristine. Visibility was excellent.

It was another perfect night for sled riding, as there were many such winter nights in the Pennsylvania hills and valleys in the mid-1950s. And soon, anywhere from two to a dozen middle-school-aged kids would show up to negotiate the steepest, longest, straightest, smoothest, and fastest sledding run in the area—right down the middle of the state road on which Dad and a number of others returning from the war had built their dream homes.

We lived mid-hill with two convenient crossing roads, one to our left and the other immediately in front of our driveway. A streetlight burned on our corner; a second light was at the very bottom of State Road, at the intersection of the main and perpendicular boulevards. For the sledders, our driveway was a good gathering place for the start of our first climb to the visible crest of the iconic southwestern Pennsylvania hill.

By the time I finished my homework, and outfitted myself in the warmest jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, boots, and snow pants, it probably was about 7 p.m.—a good time for interested sledders to gather on a school night. I opened the single-car garage door, set my sled out onto the level front drive and trotted out to the end, stopping at our roadside mailbox which sat atop a pole painted matte black, the better to be seen by the sledders—a perfect counterpoint to the white snow.

There was barely a wind; the only movement was an occasional fluttering up of very fine, very hard flakes that actually sparkled in the air and on the hardened snow crust. The road conditions were perfect and there was not a car in sight or earshot. In fact, it was so quiet and peaceful that we would be able to hear the soft brush of the sled’s gliders and the drag of our braking boot as we sped down the hill, diverting off into a snow bank at the end. Occasionally we could hear a muffled shout of joyous completion!

Only two other sledders had gathered so far, Jenny Stormack and her younger brother, Stefan. Jenny was a classmate of mine from Most Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School. We were about twelve years old; Stefan was about nine. My twin brother had not yet emerged from the house. Perhaps he was engaged in homework or a scout project or his insect collection or his rock and mineral collection or a science experiment, or whatever. He could easily lose himself in any number of solitary projects, but I suspected that he would eventually join the sledders this night too.

For a few minutes we stood around exchanging only a few words and kicking the snow with our heavily booted feet. We were alone, just the three of us in the magic of that night. For some reason, never clear to me, Stefan, as we waited to see if others would come, scooped up a handful of soft snow, walked behind me and promptly, decisively, stuffed the entire handful of the soon-to-be-melting snow down the back of my collar. I felt the shock of its coldness and then the unpleasant wetness. I was surprised, stunned, and then outraged! (I still don’t know what possessed him—or possessed me, for that matter.) My mindful layering of clothing and the tying on and even pinning of my scarf around my neck was done ever so carefully just to prevent such an uncomfortable, irritating, inefficient interruption of what promised to be another peaceful night of sledding joy. Instantly, my careful planning for seamless gliding was now rudely and abruptly interrupted by this totally unprovoked, uncomfortable, and unacceptable affront! Suddenly, I became greatly incensed. I could feel my rage rising within me. I shouted my displeasure and then I turned, staring him right in the face. Now it was Stefan who suddenly looked startled.

I picked up a handful of snow, too dry and fluffy to pack into a ball. He bent and picked up a handful too. I charged and hit him with the loosely-clumped snow in my open hand across his back. He swung and hit me. I don’t recall where that blow landed, but it was a direct, hard hit that turned me into a wild woman gripped by a fury I had never before known. I swung madly and swung and swung, again and again shouting, “Don’t you ever do that again! Do you hear me? What’s wrong with you?!”

I kept swinging and beating him with all the stodgy, clothes-hindered might I could deliver, and I knew I was landing significant blows because he began to cower and to cover his head as I swung left, then right, then left again.

Finally, his sister started shouting at us. “Stop It! Stop it! Sto-o-op it!” she screamed. For a few seconds I had clearly gone berserk. By then I could back off, partly from embarrassment, partly in shock, but I continued to just stare him down!

I was breathless; steam literally rising from my mouth with every labored exhale. I was also astounded and alarmed at my fury and at the same time surprised, and maybe even pleased, that I had it in me to defend myself like that. I also felt very bad, for I had just crushed a kid younger and smaller than I and demeaned myself in front of my friend! That was her younger brother! How did I let myself do that? I knew neither of them would ever look at me or think of me in the same way again. I know I didn’t.

It shamed me for weeks to recall that moment and then I just stopped thinking about it, but something that night had profoundly changed in my soul and had taken hold of me. Something new had been added to who or what I had, up to then, thought I was.

For weeks that winter I struggled with my totally uncalculated reaction. Where did that come from? It was the first and rarest of moments when my behavior shocked me. Before that event I did not know that such strengths and emotional responses—and self-preservation—were parts of who I was and who I was becoming.

At the time of that attack I didn’t know it, but someday I would reach down to the depths of who that person had become and call upon those same primitive, wild strengths, maybe then tempered with age and restraint and a bit more self-knowledge. When life threw me the unexpected curve balls and I had nothing in my arsenal with which to counter, once again I would use those same raw survival instincts. I would use them way more than my eleven-year-old mind could ever conceive. And I would draw upon them at a depth and a speed and intensity and in such rapid succession that it would make my entire world spin. Some day or some night, again a perfect storm of a different hue would be sure to hit and I was going to be prepared. I would know then, firsthand, how the unexpected happens and just how one could respond.

That night, as a mere eleven-year-old girl in the mid-1950’s, I made a discovery about myself that, although I didn’t have an inkling about its usefulness then, would come to be a very important tool for me to pull out of my bag in life’s emergencies. I had discovered my body’s reserve of adrenaline, my physical power as a female, and my fight-or-flight response. I was being prepared for bigger, much bigger, events in my adult life that would require me to call on all my internalized resources to survive.

And I don’t mean facing-down some wild beast, or a rapist or a thief or abandonment in a foreign territory. No, the demons I would face were somewhat everyday—common, in that these things or similar things happen to many people. The startling difference for me would be that they all would occur at approximately the same time.

I would single-handedly have to face a five-point storm that I would see approaching and I would know that I had no options but to stand and face down the challenges—alone.

I would need to muster much of my learned reserves: physical energy, spirituality, courage, restraint, generosity, forgiveness, resilience, adaptability, patience, common sense, and uncommon intelligence. It would be a challenge of a lifetime. And it would occupy years of my life—maybe a decade. It would threaten my health, my finances, my psychic balance, my emotional stability, my internalized sense of security. It would shatter the life I knew and throw me into totally new and uncharted territories. I would be tested beyond my wildest imagination. I would be called on to do things I had never done before and to perform them when I was crushed beneath crippling blows.

It would be as if someone had taken all the aspects of my life—the material, the emotional, spiritual, social, psychological, and the physical—as if someone took all the components of each of these and tossed them into a large container, gave them a good shaking and then spilled them out for me to sort through and reorder, edit, reprioritize, add to and subtract.

Today I live a very different life, a satisfying life, but it would take years of purposeful, painstaking efforts to achieve this new balance, this new order. It would also take a lot of cleaning up after the old and clearing away the mangled debris of the tornado-like events.

But before that new order could come, fifty years after that star-filled winter night, I would again stand on that same driveway, in the dark and in the cold, the garage door would open and the last challenge at Dad’s house would occur with the arrival of two other people—two very different people who never even lived in that town—my very ill daughter and my shocked and shattered daughter-in-law. They would arrive on the very day of my mother’s passing in that very same house—two weeks before Christmas—amid the emergence of my daughter’s secret and stunning malady and the revelation of my husband’s very serious health condition.

And there would yet be in other places, other snowy nights proffering the unexpected and the life-changing.
Rosalind Kaliden  has been an English & speech teacher, reading specialist, real estate & insurance agent, voice-over artist, & TV commercial actor, print model, writing student of poet & memoirist Walt Peterson & playwright Janyce Lapore, & has directed, written, & starred in her own interview show on a community cable channel.
* * *
Put Into a Vial
By Haley Kissell
 
I was on an evil excursion through the galaxy looking for creatures to melt down and experiment with. Strangely enough I came upon a most unique creature. It had hairy eyes, wore no shoes, was very short, very fat, and it was not very nice to say the least. I asked it what it was and where it lived. Its only reply was for me to go away and mind my own business. I took a few steps back and thought to myself, “What a marvelous creature to put in a vial and experiment with!”

I walked back to it and sat down beside it, ready to grab it so I could melt it down and use it for experiments. I looked behind me to find a whole army of these nasty, little, hairy creatures that should be put in a vial! The creature beside me stared at me as if I was crazy. Suddenly I had an idea. I turned to the creature, grabbed him and ran as fast as I could away from the other creatures, just to be knocked down, melted and put into a vial for evil experiments. 
Haley Kissell is a new and upcoming writer, new to the world of publishing.  The publishing of "Put into a Vial" is her first published work.  She looks forward to this being the first of many.
* * *
The Chief
By Paul J. McNeil
At the end of his first week as the new chief, Claude had settled in to the regularity of his nine-to-five job like he slipped on a comfortable pair of hush puppies. It was the last Friday of Lent. He was supposed to take Annie out for fish and chips. He tried not to drink during Lent, at least in front of Annie, except for a couple of “wild card” days he allowed himself. He thought he’d use one tonight. Enjoy a whiskey after a quiet first week.

During the week, he quickly developed an affection for Dottie Marcuse, the dispatcher. She was so deferential, like she was always trying to shield him from stress. She’d been the dispatcher for ten years. Sweet as pie, always on time, loved her job as if there was absolutely nothing on earth she’s rather be doing. In only one week, Claude envied her contentment and the way she handled everything that came through her station. It was quite a luxury to have someone like that in the office. He could get used to this.

He’d locked his desk and was reaching for the light switch when he heard the rapid-fire squawks from the dispatcher’s radio like a bunch of kids in a big family falling all over themselves, all vying for attention at once. Dottie on the mike with Dubois, the night sergeant, then with a patrolmen in one cruiser, then the other patrolman in the other cruiser, then rescue, fire, guys in pickups racing to the scene. Dottie swung her door open. “Chief!” she said, urgent and apologetic at once.

###

He took his unmarked cruiser and called Annie on the way. Wanted to tell her he’d just be late for the fish and chips. Didn’t want to tell her there was a bad accident on Quicksand Pond Road. Called it just an accident. Said he’d be home soon.

“I don’t want to look like I’m shirking my first week on the job.”

“Playing politics already,” she kidded.

