Foliate Oak October 2015
By Isaac Black
Hank was fond of conspiracies, an interest that his friend Marty considered a retro affectation.Conspiracy theories had lost their shine in the last fifteen years or so, ever since world markets stabilized, global warming leveled off, and entrenched conflicts dissipated. The achievement of world peace, so to speak, puzzled social scientists and analysts but didn’t birth many theories that would stick. People don’t accuse secret, powerful cabals of plotting global prosperity, but Hank seemed convinced that there had to be someone pulling levers.
They were at a party, an elaborate but dull affair their friend had put on. She was a restaurant manager who worked three days a week and spent the rest of her time decorating and planning personal events. She had outfitted her studio apartment in burgundy and paisley like a Victorian salon with a mixologist serving from behind the mahogany bar. Marty surveyed the gathering from a corner, trying to pinpoint why he was embarrassed for Hank. It was true that his giant head and ruddy face gave him the image of a maladroit jester,but it was unfair to blame him for how he looked.
“I was going through the code of archived web pages from twenty years ago,” Hank was sayingto small group, “and I found a pattern in each of them.” He scribbled on a napkin: <!--464-->
Marty sipped from his very good gimlet.
Hank thumped the table and continued. “The reason it caught my eye is because it doesn't do anything. The brackets turn it into a comment. It’s a signature, not code. But it's in the source of every page I could find.
"Marty decided to humor him. "What do you think it means?"
"I don't know," he conceded. "But I bet it means something."
Marty talked to a few people he had met at a party or two before. They all had the samebourgeois hobbies--woodworking, bird watching, crocheting. Which was fine. It had just stopped interesting him.
They left soon after, walking to catch the train. "Think about what it would mean,” Hank said.“People think democracy saved the world, that the internet allowed people to organize againstthe oligarchy. But that's naive. Besides, how do you explain the environment?” He took a drinkfrom his ceramic water bottle. “And who would have had access to every webpage, including government pages, to put in that signature?”
“Who knows, maybe it’s some part of HTML that you don’t understand.” Marty wanted Hank to pipe down about this stuff, especially in public, but he couldn’t deny becoming more curious himself.
They had seen pictures of old San Diego freeways—spaghetti bowls full of lane-to-lane traffic. From the elevated tram they were on, Marty looked down at the few cars, many of them self-driving swiftly next to a tree-lined buffer between them and the repurposed pedestrian and bikelanes. How different life must have been.Marty was a nutritionist contractor for the federal government, based out of a newish building in Oceanside. His role was to approve school lunches, stuff like that. Despite having a minimal work load he had an assistant, a cheerful woman named Molly a year or two younger than him who managed his calendar. Since internships had fallen out of fashion, this was a kind of apprenticeship for her. He was about to get a salad with her a couple days after the party when Hank texted him.
“I think I’m onto something. Check your email.”
He put his sunglasses back down on his desk in irritation. “Go ahead without me,” he said to
Molly. An unfamiliar paranoia surfaced as he remembered chapters from history books about government surveillance. He tried to reason with himself that there were no internet monitors left to flag him for this <!--464--> stuff.
The email read: “I remembered that in Hebrew the letters have a corresponding number. So Ithought, what if the numbers are a stand-in for Hebrew letters? It would be, or DVD. In English, David. It’s a signature, as I suspected. So who is David??”
Who is David.
Marty sighed and resigned himself to seeing this through.He was meeting up with Hank the next night, reading the news on his phone. His car, driving itself to the parking spot nearest the tea house they were meeting at, stopped and prompted him to approve a reroute. He looked up, annoyed, to see that someone else’s car had beaten him to the parking spot seconds prior. He glared at the passenger of the car as his car took him around the block. “When are they going to sync up on the same network,” he complained to no one.
They caught up briefly before ordering, Marty giving Hank permission to order since the place was his suggestion. Marty got an old fashioned. Hank was chatty with the server in a way that reminded Marty of charismatic people being chatty with servers. He mentally crossed his fingers, for Hank’s sake, that she wouldn’t be put off by it.
“What’s up with you lately?” Hank asked cheerfully.
Marty had been spending more time at the beach. His game lately was to swim to where he couldn’t touch and dive down to the floor, then to swim out to where he figured it was about fifteen feet deep, or a little over twice his height, and dive down. He hadn’t been able to touch it yet with his hands, though he reckoned it was mostly mental. He would get down to where his ears started aching from the pressure, and his strokes became more hurried. He would use up his oxygen, blow out the contents of his lungs in big bubbles, and begin waving blindly at the sand he could only guess was somewhere in front of him.
The waiter arrived with their order of small plates: a prosciutto salad, fava bean hummus with toast, crudités, pan-seared figs with ricotta, and whiskey-braised pork belly. The issue of David hadn’t been brought up yet. He decided to end the game of chicken that Hank was apparently playing.
“Any new developments on the David thing?”
“David?” Hank said.
“Oh, right. The HTML signature thing. I haven’t had a chance to look too much into it yet.”
His casualness seemed sincere, but it was unlike him to let go of an obsession so quickly. Marty ate with a peculiar resentment that he knew was too childish to entertain.He was swimming about a week later on his lunch break. He stretched on the sand, jogged into the chilly surf, swam out, swam down. He treaded water looking seaward. Couldn’t hold his breath for shit today. He tried one last dive and, hurried, didn’t get a good breath and came back up right away.He picked up his sandals and shirt and marched over the hot sand, spying on his peers relaxing in bronzed splendor as the air dried his goosepimpled skin. He didn’t begrudge them their leisure.Back in his car he checked his phone. Hank had called him.
“Marty, I got something big.” Hank was a little breathless. “Remember how about fifteen years ago the climate stabilized? I wondered if there was a connection with the David thing, so Istarted studying NASA climate data during that time period. When I was looking at the graphs Inoticed these three spikes a couple weeks apart. They matched up over a few different years. Idid the math, and the global temperature during these spikes was a standard deviation of four,then six, then four. That’s the signature again, Marty! In the weather!”
Marty deleted the message and stretched out in his car. He joked to himself about how many times Hank had run the numbers to discover that pattern.
After lunch the next day he told his assistant that he was leaving early and got in his car. Hank had wanted to meet up to talk about the new findings, and Marty was humoring him. He beat Hank there. He punched his order into a touchscreen, the machine filled his paper cup with freshly made, mediocre coffee, and he sat on the patio to watch people stroll the street in the beautiful weather.
“There’s Marty, prompt as always!” Hank announced to the person with him as they walked through the door.The surprise guest was a former government contractor. They joined him on the patio. After introductions, Marty wasted little time in asking what he knew about the <!--464--> signature.
The contractor confessed he had never noticed it, to Hank's chagrin, though he hadn’t workedon that many sites. He also indicated that there wasn’t all that much contract work available.
“Tell him what you told me,” Hank prompted.
“Well,” the mousy man said, “I never knew if it was true but there was talk of an AI that maintained most of the sites.”
“Do you still have access to see who wrote the code?”
He didn’t. The trio lapsed into silent people-watching.
“Where did you meet that guy?” Marty asked as they walked out.
“Friend of a friend. It’s too bad that he doesn’t have access anymore to those sites, huh?”
Marty looked online later but it was difficult to find the right search term for a government artificial intelligence program that designed web sites. He flirted with the idea of going to the dark web. There was no particular reason why he should be wary of it. It was anonymous, after all. Maybe it was the thought of sharing network space with child pornographers and would-be terrorists. Or maybe it was the fear that some dark part of his soul would be tempted to stay there and sabotage the establishment for no good reason, like yanking the steering wheel into the divider on the highway.
He forged ahead, trying to not look at an ad for a snuff film. The search engine wasn’t the best, but on the third page of results he found something promising. He clicked through to a site called Quadrophenia. There was a post by someone who called himself The Centipede. His avatar was a pixellated face wearing round sunglasses. Marty rolled his eyes at the electric green monotype font on black background.
The Centipede went on at length in the voice of a anarchist troll about how an artificial intelligence program called David was controlling everything from global trade agreements to ocean currents to university telescopes. From the site: He is everywhere. A kind of deity, David directs the flow of internet traffic in Banglades hand foot traffic in Manhattan. Never sleeping, never closing his eyes. Knowing, like Santa Claus, when you are sleeping and when you are awake, who you’re sleeping with,how long your commute is, who you’re going to vote for before you go to the polls. He is the central nervous system of the world’s largest super-organism: human civilization. All along we have wanted to surrender ourselves to the violence that our peace is founded on and David is our rationalization. New God, he is also the abyss. Know that when we stared long enough into the depths of human depravity, David stared back.
According to his source, a leaked document only published briefly and then taken down because the poster could no longer afford the hosting fees, David was the brainchild of G-men from the early Cold War, implemented alongside other experiments like psychic warfare and Project MKULTRA. Parsing out the doom in the Centipede’s scenario was difficult, let alone weighing the truth against the fiction. Still, it was a theory. Something to be chased down.They met up again for wood-fired pizza and beers and discussed what Marty had found. Hank,sipping his third pint of pale ale, was giddy.
“I vote that our next step is to get someone on the inside,” Hank was saying. “If this program isactually as widespread as all that, there have to be people who know about it. Think about the hardware it would take to run a data collection scheme like that.”
Marty took a sip of beer and turned to look over the patio to the whitecaps reflecting moonlight past the beach.
“Well,” Hank admitted, “yes, I was thinking that, since you are already a federal government employee, you would be the obvious choice.”
“I’m a nutritionist. What am I going to do, start asking around about a datacenter that houses theAI program that runs our lives?”
“Marty, twenty five million Americans have government security clearance. All you need to do is get an assignment that would give you clearance, and then you can snoop around from there.”
“Snoop around? And if I get caught, I lose my job.”
Marty was throwing a bit of a tantrum. It was something he probably wanted to do, even, but there was something in Hank’s presumptive tone which made him salty.
Hank crossed his thick arms in a studied way and stared him down. “Don’t be melodramatic,” he said, a frog in his throat. He cleared it loudly.Marty laughed and sipped his beer.
“Just think about it, ok?”
Marty tipped his wrought iron chair back and looked at the shore. He would think about it. He decided the next day to keep an eye out for any jobs that would require security clearance. He couldn’t remember hearing of many things coming up in his field.
A month later his assistant got a promotion and a spot in the office next to him. They still went tolunch together often. Nights he would eat leisurely dinners, stroll around in the perennial summer air, take a few drags off someone else’s electronic cigarette if he had enough to drink.
Late afternoons he would still go to the beach and dive down as far as he felt comfortable.Afterward he would walk back over the hot sand without toweling off.He started biking to give himself something else to do, and a few days a week he would bike to work and shower in the office. The tiny hills with their premature summits didn’t quite seem to satisfy him though, and he would coast down them feeling his rest was unearned. He liked to bike out to Coronado sometimes, not fighting too hard against the sea breeze running over the bridge. He liked to pretend it was Treasure Island from Pinocchio and that somewhere in the bowels of the palatial hotels there were captive wretches working off their debts.
After a couple of months, his checking of the job board became uninhibited. He no longer caredif his colleagues thought he was unsatisfied. The dream of David began to slip to the back of his mind but the world of the Centipede stuck with him. There were still outlaws in this era when people seemed complacent, happy. Etherized. After four months, he was still expecting something to happen. He kept thinking that life would turn a corner somewhere because it had to. It wasn’t that the world seemed precarious—instead it was the opposite. It seemed impossibly settled. No one prepared him to accept that in the movie of his life he might not have anything heroic to do.
Around this time, the local news ran amok with stories about an approaching storm, and Marty anticipated that this storm was the event. Somehow, it would trigger a landslide, or an earthquake, or disrupt the power grid, or whip up inchoate frenzy in the populace the way full moons used to do. But the storm came, the winds blew unusually hard for San Diego, and despite a couple shoulders on hilly roads being washed out, nothing changed. The surface of reality lay placid, undisturbed.
He still hung out with Hank from time to time. Hank had moved on to another conspiracy
theory—a benign echo of the old Tuskegee syphilis experiment—that claimed scientists were giving children skin rashes to immunize them from other diseases. He was half-hearted about this one, and Marty surmised that their failure to discover David, lamentably, had really discouraged him. One morning he woke up just before dawn and couldn't fall back asleep. He relented to the itchin his legs and rode his bike to the pier. The unevenness of the planks he walked over produced a rhythm in the fog that, he knew from memory, resembled the sloshing waves. The pier was vacant.The mist was so thick he could barely see the ocean, and if he looked back toward shore, the pier dissipated such that the railing behind him gave him his only bearing. His suspension above the water produced an illusion of floating.
Checking over his shoulder a third time, with a curiosity bordering on reverence, he said aloud the name. "David."
The waves below him swirled around the piles no louder or softer than before. Nothing manifested itself from the grey soup. He didn't wait but he did linger.
After enough time he got back on his bike and went to work.
Isaac Black is a systems administrator and writer for SLUG Magazine in Salt Lake City. His work has been published in The MacGuffin. He grew up in South Carolina before he decamped for the Rocky Mountains. He skis and bikes according to the seasons; he cooks and plays guitar year-round.
* * *
By Laura Bronlee
There was a rustle in the trees and Ginger leaped into the brush with an eager bark. It wasn’t like her and Simon was puzzled. Every Friday after work, he took his dog for a walk in these woods, and every Friday Ginger scampered ahead of him, chasing squirrels or smelling the path, but always staying in sight. He called but she didn’t come, and as he stopped to listen for her movement in the distance, he heard a woman’s voice begin to sing. It sounded unusual—playful and old-fashioned—and Simon guessed that Ginger must be saying hello to the odd stranger. As he considered whether to go after his dog, silence fell and Ginger reappeared.
It was a beautiful day, and Simon lost himself in the tranquility of the gently swaying trees. Autumn had arrived and the leaves, the ground, even the sky glowed with an earthy golden light. The air smelled clean and cool and fallen rowan berries covered the ground in every shade of red, yellow, pink, and gold, crunching pleasantly beneath his feet as he walked. The summer had been long and hot, and Simon delighted in the change. After many months melting in the sun, everything looked fresh and revitalized, as if just returning to life. Simon felt invigorated too and even Ginger seemed more playful than usual.
The walk was peaceful and soon the only sounds were Ginger’s quick footfall, the soft rustle of leaves in the wind, and the occasional echoing crack of a pinecone falling through branches. Then suddenly the strange singing began again, closer than before, and Ginger was off into the bushes once more. Simon called her, and this time she bounded back right away; but she wasn’t alone. Behind her was a small woman about Simon’s age, singing softly and dressed—he could think of no better way to describe it—like a creature of the forest.
Her feet were bare below a wispy brown dress that revealed pale arms and legs. “Hello,” said Simon. The woman said nothing, but balanced quietly on a tree root. “Are you rehearsing a play?” he asked. It was the only explanation he could imagine. She didn’t answer, but continued to watch him in silence. “I just thought, with the singing I heard … and the outfit …” Simon trailed off, suddenly self-conscious. The woman was pretty in a unique sort of way, with bright, round eyes, a long, sharp nose and wavy brown hair that stirred gently in the breeze.
A few moments passed and Simon began to feel that, despite her archaic outfit and odd behavior, she seemed somehow familiar. But try as he might, he couldn’t place her. “Have we met?” he asked. She opened her mouth, about to speak and Simon leaned forward, eager to hear her response. But she only giggled, blushed, and disappeared into the woods.
Simon had the sudden impulse to run into the woods after her, but he hesitated and the moment was gone. By the time he urged Ginger into the car, he would almost have thought the woman was a dream if he hadn’t heard her playful singing twice more, drifting through trees from far away.
In the week that followed, Simon often thought about the strange woman. The vague feeling that he had met her before returned many times, though he still couldn’t remember where or when. As his Friday walk approached, he found himself hoping to see her again, to find out who she was and why she sang. But when the weekend finally did arrive, a heavy rain set in. Soaking wet, Ginger turned back ten feet into the woods, dragging Simon to the car before he could even take her leash off. It was disappointing, but the parking lot near the trailhead was empty and he guessed the woman wouldn’t be out in such ugly weather anyway, especially if she still wore her short, flimsy dress. It exposed her pretty legs something terrible.
Simon shook his head, trying to stop his train of thought. She was either very strange or overly arty, and neither was his usual type. Still, he couldn’t help but hope for better weather next weekend.
The following Wednesday dawned warm and bright and Simon decided to walk to work. He slowed down when he reached the park, enjoying the morning light on his face. Children shrieked gleefully on the playground, dogs chased balls with tongues flapping, and old men with furrowed brows strategized chess moves at folding tables. Laughter and barking filled the air, but as Simon approached the centre of the park, it was drowned out by the buzz of a small crowd gathered around the fountain. Curious, he stopped to look.
A woman splashed in the water, singing and turning in a slow dance. To Simon’s delight, he saw that it was the woman from the forest, though she looked quite different today. Her brown dress was replaced by a slinky green shift that fell to her ankles and shimmered in tiny patches like fish scales. Her singing was different too, not playful at all, but eerie and mysterious, unfathomable as if echoing to him from a distant, magical past. Simon stopped to watch her move sleekly through the water, and slowly, slowly her singing took hold of him. The people around him sniggered and passed while Simon fell under the spell of her haunting song. His legs, warm and heavy with relaxation, inched forward, carrying him unthinking toward the voice and onto the edge of the fountain.
But as his foot approached the water, the singing suddenly stopped. He remembered himself instantly and stepped back, painfully aware of how foolish he must look. The woman was facing him, blushing and, impossible as it seemed after her flamboyant display, averting her eyes. A few incredibly awkward moments of silence passed before she turned abruptly and fled, her wet feet slapping against the concrete as she disappeared into the crowd.
Who was she? He had to know! She seemed more familiar than ever, but he still couldn’t place her. All through the day, made long by burning curiosity, he wondered about her. He’d seen her twice now; it had to be more than coincidence. She had to be seeking him out on purpose. But why? She was intriguing, mysterious. He was just a payroll clerk with a mediocre haircut and a thinning social life.
Days passed and the woman slowly infiltrated every aspect of his mind, even his dreams. On Tuesday she was queen of Egypt and on Friday she was the Mona Lisa, smiling enigmatically at him from her small gilded frame; but he always woke up before he found out who she really was. Simon began going out more and more, accepting every social invitation, visiting new woods, and walking through the park every day, even when it poured, hoping to see her again. His dog Ginger was delighted with the variety, but Simon was quickly becoming exhausted. After two weeks, his work was suffering and his friends were talking.
As Halloween approached, the weather grew cold. The endless rain of winter set in, promising to stay until spring. Even Ginger’s enthusiasm for walks faded, though Simon still dragged her out at every opportunity. He knew the woman wouldn’t likely dance in a fountain in this weather, but he couldn’t give up yet. The thought of not seeing her for many months, or maybe ever again, was surprisingly bleak.
On the Friday before Halloween, Simon’s coworkers went to the pub after work. Maybe she’ll be there, he thought mechanically, and he tagged along.
The bar was crowded with colorful costumes. A group of suits chatted with three pirates, and a cat ostentatiously kissed a dog in a dark corner. All the tables were taken so Simon and his friends clustered around the bar with their drinks, watching the room as they waited for some seats to clear. It was a lively scene and Simon’s friends smiled brightly as they surveyed the room.
“This is fantastic!” one yelled above the noise. “Never know who you might meet.” But the possibilities were wasted on Simon, who quickly concluded that his mystery woman would never be in a place like this.
Nobody was leaving and his friends settled in, leaning on the bar and talking loudly, trading gossip, and admiring nearby women. They tried to pull Simon into the conversation, but his heart wasn’t in it and after several short, withdrawn answers, they gave up and left him to his own thoughts. After almost an hour of quiet sulking, he decided to call it a night. He was just leaning over to make his excuses when a vampire materialized from the crowd and lightly touched his arm.
He turned to look and his heart thumped to see it was the woman! Grinning and laughing in nervous excitement, he stared into her moony eyes. She was smiling too and he could see plastic fangs askew behind bright red lips. Her hair was hidden beneath a dark, synthetic wig and she wore a long black dress with a high pointed collar and billowing sleeves. It was strange to see her in what was clearly a store-bought costume, though Simon dimly realized he had never seen her in anything but costumes.
“Hi!” he said quickly, before she could run away. “I’m Simon.” He grabbed her hand to shake it, and didn’t let it go. “What’s your name?”
She didn’t answer him, but leaned forward with a blush that Simon could see even in the dark bar and bit him gently on the neck. Drawing back, she looked at him shyly before pulling her wrist free and disappearing into the crowd.
Simon was about to run after her when one of his friends spoke loudly in his ear. “Wasn’t that Hester from accounting? Did she actually bite you? Always seemed pretty dull to me, but maybe not …”
“Hester? No …” But as the words sunk in, Simon realized his friend was right. It was Hester from accounting, a mousy little frump with an over-long nose, a weak chin, and outdated glasses. They had spoken only once, at the summer staff barbeque. Simon remembered it hazily, for it was the end of the night and he was well past tipsy on bad lager. His friends had all gone home when he saw her alone and unhappy against the wall. With a twinge of pity, he asked her to dance. They stayed together for a few songs, but before stumbling away, he kissed her. It was only a drunken peck but he regretted it the next day. It was misleading, he realized, and probably left her confused, but there was so much bad behavior at work parties that it was soon forgotten. And poor Hester, plain in her quiet shyness and bad fashion, was forgotten too.
It was no wonder he couldn’t place her. She was so exciting and mysterious in the woods and fountain—and tonight in this dark bar—that he would never have thought of the wallflower from the barbeque. But now that he knew what lay beneath her old-fashioned exterior, now that he knew how badly he had misjudged her, things were different. It hadn’t been a coincidence. She had sought him out, probably because of his flirtatious turn at the party. She had sought him out, and the thought thrilled him. Far from the pity he felt while they were dancing, he now felt out of his depths. His eyes had been veiled with hasty assumptions, but she had pulled the veil away.
It was no use chasing her; she was already gone. But he knew where to find her now. By lunch on Monday, he’d worked up the nerve to ride the elevator up three floors to accounting.
A secretary helped him find her cubicle, but she wasn’t at her desk. Simon sat in her chair to wait, and as he waited, he looked around. It was strange being there. He felt as if he knew Hester well, though in reality they’d exchanged only a few dozen words in all. Leaning back, he took in her pretty, tidy workstation, trying to learn all he could. Potted vines trailed across the walls and the shelves were lined with photos of a shaggy dog and Greek art. A print of some old painting hung on her corkboard, adding a bright touch to the beige office equipment, and a paperback novel leaned against her printer. The bookshelf was filled with long and tedious titles like Analytical Accounting in the Macro-Economy, but at the end of the row, half-hidden behind several oversized texts, was a large, yellow self-help guide: Express Yourself! From Shy to Sassy in Six Weeks. A page in the middle was bookmarked and Simon flipped to it, reading the first few sentences:
Chapter 8: Catching His Eye
To catch his eye, you must be resourceful as well as creative. Be different, stand out. And most important of all, express yourself. Draw inspiration from your interests…
He replaced the book and looked around her cubicle once more. The colorful print on the corkboard showed a young woman in a toga adjusting a flowery wreath in her hair. Leaning in, Simon read the small title printed beneath: A Nymph in the Forest. He looked next at the novel. It was a battered, dog-eared copy of Dracula. Hester’s odd behavior was slowly starting to make sense, but what about the fountain? Reaching to replace Dracula, Simon bumped her mouse and her screen slowly came to life. Brightening from black, her wallpaper appeared: an image of a fishtailed woman reaching out of the water to embrace a dazed young man. Simon knew his mythology—she was a siren.
Someone gasped behind him and Simon turned to see Hester watching him, wide-eyed and fearful, behind oversized, blue plastic frames. A long silence passed. Simon wanted to say something charming or witty, but he felt as flustered and bashful as she looked. Perhaps bolstered by her familiar surroundings, Hester gathered the courage to speak first.
“What are you doing here?”
No words would come. He looked at her baggy coat and lumpy grey scarf. He looked at her brown hair that, pulled back in a limp bun, seemed so mousy now. He looked at her slumped shoulders and long, thin nose. But all he cared about was her playful mouth and her dark eyes, shining with a mysterious spirit.
Casting about for something to say, his eyes fell on the picture of the nymph, and he remembered an ad he’d seen in that morning’s paper.
“So …” he stammered. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Playhouse … would you like to go with me?”
Laura Bronlee is a writer and physics technician from Vancouver, Canada, whose short fiction has appeared in "Crow Toes Quarterly Magazine". When not working, writing, or giving horsey rides to her small children, Laura crochets toy rabbits and studies Aikido.
* * *
By James William Gardner
It wasn’t because he didn’t have money. Hell, he had over two-hundred bucks in his pocket and nearly a thousand on his card. He could have taken the bus if he felt like it. No, the fact was that Everett Shockley just liked to hitchhike. He wasn’t in any particular hurry and he really didn’t have anywhere he necessarily had to be. He was just going wherever the ride took him. That’s how he found himself standing in front of the Waffle House in Rockingham at three in the morning.
That was okay too. There were a hell of a lot worse places to be at three in the morning. He was hungry anyway so he picked up his bag and walked inside.
It was cool in there and it smelled like bacon grease and black coffee. A fat little girl with a pretty face smiled at him from behind the counter so he smiled back. Then he walked over and sat down to get a closer look.
“Hey baby,” he said. “How you doing tonight?”
“I’ll be doing a lot better when five o’clock rolls around,” she said.
“Is that when you get off?”
She nodded her head. “You want coffee?” she asked.
“I reckon so,” he said.
She was still smiling so he kept smiling too. He wasn’t exactly sure what she was thinking. Did she tell him what time she was getting off just to say something or was she hinting at something else? He watched as she walked over to get the coffee pot. Hell, she might have been a little on the damn plump side, but he’d seen a lot worse. He decided that he’d feel her out a little more and see where she was coming from.
“What’s your name, honey?” he said.
“Melony,” she said as she poured the coffee. “You take cream, baby?”
That was a good sign he thought. She hadn’t hesitated to tell him her name and on top of that she called him baby and she was still smiling. The corners of his mouth were starting to hurt.
“You’re looking mighty damn cute tonight, Melony,” he said.
She didn’t have anything to say to that for a minute. Then she changed the subject.
“You thumbing?” she asked.
“Hell yeah,” he said.
“Where you coming from?”
“Virginia,” he said.
“Where you heading?”
“I don’t have a clue. I’m just traveling.”
He put cream and sugar in his coffee and then stirred it. It was her turn to say something. He wondered what it would be.
“It must be fun to just be traveling along like that. I see guys like you all the time come in here. Sometimes I wish I could just pick up and go,” she said. She got a little wistful expression in her eyes when she said it like she’d given it a lot of thought. You want something to eat?” she said.
He was just starting to feel like he was making a little headway when a big guy in a white shirt walked out of the back room. He should have known she wouldn’t be working alone in there at three in the damn morning. The guy looked him over and them turned and started to scrape off the grill. She handed him a menu from the counter.