“The hardest part of the job,” he sighed, keeping up his pretensions, trying to distract himself from his stomach clenching. Fish and chips lost their appeal. Breathe in deep through the nose, exhale slowly through the mouth. That’s what the lieutenant told him to do when he showed Claude his first fatal on the turnpike and Claude teetered  between vomiting and fainting. His current shrink had him visualizing peaceful scenes. He thought of all the movies and sitcoms he’d seen with stressed out people hyperventilating into brown paper bags. How it got laughs. He remembered feeling like a failure when he was an altar boy and often had to leave the church in the middle of Mass and go outside and put his head between his knees because he was going to faint. When she found out, his mother scolded him for not eating breakfast.

He sat himself up straight in the cruiser. He focused on thinking of nothing.

“Can you just order takeout?”

“Do you want to pick it up?” Annie asked.

He wished he could say “sure, I won’t be long” tried to ram the accident call into the realm of the routine, knew he was bullshitting himself.

“Would you pick it up? I’ll be there soon,” impatience infecting his voice now.

“I’ll see you soon, honey.” Annie said before he hung up. Annie knew better. She began her wait.

###

The word ‘bad’ jumped out from the Babel of voices on the cruiser radio like red boldface type. He reminded himself this was nothing new. Claude had responded to hundreds of turnpike crashes in his previous career as a state cop, but he quickly learned to avoid what would undo him. The smell of blood was one thing. He had a hypersensitive sense of smell, which gave him a pleasant delirium at high Mass when incense was used but dizzying nausea when he was exposed to blood. So he always let his partner or some other officer get closest to the victims. His well-earned reputation for superb paperwork while a state cop got him nicknamed “the secretary.”

Claude also distinguished himself as a demon on the state police boxing team, an exhibition enterprise that raised funds for needy causes. Undefeated during the ten years he boxed. No one wanted to fight him. He was finally talked into hanging up his gloves to “give someone else a chance.” His reputation was for punches explosive as dynamite that might one day inflict serious damage, despite the headgear and the good intentions of the exhibition.

In the state police, although he served in the western part of the state, far from Melanville, he realized one day he might see someone he knew involved in one of those crashes. By the grace of God, he believed, he skirted that. Because he was a state cop, the grim chore of telling parents their kid was killed in a crash or informing someone their elderly parents had perished on the turnpike was handled by the local cops where the dead had lived.

But Quicksand Pond Road was not the turnpike. If there were bodies, he would know them or know of them. 

###

Quicksand Pond Road was one of many narrow, curving wooded roads in the south end of town. For every straightaway of a hundred yards, there was a dangerous curve. Kids loved to goose their engines on the straight-aways, sometimes intoxicated with nothing more than their invincibility. He passed Gauthier Road, where he and Annie used to go parking in high school, along with about a dozen other couples. The cops never bothered them. They deemed the kids safer necking than driving around at high speeds. Gauthier Road was the scene of the accident of their son Joshua’s conception.

He pulled in behind the flashing lights of two cruisers. He left his hat on the seat and grabbed his flashlight. The other cruisers had their spotlights flooding light on a red Camaro, it’s front end in a crushing embrace of a three-foot thick sugar maple. He saw a dented sap bucket on the ground. Old man Sargent’s farm.

Armand Benoit’s son Ray had a red Camaro.

Sergeant Dubois, already not a favorite of Claude’s for the way he relished the sordid details of police work as if he were in one of those awful action/adventure movies Claude avoided, approached him, giddy with his proud assessment.

“They must have been doing eighty. Went airborne.”

Dubois said it as if he’d just watched a Dukes of Hazard episode.

“We’ll let the reconstruction team from the state police determine that, sergeant,” Claude said abruptly. He looked at Dubois for more.

“The boy’s decapitated,” Dubois said, savoring the gruesome fact.

Claude turned and leaned over the shoulder of the road and puked while Dubois watched. As Claude wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, Dubois laid it on thicker:

“We’re looking for the head.”

###

Claude joined Dubois and the other officers sweeping their flashlights back and forth across the dried leaves, fallen, rotting trees and branches, and saplings around the car. He could smell the beer drooling out of the empties in the car.

“Chief!” from one of the patrolmen told them the search was over. The searchers drifted toward the voice like a class of reluctant first penitents being herded into church for confession. Claude reached into his back pocket for his surgeon gloves without taking his eyes off the head of Ray Benoit. He forced his body into a zone of concentration he was not ordinarily capable of, like a man clinging to the edge of a cliff. He breathed hardly at all.

“Get a bag,” he ordered to no one in particular. Nobody moved.

“A fuckin’ body bag!” Claude barked.

###

Armand Benoit hadn’t closed on Friday night in years. He got tired of getting the last couple of drunks into cabs or friend’s cars. Often, he was the last resort for a ride. He accepted the fact that people would get drunk in his tavern, but he took pride in the fact that no customer of his ever got into an accident after leaving the bar. He did what he could to prevent it. That and dumb luck or Divine Providence, take your pick, kept him out of trouble over the years. He secretly felt someone, probably his mother, who was a daily Mass attendee and Sunday benediction regular, issued the prayers necessary to save him from such horrible liability.

He didn’t pay enough attention to the scanner to get more details than “red Camaro” which pricked his interest because that was Ray’s make and model. Ray became enamored with it because of Vic Vachon’s restored vintage red Camaro. So it could be Vic. He thought ‘if it’s Ray and his new Camaro, he’s grounded and he’ll learn his lesson when his insurance goes way up after the body work is done’.

He’d grabbed his keys from the back counter. The phone rang. It was Claude asking him to stop by the station. Armand was happy to visit his friend in his new office, expected this might become a Friday ritual when they’d make weekend plans to go fishing or play cards with their wives on his big screened-in back porch overlooking Mollycross Pond. It was great to have Claude back in town and as chief no less, something Armand was proud to have had a hand in.

Armand was privy to some things Annie had told him on the phone when Claude was a state cop. If Armand called his friend about going fishing and Claude wasn’t home, Annie, had, on a couple of occasions, unburdened herself, talking a blue streak while Armand patiently listened, a skill he’d perfected in his years behind the bar. With bar patrons, Armand mastered the art of appearing to listen to people’s long sob stories without actually hearing much. He felt a little ashamed when they’d thank him for listening, as if he were a priest who’d just granted absolution for sins.

But with Annie, Armand was riveted to every word. He remained speechless the time she told him about Claude sinking into whiskey stupors on a regular basis during a rash of crashes on the pike. Armand got scared when she told him about Claude punching a hole in the living room wall.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” he’d asked her.

“No, I’ll handle it. He’ll be all right. He always comes back. Thanks for listening.”

Armand, like his best friend, saw the Melanville chief’s job as a departure from whatever crucified Claude during his state police career.

###

“Chief, Armand Benoit is here to see you,” Dottie Marcuse said through the intercom speaker of his desk phone.

It took everything Claude had to push the speak button.

“Let him in,” he replied.

Dottie’s eyes followed Armand past the bulletproof glass as she buzzed him in to the hall that led to the chief’s office. With both Armand and the chief out of sight, she grabbed a Kleenex and dabbed her eyes.

While he heard Armand making his way down the hall, Claude stood up and came from behind his desk. He moved a chair closer to his desk trying to prepare for the meeting. Should he ask Armand to sit down? Should he stand while Armand sat? Claude was still wrestling with the etiquette for telling his best friend that his son was dead when Armand walked in.

“Howdy chief,” his friend said with emphasis, smiling, his eyes lighting up. “They stocked Stump Pond this week, so I assume it’s fishing and not cribbage tomorrow?”

Claude had no answer, only a lame smile.

“Are you OK?” Armand asked.

“Let’s take a walk,” Claude said, amazed at how casual his voice sounded, ashamed of his cowardice, still not sure how he could tell Armand what happened.

Claude led his friend through the garage and out into the floodlit back parking lot. Armand thought he might have a nice surprise, maybe a new boat. Claude walked his friend halfway across the parking lot, realized he’d walk right off the planet if he could, and finally turned to face him.

“What’s up?” Armand asked.

“There’s been an accident,” answered Claude as if he were reciting something out of a textbook, his voice flat and emotionless, a keep-them-at-arms-length voice a veteran detective had taught Claude and his fellow policy academy cadets, a protocol Claude was using for the first time.

Armand resisted connecting the dots: red Camaro, Quicksand Pond Road, his best friend’s undertaker demeanor.

“Yeah, Quicksand Pond Road,” said Armand, slowly, as if steeling himself for the worst. “I caught it on the scanner.”

Claude put his hand to his mouth, inhaled and looked down, then looked up at his best friend and couldn’t speak. The deep breath brought up a hacking smoker’s cough he’d developed from twenty years of Lucky Strikes even though he’d quit two years ago. He had to turn his head.

With the cough still exploding in Claude’s ears, Armand took over:

“It was Ray,” said Armand, half questioning, half stating fact, asking for confirmation.

Claude faced him again, feeling gutless, only nodding, caught in an excruciating game of charades with his best friend, the father of a dead son.

Armand saved Claude from the heavy lifting:

“He’s dead isn’t he?”

Claude nodded and dropped his head and began to sob, his shoulders convulsing like he was purging himself of twenty-five years of pent up grief.

“Jesus Christ, Claude!”

Armand moved toward him as if on the attack. Claude instinctively stepped back and raised his arms.

“Jesus Christ!”

Armand fought past Claude’s outstretched arms and grabbed Claude by the shirt.

“Jesus, Jesus,” Armand shook his friend with the rage of a jailed lunatic gripping cell bars. He pounded his head on Claude’s chest, Claude’s badge scratching his forehead enough to draw blood. Armand dropped to his knees. He grabbed Claude around the legs, sobbing, heaving as if he were a little boy desperate for his father to pull him into his arms.

###

Annie ate her fish and chips and put Claude’s in the oven at a low temperature. She started knitting. After a while, she turned the oven off and took the fish and chips out so they wouldn’t dry out. By eleven, she covered them and put them in the fridge.

She kept knitting, waiting for him to call. She decided when he got the chief’s job, she would never call the station. She knew it wouldn’t help if she did when there was something serious going on. Better to wait. Let Claude deal with things in his own good time.

When Claude got home, the first thing she noticed was the blood stain on his shirt, just below his badge. She didn’t ask about it. She didn’t want him to bring the job home. She’d let him tell the story when he was ready. She wondered if she would be able to get the stain out of his brand new shirt.
 