Everett Shockley loved Waffle Houses. They were some of his favorite places to eat especially when they were real busy like on a Saturday night after the bars close. He loved to sit at the counter and watch the cook preparing the orders. This was a Tuesday though and he was the only customer in the place.
“Just give me three eggs over easy, sausage and a double helping of cheese grits,” he said.
She jotted the order down on a pad and then tore off the sheet and stuck it under a little magnet on the hood of the grill where the guy could see it while he cooked.
“You want hash browns with that too?” she asked. “They come with that order anyway.”
“Hell yeah,” he said. “I’ll take anything that’s free.”
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Everett,” he answered. He wanted to try and get the conversation back on track but he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. The big guy had his back turned. “Why the hell don’t you just pick up and go if you want to?” he said. “Shit, for that matter you could come go with me. We could have a time.”
“Lord Everett, I don’t know you from Adam,” she laughed. He listened closely to the laugh. It had just a tad of possibility in the tone and the length of it like there was just a split second there where she was actually considering it. Then, like a tiny flickering flame he felt it go out.
“I can’t,” she said. The smile was gone and she found herself back in Rockingham in a Waffle House with two more hours to go.
He took a sip of coffee and lit a cigarette. Then he looked her right in the eyes. “How old are you Melony?” he said.
“Twenty-two,” she replied. She sounded almost sad when she said it.
“You ever been anywhere?” he asked her.
“Not much,” she said. “I go to the beach every year, but that’s about it.” She started wiping off the countertop and straightening up the ketchup bottles like she was trying to get the idea out of her head.
“Why the hell don’t you just can this damn job and come with me?”
“What the devil would we do?” Where would we go? Shoot, you might be some kind of nut or rapist or murder for all I know. Besides that, I ain’t got no money to be knocking around on.”
The cook was listening to the conversation. Everett Shockley could tell. He got the impression that the guy was worried she might actually go and leave him to run the restaurant by himself.
“Hell baby, I got money. I’m on disability,” he said.
“How old are you?” she asked as she leaned a elbow down on the counter and stared at him.
“What difference does that make?” he said.
“You’re old. I bet you’re old enough to be my daddy. I can’t go traipsing off with you to Lord knows where. I ain’t like you. I got responsibilities.”
If there was one word that Everett Shockley hated to hear it was that one. It was like a damn lead weight dropping.
“Order up!” said the cook as he placed a lump of butter on top of the cheese grits.
She turned around and grabbed the plates and put them down in front of him. “You want more coffee?” she said. There was a distance in her voice that he hadn’t heard before and he could tell that she had put the whole idea out of her mind. He’d gotten so caught up in the prospect of talking her into running away with him that he’d lost sight of his earlier aim of getting her in the sack.
Anyway, it was too late now. The moment had passed. He ground his cigarette out in the ashtray and slid the coffee cup across the counter. What the hell, he thought. She was just some chubby little girl in a Waffle House in Rockingham at three in the morning.
A native of Southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south. His work explores aspects of southern culture and society often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society.
* * *
By Miranda Luby
Her husband is sitting at the kitchen table when the cat wanders in. It slinks around the edge of the room, an elegant eggshell white that perfectly matches the cabinetry. She looks at him and watches his eyes scan the animal over the top of the paper’s finance pages. He notices her watching him and his eyes flick to hers and his face softens into an easy smile.
A soft whoosh fills the morning air. She turns her attention back to the coffee machine and begins to swirl the glass jug around the steaming milk frother. Cappuccino, double shot, extra hot, plenty of froth.
“Busy day, Hunny?” she calls to him over the noise.
“Oh, the usual,” he says. She glances over her shoulder at him. He keeps his eyes on the paper. He wears a crisp dark suit and a furrowed brow full of concentration.
“You know,” she says, her voice a tiptoe. “I’d hardly know what to say if someone asked me what you do.” She lets out a little ringing laugh, like breaking china.
“Hmm?” he looks up briefly, that easy smile. “Oh, it’s boring sweetheart.”
His eyes return to his paper.
“Well,” she says. “Why don’t you try me?”
A few seconds pass. He licks his thumb then turns the page. She turns back to the machine.
Outside the window in front of her two younger women bounce by, matching outfits adhering to tight frames. She watches them. With each step they raise colorful little weights to their wagging chins.
“Oh,” he says. “We’re having Jack Leroy and his wife for dinner this Friday. Perhaps you can do that beautiful salmon dish you make.”
She clears her throat.
“Sure,” she says. “Sure Hunny.”
“But without that awful sauce you did last time I think,” he adds.
The milk stops frothing and the whooshing dies down and the silence in the kitchen teeters on a knife’s edge. She opens her mouth but then he says: “You could get your hair done for it. You know how great Jack’s wife always looks.”
She taps the glass jug on the bench top. Then she bangs it a few times. He looks up, uncurling the floppy top half of his paper with a quick flick.
Behind her she hears the cat’s claws clicking delicately on the polished tiles. A fluffy tail curls around one of her legs and she breaths in deeply, closing her eyes for a moment. She picks up a white mug and covers his swirling espresso shot in steaming foam.
The paper rustles as he folds the pages and puts them down. “The cat’s looking much better,” he says.
Her back stiffens. She places the jug down.
“Oh, really?” she replies. A sprinkle of cocoa. “I hadn’t really noticed.”
“I have. A lot better.” His voice ascends an octave. “Aren’t you pretty kitty?”
She picks up the coffee and turns to see him raise his gaze from the cat up to her: her legs, her waist, her chest, her face. His eyes wander lazily over her body. She pulls her shoulders back and walks over to the table.
“Thank you,” he says as she places the drink down. “It looks perfect.”
She sits down opposite him and arranges herself twice, first with legs folded one way, then the other, smoothing her white skirt down flat with hands of painted nails.
She takes a piece of toast from the pile, places it on her plate and begins to butter it. He watches the silverware scrape back and forth. She puts the knife down slowly and he smiles as he raises the coffee cup to his mouth.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he says, and takes a sip. “Hmmm, delicious. Now this is only a suggestion, but I think you’ve got the guest list for New Years all wrong.”
She watches him put the mug down and place a boiled egg on his plate. He cracks the top off with precision, digs the teaspoon into the white and golden flesh and wraps his mouth around it.
“I just think it’s important for you to understand,” he says thickly, waving the silver spoon in circles, “the way it works at these things. Your friends really didn’t fit in last year, did they?”
She holds her toast in her hand without taking a bite. He picks up his knife and begins to butter his own toast. The cat pads over and jumps onto an empty kitchen chair.
She takes a deep breath and lets it out and says, “Well, my friends just didn’t know anyone here but this ye-”
“See?” he says, pointing his knife at the cat. “Haven’t you noticed? She looks so much nicer.”
She put her toast down and looks at the cat. A shaft of morning sun lights up its luxurious coat. It vibrates with a deep, oblivious purring.
“Oh yes?” she says.
He puts down the knife, takes a bite of toast and begins chewing.
“I’ve had her on a meal plan, you know,” he says. “Half her normal daily intake. I think half’s about right, don’t you? She was just getting too… big.”
He turns back to the cat and his eyes narrow. “Too big for such a well-kept household, weren’t you kitty?” he coos. “So much prettier now, aren’t you?”
She looks down at her legs, smoothing her skirt again. “Do you… do you think it matters too much?” she asks. “I mean, if she’s healthy either way?”
He chews more toast thoughtfully then washes down his last mouthful with the rest of the coffee. “Well,” he says with a soft chuckle. “She’s a kept kitty. I mean, she’d be out on the street without us. So it’s not really up to her, is it?”
He stands up, sighs and brushes the crumbs from his jacket. He picks up his empty plate, and her plate of freshly buttered toast, and takes them to the sink. Then he walks back to the table and gives her a polite peck on the cheek.
“Well,” he says. “Have a good day sweetheart.”
She hears the front door open and close.
Miranda Luby is an Australian freelance travel and lifestyle journalist who loves drawing on her twisted imagination to write quirky and often dark fiction that makes you think twice. She has come runner up in the Daily Telegraph’s Summer Short Story Competition. She also surfs - badly.
* * *
By Jay Merill
Miriam is fond of stylised hellos and goodbyes, her lips drawn apart curvaceously, cherry-red. In between the greeting and the parting there’s a spill of words that say very little. A least said soonest mended interlude. She’s sitting on a bench by the canal in Maida Vale, her bags all around her, archipelago style. Quite nice plaid suitcases once, but frayed about the edges now. And a matching wheelie-thing. She likes to have them placed just so with herself at centre. Miriam has a plaid scarf too, done up over her head and folded round her chin like a muffler. Guarded eyes peek out.
Sitting still and bolt upright, she’s looking at this moment like the loneliest person on the planet. And her eyes are watching out for something. A door at a house opposite opens and a woman and two girls appear. The school-run. Miriam stays put, their car goes past, no one looks at her. After a bit she makes her way back along the canal towpath, waddling slowly on account of all the luggage. Later, on the Edgware Road, she’ll do her big hello to passing strangers. Most hurry by, embarrassed in case she’s a loony, though several do stop and pass the time of day. The odd few want to talk but find it hard to catch exactly what she’s saying. She has this way of slipping and sliding from one topic to another without a break. And in what seems like the middle of a question she’ll stop and cough. Or sigh. Then she’ll start up again, carrying on as before. She’s like an unskilled reader who pauses in all the wrong places in a text and runs the separate words together till they’re incomprehensible. They see her as mad though harmless.
She used to live in Maida Vale in the very house across from the canal where the door was opened and the girls came out. Miriam comes here to watch them. She’s living in the past. It’s not yesterday or the day before that, or even last year that occupies her thoughts. Her mind is held by images of times way back. Six, seven years ago. When she was a married woman with small twin daughters. She organised their activities, and the school-run, lived in a grey house down a samey grey street. Or at least that’s the way Miriam secretly saw things. Her own life felt grey and samey too; Ned, her husband seeming like a stranger. She felt he had another woman but kept her suspicions under wraps; becoming increasingly distant. Meanwhile she perfected her openings and closures. Did the big juicy cherry-ripe smile when greeting husband and acquaintances alike, after which she kept up bland and empty small talk, her well-practiced coughing and sighing and licking of lips brought in as backup. Till it was time to part. Then she rounded things off with radiant goodbyes, her smile equally intense.
Days passed. On the surface Miriam was absorbed with the girls’ complaints if there was no bread today for the ducks on the canal, or with Jane’s distress when she cut her finger on the sharp point of one of the railings, or when Mel dropped her pocket-money and feared the coins had rolled into a crack in the pavement. But her life didn’t seem real to her, and she felt she couldn’t go on this way forever. One morning in May five years ago Miriam did her biggest and brightest goodbye. She left her twin girls then aged six and their father. Simply opened the front door and bowed out of their lives. She disappeared.
Very often now Miriam comes back to the street and watches her family, still living in the same house. And there’s a woman. Miriam has seen her and Ned holding hands. The woman is the substitute for herself. Miriam can’t help feeling ghostlike and thinking how strange everything is. When she’d been living that other life she was hardly there at all, but now she no longer has it she’s scarcely anywhere else. Then, her presence was assumed, now she goes unnoticed. She’s just one of the homeless that people have got so used to seeing.
Jay Merill has fiction published recently or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Apeiron Review, Citron Review, Corium, Epiphany, The Galway Review, The Kentucky Review, Literary Orphans, Prairie Schooner, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Wigleaf, and other great publications. Jay has 2 short story collections published by Salt and was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. She has an Award from Arts Council England and is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Jay lives in London and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.
* * *
In Your Eyes The Stars
By Phoebe Reeves-Murray
They still had a house then, he still had a bed on which he slept in a sleeping bag covered with glowing planets, stars, galaxies, universes. His mother would lie next to him, her arm waving back and forth in the dark against the star sprinkled sky outside his bedroom window, showing him about quantum mechanics, the Higgs Field, the space time continuum, by making up stories about the stars. One night, after talking about something called nanoseconds and tiny time, she whispered, “We’re seeing the stars as they were, not as they are.”
He waited for her to begin a story, but she didn’t. “But it’s always now, isn’t it, Mama?” he finally asked.
“We can never see now. We can only see the past. Whatever we see is already over.”
He reached for his mother’s hand, wondering how her fingers against his couldn’t be now. But his mother was a scientist so she must know. Squeezing her hand, he fell asleep.
They stand outside a crumbling brick house in the fall. His mother hands him a bouquet of dying milkweed. He can hear it crackling, see it flaking away and he’s about to ask her why she gave him a bunch of dying plants when he sees a single Monarch caterpillar deep in the last green part of one of the milkweed leaves. He knows from school that Monarchs are rare. He’s excited and wants to tell his mother what he sees in the leaves, but as he’s about to tell her, he sees a rust colored bunch of leaves unfold into an insect that then becomes the wings of a bird. As he’s trying to figure out the name of the bird, he realizes that his mother has disappeared, and he isn’t sure when or why she vanished because her hand is still giving him the bouquet.
He opened his eyes and his mother was calling him to get ready for kindergarten. He waited for her to come up so he could tell her his dream and she would tell him what it meant just like they did every morning when he woke up, but this morning she didn’t ask him he forgot the dream as he got dressed.
After she lost her research job, his mother had to work too many hours at a hospital. That was when she started taking Shine. That was when he stopped dreaming.
They slept outside under the night sky in the public park because the shelter got too crowded. He wasn’t afraid, even when he saw the darkness close in around them, because his mother lay beside him, her arms in the air, her hands holding fistfuls of stars. But she was still able to get them food, clothes, and one time, a tablet for him so he could look up the names and locations of all the stars.
Then she lost her hospital job. But she kept taking Shine. She took him with her, but had him sit behind a wall where he couldn’t see what she had to do to get the Shine.
On his tablet, he found telescopic sites that watched the stars be born, burn, die. And wondered when was now and when was then. He wanted to ask his mother how they could reach now. But there were always dark shapes swirling around her. He found, though, if he tipped the tablet just right, he could see burning stars in his mother’s eyes and not the dark shapes swirling over her.
She picked up cans and bottles as they hunkered down one night in an alley. He couldn’t see the stars because the slimy walls of the buildings blocked it out the sky, so he watched her cut and carve stars from cans and bottles, giving them points and rays. “Mama, if we went high enough and fast enough, could we reach now?”
“Only in the stars. I’m making a map for our trip to get us to the singularity,” she muttered as she hung them on the alley wall. He watched her and remembered the word from the past, but not its meaning, and finally decided it must have something to do with the stars. They left to get food, but while they were gone, someone pulled down all his mother’s stars and smashed them. His mother made him stay with a woman who lived down the hall from his sick grandmother while she went back to retrieve her fallen stars.
The woman left him with her kids, went into another room with a man and closed the door. He and the woman’s kids watched a horror movie and then went out on the playground near the apartments. The kids hoisted him to the top of the jungle gym and left him inside the shiny metal rocketship at the top. The sky sparkled and shone. He started yelling hello to each of the stars. His voice got hoarse. When he looked down, the other kids were gone.
Inside the three dimensional squares and rectangles at the base of the jungle gym, dark shapes twisted up the bars. He shivered as the bars buckled under the assault. The shapes swirled up the bars. He clawed his way along the outside of the rocket, closer and closer to the stars until he clung to its pointed nose. Help me now, Mama!
A huge dirty iceball elongated from across the park, whizzed towards him, fire racing spinning reflecting around and around throughout her dark round form. As his mother reached him, he ducked and her heat swirled around him into a long tail that whipped at the darkness. Stars exploded, raining down around him, and he clung to the rocket.
His mother beat at the dark shapes, glass shattering through the whirling garbage bags of bottles and cans. She kept swinging, smashing the forms that had no eyes while her eyes burned like comets. He finally was able to shimmy down to her. She still swung the clanking garbage bags of metal and glass, the broken stars she’d made lighting the darkness like fireworks showing there wasn’t anything inside the spaces within the monkey bars. Except them.
Hunger pains cramped his arms and legs, and the Shine in his mother’s eyes burned a magenta aura onto his sight, hurting his eyes even when he closed them. His mother left her broken stars there in the park and limping, took him to his grandmother’s. Right after they got there, she had to take his grandmother to the hospital.
Afterward, his mother came back long enough to put him to bed on the floor in his grandmother’s living room and disappeared again, promising she’d be back. He suddenly remembered the dream about the Monarch caterpillar and wanted to tell her. He didn’t want to forget it again so he tried to stay awake until she got back, but fell asleep into another dream.
He and his mother are in the playground. Other people are there, too, maybe 100 or so. All around them are the twisting dark shapes of Shine. The other people call them zombies, even though he tries to tell them they are something scarier than zombies. The leader says they’re escaping the zombies, even though he can see there are already zombies inside the space of the jungle gym. He knows the dark things can’t be allowed to get to the rocketship at the top, but he doesn’t know whether to climb to the rocketship or get in one of the two hot air balloons that are tied to the bottom of the jungle gym. He pulls his mother along, but as they run to the closest balloon, it floats away. He tells his mother they should go in the rocket, but she says the balloon is on the ground. Everyone is running for the last balloon when he gets in. His mother is somewhere behind him, looking for fallen stars. He tells her that’s the past not the now, and she starts to climb in when the dark shapes wrap around her neck, jerk her out of the basket, and drag her down into the darkness at the center of the jungle gym, and the balloon floats into the sky with him in it.
He woke up in darkness, hearing a terrible breaking sound. His grandmother’s apartment only had one window and that faced out on the brick wall of the next building, but everything was pitch black. Something was dragging around the room, making a scraping sound across the floor. He could feel it move away from him across the room towards the window.
Don’t worry about the lights not going on. I went out and got our fallen stars.
He saw the sparkle, gleam scattered across the floor, the gleam of cans, the glitter of glass shards. Whatever the dark thing was, it moved again, dragging, gauging the floor.
He crawled silently out of his rumpled sheets and blankets and felt his way into the kitchen. A bag of sugar sat on the kitchen table. He picked a tiny hole in the top of the bag and slowly worked a teaspoon full of sugar out and put it into his mouth.
As he crunched down he heard a sound like grinding broken glass inside his head. It sounded like his mother’s voice.
We can’t go back outside the way we used to so we’ll have to keep the door locked and go to the stars from here. It’s ok, you’re safe, look, the door’s smiling.
He looked up at the door. The chain hung from the slide, forming a crescent moon. Or a happy mouth. He was glad it was smiling because he wasn’t tall enough to reach it.
He went back and lay down, trying to forget about being thirsty, about the power being out.
When he woke up it was still dark. He tried to open the refrigerator, but his grandmother had locked it against thieves. He ate a little more sugar. Each time, he did, the grinding sound from the other room scared him. He drank water from the toilet since the water didn’t smell. When he did, the scraping noise became his mother’s voice again.
He couldn’t get the lights to go on so every time he woke up it was dark. His tablet’s glow lit up the fragments on the floor. The darkness got darker, but the path of broken stars on the floor shone brighter and brighter. They led over to the window where he found his mother slumped over the window sill. He sat next to her and looked at a webpage about space radiation. The sun is a star. Stars give off radiation. Radiation can kill you. We’ve got to protect ourselves, he thought.
Using the light from his tablet, he fumbled around and found an old lotion bottle with a picture of a sun on it in the bathroom. He took off everything except his underwear and one shoe that he couldn’t get untied. He put the lotion on himself because his mother had told him to always protect himself first. Then he rubbed it on her legs, her arms, her face. She didn’t move.
He lay on the floor and looked out the window. The brick wall on the next apartment building disappeared into a blaze of phosphorescent stars, yellow-green, blue, red, orange, white. They were the stars his mother had made in the alley, and even the ones that had been destroyed by someone else had now burst into new stars. He tried to look at all of them at once, but there were too many. He turned on his side and made a cradle between himself and his mother’s legs, holding her ankle, blinking against the harsh blue and red light and darkness.
The smiling door exploded inward. Dark shapes with white covering the lower half of their faces burst in.
He suddenly remembered what his mother had said about the singularity when she was still a scientist a long time in the past. From the singularity flowed countless tiny stars. He reached out to touch the stars on the chests of the dark figures that gathered up him and his mother.
The police kicked down the door, wearing face masks against the terrible smell. The woman officer grabbed him and covered him, carrying him out under a blanket. Beneath its muffled scratchy dark, he could sense lights flashing around them. He leaned into the woman, touching the star on her chest. In the ambulance, she sat next to him and gave him the star to hold.
He held it while they cleaned him up, checked him out. He gripped it as she asked him what he wanted to eat. He whispered for a grilled cheese and a grape drink because that had been his favorite food a long time ago. The woman police officer left while the male officer supervised getting him something to eat and drink.
After what seemed like a long time, the woman officer returned carrying something she put on the floor next to his hospital bed. “You’re going to be okay now, little boy.” She sat next to him.
He shook his head. The tendons in his neck stood out as he tried to swallow. The officer helped him drink through tiny sips from a straw. “There is no now here.”
The officer looked concerned. “What do you mean?”
He shivered, still unable to eat. “Do you know what the singularity is?”
She shook her head and held his hand.
“My mom was a scientist…then she was making us a map…because only the stars are now, we can only see the past...” He trembled.
The police officer nodded. “I was getting a blanket from your bed to bring you when I looked out the window at your grandma’s…” She brought out a rolled up black blanket. “You were right to put sunblock on you and your mom—you definitely need sunglasses to look at this.” She handed a pair to him and put a pair on herself. She unrolled the blanket.
It was covered with his mother’s stars in exactly the same positions she had stuck them on the wall of the building outside the window of his grandmother’s apartment. He stared at the stars, but there was no shine. He took off the sunglasses. He was crying. “I miss my mom.”
She nodded, still wearing her sunglasses. “Did you know that everything—including you—is made of all these tiny pieces that you can’t even see with your eyes they’re so small? And your invisible pieces mix with the pieces of everything and everyone you’ve ever touched.” She reached over and touched away a tear rolling down his cheek. “And once they mix—even if they get separated by an entire universe…” She wiped his tear across the stars on the blanket map. The shine reflected in the overhead and bedside lights and caught in the tears. “…they remain together.” One of the crudely pinned stars began to glow, then sparkled, reflected off another, until the shine of all of them made him put on his glasses again.
But isn’t this light from before, Mama? He touched each of the stars on the blanket.
No, it’s coming from you, came his mother’s voice.
He wrapped the star covered blanket around himself. Like the stars. Our pieces are mixed together. We never stop being. You me and the stars.
Phoebe Reeves-Murray is drawn to Jungian archetypes, fairy tales, things that happen just beyond your peripheral vision in the everyday world, and the mysteries of childhood and adulthood. Her fiction has appeared in Pantheon, Devilfish Review, Dali’s Lovechild, Quailbell, Empty Oaks, and will be appearing in Chromebaby, and Rivet.
* * *
Evasion of the Body Snatcher
By Kathy Myers
Luckily Ruth saw the Ferris wheel being set up on the dusty vacant lot ahead before her daughter did. Becky was in the back seat chatting with her Barbie doll, and didn’t notice her mother pull over for a quick right turn. She didn’t notice her mom shudder as she sped down a side street. Ruth had evaded the carnival for now, but that didn’t stop the clutch in her gut as grim sensory memories flooded through her body.
Helen was late for her shift at the diner when she dropped her daughter at the fair. Ruth begged her mom to let her go alone; saving two weeks allowance to do so. Helen pulled two more dollars from her apron pocket.
“Have fun honey. Walk home before dark.” Helen checked her watch. “Oh shit, I gotta go.” She peeled out, tossing her lit Pall Mall onto the asphalt.
Ruth passed a bill to the man in the ring toss booth. He made the game look so easy; urging her on with a ticket for each rare ringer she made. She wanted the stuffed pink flamingo hanging overhead.
Ten minutes and two dollars later, the carney counted her tickets and handed her a pinwheel on a stick; something she could buy at any Five and Dime for… well for fifteen cents. There wasn’t a breath of wind to spin the glittery toy or cool the sweat now forming on the back of her neck. The carnival looked so alluring at night, exciting from a distance. Up close in the heat and harsh daylight, not so much.
She bought lemonade and dipped out an ice cube to rub across her neck. It melted quickly, sending cooling rivulets down the front of her sleeveless top. After purchasing ride tickets, she pocketed the slim remainder of her funds in her white Bermuda shorts.
“Ready to go on a ride sweetheart?” said a man standing at the entrance of the Tilt-a-Whirl. He licked his chapped lips and took a swig off his bottle of Coke. His glance went down the front of her damp shirt.
“You look old enough to handle a big one.” His chuckle evolved into a cruddy coughing fit, halted only with another deep draw off his cigarette.
“I have a drink.” Ruth said and held it up.
“No problem.” He took her cup and pinwheel, put them on his stool, stuck two fingers into her front pocket to pinch out a ticket, placed his hand on the small of her back, and steered her toward a cage; all in slick unbroken movements and before she could protest otherwise. He slammed the bar across her chest, leaning in close enough for Ruth to sniff the soda sweet booze on his breath. “Safety first.” he said.
The ride started. The cage turned slow at first then faster, shooting pebbles from the floor as it accelerated. It pinned her to the side then snapped her back with each vicious revolution. Ruth watched helplessly as the ride operator picked up her drink, pumped the straw up and down, and sucked up a big slug. She felt an ache in her belly. Rides had never made her sick before, but this heat, the relentless whirling—that man. When he finally forced down the rusty brake lever to stop the ride, Ruth’s vision kept spinning. As he approached the cage and looked down at her lap, his sly grin disappeared.
“Stay here.” he ordered and jogged over to a woman who was lifting her boys off the ride. He spoke to her for a moment then pointed back at Ruth who now pushed against the bar. The man grabbed his plaid shirt, and came back to unlock her cage.
“Hold on missy, you got a problem. This nice lady will help you.” He glanced at her lap again, and Ruth followed his gaze to see a red stain on the crotch of her shorts.
“Hi, I’m Wanda.” The nice lady grinned. “You’re in a pickle aren’t you?” She helped Ruth out, and tied the arms of the shirt around her waist; covering her enough for the slow walk to the restroom.
“Where’s the blood coming from?” Ruth said from inside the stall.
Wanda was at the sink rinsing out Ruth’s panties and shorts. “My land, don’t you know about menstruation? It’s coming from your vagina, and it means you’re a woman now.”
That thought, plus lingering vertigo from the ride, moved Ruth to tilt and hurl into the toilet.
Wanda handed her a sanitary napkin and a stick of gum. “I know honey, it’s enough to make you sick ain’t it. Go home now and have a talk with your mom.”
“She’s at work.”
Wanda looked in the mirror, lifted her stiff blonde hair with a rattail comb, and smacked her pink lipstick. “Well, she probably thought she had more time to talk to you about periods. Stand in the sun until your pants dry then go home.” Wanda returned the shirt to the ride operator who gave her boys free tickets to ride.
Ruth stood behind the restroom; listening to the calliope of grinding machinery and distant squeals, smelling the stench of sweet grease and dust. A scratchy recording hawked freak show oddities nearby; the two-headed chicken, preserved Siamese twins in a jar, followed by a bouncy ragtime tune: “Everybody loves a baby that’s why I’m in love with you. Pretty baby…pretty baby.”