Paul J. McNeil has been previously published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
* * *
Medicine Down
By Richard Osgood
 
Cornell Pitts got the death penalty for what he did to that girl and her momma.  Can’t say I disagree with the verdict.  According to my interpretation of the Good Book, payment for one’s loss shall be in kind.  The girl’s papa has right to recourse, but the thing is, I’m at a loss as to how Cornell Pitts can pay for two when his entire value, his chit-in-hand between him and God, is but one.  Ain’t none of us get more than that, though our debts tend to far exceed our value.  What must it be like for the Almighty to carry such a deficit on our behalf?  How much debt from how many souls has He forgiven and thereby assumed?  Don’t for a second think it all just up and vanishes, that the burdens of our debts never mount, that payment won’t become due at some point.  I suspect He is about fed up.  To kill is to kill.  It’s about as simple as that.  But I suspect the Almighty would just as soon cut His losses and move on, if He hasn’t already.  

Here we have a man like Cornell Pitts, whose own disregard of consequences makes it easy for him to do what he done.  It wasn’t about whether or not he might end up dead at the bestowment of justice, because that didn’t never cross his mind, of that I am sure.  He didn’t think about whether or not what he was doing was wrong.  No sir, he didn’t think about none of that.  Only thing on his mind was his own self and he didn’t value nothing but his own gratification.  The thing is, it’s how we all feel at one point or another.  We want to be amused, we want to feel good, and on occasion to reach that end, we want to assert our dominance over another individual.  It’s the degree and matter and guilt associated with such dominance that varies among us.  It is easy to waive off a surplus of guilt, to charge it against future debt already assumed lock and stock by the Almighty.

In the execution compound they got a large room with hanger racks and wall mounted hooks full up with all variety of costume.  They got diamond clowns and polka dot clowns and striped clowns of all height and girth.  They got tropical birds and exotic animals as well as common farm stock, like cows and horses and giant roosters.  Off the main room they got a second room with sit-down vanities and light-up mirrors so they can match wig and hat and make-up to whatever costume selected.  Cornell Pitts and those in line for the day's festivities get to wander around this large room and pick what they will wear.  Some prefer to pair up and share two halves of a giraffe costume or a hippo costume.  They tell each other it's to add variety to the show, but what they want is to not walk the line alone. 

It’s all in good fun.  Cornell Pitts and his kind don’t mind the laughter and the ridicule and the carnival atmosphere.   This is the one time in their whole life when they matter, even if it is at their own expense.  They get to dress up as clowns and animals and general circus folk and march down a path in front of a crowd of people cheering and pointing and whistling and laughing.  Yes, all in good fun.  Folks in the crowd don’t think about whether or not what they’re doing is wrong.  Rather they say, “Y’all broke the laws of society so society can do whatever it wants, and here we want hanging day to be one of easy swallowing, so we turn y’all into spoonfuls of sugar and find great amusement in your appearance, in your silly costumes and painted faces.”  Cornell Pitts and his kind get into the spirit of things, get into character, and pretty soon no-one remembers why they’re there, not those in the crowd nor those in costume, until the trap doors fall and the truncation of last breath puts an end to the show. 
Richard Osgood lives in a city on a river where the north meets the south. Publication credits include Tin House, Hobart, Night Train, Mudluscious, Kill Author, decomP, Los Angeles Review, among others, to include two Pushcart Prize nominations. He continues to mourn the deaths of Steve Marriott and Syd Barrett.
* * *
Feeling a Twitter of a Connection
By Ania Payne
“I love that moment when you make eye contact with a dog and he slyly smiles and nods to let you know he’s secretly a tiny man in a dog suit” -@heymikehenry

Wow.  Deep.  That’s what I love about Twitter.

“Why do you tweet? Your homepage just looks like a bunch of strangers typing the first thing that comes to their mind,” Josh groans as he peers over my shoulder to get a better glimpse of my Twitter.  “You hated the chicken Alfredo in the caf today? And you think this is worthy of announcing to the world?” A look of disgust creeps over his face. 

Josh is jealous that I have this social outlet that doesn’t involve him.  I don’t want to argue so I say, “You don’t have a Twitter.  You just don’t understand.  Twitter is almost therapeutic.   It’s a place where I can empty my thoughts freely as they enter my stream of consciousness.”

This sounds nauseating.  I wish Josh tweeted.   It would have sounded profound as a tweet.

People seem to either become obsessed with Twitter or they disregard Tweeting completely. Jack Dorsey created this social networking site six years ago, but people failed to appreciate Twitter until much more recently –when smart phones became a necessity, when celebrities started tweeting their every emotion, and especially when Oprah tweeted on-air in 2009 –resulting in a 43% increase in Twitter users.  

But why did Facebook gain so much more popularity than Twitter? As of September 2011, Facebook had roughly 800 million users, while in that same year Twitter only had about 175 million users.  Ask anybody between the ages of ten and sixty and they can probably tell you with confidence, “Who created Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg, of course,” and then continue to elaborate in detail about the sob story of how Zuckerberg stole the idea from his classmates and ripped off his best friend.  But hardly anybody knows who created Twitter.  Dorsey’s less than scandalous life and introverted tendencies kept him out of the limelight, which contributed to Twitter’s snail-like climb up the social networking popularity scale.  Vanity Fair refers to Dorsey as a “purist” who has “one of the lowest profiles in tech.” The way taxi drivers briefly exchange information over the radio fascinated Dorsey so he suggested that Odeo (the software company where he worked) create a service that would allow anybody to write a couple lines about themselves on a smart phone and then send the message to whoever wanted to receive it, thus creating Twitter.

“I just want people to accept me for who I pretend to be” -@yoyoha

When Twitter was first created, many considered the site to be nothing more than a tool for the self-centered masses to broadcast every trivial detail of their lives to the universe, but once celebrities began downloading the Twitter App on their iPhones and tweeting every trivial detail of their lives, Twitter became important.

Twitter allows anybody to gain a sneak-peek into the lives of the rich and famous.  Unlike Facebook, unless a Twitter account is privatized, anybody can follow whomever he or she likes.  How many people do I know who are friends with Rihanna on Facebook? Zero, but how many friends of mine follow her on Twitter? Probably twenty, at least.

“Did you hear? Katy Perry and Russell Brand are getting divorced!” my roommate shrieked as she ran into my room last fall.

“Really? How do you know?”

“Katy just tweeted it! Her followers were the first to find out!” she responded smugly, as if being one of Katy’s 16,404,498 followers meant that she and the celebrity were clearly bosom buddies.  

Reading tweets by celebs makes them seem more human, more like us.  “George Clooney is eating a mushroom pizza? I’ve eaten a mushroom pizza!” We establish connections, though not necessarily the most meaningful connections.  Quality isn’t important.  It’s quantity.  We want to feel connected to everyone, and feeling connected to the rich and famous certainly boosts our own morale, even if these celebs have no idea who we are. And, obviously, the celebrities like to boast about their incredibly large number of followers, so it must do something for them also.

“In the gym”  -@justinbieber

Bieber’s profound statement resulted in more than 500 favorites and re-tweets. And his 18,731,712 followers long to hear tweets just like that --they want to know what he does every second of every day. If only Bieber could have provided more detail in that tweet, his followers sigh to themselves.  Which machine was he using at the gym? How many pounds of weights was he lifting? More imagery, please, Bieber!  Since that many people on Twitter want to know about Justin’s life, surely someone will want to know about mine.

“Psychic said I’d meet my husband in March, so goodbye forever, you guys” - @MrsRupertPupkin

Who needs the awkwardness of face-to-face speed dating when you can sit comfortably in your plush office desk chair and find a soul mate with the click of a mouse? The world of Twitter is an arena of endless romantic possibilities. 

During Valentine’s Day 2009, hundreds of singles attended “Flitter” parties across Canada where the guests each wore a number and “flittered” on their iPhones and Blackberries in an attempt to catch the attention of other tweeters who were attending the event.  “Flitterers” discovered love via the hashtag #twittercrush, where they tweeted sweet nothings about the person they found the most alluring, hoping to receive an affirmative response attached to the same hashtag.  Even though they were in the same room, the “flitterers” preferred to communicate with the other singles through the safety of their LED screens. 

Twitter has shown us how to refrain from human contact for as long as possible.  Why pay for a therapist when you can tweet your complicated mess of emotions for free? Why go out and search for a partner when you can stay at home, create an online identity, and let your Twitter account lead you to true love? And all in 140 characters or less!

“There’s something oddly therapeutic about tweeting a tweet with exactly 140 characters” – Josh, two months after his Twitter conversion.

About one month after criticizing me for my addiction, Josh converted to Twitter. The power of Twitter is too strong for even a past non-believer to withstand.  Obsessive Compulsive Twitter Disorder is sweeping the nation.  Do you have a neurotic desire to stay within a three-foot radius of any device connected to Twitter? Do you throw a mad fit of rage when anybody disturbs you mid-update? Rest assured, scientists are working on a cure to this neurological disorder.  When the cure is found the results will be tweeted.

My own case of OCTD has definitely taken its toll.  I get a thought.  I tweet.  Twitter really is a weird form of therapeutic thought cleansing. I feel relieved knowing I’ve shared this brilliantly composed tweet filled with unique wisdom to the world --at least to my 200 followers, although unfortunately half of them are Indian spammers and maybe twenty of them are people I honestly know.  My true friends feel compelled to give me the needy star or re-tweet so I can feel like my intelligence is appreciated.  And, I know, I am expected to reciprocate by re-tweeting and starring their brilliant tweets.

Sometimes I agonize over how my tweet is ignored.  I know it has been read, but it isn’t liked.  The therapeutic effects backfire.  I compulsively check my phone waiting for that affirmation.  I struggle to camouflage the failed tweet with something outstanding, hoping I won’t be judged by my previous mindless thought.  I want to be viewed as clever and witty, not as a twat.  I’ll end up paying a therapist for help if I don’t get immediate positive reinforcement.

 “I tweet, therefore I am.”

No one responds.  Therefore, I am not.

Twitter has become the wasteland of my thoughts.

“Writers, like cuttlefish, shoot ink to protect themselves” -@TheBosha

We view the world in a Twitter mindset.  How can I write the most profound tweet in 140 characters or less?  How can I make the mundane marvelous?  My head is feeling like a pinball machine, slamming through images and thoughts while calculating word counts.  It’s happening so fast it’s maddening.

“Being concerned for one another should spur us to an increasingly effective love. #Lent” -@Pope2YouVatican

Some try to justify their Twitter obsession by claiming that Twitter makes them worldlier. “I follow @DaliLama, @Pope2YouVatican, and get my news from @CNN. There’s nothing wrong with this addiction!”  Tweeters feel well rounded by following Huffington Post, Dr. Oz, Oprah, Flixter, Guns and Gardening, and every possible literary organization.  In less than 140 characters, they can keep fully abreast of our worldly culture and politics. Anything more than 140 characters and our attention is lost.