Ruth shook off her unnerving recollection. She checked the mirror to see Becky still playing blissfully in the backseat.
“Hey pretty girl, do you and Barbie want grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch? Sesame Street will be on.”
Ruth breathed easier now that she had a cushion of distance. She knew the time would come when her little girl would be snatched away from childhood into the whirl of changes, longings, pain and thrills— but not today. She had a cushion of time to prepare for that inevitable carnival.
Kathy Myers published poetry in Redwood Writers Anthology, a ghost story for a local reader's theater, and flash on Every Day Fiction. She's proud of her A in English 4A at the JC, and hopes to attend 4B and C in the future; to augment her recent summer classes at Yale.
* * *
By Fred Skolnik
He woke up with a good feeling. It seemed to him that he could get from one end of the day to the other as easily as stepping over stones in a swift-running stream. There were no hazards or pitfalls that he could see. In fact the day struck him as one that would be enjoyable, undemanding – some meetings where he might hold forth in his accustomed manner, a luncheon date he had been looking forward to, some quiet office work, a book or some TV in the evening. He liked this neutral state which was like a rest from those other states that agitated his mind, a pause or respite when everything fell away and he felt unburdened or disencumbered. He shaved and showered and brushed his teeth and then dressed quickly – first his socks and then his pants and then his shoes and shirt in an order that never varied. But already he could sense an unpleasant thought coming up behind him like a figure moving in the shadows. It was always like that, coming when you didn't expect it, a chord struck and then the thing growing until you could think of nothing else. He liked to think of himself as a ship listing slightly to port or starboard and having to be set aright with a little tilt or adjustment of the ballast. He liked to believe that he moved around a solid center, a little up, a little down, a little to the left, a little to the right, though sometimes he felt himself slipping and had to hold on tight.
For rarely did a day go by when there wasn't something tugging at him from behind – unfinished business, things that couldn't be put off, the ceiling threatening to fall in. When the pressure came something in his mind began to buckle and he felt a momentary urge to let go, to take the final step, to throw it all away and perhaps himself as well, but then a better instinct took hold and propped him up so that he was able to right himself and bear the weight. When the pressure came he sometimes wished he could run away but knew he couldn't so he held fast like a beast of burden being flayed and absorbed the blows. Nearly every day he felt the bottom dropping out as though flying in stormy weather and hitting those unexpected pockets of air that make the stomach sink. The pressure was inside him and all around him, possessing him, enveloping him like a strait jacket that barely let him breathe. But then it relaxed its grip and he felt his mind and body soar. That was how it always was. There were ups and downs, coming in rapid succession, too rapid it sometimes seemed. First the shadow and the pressure and the brooding thoughts and then the lightening of the spirit and even euphoria when he sailed along at an even keel in an open sea of limitless horizons and then the darkness again and then the light, swinging back and forth from day to day and sometimes hour to hour and even minute to minute so that he longed for rest.
There were outward signs of course, signs of depression or elation, nervousness, impatience, lethargy, but for the most part the drama of his inner life was hidden from view, masked, unperceived. He staggered, stumbled, reeled and tottered only in the figurative sense, as though some little homunculus inside his head was buffeted by ill winds in the country of his mind. There the struggle ensued as though the world had been ingested like a slab of meat that could poison or sustain the flesh. He spoke to himself at length on these occasions. He reminded himself that he must not sink too low or rise too high but maintain his equilibrium. There was a point from which one could not return. We are not monkeys, he told himself, and the world is not a tree. We must walk on solid ground. We must resist the temptation to let go or soar into the heavens. We must resist the weight that presses down upon our breasts. The weight of the world will crush the weak. Nonetheless each setback gnawed at him and darkened his mood. It must have activated certain cells in a process hidden even from the inner eye. Uninvited thoughts invaded the private chambers of his mind. Always he felt the pressure and the weight. It was like sleet and hail and the biting cold of a winter day making you want to seek refuge but there was nowhere to go, you could only go on or stand still or turn your back and that would not bring out the sun. The sun came out unexpectedly, just as the dark clouds appeared out of nowhere, so you were in effect at the mercy of meteorological conditions. One moment the skies were sunny, the next moment the skies were cloudy. That was the way of the world. Moods shifted, actuated by the slightest touch, as though the psyche were a delicate mechanism prone to irregularities and even failure, whereas in fact it was resilient, self-adjusting, working within broad boundaries that allowed moods to swing from one extreme to the other without necessarily causing you to fall through the floor or fly through the ceiling like someone sucked through an open door in a speeding plane.
He reeled and tottered but stayed on his feet. This morning he had felt good, then he had felt bad. He had slipped, then righted himself, then slipped again, all within the time it took him to ride downtown in the subway. The sight of a pretty woman in the crowded car lifted his spirits for a moment and sent his mind on a little excursion and a dip in the sea where the waves washed over him pleasurably but then he returned to himself and new thoughts presented themselves to his mind as though they had been waiting their turn, stacked above one another in the air, or perhaps simply borne on the spur of the moment under the prodding of memory and desire. They came in all shapes and sizes, heavy, light, sharp or blunt. He stood at the door and examined their credentials but could not keep them out. They possessed him immediately, filling his mind, creeping into every corner so that there was no escape and you had to give yourself up to them. The trains had roared past the stations or pulled up with a hiss. Blank faces and heavy bodies surrounded him. His mind drifted but then came back to itself. The unwanted thoughts returned, pulling him down again. They were always pulling at him and he was always pulling back, so that it was as if they were at the opposite ends of a rope or a seesaw. He imagined these thoughts like coal coming down a chute and filling his head with hard, sharp-edged crystals like a breakfast cereal that crackled or popped or he himself thrown into a pool of black water and almost drowning but somehow pulling himself over the edge. He had woken up feeling good and now his head was full of black thoughts as though they had lain in wait for him behind a bush or tree. There were so many places black thoughts could hide, down many tunnels and shafts as in a mine, and spring up at you in the dark. Or they could come at you like darts and implant themselves in the center of your brain, a word, a gesture, disappointment, frustration. He brooded on these things. They grew in him and filled his head. His mind was always working. It never stood still, not even when he slept. It shifted gears from moment to moment as though racing around a track. It went slower and faster. It went up and down. His mind was like a celestial body that might be torn apart at any moment.
His mind moved up and down an invisible scale, now at five, now at seven, now at two. It was volatile, layered with materials varying in consistency and age, from the deeper layers that were at the core to those less stable flying all around like subatomic particles and picking up signals from outside. He was there. He was not immune. He was vulnerable to every sling and arrow. Some he parried, some he absorbed, and some tore through all his defenses. It was as though he had constructed a house of cards on shifting sands that might come toppling down at any moment. He could feel the thing crumbling when the blow came, all the elaborate structure losing its underpinnings so that everything threatened to come down with a crash. He leaned this way and that. He was at a loss.
At times he found it hard to sleep. All these preoccupations, problems and concerns settled in him like a lump of undigested food. He felt them in his stomach and his mind, sometimes sharply like a contraction of the muscle or a nerve rubbed raw. They weighed heavily on him. They would not go away. All things were connected, intertwined. One assaulted cell caused the next to collapse and then the next and the next and the next as in a piece of rotting fruit. They crept up on him or burst into his mind. When it came he felt himself sinking. He saw no way out. He wrestled with it for a while but then left off. He tried to find a handle to it, someplace where it would yield, but often it would not, it was like solid rock. It gnawed at him like an itching in the ear. There was no way to get at it. It called attention to itself. Its voice was louder than all the rest. It filled the cavity of his mind like bright red ink suffusing the murky waters of a stagnant pool. It made the waters swirl and race. Wherever he turned he felt himself checked, cornered like a rat, so that all that remained was to gnash his teeth or run amok. But he held himself back. He sipped his wine and nodded his head as though all was well though the thing jabbed at him and would not go away. Sometimes he could ignore it for a while but not for long.
Sometimes of course it was possible to turn off the flow and step away, break off contact as it were, turn one's back, pretend that there was nothing in his head at all, shut off entire compartments of his mind like tunnels in a mine or sections of a highway when there was a danger of falling rocks and never venture there again. The mind was dimensionless. You could avoid vast regions of it and never feel the difference and so inhabit a house with many locked doors and windowless rooms. But just as often the thing could not be ignored and then you had to grapple with it. There might be dire consequences, music to face, hell to pay. Then you redeployed or looked for an exit, exercised your ingenuity, juggled the figures, rationalized until you found a solution. There was always a solution, more or less satisfactory, that enabled you to go on until the next crisis pulled you down.
And there were good times too. Then he felt the sudden release and his spirit soared. He could almost believe that it would always be like that and he felt himself spiraling upward into a place where he was weightless, disembodied, and yet filled with elation like air in a balloon. It could be anything that brought him to this state, a kind word, a killing in the market, thoughts of the next meal, the next woman. Then he saw the way clear up ahead with nothing to impede him and felt like running through endless fields. Then he felt the blood rushing through his veins like sap and his chest expanding and his head as clear as a bell. Then everything was in harmony.
He had gotten up that morning feeling good. Immediately some bleak thought had invaded his mind and he had felt the pressure. He had assessed its seriousness. It was not so simple to dispose of it. It had weighed on him all morning. He could see the repercussions, the potential for disaster. He improvised a temporary solution that might buy him some time. It still gnawed at him but less persistently now that he had it checked. He moved on to the next order of business and felt good again. But then the bad feeling returned in all its force. It had not been checked after all. It had found a breach in the wall, seeping through and widening the gap until it became a flood. He felt like he was drowning but was able to find some space to breathe and repaired the wall and found dry ground again. He went on like this all day long, like a car swerving on a wet road and spinning out of control until you somehow got a grip on it and everything ground to a halt. Then there was a moment of stillness before the next onslaught began.
He was helpless to control the thoughts that came into his head. He was helpless to control the moods that swung up and down. Not a day went by when he didn't swing up and down, sometimes more, sometimes less, righting himself like a cat, finding his legs, pulling back, going on, but always falling again as though a trapdoor had opened under his feet. He knew that he was just a step away from falling through the bottom. Then he would not be able to stop himself. Then he would be lost.
Fred Skolnik is the author of the novels The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) and Death (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015) and has published stories and essays in over 150 journals, including TriQuarterly, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Gargoyle, Literary House Review, Words & Images, Third Coast, Polluto, Underground Voices, and The Recusant.
* * *
By Emily Thon
The old man lost the only thing he cared about. He searched -- picking through cardboard boxes filled with bowls, seat cushions, and mittens -- hoping he’d find it somewhere. Folding tables buckled under his mounds of junk: vases, candlesticks, card decks, domino sets, books, VHS tapes, pillows, wall hangings, dried flowers, and shoes. All for sale. Piles and piles, the garage brimming.
“Dad,” Nancy called, “do you want to keep this golf set? You won't go out with Steve this summer, will you?”
Ray peered down to his swollen ankles, “You think I’m going to walk the greens like this?” He imagined smashing each club through the garage windows, glass shattering and decorating the concrete floor. “Just let me know if you find it…it’s got to be here somewhere,” he muttered. “You can sell all the rest of this shit.”
Ray was adjusting to life at Steve and Nancy’s. He couldn’t even get up to piss without someone following to make sure he made it to the bathroom okay. Pitiful. Like a child. He was reverting to his original state: a hopeless, wailing babe, needing to be wiped.
Yesterday morning, Ray forgot where he was until the computer screen blinked, waking him from dreams. Then, he remembered: age 82, tucked away in the spare office. His bones echoed in pain, the joints raw – tendons dissolved from years of use. Even his gums ached. Time neared the end, and it sickened him. “Day by day,” Steve said, “just take it day by day, Dad.”
Ray gritted his jaw, feeling his body contract like coiled wire. He didn’t think he could bear it much longer. Not today at least. Nancy planned the sale to start at 9:00 am, but the early birds arrived by 7:30 am, eager to collect and consume. Ray watched a heavy-set lady in yoga pants handle a salt shaker, turning it upside down to see if anything was left inside.
“Grandpa,” Shelby appeared at his side, “the woman out there wants to know if you’ll take $3 for this…it’s marked for $5.” The way his granddaughter moved often startled him. She almost floated, on legs like tulip stems peeking out of the earth. Though he’d lived there for about 3 months, Ray only called her by the right name half the time. Sometimes Nance…but usually Meredith. Shelby looked just like her, even the way her ankles cinched to a point at her shoes.
Ray felt awkward around his granddaughter. She was her own person, but she stood on her legs, with her nose, and her hair. He couldn’t name Shelby’s favorite movie, what she listened to on the radio, the place she went for solitude, or her rituals before bed. He didn’t know her, and she didn’t know him either. Meredith had connected them. They all felt close to her.
Shelby looked to him for an answer, holding a silver platter with a date engraved on its edge – March 10, 1949 – and a sticker priced at $5. As his granddaughter held their wedding gift in the air, Ray remembered a morning when Meredith screamed.
“STEVEN! DONALD! THE TURKEY!!!” Meredith stood frozen in the kitchen holding the silver platter in the air like a UFO. A spattering of bones and skin littered the counter.
Four boys lay on the carpet in the living room nearby, two pretending to be asleep and the others with looks of terror stamped on their brows.
“Do you have anything to say?!” Don’s friends laid there as logs, comatose, despite the wails that would’ve woken the dead from their graves. The other two stuttered until Steve, the oldest, finally made out words. “We, we...got hungry,” he explained, “we got back late and saw it in the fridge!”