If the Pope tweets, you know it can’t possibly be considered a waste of time.  27, 467 people eagerly await his 140 character messages.  I suspect those with short attention spans and limited time may enjoy these daily religious encounters.  Surely, Tweeting with Pope Benedict counts for a missed church service or confession.

“Compassion is a mental quality that can bring us true lasting inner peace and inner strength” -@DalaiLama

The Dalai Lama, a man who steers clear of all fads and material goods, must carry a smart phone so he can share his brilliant thoughts on whim. Tweeting is a serious business. The Dalai Lama follows nobody but has 3,909,694  followers, which awes the rest of us tweeters who follow six hundred people but only have twenty-eight followers. How did he do it? 

Tweets from the Pope and Dalai Lama are words of wisdom.  I scroll through my daily tweets; there are hundreds.  Most are frivolous.  It’s time to improve the quality of my personal tweets.  Time to incorporate poetry into a worthwhile tweet.  The Dalai Lama and the Pope are probably hoping their reflective tweets will inspire us to become more contemplative.

“Profound enlightenment

spiritual wisdom flutters

tweet delivers all”

Now, surely, the Pope and the Dalai Lama will want to follow me.

Surely. 
Ania Payne is a creative writing major at Hendrix College.  She has been published in Imitation Fruit and The Rusty Nail.  On her free time, she enjoys petting cats and eating chocolate ice cream.
 
 
* * *
The Basement Door
By Dan Upton
 
Tuesday.
I can smell the sweet scent of mother baking her famous chocolate chip cookies. The rich morsels melting so deliciously as the dough begins changing to a nice golden brown. I can hear my fathers voice as he returns home from his shift at work. He got louder as he explained to my mother and older brother how the mainframe at work unexpectedly shut down causing a severe delay in the workload. He told them how his boss was very upset and had given him a hard time at work. My brother tried to cheer up my father by telling him how he made the varsity rowing team and that the coach was thinking he would make a great coxswain because of his build. I can now hear my mother walking down the hallway towards the basement door where I was seated very quietly as to not make a sound. The top stair was narrow. So narrow that only my right butt cheek fit, so I shifted all my weight as to not make any noise as I sat perched with my ear turned to the door. As my mother walked back and forth from the kitchen to the living room where my father was now reading aloud the obituaries from this mornings Poughkeepsie Journal, I felt a spider crawl up my sock onto my bare leg. As the spider’s fangs penetrated my calf, I let out a low cry. As the warm tears ran down my cheek, I held my right hand firmly over my mouth so my mother wouldn’t hear me perched at the old basement door. As I rubbed the throbbing welt on my leg, I heard my mother inform my brother and father it was time to wash-up, as dinner was ready.

The occasional thump of the furnace kicking on and the drip of the old wash-basin were the only sounds that broke the silence. The light over the stairs flickered out 6 meals ago so I washed the old chipped plate from the leftovers my brother snuck down to me in the dark and quickly placed it in a box with the others so mother wouldn’t notice I had eaten. As bedtime soon approached, I try to refrain from thinking about the time or day of the week. Instead I thought about the last day I went to school. I came home from school late that day because I had lost my tiny gold heart bracelet that my mother’s sister had given me for my 11th birthday. My friends and I searched the entire school grounds for it with no luck. I remember how mad my mother was. She screamed at me the entire night. When my father found out how irresponsible I had been, he decided I should spend some time alone to think of what I had done. I knew I disappointed my parents. I seemed to, on frequent basis, but I didn’t realize exactly how upset they were until I heard the click of the lock on the basement door.

Wednesday.
The sunlight is teasing the corner of my eye as I wake. I can hear my mother and brother in the kitchen walking around. My father has already left for work so I think it must be around 7:30 or so. As the smell of eggs and bacon whiffs through the house I glance through an old photo album I found 3 meals ago while looking for a flashlight in the old boxes under the stairs. As I flip through the tattered book, the old musty smell of Polaroid pictures and dust overcome the smell of my brother’s breakfast and suddenly my stomach stops rumbling. As I glance at each page I see the snapshots of my parents trip to Florida last year. The endless photos of Disneyworld my parents had taken. I stared at the one of my mother and brother, standing in line at the Tower of Terror. My brother loved Halloween as a child and he and my parents would often watch scary movies together. Then there were a few of my father and brother at Sea World right in front of Shamu the killer whale. They had been splashed and if you flip through them you can see the water coming over the tank and eventually drenching my father. As I came across the photo of the three of them with their mouse ears on I felt the scar on my right forearm. I still remember how angry my father was when he saw me wearing my brothers’ Mickey ears hat. First he screamed at me. Then he grabbed my arm and lifted me so high in the air I grazed the ceiling fan with my shoelace. When the Dr. said my arm was broken, my mother screamed at him because I needed a cast. Then he screamed at me because my mother screamed at him. Now every time it rains or is cold out, I remember not to touch someone else’s belongings. Lesson Learned.

Thursday.
This afternoon my father came home early from work. I heard my parents talking in the living room but couldn’t make out the muffled conversation through the fancy berber carpet my mother had installed last year. I remember lying on that carpet watching television with my brother until my father was angry one day and ripped the cable wire from the wall. I never set foot in the living room again. 

As I stood under the dining room I could now hear more of my parents conversation. It sounded like my father had bad news. I couldn’t really make out what he was saying over my mothers screaming so I looked into another box under the stairs. I found my mothers wedding dress. It looked so beautiful. I remember seeing the picture on the mantle of my parents on their wedding day. My father was so happy. My mother looked as elegant as ever with her long gown flowing down onto the floor. They were the happiest couple I had ever seen and often dreamed that one day I too would find someone and grow to be as happy. Next to the box with my mother’s gown was an old hat box with a heart and my fathers name on it. As I opened it I found countless letters, valentines and pictures of my father. As I read through the valentines one by one I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of my father being such a sap and couldn’t imagine my parents being so in love that my mother saved all of this stuff. At the bottom of the box I found a small cardboard red heart shaped box. Inside were several chocolates that appeared suddenly almost like a creamy cocoa oasis. As the sweet goodness went down my throat I thought to myself how angry my mother would be if she caught me eating her candies that she saved. Overwhelmed with guilt, fear and now a bit of a stomach ache, I tucked the box back under the stairs hoping no one will notice.

Friday.
This morning I awoke to a loud slam. I heard no voices, hardly a footstep, and only one last slam of the front door. I patiently waited for the smell of bacon and eggs. Maybe I over slept and missed my parents’ morning chats? Perhaps my brother had already left for school and my mother was out running errands? As I wait on that loose rickety top step with my ear firmly placed against the door, I hear silence. The occasional thump of the furnace even stopped. I rush over towards the warmth of the sunlight beaming in through the slight crack in the plywood covering the lone window. For hours it seems I pace between the top step and the area under the kitchen, holding my breath as to be ever so silent. I focus on listening so hard that I can now hear my heartbeat in my ears. As I wait anxiously for my family to return, I didn’t notice the sun go down. Now I wait in the dark without even the sound of the furnace to keep me awake.

Saturday.
This morning I woke with my head leaning against the basement door. As I heard the footsteps come closer I rushed down the old stairs and hid behind the boxes in the far corner next to the cold furnace. I hear the latch click and with a creak I now see light flooding the basement from the open door. With my head tucked between my knees, I sit shaking behind my cover praying my mother doesn’t notice I went through her belongings. I try to remember if I put the boxes back in the exact spot or if I left a photo out in plain sight. As the footsteps got louder I heard a strange voice. Suddenly a flashlight was aimed right at my face and blinded me with white stars. As I tried to understand what was happening all I could hear was the man saying oh my god over and over. He helped me to my feet and then carried me up stairs. As he rushed me through the living room and out to his truck I could see the furniture was gone. The walls that were once decorated with endless photos, now stood naked with only a slight outline of where the old frames hung. As the man called the police from his phone, I heard him say that he was from a realty company and the owner left in the middle of the night. He then kept repeating that he just found a girl locked in the basement of the empty house. I remember only thinking how the air smelled so much different outside. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sunshine so bright and how although it was cold enough to see my breath and I sit only in a t-shirt and socks, how warm I felt inside this stranger’s truck. The thought of my parents leaving me made me upset and extremely relieved at the same time. I felt abandoned, as I had been most of my childhood. The gross realization that my parents could actually leave me didn’t sting as bad as my worrying about my brother. We had always been close and I knew he was terrified that if he spoke up to my parents he would be treated as awful as I was. As I watch the police and ambulance pull around the corner towards my parent’s house, I start to cry. I cover my mouth, afraid to make a sound.
Dan Upton is a full time student and stay at home father of four. In his spare time, and surprisingly he does have some, he enjoys writing short stories and working on graphic novels with his oldest son.
* * * 
Perfect Day
By Olga Wajtas
Lucas was contemplating himself in the mirror. His translucent skin was taut over exquisite bone structure, his hazel eyes framed by eyelashes so long and dark that he would barely need mascara tonight. His T-shirt and leggings highlighted sculpted muscles. 

This was the culmination of all Ben’s dreams, to be here with him. 

“It’s true, you’re perfect, Lucas,” he sighed.

Ben worshipped Lucas’s body. Everyone worshipped Lucas’s body. For Lucas was perfectly proportioned, his limbs a masterpiece of symmetry. When he walked past with his perfect gait, he turned everyone’s head. When he danced, they were bewitched. His had been the fastest ever progress from the corps de ballet to soloist, and he was set to become a principal before the end of the year.

Principals only ever dated other principals. But no-one was surprised when the divine Kara, the company’s star, ditched her long-term amour, Perry Quinn, for Lucas. Kara was Lucas’s due, thought Ben. How could someone perfect be expected to make do with less than the divine?

“I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be in this masterclass with you,” he went on.

Lucas ignored him and began stretching his spectacularly supple hamstrings. He folded himself over from upright until his chest was pressed against his knees, his head against his shins.

“And today of all days!” said Ben. “I feel part of history. To dance alongside Lucas Ward just before he appeared in his first lead role.”

Lucas paid no attention, pointing and flexing his powerfully sinewed feet.

Ben took up position beside him at the barre.

“You’re my role model,” he confided. “I dream of being like you.”

This time, Lucas reacted. His perfect eyebrows shot up and his perfect lip curled.

“You dream of being like me?”

He prowled round Ben. “Neck  –  too short. Shoulder-blades  –  too high. Knees  –  too rotated.”

“Yes...I see...” said Ben.