They ordered Chinese that Thanksgiving, complete with sides of cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. No one minded, their neighbors and cousins all laughing at the reenactment of the morning. The terror imprinted on Don and Steven’s faces. Everyone ate – grateful to be together – all welcome and smiling and laughing. Meredith forgave easily. She made everyone feel at home.
Only 5 months passed since the funeral. Ray wanted to speak. To share what she meant to him. What she meant to their sons, to the world, to his life. But something locked him – what always seemed to lock him. The notes he prepared clenched in his hand. Crushed, crumpled, and hidden. Fortunately, Steve and Don told their stories. He was so proud of them. To get up before everyone and honor her. Meredith must’ve taught them that.
“Three dollar’s fine, Shelb…” Ray said to his granddaughter, “Let the woman have it.” Shelby nodded and turned round on those ankles, making the first sale of the day. He watched it go. What did he need that platter for anymore? The only thing he gave a damn about was missing.
Ray pushed up from his chair to leave. He didn’t need to be there for this. A witness to the haggling of his moments, like the souls of slaves on the auction block. Steve, Nance, and Shelby didn’t know what each piece held. That Meredith’s father built the wood floor lamp for their first house on Walton Street. That he carried the domino tiles priced at $2 over from China during a sales trip in ‘73. They didn’t know the stories.
Ray picked up a mug at the end of a table and remembered a night at 2:00 am, fourteen years ago.
“Are you ready?!” She called. Ray was managing to put on his shoes with one hand, with the mug brimming with black coffee in the other. Meredith threw clothes into duffel bags, raging through the house like a midsummer storm. The heat of it brought on by the shrill of the phone, its first crack of thunder. “BRRRINNNGGG!”
“Hello? Steve – what’s going on?” Ray grumbled, pupils dilating from the glare of the alarm clock.
“Hi, Dad, you awake? I…I just wanted to tell you Nance is ready. We’re at the hospital.”
“Steve…it’s not even April. What do you mean?”
“Dad, we’re at the hospital. The baby’s coming.” He replied. “She’s a few weeks early. Tell Mom not to rush.”
Ray had no say in the matter. Meredith was either going with him or without him, so Ray put on his shoes. They drove 7 hours to New York and arrived by sunrise, just before she was born. Ray would’ve driven 100 more for that image: Meredith holding Shelby in her arms. The hospital windows aglow, as if Shelby brought up the sun. A gift. Pure and light and holy. Ray stood behind them as Meredith rocked her, grateful to be alive.
Fucking Christ! How could she? Ray thought. Meredith betrayed him. She lied! She always promised she’d be the one to go last – she’d be there to take care of him. Meredith took care of everyone – calling the family each week to see how work was going, which friend was getting married, or if the bathroom remodeling was coming along. She mailed cards every Halloween and Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. She saved every postcard and thank you note, each trophy that Steve and Don earned when they were boys. She was the one who loved and collected all these things. She knew the stories behind it all. Ray slammed down the mug, and hobbled through the door.
The old man sat on the porch beneath the awning and breathed in. He clasped his hands and watched the cars pass by, like the the hands of a clock.
“Grandpa?” a voice called from inside. “Grandpa? You out here?” The young girl eased open the screen door and peeked out.
“I thought I might find you here,” she said, holding another box in her arms."
“Well, it seemed like you and Nance were handling things alright,” he said.
“We’re doing okay, I guess,” Shelby replied, “…I’m sorry about the sale, Grandpa.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it kiddo,” Ray answered, “it’s got to go at some point.”
His granddaughter set her box down, and joined him to watch the world turn. So young, years and years younger than he. With so much life and excitement waiting. Ray wished he could tell her all he learned from his time, all that Meredith showed and taught him.
“Listen, Shelb, I asked your Mom already…but you haven’t seen any books around here anywhere, have you? A small leather one?” Ray looked to the girl, his hope waning.
Shelby turned to Ray, her eyes open like spring, nascent in youth, ready and eager to bloom. Her hair was Meredith’s, but her eyes were her own.
“I think I know what you mean,” she replied reaching into the box at her feet, “I was saving it.”
Shelby pulled out a journal. Meredith’s touch wore away its shine, the leather raw on its binding. Silver studs on the edge, and a willow tree embroidered the front. The one thing Ray wanted to save.
His lungs uncoiled, and Ray breathed out. He gave Meredith the journal on their wedding day. Their lives written in ink, to be remembered.
“Well, I’m not surprised,” he replied, “She would’ve wanted you to have it.”
The granddaughter held the gift in her palms, its softness matching the skin on her fingertips.
“Have you read any yet?” Ray asked as the light on the porch seeped onto his chest. She looked to him, shaking her head no, looking more like a child.
“Well,” he beckoned, “go ahead…read.” The two sat on the porch, light rising at the start of the day, and she began. “March 10, 1949…”
Emily Thon graduated from Binghamton University with a degree in English and Psychology. After working for a year in retirement investing (preparing people for death), she switched to suicide prevention research (encouraging people to live). If she's not writing, you might find her rollerblading around town or in her garden.
* * *
By Dillon Vita
A motley of wires and tubes highlight the horrid product from mixing two parts cancer with one part atrophy: Regan. She examines the wall (half curtain, a quarter window, and the rest completely unknowable). Her eyes rest upon the windowed zone. Cara, her hair golden in the light (like a dyed Helen, Regan’s sure), blocks a good portion of the parking lot.
"Is Seamus coming?"
The IV resists her scratching but oddly enough the wig does not. To hell with my femininity.
"Don't mess your hair."
"They're gonna know I have no hair if they knew me at all." The wig is now worn upon Regan's outstretched hand. "I mean look at this thing."
"It was hard to find a good one." Not many matched the hair Regan had worn for the greater part of a century. A sort of curliness no curler could entice. "Sorry."
Regan implies her forgiveness with a blink of her eyelids that lasts unusually long. Before she can actually vocalize this implication the doctor walks in. Doctor Herz. No that was the other one.
"Hello." He addresses both women without names as he hasn't peeked at his clipboard. "Mrs. Kilkenny," he'd hoped this would include both women, but unfortunately neither really fits the narrow name (both unmarried: one through death the other through supposed choice). "Could I speak with you for a moment."
The curtain flutters like the dress of an angel said to visit others in nearly similar situations (Hello, my name is Gabriel and I've been sent for you. And no, you don't have to name your next child Jesus). The off-white seems at least a few shades duller without company. The sky is just as beautiful, though. As long as you ignore the asphalt below it, that is.
"...doesn't have much."
She's heard this before and it's not the type of repetition you can grow fond of. Not like this sky. Same shade of blue day in and day out. Footsteps draw Regan's attention back to the skirt of the curtain. It's not just Cara anymore. A smiling child and a slightly emaciated woman that dwarfs her.
"Hey Mum," says the thin one.
The kid isn't for formalities and is upon Regan before speaking a word.
"Regan! Watch the IV." Regan was never for passing her name on. Said they could let her name die with her. But that didn't do any good, just made Evelyn cry. The rims of the girl's eyelids are just as thin as her waist.
"Sorry, Mum," and "She's fine," are heard from the Regans concurrently.
Only the elder one continues speaking. "You really didn't have to come."
"We wanted to,” says Evelyn. “Regan wanted to give you something."
Suddenly a doll is inches from her face. Old and worn. It must have spontaneously generated because at no point did she see Regan walk in with it. "Here!" The thread, which serves both as the outline of the pupil and as a means of attachment to the rest of the felt head, is loose so that the whole button sags: a new wrinkle in the face of the doll cleverly named Regan. Three Regans is too many Regans. "You take it."
In the moment that the doll transfers ownership Regan sees how perfect a composite of the two of them the doll is. Reddish strands taking the place of hair (from the child), the old felt sagging at places that met moisture for 60 some odd years (from the dwindling yet endlessly growing mass of Regan), and softly coarse cloth pretending to be skin (from a bit of both of them).
“Tell Grandmum about school. Me and Aunt Cara are going outside for a little.”
“Aunt Cara and I.” While teaching she’d learned to cringe at such a mistake.
Regan, sitting between her Grandmum’s legs, speaks as if she thinks she has to make up for the other women leaving.
“Today I got married to Timmy he’s a month older than me so I wasn’t a cougar. Fred did the service brought a Bible and everything.”
“Oh, yeah? Where’d you get a dress?”
“That’s the only thing we were missing I had to wear a white shirt and a white skirt instead.”
“That’s almost a dress.”
“And guess what?”
During the brief moment that her granddaughter waits for Regan to say “What?” she hears Cara’s voice, sounding a little angry, say, “I can’t believe Seamus.”
“He kissed me! On the lips it was gross. We said we were just gonna kiss on the cheek instead but then out of nowhere he kissed me on the lips.” Regan now massages her lips at the mere thought of the memory.
“Oh no. What happened next?”
“Then we moved in we used the place under the playground as a house then he said he wanted a pet and there was a cockroach right there so he picked it up and named it Freddy. But then this mean kid came over.”
“What was his name?”
“Chris. No Michael. I don’t really know. But he came over and grabbed at Freddy. He grabbed him right from Timmy’s hand and then he squashed him!”
“No!” Regan tries to feign tears but she was never too good at acting.
“He did! I swear.” She takes what seems like her first breath. “So we buried him right by the trees cause it’s pretty there.”
The curtain announces Cara and Evelyn’s return with another ruffle.
“Did you hear? Regan got married.”
“Oh really?” Cara asks. Evelyn’s face doesn’t respond. She must’ve heard the story about a thousand times already.
“What was his name again?” the elder Regan asks.
“Timmy!” the other proudly announces.
“His last name silly.”
“Canniff or something. I forget.”
“Mrs. Regan Caniff has a nice ring to it,” says Cara.
The younger Regan’s cheek muscles tighten and pull her lips farther up her face. The same sort of smile Regan used to smile.
“Anyway, I have to get going,” Cara says. She continues, feeling that she owes her Mum at least an explanation. “I had to trade for a night shift and it starts in about an hour.” Cara’s scrubs are still hiding in her dresser at home so she really does need to get going.
“We really should get going too.” Evelyn speaks for both herself and Regan. “The nurse said your food should be coming any moment.”
“Well, thanks for stopping by.”
Cara’s hug is short, and Evelyn’s even shorter. But the Regans latch on for what seems like minutes. The elder just forgets to let go as sixty year old memories flip through her like an incredibly faded flip book, faces fading from the shaky silhouettes that appeared just moments ago.
When she is again unaccompanied in the curtained half room, Regan peers back through the windowed wall to the sky. Images of her long past Aunt beholding Regan’s work impressed upon the blue sky make the sky slightly different today. Flawless she’d said. Regan reaches beside her. The windowsill is thankfully in reach. The doll moves obediently to her lap. The recently unhidden car (a deeper red than the red threads it replaced in the parking lot’s strictly controlled color scheme) begins to roll forward, a hand beckoning the stick from R to D. It’s her daughter’s. Evelyn’s. It jolts forward beyond the unknown wall.
Regan feels warm upon her chest somehow. There’s no pulse nor bloodstream, but somehow it does feel warm. She used to let it sit on the radiator for a few minutes before she took it in bed. That usually did the trick. Made her really think there was someone lying with her. Let her jump forward a few years. Hopefully that’s what heaven’s like. Like lying with Regan, her forever warm, in my undeveloped skin.
Dillon Vita is a junior at the University of Scranton. He is an editor for the school's literary magazine, Esprit. This is a picture of him in Esprit's beautifully small office.
* * *
Letters to My Wife
By George Zamalea
It was a pleasure to see you at the court today listening at last all nonsense of divorce settlement agreements such as our property, assets, debts and the other serious marital issues.
Believe me; you look so ravishing with your pants set from Virgin Hill collection with combines point and solid and side slits, back neck button closure and adjustable elastic waist.
Oh, yes, you are delightful and with these high boots and who will say you were one the purplish green rainbow of my eyes.
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“Are you listening to me?”
It has been far too long since we’ve talked to each other. I was pleased to hear that things are going well for you and that you are happy in your promotion. I can only hope to find a place in your heart that I will enjoy as much as you enjoy yours.
I truly appreciate your generous offer to assist in moving through, but I cannot understand how this poetical union of love, sex, and friendship has ended into this marital separation, into this nightmare of financial and brutal hatred, knowing really you are still smelling all over me.
It seems impossible to swallow it during five years with glossy and groovy passion have ended up before this venomous judge.
I was too gluttony for your love and too gnawed for what I felt? You cannot ignore it, can you? You have loved it and you were so glossy with it. I see now you are shipping me in a world of talking and pointing out a problem with your new look and diet and show me you are a new woman.
What about me, your man, uh, this one you have been crying sweet tear for five years?
Well, yes! You are damned right I am absolutely right in feeling cheated and I certainly will honor my anger for you to understand it.
Okay, okay, I am not yelling at you, I just want you do not forget that.
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“You must address your concern directly to me. Do you understand?”
We have been married for five years and have no children and we finally entered into marriage with established careers and earning salaries, but what you made out of it, haven’t you?
This isn’t a corporation, for God’s sake!
I am not sorry for the inconvenience because that has created a 50/50 between our needs.
Well, there is no spouse support or child support except our Labrador.
You can keep him.
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“Do you hear me?”
As you will see, I have five years of experience for love you, and while I have enjoyed my love and those long good nights, I am now interested to know how do you feel.
Ah, you ignore me, and it brings a second problem to my attention.
I am sorry I can’t accept your invitation for dinner and A Little Chaos movie show on July 19. I have an important meeting scheduled for that night and there is no way I can skip that meeting.
I want to talk.
I am sorry.