Lucas suddenly punched him violently in the stomach. Ben, completed unprepared, rocked forward, winded.

“Abs  –  too weak,” said Lucas with cool satisfaction.

“Sorry, Lucas,” wheezed Ben.

The students were beginning to filter into the room. They huddled at the back, staring in awe. Lucas was on to hip warm-ups now, moving an athletic leg round and back in a semi-circle.

And then Mr Bryce and his entourage entered, and some students almost hyperventilated. The company’s revered founder, now 87, lived in semi-seclusion. But once a year, he emerged to take a masterclass with two of the professional dancers. He was still an impressive and intimidating figure: his ornate stick seemed more for show than support. One of his followers took his cape, another got him a chair, and a third shooed the students into a line.

“A remarkable day for you, hey, Mr Ward?” said Clifford Bryce.

Lucas inclined his head in graceful agreement.

Bryce turned to the students. “You may not have heard yet, but Mr Quinn has been struck down by a nasty bout of food poisoning.”

The students computed this. Perry was dancing Prince Siegfried in the premiere of Swan Lake. And his understudy was –

“Lucas – Lucas will be dancing with Kara!” squeaked a student who could compute faster than the others. The divine Kara as the Swan Queen and Lucas as her prince: the students practically swooned with the romance of it all.

Clifford Bryce clapped his hands for silence.

“We must begin, to give Mr Ward time to rest before this evening’s performance. Mr Ward, Mr Jenkins, kindly run through the basic exercises and then the students will join you.”

Ben followed Lucas in the familiar routine. But he had lost all enthusiasm. How was someone like him supposed to motivate the students, with his over-rotated knees and his deformed shoulder-blades? How could he ever have hoped to make soloist? It was ghastly seeing himself reflected in the mirrored walls alongside Lucas, the contrast magnifying his defects.

Then he saw Mr Bryce watching him. He was in class. He could never be like Lucas, could never know perfection, but he could push his defective body to its limits.

When they finished, the founder moved on to questioning the students about method and technique.

“What do you see when you look at Mr Ward?” he asked one of the most promising students.

“Perfection!” the student sighed. The others nodded vigorously.

Clifford Bryce smiled. “That is a tribute to Mr Ward’s superb technique,” he said. “Mr Ward has succeeded in creating the illusion of perfection. In fact, his thighbones are three centimetres too long.”

Ben blinked. That couldn’t be right. Lucas’s every dimension was – perfect.

“Senile old fool,” said Lucas in a stage whisper.

There was a puzzled muttering among the students, who stared at Lucas, first in concern, then in shock. Ben turned to look at his hero, his unattainable role model, verifying that every body part was in perfect correspondence with every other. Perfect...perfect...perfect...perfect. He reached Lucas’s thighs. Impossible. Lucas Ward was perfect.

****

The divine Kara was a consummate professional. With a radiant smile, she rose up en pointe, Lucas’s hands on her dainty waist, and began a series of dazzling pirouettes. As her body twirled, she looked out at the audience, turning her head at the very last moment, so that there was only a split second when her lovely face could not be seen. But it was long enough to let her spit out a single venomous syllable at Lucas every time she whipped past.

“How – dare – you – try – to – hood – wink - me - we’re – through – you - freak.”

While the audience broke into thunderous applause, the news passed excitedly down the two lines of delicately fluttering swans.

“Kara’s broken up with Lucas! It’s all over!”

Lucas clasped the Swan Queen to his bosom in a masterful embrace, trying to ignore the way the other swans were all craning to get a better view of his thighs.

“Kara, believe me, I didn’t know!”

Kara bashfully withdrew from her prince’s grasp and extended her left leg in a faultless arabesque.

“Yeah, right,” she mouthed as she coyly allowed her hand to be captured. “Like you don’t spend every spare second preening in the mirror.”

She inclined towards him with submissive pliancy and Lucas, powerful and passionate, caught her round her slender shoulders.

“It’s only the thighbones, Kara! Everything else is as good as it ever was!” he whined.

Kara gazed up adoringly at him, her right leg bent at a breathtakingly picturesque angle.

“It was never that good, Lucas, believe me.”

Lucas lifted her up with princely strength and determination. Kara arched into a flawless curve, conveying wistfulness and hope combined. She spoke softly but distinctly.

“And stop hogging the limelight. It’s not your fucking solo.”

It was just as well he couldn’t see his parents in the grand circle. This was their fault. He was a laughing-stock because of their genetic defects. Had they given a thought to their future offspring, had checks on their physical compatibility? Not a bit of it. They had rushed headlong into parenthood, thinking only of themselves. The sheer selfishness of it, the sheer –

Kara shifted her weight to return to earth and Lucas was literally wrong-footed. There was a wobble, muffled shrieks from the corps de ballet, a thud, and a frantic ringing down of the curtain. 

Lucas, in a crumpled heap, was vaguely aware of the babble of voices.

“His leg’s broken.”

“It’s those thighbones of his. He just doesn’t have the stability.”

“What understudy? Lucas is the understudy!”

“Message from Mr Bryce, get Ben Jenkins into Perry’s costume. Move it!”

****
The male paramedic hissed at the female paramedic: “I can’t cover for you any longer. There’s only so many tests I can pretend to do on him.”

The female paramedic reluctantly emerged from the wings. “Okay. It’s finished anyway. It was sublime. Kara Anderson was supposed to be dancing with Perry Quinn, but I swear, a star is born!”

There was a sudden roar from the audience, and she darted back to see what was happening, then returned, giggling, to help her colleague adjust Lucas on the stretcher.

“Oh, wow, that was some kiss she gave him – how cute are they?”

As they began to wheel Lucas away, Ben rushed offstage, rather flushed, clutching a bouquet.

“Lucas, I owe it all to you!” he gasped. “I’m so stupid, I completely misunderstood what you were saying to me. I thought you meant my body was too flawed for me ever to be a great dancer. It was only when Mr Bryce explained about your disability that I realized that if you could overcome your handicap, then I could overcome mine.”

Gently, he laid the bouquet on Lucas’s chest. “You deserve these, not me.”

The paramedic cocked her head. “They’re calling for you. You’d better get back on stage.”

They headed towards the door.

“That was sweet of him to give you his flowers – Lucas, is it? Make you feel better.”

And Lucas burst into tears of perfect rage.
 

Olga Wojtas is a writer living in Edinburgh, Scotland where she attended theschool which inspired Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". She has a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with distinction from the Open University. A number of her short stories have been published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA. She was recently investigated by a university psychology researcher who concluded that, in one respect, she "did not behave abnormally relative to the population".
* * *
Mine Eyes
By Davyne Wellnitz
 
I wept the day I learned I could keep her eyes.  The pain of her leaving is a splinter I rub and worry at, without removing.  In the darkness, I am at home with that pain.  I will never again wear her rose colored glasses, but then, neither will she.  Neither will she.  In my more sullen moments, I am glad of that.

I am her dark twin.  Serious.  Annoyed, always annoyed.  Although we were "identical" (I bitterly laugh at the suggestion), I weighed more, dieted more, then ate more during feasts of depression.  I see the worst in the world.  But, my beautiful, loving, loved, sister Sara...

Sometimes I hated her.

In the harsh world of sun-swallowing glass and cement that is New York City, she saw beauty.  She fed bums Big Macs and laughed at anyone who chastised her for wasting money.  She bought flowers from slick-smiling street-corner vendors and gave them to the parking attendant to keep in the dingy corner of his small, greasy booth.  She let her smile grace everyone on the street, from Gus in the hotdog stand to Sam-the-man, shoeshine artist. 

Until my most secret wish came true.  The person I wanted to BE was gone and I was free to wear her cheery disposition.  Free. And yet suddenly, fiercely nauseated by her feebleness, I wanted nothing less.

I wake with breath nearly as bad as my disposition.  And fangs.  And claws.  It's best for everyone if I sleep late, so I've engineered my working hours later in the day than most.  But that morning, I had a train to catch.  I felt my way down the hall, as blind to the world around me as an incumbent politician. I found the bathroom and what I thought was my eye case.  I opened the headgear, put it on, and let it install the cybernetic organics that allow me to see.

After my double-vision cleared, I remember thinking I'd lost weight, since my embarrassing nakedness looked less stout in the full-length mirror.  The fatty saddlebags that are prone to sprout on my thighs seemed insignificant.  So, instead of my usual hide-the-bulge skirt and sweater outfit, I wore the slim pantsuit I save for my skinnier days.  I repacked my suitcase, and privately patted myself on the back for sticking to my latest diet.  Riding the high, I threw in running shorts and shoes, although I knew I wouldn't really take the time to run.  Running hurts too much.

It wasn't until I was on the train, humming noisily at the passing fence posts, that I realized what must have happened.  I was acting like Sara.  I, JoAnne Deluca Smalling, had greeted -- cheerily greeted -- the five dark-suited men sharing my compartment.  I was humming.  HUMMING.  God, I thought, it's brilliant out.  It's as though I were seeing the world through Sara's eyes. 

They shouldn't have worked.  All I can figure is that as twins, we were near enough alike.

My sin, the thing that keeps me comfortably wrapped in warm guilt, is that I didn't call.  I didn't say, Sara, does the world look darker?  Do you see the flaws and the misery around every corner?  Is the glass half empty?  No.  I enjoyed my stolen gift, my rose colored glasses.  For an entire month, I laughed along the streets of Chicago, happy to see the other side of the coin, the shiny side.  I did go running.

On my way to the train that would take me home, I couldn't even muster a meaty depression over the idea that I'd soon have my own eyes back.  Instead, I waved at a meter-maid getting ready to write parking tickets to a long line of cars, and then I dropped quarters in each meter as I passed it, giving them an extra 15 minutes.  I giggled to myself.  The sun sparkled in my eyes.

Oh God, and then home.  Home to a family beside itself with grief.  At the time, I was sure the only thing that got me through Sara's suicide was her bright vision of the world. 

The world has turned against me, she had written.  She never understood what she lived with that one month was the world seen through my eyes -- my dark, almost hopeless existence.

I know now it was my own hardened shell that got me through that difficult time.  My most private self was smiling in memory of sunny, brilliant Chicago; smiling at my fortitude.  My face, mouth pinched down at the corners as it is wont to do, convinced everyone I was mourning.  The part of me that loved Sara helped me cry.

I haven't worn her eyes since.  They're in my room, in the top drawer of the dresser on which stands a picture of the two of us -- her arm is behind me making rabbit ears in back of my head, and her eyes glisten with laughter.  The picture helps me remember my two selves.

I wear my own eyes, GENeered from my body, for my body. I take a certain hard-edged pride in the strength of my endurance.  And, as a tribute to Sara, I make the effort, every day, to see the world as she did. 

My lenses must be wearing thin.  Sometimes, the sun shines through.
 
Davyne DeSye's stories have appeared in Tomorrow, and others are forthcoming in MindFlights and Nth Degree.  
* * *
The Maple Leaf that Didn't Want to Die
By Lynette Yetter
Once upon a time there was a maple leaf that didn't want to die.

"I have too much to live for!" it said. "I have lofty things to do, and stories to tell. There is a big change coming called Winter; I hear the fir trees whispering about it in their sylvan voices. I must see it and document it. For I am a Big Leaf and what I have to say is more important that anything in the world."

The maple leaf was so persuasive that the squirrels who lived in the branches of the tree stopped their nut gathering and nest building and approached the maple leaf with a plan.

"We'll help you," they said in their high squeaky voices. "We are experts and know everything -- for we have traveled hither and yon through-out the parklands; while you have only been on this one branch your whole life, since you were born last spring. We have studied for many years and therefore know far more than you do."

The maple leaf was overjoyed that the squirrels understood his deepest desire and were altruistically going to help him live! He would not die!

The squirrels twitched their whiskers and their tails as they consulted among themselves, then ran off in all directions -- except for Fluffy, Puffy, Muffy and Robert who stayed behind.

"We are your medical administrators," they chirped in unison to the maple leaf. "We are the ones to fill out forms and process payments and file referrals and seek for donors and bill your insurance and hire new specialists and and and . . . "

The maple leaf felt overwhelmed and perplexed by all of this information and terminology, but he told himself it was worth every sacrifice, for he would live!

A squirrel returned, leading three stellar blue jays, each of whom had something in his or her beak.

One had a shard of broken glass. Another had a needle from a hypodermic that some human had carelessly disposed of. The third held a long string, which dangled in loops and squiggles that danced in the wind. And then a fourth jay appeared. He carried a fresh sprig of fir needles.

"The fir tree," announced Fluffy, "has generously volunteered to be a donor for this historic first-ever fir-to-maple transplant . . . "

"Grafting," Robert corrected.

"First-ever fir-to-maple grafting," Fluffy continued, with an irritated expression on his furry face. The facial expression would have been difficult for humans to decipher, but squirrels know the way of squirrels. Robert interpreted the irritation to mean his boss had a weak spot, a touch of insecurity. Robert was vying to move up the corporate ladder in this booming new medical industrial complex, and this triumph would carry him higher. His name would go down in history: "Robert, the inventor of the maple/fir graft!"

Well, if you have ever worked in an office, or had occasion to visit one, you can imagine the rest from here. So I won't go into every little detail of the back-biting and money-grabbing and reputation-building that went on in the ever-growing community of squirrels, jays, then crows and moles and even the spiders who were trying to cash in on this. For of course everything had a price, and a reasonable profit to be made each time a product changed hands.

The poor maple leaf who wanted to live took out a mortgage to pay for it all. And the "all" was an ever expanding total that got bigger and bigger.

The fir sprig was grafted onto the maple leaf in an ingenious operation involving the cutting edge of technology.

The maple leaf felt horrible, what with the holes poked in his stem and that resinous stuff gunking up his system. But, he kept telling himself that it was all worth it. After all, this was an issue of life or death. And death was to be avoided at all costs, no matter how arduous or painful.

The squirrels' nest was filling with nuts that the squirrels themselves did not collect.

"This medical administrating business is a heck of a lot more profitable than collecting our own nuts," they congratulated themselves in the evening, as they reclined in their nest made of already dead leaves, lined with the softest and spongiest moss, decorated with the rarest downy feathers, and filled with a hoard of only the finest nuts of select trees from all over the land. All of this luxury was brought to them, item by item, by subcontractors as their processing fee for getting certified as "Approved Providers."

The squirrels rubbed their white bellies in contentment, and groomed each other's gray fur.

"You're getting fat," Fluffy said.

"So are you," Muffy said with a sniff and a frown.

Since they no longer ran around to forage for their own food, and never left the big old maple tree, they needed more exercise.

They needed a gym.

So, ingenious crows built the administrators aerobic workout devices in the branches of the tree. For of course the squirrels were far too important and busy to leave their work of administrating the medical care in this dire life-or-death situation of the maple leaf that didn't want to die.

One day, an artist went for a walk in the woods. She sat on a fallen log and admired its texture as it weathered in the forest. The skin of bark had long ago decayed back into nourishment for Pachamama to share with all of life. The bole skeleton was beautiful as grubs consumed it. The grubs enjoyed its flavor then cast it, reformed, back into the soup of life.

Dead leaves crunched under the artist's feet as she shifted her position. The scene glowed amber before the fall of early night. Autumn was her favorite season of the year, so quiet and introspective.

She scratched pencil point over paper for several minutes.

Suddenly, the artist was startled by a noise. A strange sight greeted her eyes. An unexpected conglomeration of wildlife scurried by; a convoy of moles, wood rats, hares and other small creatures hurried along, each carrying something. Jays and crows flapped overhead. The birds toted strange objects in their beaks.

Startled by these unusual sights, the artist arose from her magnificent tree corpse to follow the animals and see where they were going.

She came upon a path much trodden with all shapes and sizes of feet, paws, and slithering bellies. The path led to a maple tree.

And what an odd tree it was. The artist frowned at the sight. Her heart felt sad when she gazed at the overweight squirrels running in suspended hamster wheels dangling from skeletal limbs. Other arms of the maple bent low with the weight of the biggest squirrel nests she had ever seen. At any moment the branches could snap from the burden.

All of this feverish activity of forest critters running, flying, and crawling up and down the tree went to -- and originated from -- a certain point on a certain twig from which dangled a lone maple leaf.

And what an odd leaf it was.

A multitude of metal devices fastened the leaf to its twig, while a massive tangle of hoses and pumps transported green fluid into its tender arbolean veins.

The leaf was alive, yes.

"But what kind of life is this?" the artist asked aloud. The stillness and beauty of the autumn day was destroyed for her.

The artist turned and walked away from the chaos and hubbub extending the life of that leaf beyond its season. Her footsteps crunched on the crisp corpses of the leaf's fallen comrades.

Later, she sat at her drawing table. She finished the sketch she'd started while sitting on that log in the woods, bathed in the golden light that is only seen once the trees have shed their leaves.

Thoughtfully, the artist rose, went to the kitchen table and looked at her assortment of amber-colored plastic jars with childproof caps, each of which was to treat the side effects of one of the other medications.

"What do I need with all this?"

With a sweep of her arm, she pushed the jars into the trash.

Lynette Yetter, lover of nature and equilibrium, spends this life in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres -- from the Arctic Circle to the Andean altiplano. Lynette makes music, movies, books and art, which she hopes will continue to inspire people even after her leaf falls. You can learn more here.
Poetry
Epiphany 
By Graeme Brasher
If like me it seems you come to a poem
Only when you are ready to meet,
Then we must abide the intervening years,
Gathering our embraces and fears
To be ready for that conjunction

And in those thousands of hours trust
In the certainty of that date;
Though our bones grow brittle
And our palates dry, patiently prepare 
Lips, and wait.
Graeme Brasher is an Australian teacher working at an international school in Hong Kong. His poetry has been published in Foliate Oak and Asian Cha.
* * *
Poems by Frank de Canio
Fecund Muse 
Conceiving a poetic strain,
her forceps waken me from sleep
till germinal impressions peep
as fancies which, like novocaine,
augments the threshold of my pain.
Thus I breed sonnets in her keep.
They count my syllables like sheep,
and feed upon my teeming brain
whose metric measures are their bed. 
They doff a crumpled dressing gown
for metaphors my verses spread
around them like an eiderdown.
Indelible on sheets I fled,
they mock their weary father’s frown.

Accomplice 
I hear an inner voice
compose a line or two
till, feeling I’ve no choice,
I add another few.
These bolster the conceit
that’s mesmerizing me
to walk on metric feet
in rapt captivity.
And thus I serve my time,
constrained by metaphor,
pentameter and rhyme
  to finish what I swore
  I wouldn’t start again
till locked inside my pen.  
                                                                       
Spinning My Wheels 
How cunningly she took me in
by dressing up in simile
the daydream taken for a spin
by my creative fantasy.
I felt imagination soar
while pumping gas inside my tank.
And with a revved up metaphor
I quickly got the mountebank 
across the bridge that spans my brain
into the sleazy part of town.
With literate legerdemain
she bilked each adjective and noun,
and then with pentatonic feet
she ran away with my conceit.

Writing Shape 
As poet, I’m much better when the roar
erupts inside my germinating brain.
I clinch when I get hit, use metaphor
like padded gloves to mitigate the pain
of dealing with a  flurry of ideas
that land with combinations from my pen.
Historical conceits are panaceas
for the cuts I suffer when I’m going ten
with fantasies I can’t backpedal from.
But otherwise I lean against the ropes
when some unseemly image sticks a thumb
inside my eye. Then I envision tropes
that cushion me from blows before the belle
of fancy. Thus I write my villanelle
                                                                                            
Web Support
Pardon me for savoring my laptop’s
responsiveness to your persuasive hands.
But being weaned on lesser moms’ and pops’
abortive ministrations and commands
my net connection’s naughtiness became
a childish game. And though my manly pride
obliged my passive tendency with shame
to get my internet hooked up astride
exquisite shoulders, riding on your skill
seemed best. Though my PC played hide and seek
with surrogates, your firm, no-nonsense will
transformed its rowdy system to a meek
appendage of authoritative arms.
Thus I rejoice in your arresting charms.
 
Frank de Canio Born & bred in New Jersey, Frank works in New York. He loves music from Bach to Dory Previn, Amy Beach to Amy Winehouse, World Music, Latin, opera. Shakespeare is his consolation, writing his hobby. He likes Dylan Thomas, Keats, Wallace Stevens, Frost , Ginsburg, and Sylvia Plath as poets.
* * *
 
Poems by Michael Eastabrook
Not To Be 
All you needed Bobby
(I believe you’d agree, I know you’d agree)
to keep you content, challenged, engaged, excited,
and interested in life, to keep you alive –
was a woman. That’s it, all you needed,
a woman like Patti or Linda
(who you had huge crushes on
all the way back in high school).
I know you wanted a woman, had a long-distance
relationship for years with Beth Ann
all the way across the country. But, alas,
it never worked out, never developed
into something lasting and close –
closer than 3,000 miles that is.
You were so excited after your latest le liaisons dangerous:
“It was wonderful. Especially the Watley Inn.
You have to try it. We had a room and dinner,
the ‘Staycation.’ The food was awesome.
The room was fine too.”
So you dated now and then, here and there,
but let’s face it,
you were not comfortable with women, or even girls
back in the day. Girls are tricky,
many you encountered not intellectual enough
for your tastes, more bundles of emotional turmoil
and uncertainty, leaving you rudderless
in navigating through the shark-infested dating waters.
Yes, Bobby, you wanted it, wanted a woman
who could’ve saved you from yourself.
But well, it was not to be,
simply not to be – in this life anyway.