There is no excuse for you not meeting me for lunch yesterday or at least getting alive words from you. No text, please. I was looking forward to the occasion, and now suddenly I heard myself begging for you.
Please accept my apology I can’t. I think I regret to send it.
What did you say? You regret having to tell me this! How can I understand it? You regret having to tell me this but you still loving me and you want to divorce me. I am very confused here and please text me once more time in your own German dialect. I presume you are kidding me, which “regret” verb has hit me back and now I am trying to see it.
YOU HAVE A NEW EMAIL
You have been aware that for the two years our marital awareness have dropped considerably.
Yes, I was worry.
No children and you made an assert off your presence and that everything was ALL RIGHT.
YOU HAVE A NEW EMAIL.
You are sorry to be the one to tell me this. That is unfair! You tell me I am no longer in love with you. However, you keep ignoring me for two full years. The time was passing without seeing you and I have repeatedly asked you to put more effort and willingness into us. I believe you have the potential to do a hell marriage job, you just asking me about children. Do you cry? I felt as incomplete and inaccurate as a woman, and therefore useless to your appetite. Perhaps you should seek a woman is more demand and has less critical what God’s marriage should. I am confident you will soon find women more suited to your child’s roots.
YOU HAVE A NEW EMAIL
YOU HAVE 10 NEW EMAILS
IPHONE IS RINGING
Hi, you’ve reached Sue. I’m sorry that I’m not available to answer your call at the present time.
OFFICE PHONE IS RINGING
Hello, you have reached the office of Sue O; I will be out of my office starting on today and will be returning on October 30. You can call me when I return or leave a brief message. If this is an emergency I can be reached on my cell, which is 881-6611
IPHONE IS RINGING
Hi, you’ve reached Sue. I’m sorry that I’m not available to answer your call at the present time.
I write you in the hope that I can persuade you to forgive me.
On numerous occasions I have tried to discuss the situation with your mother, but she is unwilling to cooperate. In short, I cannot solve the problem myself, and I want to avoid hiring a lawyer unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
Enclosed are copies of the marital documents and agreements proving that I am not going to divorce you.
Sorry, I still love you.
If you want to talk it over, please call me at 111-2222.
George Zamalea lives in California with his family and two tigers. His works has appeared in the Screech Owl, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Spectrum, and Indiana Voice Journal and among others. His next book, The Strange Case of Estrella, is on production by Editorial Trance LLC. He is currently writing a thriller book titled The Lethal Games.
* * *
Two Poems By Marie-Andree Auclair
Wake up Call
Grande decaf latte. For here or to go?
For here, don’t you know? Every morning
as yesterday, so tomorrow.
You welcome me, greet me by name
my habit the skeleton that shapes our day.
I station myself amid anonymous friends,
routine is my rampart against wandering free
and grande latte sweet solace melting the cold.
Yesterday, a map for tomorrow.
New! Pumpkin spice or chai latte?
What? Relinquish my cocoon, risk rebirth?
Grande decaf latte. For here or to go?
I’ll try Jamaica Blue or Maragogype.
I’ll test a sip of freedom with my taste buds.
Tomorrow’s my next yesterday.
ties yourself in debt
so you don’t stay astray
fear not, there’ll be glue in your palm
and theirs for the return favour
here, thank you, loved it.
reminds you of sad sorrow
the bruised, immense sky
how could you forget?
here, hold me, please.
fear not, new won’t have time
to bore you. All by itself
it will erode to pale under wrinkles and sags
fleetingness, its surest trait.
scaffold or parasite
you lug the past into the future
yesterday’s just tomorrow
venerated or disdained
trash turning into treasure.
You close your eyes to old to new to borrowed to blue
fear has scratched its name
on the helpless side of your eyelids.
Marie-Andree Auclair earned a Certificate in Creative Writing (poetry) with the University of Toronto Continuing Studies in December 2014. In/Words Magazine and Press released her chapbook, Contrails in 2013. Her poems have appeared in magazines like In/Words Magazine, Bywords, The Steel Chisel, and forthcoming, filling Station.
* * *
Half-life For Rent
By A. Lawrence Bradshaw
I don’t leave home
to see the sun.
It beats on the roof
like a drum
And Mary’s in India,
stoned, with you
while I have pale sand
in my shoes, sifting out
of long-tarnished eyelets
grain by solitary grain,
rubbing its way
to reminders of you
It must be her
who makes you feel
like there’s a big white flag
with coloured pennants
flying in the carnival
of your heart.
Instead of a half-life for rent,
you snapped her up, I guess
I never said good bye.
questions: Will I see you
when you’re 40
or is that it?
of your replies
I wait in the house
an empty shell, knowing
that this land is mine,
and I don’t want it
(A found poem created using song titles from Dido’s album, ‘life for rent’)
Anne Lawrence Bradshaw graduated with a First in English Literature in 2013, returning to study after a twenty year hiatus. Her work has been recently published in Orbis, Acumen, and Artemis (UK literary magazines) and several ezines. She is Writer Liaison with E&GJ Little Press and lives in Northumbria, the North of England, with her husband and 2.4 children. Tweet her @shrewdbanana
* * *
Day and Night
By Isaac Jones
I watch as a new day awakes
half blind and trying to see
what the night had seen
that made it so beautiful.
It searches the land focusing hard
on those who dwell below its glare
and the life that graze upon its light
but it cannot see.
It cannot see anything that the night
had claimed before, for it did not see
the scandalous or the sinful. It did not see
the joyous or the proud. No all it saw
were the tired, and the laboring souls
that worked in its blistering heat. It saw
the children toil as they did everyday
but nothing new.
Nothing changed, but maybe this was for the best.
For each time when they shared the sky
the night would tell the day of what it had seen
and what wondrous events had taken place,
and it could only imagine and dream.
Yes dream of it being able to enjoy such events
so in a way it was happy to listen to
the stories and tales of the nights escapades
for it gave the day something not only to look forward to
when it awoke but something to help it go to sleep.
Isaac Jones lives in Oklahoma City Oklahoma, and is an inspiring poet, and sometimes parody writer for a site called Deviant Art. he has over a hundred parodies written and only a few of them actually preformed on his You Tube channel Sith Wolf.
* * *
Two Poems by Gloria Keeley
Tragedy Of A Run-On
Once, a very long time ago
I saw a lime-colored stop light
sailing down the street
its tracks trailing behind
with glittering orange flames
from the exhaust of Shakespeare’s forgotten lines
onto the paper of some modern day junkie
trying to spill his thoughts out
on the workings of the
beat of his brain
expecting Schumann to
put it to music
and have it come bursting
across the sounds waves
into the ears of mock bird watchers
waiting for the chirping yellow-tailed
twinkling from branch to branch
trying to undo each leaf
that will meet the ground
announcing the approaching autumn
hot trailing leaf collectors
with bags of magnets
picking up spotted leaves
good enough to dunk into sodium sulfate
changing them into something they’re not
to encourage years of philosophical study
to be reported in volumes of encyclopedias
selling on the market for silver sand dollars
after which will sit on the shelves
never to be opened again
until the will of the owner is read.
The Hobo Ride
The night railroad holds sleepers
each with their own dreams
the train in the rain whistles
lonely on skinny rails
rolling the canyons
boxcars hold card games
the flickering lanterns lend
credence to the kings and queens
corn stalks the land
nests dry in the moonlight
grass grows around baby birds
beaks red from cherries
fed by their mothers
the early morning breeze
ripples the fish-full pond
the hobo rides the freight
after tramping the yards
the main line tunnel
where souls are hidden
spoon the smokestack veins
indians set ears to ground
sense the ancient rumble
riding down the double E’s.
Gloria is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a BA and MA in Creative Writing. She currently volunteers at the grammar school she attended, teaching poetry to the third graders. Her work has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Midnight Circus, Stillwater, Straylight, and others.
* * *
By Teighlor McGee
I started carrying bandaids in my backpack, just in case she needs them.
They're pink with hello kitty print so that maybe they'll make her crack a smile as she tries to stop herself from bleeding.
I want to tell her that things aren't always going to be this hard but I choke on the weight of my own words and feel like a liar.
I don’t want to be a liar, but how can I try to make her believe words that I’m still searching for truth in. We both are all too familiar with the taste of cold concrete,
with beeping backgrounds, with crisp clean white walls, eye focused on a single spot, pretending to be somewhere else, wishing to be someone else.
I’m not going to patronize her with “I’m sorry’s”
“I’m sorry” is not the stitch to close that gaping wound she keeps picking open.
I don’t want to be a liar, I’m not telling her that she’s not broken pieces, that she doesn’t have sharp jagged edges that’ll cut whoever dares to get too close,
but I swear that on her good days they sparkle like sea glass and I can make out my reflection in them.
She is the chewed up and spit out version of all my metaphors.
I don’t want to be a liar.
How can I preach to her that she needs to sew herself back together when I keep ripping out my own seams, when I take baths of kerosene soaked misery.
But, Misery loves company, and the two of us are never truly lonely.
I don’t want to be a liar.
I’m not going to tell her that it’s wrong to stare longingly at sharp objects,
to want to prob oneself to dissect the source of her discontent,
but I will be there when she realizes that darkness cannot be driven out when cement itself into her empty spaces like an old friend.
I'm not a liar.
I know that depression is a phone that never stops ringing, demanding her to drop everything and pick up his call.
I know that even if she unplugs the chord from the wall she can still feel the vibration from its ringing in her chest, the motion a reminder that it will always be lurking beneath the surface.
But when he calls her, when he breaks into her home like a prowling stranger, stealing precious gems of happiness and swallowing them, I promise I will always be there to help reseal her
Teighlor McGee is a student at St Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. She is a woman of color writer who is heavily invested in crafting poetry that explores identity and interactions with others.
* * *
By Janelle Rainer
My fiancé is buying life insurance at 22.
It’s a fiscally responsible move,
according to the agent. But I’m bothered
by these thoughts of the end
when for us, everything is just beginning.
My brother often says I’m naïve.
But is it naïve to hope for eternity
in these perfect twenty-something bodies,
still illness-free and shining with the sweat
of youth? Is it naïve to ask for
what every new couple wants--
to be ageless and loved beyond reason?
We are free to believe anything.
Janelle Rainer is a 25-year-old poet, painter, and community college teacher living in Spokane, Washington. Her recent work has appeared in Harpur Palate, The Louisville Review, Oddball Magazine, Atticus Review, Emerge Literary Journal, HASH the Mag, POPLORISH, and elsewhere. Janelle's debut poetry collection, Two Cups of Tomatoes, will be released in October. Her paintings can be viewed here. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
* * *
At this Time of Night
By Doug Cornett
One by one, they rise from their beds, pad softly down stairs and push out their front doors, feeding themselves to the unknowable darkness of the small town. An intangible longing pulls them from their homes at this time of night. There are eight wanderers in all, each unaware of the others, each under the same spell. They gather in front of a house at the edge of town. It is almost completely empty, save for a room with photographs hanging on the wall that show the wanderers, together, in far-off places. In every picture, they wear dazed, hollowed-out expressions.
None of the wanderers can recall ever being together in these strange places. What’s more, they don’t recognize one another, despite living in the same place. It’s odd, one of them remarks, for such a small town.
In the room with the photographs in the abandoned house, each of the strangers crinkles their brow and concentrates. They decide it is a trick. But who? they ask, and how? They narrow their eyes at the person next to them, ball their pocketed hands into fists. One of them chuckles in a limp, humorless kind of way.
They stay like this, a clump of uncertainty, until one of them sighs and throws up her hands. It’s late, she says, and this is not the place to be at this time of night. The others nod and shrug their shoulders.
We can’t leave, one man pleads. I felt it. He sweeps a desperate gaze over the blank faces. Didn’t you feel it?
But they are already turning for the door, for their homes, their beds.
The pleading man acts quickly. From his pocket he removes the camera and clicks.
The faces barely react; they are dazed, bored, and dreaming of tomorrow.
Douglas Cornett is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University. His work has previously appeared in Vestal Review, Superstition Review, Propeller Magazine, and elsewhere.
* * *
By Barbara Harroun
In the attempt to merge onto an off ramp 2.5 miles outside of Toledo, Ohio, Martha nearly gets herself and her mother creamed by a semi. In the last instant, she pulls the wheel right, hard, and the truck careens by them, horn blaring, taking only her driver’s side mirror. Shaking, she pulls into a gas station. Her mother opens one eye and says, “For Pete’s sake. You nearly murdered me.”
“I thought you were sleeping, “ Martha says, eyes watering.
“I was just resting,” her mother murmurs. “For God’s sake and mine, buy yourself a pack of smokes so you can drive like a normal person.”
Martha does just that, knees still quivering. Around the side of the station there’s a beat up picnic table, patches of white paint hanging onto naked wood like scabs. She sits on the table, resting her feet on the bench and pulls off cellophane, opens the box and tears the gold paper clear. Knocks a lone cigarette loose, and lips it. The cashier gave her a book of matches. Folding the cover back, the matches look snug and aligned. Safe.
She hasn’t smoked in forty-three hours, quitting nearly two day before this mother-daughter Thelma & Louise. Martha explained she’d rather go now when grandpa was alive, when it mattered. She quit smoking in honor of her grandfather, who they are driving twenty-one hours to see. He’s dying. Lung cancer. Martha has no idea that in two months it will spread to his brain, taking his sight and hearing. In three months, she’ll drop dirt on his casket, unable to stay away, hoping the ritual of a funeral will help, but it will not, except to show her that whatever it was, the more that made her grandfather the sharp blade of a man she loved so well will have fled. And his body, plumped up, eyes closed, hands folded, cheeks unnaturally rosy—well, it will strike her as a goddamned shell and her anger will leave her hands shaking, her knees trembling and inside she’ll feel an unprotected child, afraid.