Maria
Bobby! For crying out loud!
Your cousin Maria is beautiful!
I just talked with her on the phone.
She’s also brilliant and very personable.
I can tell she’s caring and loving,
thoughtful, considerate, and kind.
I found her picture up on Facebook.
Dude! I’m not kidding!
Oh my God, she’s simply beautiful!
You should see her, you’ve got to see her.
What have you done?
Where have you gone?
You’d be so happy to still be around
just to spend some time
with your cousin Maria,
to see her, talk with her, touch her hand,
breathe the same air she breathes.
I know you would. I know it.
Bobby! For crying out loud!
 
Michael Estabrook is Marketing Communications Manager by day and a struggling poet by night who began getting his poetry published in the late 1980s. Over the years he has published 15 poetry chapbooks, his most recent entitled When the Muse Speaks.  His interests include history, art, music, theatre, opera, and his wife who just happens to be the most beautiful woman he has ever known.
* * * 
Whatever Gets You Through the Night
By David Einhorn
I hope not to see anyone I know
As I read the obituaries.
Recognition is far too cruel a fate
Even for someone I never liked.

I look at lives well-lived and lives ...lived,
Grainy faces over the“bits” in the obits,
As though a bit of each life touches me
In the newsprint on my fingers.

Each life sounds remarkable when
Recounted and retold by loved ones
The way Lane said, “He used to be a big shot,”
As Cagney’s life ended in “The Roaring Twenties”.

Do they now know something that I don’t?
Have they wiped this world’s mud on a new welcome mat?
Found any kind of promise at the end of the rainbow;
“You have my word, son, I’ll never do it again,”?

Do we cling to a spark, a “bit” of the divine
More remote than an abandoned cabin with a dry well?
Did we first lift our heads to look up
Or to roar and raise an animal bone club instead?

Did Kurtz whisper, “The horror, the horror,”
Because he found the answer to that question?
Or because he saw that Thrasymachos’s concept of justice
Held true even in the next life?

Any answer might elicit Kurtz’s reaction
Depending how one has lived one’s life.
We all find a cure for insomnia eventually,
So be careful what you read.
David Einhorn is a teacher and fledgling writer who lives in Welland, Ontario, Canada. He holds degrees from St. John’s College of Maryland, Canisius College and the University of Western Ontario. He has just completed his first novel, The Fireflies of Eden, and is looking for a publisher.
* * * 
Old Dog
By Alan Haider
My best friend
Weakened joints
And footing not as sure
In younger days was fierce and lightning quick
Now docile and sedentary

He is a good dog
No matter what he does
His good years outnumber those left
His beautiful coat does not tell his age
But his eyes and labored breath
Tell the truth

He is an old dog
My best friend
He does not ask for much
A bowl of food and a spot to lay
Just an old dog
But a good dog
And that’s the truth
And perhaps will be the worst to lose.    
Alan Haider is an emerging writer who currently resides in South Florida, where he was born and raised. His work has appeared—or will appear soon—in publications such as Star*Line, Bête Noire, and Wilderness House Literary Review.
* * * 
Friday Night
By Marianne LaVelle-Vincent
He sits at the bar stool next to me
concentrating on the scars I
exhibit
asks me a thousand questions
assures me he’s different from
the rest
and buys me a glass of
chardonnay
he’s nice enough I guess
but his teeth are crooked
I loose interest quickly
he wants my number 
so I lie and tell him I’m involved
I can tell he’s pissed
I refrain from asking him
if he seriously thought he could have me
for a friggin glass of wine
the suit on the other side
reeks of cheap “men’s room cologne”
and spends most of the conversation
staring at my chest
he’s wearing a knock-off Rolex
and fake leather shoes
I’m annoyed
there’s a cowboy hat shooting darts
and he catches my eye
I flirt a bit and he approaches
he smells like hay and I tell him
my horse is double parked
his chaps are in a bunch
and he calls me a bitch
home alone I remember
when we first met
how it just worked
what you used to smell like
I imagine you lying next to me 
trying to make the scars go away
I inhale the loneliness like a drug
and sleep like I used to
when your love never kept me 
awake
Marianne LaValle-Vincent is a published author with many of her works available world wide. Her credits include three full length poetry collections and hundreds of short stories. She is also a regular contributor to the Erma Bombeck network. She works as a CEO for an assisted living community and still resides in Syracuse, NY with her daughter, Jess and extended family.
* * *
Grief
By Cathrine Lødøen
So this is what grief feels like across my skin!?

My eyes are too heavy to hold
if I take them out now
and put them on your pillow
your image will be the last they ever saw.

Always the very last across their retina.

And I’d be left with empty space
where I could finally just be me.

You see?

Cathrine Lødøen(her art) (her writing) lives in Norway. Her work has appeared in The Blue Print Review, All things girl, Oprah's Breathing Space and In Our Own Words: Generation X, Ed M. P. Weaver.
 
* * *
What Are We?
By Elexus Lohman
 
I miss the idea of a land where 
Freedom reached to every blade of grass, 
To every spec of dirt, from people to people. 

I miss the pride
That shone in every American’s eye.

I miss the idea of a nation
Based on a hope of a people
That willed it to prosper. 

I miss the strength
That used to be shown
During times of war and disaster.

I miss the America
That spent it’s time enjoying
Being alive and free.
Not the once prosperous land, 
Now who’s only green living thing 
Is money in a jungle of concrete and steel. 

I miss the ideals of a country
Where the work was spread equally among it’s inhabitants,
Equally sharing the prosperity and wealth. 

I miss the land where
Doing the right thing was an everyday courtesy,
Not a once in a life time chance. 

I miss the land where
We relied on each other,
Took care of our neighbors, 
Not shut them out to fight their own battles. 

I miss the country that was founded
On the rights of all people,
Allowing the right of happiness, 
But now the question is
Who is happy? 

I miss the people whose 
Strength was admirable 
Generosity was in every man, woman, and child,
Confidence was not arrogant but appropriate,
Kindness reached to comfort everyone not just its own. 

What happened to us?
What brought upon this change? 
Tell me, are we America?
Are we the America that fought for freedom against the British?
Are we the America who established a country on the backs of men who had a dream?

If we are not that America, what are we? 

Elexus Lohman is currently a college student that is inspired by the most unique things. She loves to write about things she has experienced and things she observes out in the world.
* * *
 
Poems by Brian Looney
Damned
I looked on her with the face of the damned.
With the sadness of the exile.
The segmented gap.
The widest breach.

I looked on her with the face of the damned.
Confidence for minutes.
But when let down it all contorted.

I looked on her with the face of the damned.
Pools of sadness outward.
Pools of longing thronging.
Pools of sadness outward.

I looked on her with the face of the damned.
With eagerness concealed.
But when she saw she knew.

I looked on her with the face of the damned.
I looked into her radiance.
I felt her halo quiver.
I felt it shift and turn.
 
Loud
And still the TV’s on too loud. 
So I turn it down.  I lower the bass.  I shift the speakers around.
And still the TV’s on too loud.

But now it’s soft, and the voices murmur.
I can’t split up the sounds,
or parcel out the speech.

So I hike it up, bar by bar, I creep the volume up.
Again the TV’s on too loud.

Then down it crawls, tick-marks green. 
Until I hear it, barely.

And still the TV’s on too loud.
And still it echoes me to sleep.
And still the words evade.
 
Mental Shift 
I have a twin.  Sometimes we swap out. 
He’s not so sure as me, not so easy, most unstable. 

He gets the blues a lot, the worldly crash and burn.  Truly he’s depressive. 
He is me, but lacking peace.

Want the simple difference?  A carefree smile in the midst of it. 
For truly we’re the same.  The same in all the rest. 

But he.  He got the harder half, the darker half. 
He beckons toward the worst of it. 
He can’t forget, he tries for me, he fails so miserably.

He’s full of foolish things, of superficial ego. 
His carefree smile’s fake. 
And I just pray his star will wink:
a silent blip and then no more.  
 
The Master Voice
You know that master voice.  The one whose tone exhibits.  The voice for which I search.  Perhaps you know its call.

You know that master voice.  The skittish one I love.  The power one you fear.  The one I must command, and sometimes misinterpret.

You know that master voice, that taunts me with its closeness.  I thought I had it wedded.  I thought I had it wedded.  Handcuffed at the wrist. 

Sometimes it’s in a bag of wind.  It empties out, too hot for me, the limp and wrinkled sag.  It empties out too quick to catch. 

So I aim to conjure it back up.  The master voice, that is. 
My cauldron boils over, my tongue grows lax with chant. 
How often it evades, how rarely does it answer. 
And once its there I lose my task, drowned inside the rant.           
 
Unreachable
Go play your little games and kiss your mother on the cheek.  Kiss my mother for me, while you’re at it.  I’ve got work to do, and I’m on the verge of something real: a tangible breakthrough. 

What could this next stage be?  I feel myself being slowly lifted.  Sometimes it seems I’m two places at once, and I have to shout to get my bearings.

How heavy is the next load?  What sort of weight will I be carrying?  These are valid questions, and I remain suspicious.  I don’t know if I want ascension. 

I have trouble with reality already.  I can never quite grasp its handle.  How would I be as a beam of light?  Trembling with heat and energy, and shooting hot through space-- unreachable.
 
Brian Looney has gone to the chapel and wedded his work. He writes to(and for) anyone who respects these bonds. He's been published here and there. See his website here.
* * * 
Lisa
By Corey Mesler
 
I remember her in shards

lit by passing cars.

She was smart as

night-blooms and her legs

were as shapely as plumes.

I followed her around town,

because I needed to.

We came together briefly,

the way lightning

and hills do.

Now, many years later,

the snowfield

between us is sullied by too

many feet. The white,

where our sight

used to disappear, has itself

disappeared. Yet, we

talk to each other in tender

terms. Our words

are soft and low. The night

surrounds them. The wind

whispers through them.