But now, the cigarettes are aligned too like soldiers, one hole for the one she pretends to smoke—a space like a missing tooth. There is comfort in the sight. In this moment, she envisions her grandfather swimming the length of the beach, pausing to raise his head and smile at her. She sees him picking grapes from his arbor, cracking the legs of a lobster with precision and glee. In exactly seventeen hours the way she remembers her grandfather will forever be altered. She ignites a match for flame and sulfur, but she doesn’t light her cigarette. She replaces the one she handled and pockets them, feeling better just knowing she has them. Just in case. She heads back to the car, her mother, the road.
Her mother has thrown the passenger’s seat back and is sleeping, her thick hair framing her face, which is tilted to the side. Her mouth is open slightly. She looks so helpless. Suddenly, Martha feels such a gaping fear of losing this woman who labored her into the world, a woman she does not know the world without. She finds herself knocking on the half-open window, hard, calling out, “Mama. Wake up. Ma.” When her mother’s familiar eyes open, then widen, Martha’s knees give out and she sits hard on the asphalt parking lot, crying like a child.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University. Her work has most recently appeared in Pacifica Literary Review, Watershed Review, and PeopleHolding, among others. She loves her dog, Banjo, pie, and her favorite creative endeavors, Annaleigh and Jack.
* * *
By Alana Kosklin
I hate his stupid snore. It’s a nasal whine that stutters at the end, like he can’t even commit fully to nocturnal breathing issues. Lack of commitment seems to have leached into all parts of his life. Last week he quit his job, in one of those spectacular burned bridges ways that makes hiring managers doubt their judgement. An argument in a dull revenue meeting. An upended water jug. A dripping senior sales associate.
And now he is sleeping soundly, the whine going out into the darkness and being sucked back into his slack mouth. I stare unseeingly at the ceiling. The street light outside our window blew last night, so I can’t even look at the shadows coming through the
half-open blind slats. He doesn’t like to sleep in a dark room, insists on opening the blinds. I almost wake him up to see if he panics in the black.
I’d asked this morning what he was going to do about getting another job. I can’t pay all the rent, I’d said, seeing him tense for a fight. I didn’t want a fight, I was trying to be tactful. Admittedly it’s not a particular strength of mine.
I’m going to be a writer, he’d said. I have stories to tell, he’d said. Obviously I wasn’t quick enough to wipe the sneer off my face. He’d left with the dog, stalking angrily down the street, because of course he doesn’t drive. I do the driving.
I didn’t follow him. I drove to work and scrubbed sticky stained showers and vacuumed gritty halls. When I came home he’d put eggs on to boil and left them so long the water was almost gone. What happened? I’d asked. I got inspired and started writing and forgot, he’d said. This time I turned away before I rolled my eyes. I didn’t want the dog leaving again; I liked to watch movies with him at night.
Now the stupid snore hitches, catches somewhere in his throat and I think he stops breathing for half a second. I wonder what would happen if he stopped breathing for longer. If he woke with bulging eyes and a mouth uselessly trying to suck in air. If he grabbed my arm in fear and I remained unmoved. If I was asleep, snoring.
Alana Kosklin is a PhD (English) candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia, where she is writing a collection of short stories. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Kippis! Literary Journal and Eunoia Review. Sometimes she tweets amusing things at @alanakosklin.
* * *
By Melissa Ostrom
Mattie works at Chandler’s in the Franklin Mall and has for over a year, ever since she turned sixteen. The store, across from Gram’s Cookies and in between Beauty Essentials and Santa Claus Classics, sells conservative men’s apparel: oxfords, polos, slacks, jeans, and sweaters, all well-made, blandly colored, and predictably patterned. The complicated sizing confounds her. Specific in arm length, inseam, neck circumference, and waistline, it strikes Mattie as an unnecessary and stupid sham, like a boring person with a fancy name, the kind with a number attached at the end. The Third.
Mattie thinks a pervert must have devised the sizing system. It makes sure men, old enough to be her father, sometimes hairy enough to be gorillas, get to be handled personally. She is brisk as she measures the scratchy necks and the beer guts. She stands as far away as she can while she runs the tape from the middle of the backs, over the shoulders, and down to the wrists.
No, Sir. I do not measure inseams.
Thanks, but I’m already seeing someone.
Excuse me, but I think the manager should help you.
She deals with nonsense on a regular basis. And just to make life worse, every so often, a man sidles out of the dressing room with his fly down. On purpose.
Since starting at Chandler’s, she has saved almost all of her earnings for college. There is nothing for her to buy at Chandler’s, and her shift ends at the mall’s nine o’clock closing, so she can’t escape to the stores with fun clothes, sensibly sized and interesting.
Instead, she gets her purse from the backroom, says goodbye to Judy or Deb, whoever is in charge that night, and leaves, at once encountering outside Chandler’s the cinnamon scent of Santa Claus Classics then passing the lily perfumes of Beauty Essentials and finally entering the sugared vanilla zone of Gram’s Cookies.
Some nights, Tina at the cookie counter calls Mattie over and offers her a small bag of free treats, leftovers from the evening’s baking. Mattie thanks her and goes to the exit doors to wait for her father to pick her up. The cookies, still warm from their heated glass cases, are very small and chewy. She eats them then licks the chocolate from her finger and thumb. With her tongue, she checks her lips for crumbs.
She wishes she had a glass of milk, thinks about the homework she has to finish before bedtime, and waits for her father’s car to appear in the emptying lot. The tall-poled lamps shine over the numbered aisles, spot by spot, row by row, in a precise illumination. The lights are like stars that could be beautiful, if only they weren’t organized in such a tedious constellation.
Melissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York, where she serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her five-year-old and seven-year-old let her. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Lunch Ticket, decomP, Oblong, Matchbook, and elsewhere.
* * *
The Desert Shaman
By Isabella Ronchetti
Once upon a time, a young, mute Healer was tied to a tree in the heart of a merciless desert. And the eerie secrets of her tribe's people filled the girl's mind, destroying it.
They circled her like ravenous vultures, begged for mercy, for savior. Terrified of losing her in the perpetual desert and churning sandstorms, they tethered the Healer to the Lone Tree and prayed to Onaki and Tupalia, brother gods of acquiescence.
Her Voice was stolen, locked away in a coffer made of zingana wood and buried beneath layers of dust and filth.
They pulled up their sun-bleached tunics, once red and orange and azure and green, and bowed down to her, crooning their desperate pleas and making offerings of intricately woven tapestries and animals, though they had so very few left. Watching them brew root goulash in hefty basins over purple fires, the Healer sipped her small ration and gripped the bruised aluminum can, steam sashaying up to the monotonous sky.
The diseased hoped to be healed and the elderly blessed, before Death came and escorted them past the Stars and Moons and Sun.
They flocked to her and kissed her sooty bare feet, confessed their sins and pledged their devotion. They told the young Healer—worshiped, imprisoned and obliging as she was—things no human should ever know. And the many tears she shed were collected in spindly, opaque vials.
Until one day, her ropes eroded and, wrists bloodied, the Healer ran into the sandtwisters.
Isabella's work has been awarded and has appeared in numerous publications such as Diverse Voices Quarterly, Canvas Literary Journal, Stone Soup, GREYstone, Glass Kite Anthology, Bluefire Journal, Creative Kids, Brouhaha Magazine, The Claremont Review, Skipping Stones, Celebrating Art, and Poetic Power Anthology.
* * *
By Scott Thompson
The group of boys descend the stairs two at a time. Their laughter dies on the muted cement walls of the underground station. As they reach the platform, Kris looks up and down the platform and spits onto the tracks, “How long till the bloody train comes then?”
The boy next to him impulsively runs his fingers along a silver chain extending from his vest to his pants pocket. The chain is connected to a phone whose screen reveals an image of an old pocket watch, gleaming gold from its rounded edges. It makes a quiet ticking sound as the second hand progresses in its endless circle.
“Just a few minutes,” the boy answers.
Kris digs into his jacket for his pack, “Enough time for a smoke, for sure.”
He lights a match, inhales, and blows smoke in the direction of a man in jeans and a light blue button-up standing next to him. The man glares back at Kris and, after noticing Kris’ military boots and the four other youths smirking over Kris’ shoulder, moves further down the platform.
“That’s right,” Kris sneers at the man’s retreating back, “walk away.”
A squeal through the tunnel announces the arrival of the train.
The boys load into the car putting their feet up on the seats across from them. Bits of dirt and caked mud scatter over the frayed upholstery. A few passengers are riding with them: a young couple chatting a few seats ahead, a younger man reading a newspaper a few seats behind, and an older business man in an expensive suit at the front of the car. The boys start their usual banter: the girls at school whose dresses and tempers ran short and their recent scraps. As they grow more comfortable, their voices and laughter grow louder. The young couple quickly chooses a different part of the car.
The train rolls out of the station and into the tunnel. After accelerating to a steady pace, lights from the tunnel illuminate the interior with a steady rhythm. The shadows from the tunnel lights play across the aluminum walls, bathing the passengers in succeeding moments of light and dark. The train car and its passengers become, for a moment, actors in a timeworn movie whose reels do not turn quick enough to hide the cuts between shots. All boundaries are visible.
At the next station, the young couple and the younger man get off.
After several minutes, the escalating need for another cigarette prompts Kris to create a new form of entertainment for the group. He lifts himself into the aisle and slides into the seat just behind the lone business man.
In a tone anticipating no answer, Kris questions, “Say, watcha keep in your briefcase, old-timer?”
The man does not respond. Kris turns towards his watchful friends who are trying to keep themselves from laughing.
A group member, breaking the silence, shouts, “Is he ignoring you, Kris? You going to let him hack you off like that?”
The boys chuckle. Kris looks back at the older man and sends a sharp kick to the back of his seat.
“Don’t ignore me, old man! I asked you a question.”
Again, the man remains still and noiseless. Kris can hear his friends’ laughter swelling. Encouraged by the group’s cackle, he gets up and quickly moves to the seat facing the man.
Stooping down, Kris exclaims, “Hey, you old sod, I asked you a…”
Getting a look at the man’s shaded appearance, Kris pauses. The business suit—which had looked nice in the dissonant flashes of light and dark—is tattered, frayed at the collar and elbows. It hulks over the man’s thin shoulders with its buttons either missing or hanging slack. The man’s tie is tense, knotted clumsily around his neck, wringing his throat.
The shadows swim across the car as the train continues its forward progress, bumping occasionally against the tracks. The movie reels shutter on the projector, gaining momentum.
The man sinks forward out of the shadows, revealing his face. His sudden movement startles Kris and quiets his friends. The man grins, openly peering into Kris’s eyes. His toothy smile stretches across his face, pulling tight the skin around his collar. His teeth are pitted, black, and misshapen. The man slowly brings a finger to his lips. In a motion of silent anticipation, his other hand moves to his ear, cupped, as if attempting to capture a faint melody.
Large explosions in the distance rattle the tunnel walls. The lights on the train flicker erratically, and the train jars forward, increasing its speed with a sudden jolt. The end of the film strip slaps against the projector repeatedly as the reel continues its dumb rotation. It makes the sound of a quiet ticking. The train rushes forward.
Scott Thompson is currently a PhD student in Literature at Temple University in Philadelphia. He also works as a professional writing consultant.
* * *
Tell Me Something I Don't Know
By Mitchell Waldman
He is sitting in a black chair at a plain white table, in a windowless room. The jungle humidity is locked in this room.
I sit across from him. It wasn't easy to find him but, now, here I am.
"Most men live lives of quiet desperation," I say.
"I am not one of them," he says, smiling. It gets my blood churning. He's still smiling, staring, just staring at me with those icy eyes.
He squints as he stares at me, then says, "Tell me something I don't know."
"All right. Let's see, the earth was created in six days, and on the seventh day. . ."
"Great white sharks appear not to like the taste of humans but of all shark species are responsible for the most attacks on humans."
"Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 700,000 of his own countrymen."
"Ha! Amateur!" Suddenly, his eyes clench tight and he looks like he's going to spit. Then, under his breath, he says "Insufferable bastard."
"The capital of Delaware is. . . ."
"What is 'Delaware,' and why would I care about that?"
"Your mother was a whore."
He smiles, shakes his head. "You know that's not going to work."
"And. . . I did her."
"Nobody likes you."
"And, if they did, nobody would admit it. It would be too embarrassing to admit."
"They all just take orders from you, pretend, or pretended, at least, back in those days, to like you because you are, were . . . well, you know."
"What else? Surely you can do better than that?" He smiles, fingers the spot above the lip where the mustache used to be.
"You want some truth, some real truth?"
"Yes, that is what I want."
I pull it out of my back pocket, lift it and point it, try to keep the tremors in check, as he rubs his arm where the swastika armband once was.
"This gun I'm aiming at your head is loaded. And now I'm going to make you a memory, just like you made my parents a memory for me."
Mitchell Waldman's fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous other publications, including The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, Fiction Collective, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications), and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review.
* * *
Photography by Rachel Bownik
Rachel Bownik is a writer and filmmaker from Minnesota, USA
Photography by Kate LaDew
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in studio art.
Meyegraine (photo series) by Randi Ward
Randi Ward is a writer, translator, lyricist, and photographer from West Virginia. She earned her MA in Cultural Studies from the University of the Faroe Islands and is a recipient of the American-Scandinavian Foundation's Nadia Christensen Prize. Ward is also a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee.
Paintings by Ramsay Wise
Ramsay Wise paints and parents and also teaches film studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and English at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. His paintings are mostly motivated by an empty canvas. His garage is a mess.