Yet, we are heard and under-

stood. Yet, we know

there is more snow,

more lightning, more words to

come that only we can use.
Corey Mesler has published in numerous journals and anthologies. He has published five novels,  three books of short stories, numerous chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections. He has been nominated for a Pushcart numerous times, and two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He runs a bookstore in Memphis.
 
* * *
Expired
By Rachel Newton
A gray haze floats like frozen waves, filling the small kitchen space.  Remnants of his cigarette interrupt sunlit streams peeking through the blinds.  He flips through a stack of crisp envelopes scattered on the table top.  He dreads the repetition of ripping through tops, revealing italicized or bold digits next to a due date.  He tugs at the perforation, splits the remittance slip from its body like a child pulling a spider’s leg.  He folds the slip into the envelope lip, placing it back on the table.  He stops, reaching for his cigarettes, glancing up only to tug one free.  The grating of the dragging ashtray interrupts the monotonous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall.  His silver lighter, emblazoned with its proud military insignia briefly offers its customary clinking, similar to wine glasses at an evening toast.   He puts the slender roll to his lips, dragging deeply.   The glowing tip flashes an SOS as he flips the lid shut, tossing the lighter on the table.  The cigarette dangles from his wrinkled lips.  Both hands, stretch upwards towards his bald head.  The index and middle fingers of his right hand reflect the orange-red stains of tobacco, etched deeply into the lines of his knuckles.  He massages the skin of his skull out of irritation.  He lifts his head, squinting splits open to reveal his blue eyes marked with maps of red veins and yellow tissue.  A long puckered purple scar rises vertically along his chest, a ribbon representing five open heart surgeries.  The only dividing line of his freckled tan skin, wrinkled with age, worn rough like leather.  He rests silently, dragging on his cigarette.  The long ash of expired tobacco clings on to its home for dear life.
 
Rachel Newton has a MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University in July, 2013.
* * * 
 
Poems By Sy Roth
 
Cosmological Discontinuity Cosmological Discontinuity
With Best Wishes to Gore Vidal


Take a long hard look from the 
inside out/outside in.
Twist and turn what you see into a salty pretzel
And chew on it for a while without mustard.
Slinking to the edge of a flat surface
Sticking your head out into space
When your gray matter unbalances you
Tipping you over into the abyss.

No flexing phalanx of muscled beings exist to rescue you.
Screaming to get back onto the disk, your terra firma, 
Would be a waste of time.
Instead, as you fall you find relief in twisting into oblivion.
Where there is no bottom,
Only a never-ending fall

To no grace,
Poor soul who clung to resurrection--
A cosmic joke told by a laughing god.
Resurrection into what?
A galaxy of stars that twist into itself unboundedly,
Figure-eight skaters on a complex manifold
Destined to skim the surface infinitely to nowhere.

The reality that nothing else exists 
Beyond frozen moments of mime time--
Nothing beyond the clickety-clack of the keyboard
Finding keys to tap out hidden messages upon a page.
Other than that,
All is an eternal void where Gore has gone.

Beneath the Sand in SolitaryBeneath the Sand in Solitary

 
Above
waves cavort and pinwheel into shore
rolling bits of sand in its wake 
laconically turning them about
until the tide rushes them back out
erasing their memories.

Gritty grains scuff the surface of what lies 
in a hollow curve just beneath
Carving name-signatures into it
Shallow grooves speaking of eons.
It remains still 
gelatinous lumpen under the calcified hamburger bun
silent to the boisterous hordes
playfully shifting the sand above
with their pounding feet and plastic shovels
making ocean-melting mounds
while they revel in the sun gravel
etching grooves into their skin.

A three year old sits at the water’s edge 
pail in one hand/shovel in the other
tossing wet sand into his orange pail.
He dips the full pail into the onrushing water and
contemplates the escaping sand
now moving like ants from an invaded anthill.
Repetition finds a gray mound buried in the sand.
He lifts it from its hidey-home
pseudopod dangling like an overheated dog’s tongue.
Petrified, the mollusk falls from his hands;
father gives it a cursory look
pries it open
tosses it callously to the sand
No Venus to emerge from it
Only a morsel for a passing tern.

The boy has vanquished the mystery.
The ocean could not protect it.
Father turns his skin back to the sun.
He shuts up like a clam.
Sy Roth is a retired school administrator and has finally found the sounds of silence and the time to think whole thoughts. This has led him to find words and the ability to shape them. He has published in Visceral Uterus, Amulet, BlogNostics, Every Day Poets, Barefoot Review, Haggard and Halloo, Misfits Miscellany, Mad Swirl, Larks Fiction Magazine, Danse Macabre, Bitchin’ Kitch, Bong is Bard, Humber Pie and The Eloquent Atheist.
* * *
Twenty Years Ago I Made a Mistake
By John Tustin
I hate that others have been inside you.
I hate that your I Love You’s have gone
   to other ears.
I hate that I didn’t only allow it,
   I manufactured it.
    
And now,
I sit in deadly silence,
   alone like I always am,
like I always
   will be,

looking like a fucking fool
trying to unring
   a bell.
 
* * *
Poems By Mark Vogel
From afar a flash of fading color
On the chocolate unreadable Des Moines River

rain’s fat worms draw bottom feeders

rising to sweaty light—eels and drum and catfish.

On the sediment bank smelling of rot,

coons and possums leave fresh tracks, and mosquitoes

swarm over carp carci, bleached and clean,

with tails and eyes eaten away.

Wisps of morning fog change little when forever

citizens have heard Iowa law saying no more carp,

or zebra mussels, or starlings, or purple loose strife--

that killing intruders is mandatory.

Satisfied crawdads come into the sun to explore

discarded fish feasts, then dig at castles,

and scurry backwards into holes.

Tethered to other lifetimes a thousand miles away,

in Blue Ridge freshness, not far from Blowing Rock,

the trout pool couldn’t breed soft shell turtles,

or river eels, or water moccasins; yet exposed in sun

is an obscene dissolving koi starved by drought.

An orange imported carp taking no

gulping breaths.

When Asian pets no longer own the flow,

everywhere the dead wash ashore, and water itself

decays, turning to poison.  When again will rain

smear boundaries, insisting lands leave proof?

When again, just for us, will water drip

from leaves, draining forever down

and around? 
 
Everyday summer sex
Sex wet red bee balm way station

demanding attention,

so advertised, wooly visitors on one

frilled flower then another--

black, blue, spotted orange butterfly grope,

urgent swaying focused now.

Mature, better than art, red bee balm,

fanned by a hundred wings,

from a distance never dull in bright humid sun.

The only attraction again and again,

quick fluttering moves, like a communal

            racing breath over and over,

today’s finished movie, innocent tongued

touching, the fragile not yet fading,

a week’s memory already temporary sweet

exquisite need, the deepest

full season bloom, just as excess shifts,

preparing to collapse into itself.
 
Old as dirt
A vulnerable mouth fears gouging

silver weapons designed to go deep.

Elevated feet, huge and mutant,

no help locked in dental chair tight.

Breathing races to panic, planning a flimsy

escape.  Such a shame, croons hygienist

crone, to lose the tooth, though gone already

is the brittle yellowed molar married

to soldered metal.

Deep in dark holes lies proof punishment

is exacted—that bleeding may or

may not stop.  Even now a fat tongue

investigates the abyss, seeking walls

of habit not easily forgotten.  Like the

hollowed log looking solid, smothered

in leaves, invaded by beetles, eaten

from within, the tooth so long lived

as mere shell, pretending to be strong.

Surreal time blinks pastel, automatic

doors opening to concrete bright. Shuffling

gauze holds back leakage, memory

of violence a spring flood hurling rocks

downstream.  Three hours later—hiding

behind the barn, shovel in hand, I am robot

missing parts, learning again to move, 

poking a smoking mound—congealed

leaves, last year’s manure.

March wind moves thin clouds quickly

away, the movie receding like childhood

memory.  A shiver realizing worlds

reshape without permission, sometimes

again becoming whole. 
 
What doesn't age
Overnight strawberries mildew and soften,

and exquisite liverwurst, no longer centered

attention, turns cunning purple in the refrigerator.

Two bananas freckle on immaculate tile,

while a bruised peach colors, already

giving in to liquid dissolve.

Almost from the beginning airplanes in the toy room

have no hanger, and green/red/yellow

Lego buildings fall apart.  Summer heats,

then unravels upstairs in isolated rooms--

one powdered moth, lonely, munches hard won wool,

and, when noticed, even shiny plastic loses its sheen.

Still, in the cavernous barn a flannel shirt hangs,

unlabeled on a nail, thin dust softening

red blue quiet wild.  This weave clings in hot and cold,

accepting darkness, and rats, as swallows dart

in and around.  Again and again, a stab of sun,

horses staring with liquid eyes.

The mysterious rules behind the chosen--

mute—Verna at ninety two, blinking alert.

The car still cranking after fourteen years.

The indestructible photo slipping drawer to drawer.

The checkered flannel shirt in the barn, so far away,

waiting, each day insisting on forever.
 
Mark Vogel has published short stories in Cities and Roads, Knight Literary Journal, Whimperbang, SN Review, and Our Stories. Poetry has appeared in English Journal, Dark Sky, Cold Mountain Review, and other journals. He is currently Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. 
* * * 
Art
Eleanor Bennett
 
 
 
 
 
Eleanor Leonne Bennett has been published widely and frequently around the world. She tries to not cut off her finger while making sandwiches.
* * *
Cecelia "Cece" Chapman
 
 
Cecelia "Cece" Chapman is an artist working in writing, video and photography. You can learn more here.
 
* * *

Cathrine Lødøen
Fall, Frost, Lone, Oak
 
 

Fabio Sassi
Dropping to Nowhere, Hanging Around on Blue, Line and Circle on Blue, Links, Tracks on Blue
 
 
Fabio Sassi has had several experiences in music, photography and writing. He has been a visual artist since 1990 making acrylics using the stenciling technique on canvas, board, old vinyl records and other media. He uses logos, icons, tiny objects, discarded stuff and shades. He often puts a quirky twist to his subjects or employs an unusual perspective that gives a new angle of view. He lives in Bologna, Italy. His work can be viewed here.
 
* * *

Terry Wright
Whose Woods These Are I Think I'll Leave, Lake Serotonin, Fractal Housewives1, Pucker Up Remix, Mordred Remix
 
 
 
 
Terry Wright teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His latest chapbook is "Fractal Cut-Ups" (Kattywompas). His art has been widely published, including venues like Potion, Pure Francis, Third Wednesday and USA Today. Terry believes his sunrise can beat up yours.
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