Two Towns Over by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Two Towns Over by Darren C. Demaree

I’ve had the true pleasure to review Darren Demaree’s poetry over the years and his impressive collection Two Towns Over (Trio House Press, 2017) is one of his very best.

I especially enjoy reading his poems because they make me think. I always feel a little smarter after I swallow a poem with my morning coffee. I am no writer of poetry, but a humble reader. I’ve discovered in my time that the reader doesn’t have to be a poet to enjoy the form. That a poem isn’t about me, but in reality, it’s all about me, the reader. A poem is a personal. A poem is also a puzzle. And I so love holding on to the poet’s words for a little while, to look for and find meaning within its form, to gently poke at its construct, and sometimes make a personal connection.

Demaree’s prose speaks to this idea. His writing is thoughtful and elegant in its vernacular and unique style that I’ve come to recognize and expect. The subjects often transcend the poet’s world and speak to a wide audience, which is another hallmark of Demaree’s writing. The collection spoke to me quite strongly, and I think it will speak to many others. It is brave, political, and disturbing—no surprise. Two Towns Over takes the reader down deep into one of America’s darkest places, the living nightmare of the opiate epidemic, a real-life monster that Demaree names and calls out, pointing a finger with his prose at the ignorance and the static that fuel it.

These are some of my favorites:

Unless It’s My Own

I have seen
Mount Vernon
poorly spent

& I have heard
no talk about
Mount Vernon

& I am told
about Fredericktown
& Danville

all of the time.
The whole county
is on fire

& we’re arguing
about which
town uses

the least gasoline?
These drugs
are cheap

& they are magic
& it’s all happening
somewhere else?

No. That heat
doesn’t respond
to piss

& it’s already caught
the bottom
of your pant leg.

The poems are uniquely centered in the author’s home state of Ohio, a familiar subject in Demaree’s writing, but honestly, they could be about anywhere in the United States. Heroin has invaded every corner in every city, town, suburb in the United States as it is bought and sold in plain sight in and around Main Street, in a transforming trajectory that often leads home. Home is where the heart is and Demaree’s prose takes us there. Vividly. The poems are about the author’s world—the seen and the unseen—but they are also about our world, too.

Quick Root

Some plunges are wings
melting into the good black dirt
& feeding that dirt

With the un-writing
of a person’s book. Tongues
working past the failing bloom,

the drugs can subtract
you forever. They are taking
all of Ohio. It’s a burial

of the living. It’s the best
of us leeched to be lost
in the slight pull of gravity

& the claim each ounce
of each drug is making
on our once reminiscent flight.

If my math is correct, the collection contains 57 poems. The poems are organized in four groupings beginning with the Sweet Wolf poems that are fixed mainly in the addict’s world. The town poems, whose titles are actual townships in Ohio, are interestingly interspersed with more personal poems from the author’s and addict’s points of view. And lastly are the odes to specific drug houses, which are also named places. These titles alone are thought-provoking in their context and in their number.

This poem spoke to me. It is familiar. It could be my town that Demaree writes about. Really anyone’s town. Small town America, but a twisted America reminiscent of the setting of a Stephen King horror story where something sinister has moved into the neighborhood and is feeding off the local population. People start dying and disappearing, especially the young, and there is nothing to do but carry on. The static is deafening even under the bright Friday night football lights.

Danville, Ohio

Some nothings
Are everything
& those moving

& robed communities
Stay waist-deep
In the generations

& when one, two,
three, four, five
children die

like characters
in a newspaper story,
the crosswinds

give up completely.
The brownies cool
all on their own.

The football games
get louder
because they must.

In the poem, “Sweet Wolf #4,” Demaree writes “the real power / is undressed / inside of us, / because that’s / how actual / monsters operate.” The Sweet Wolf poems capture this truth quite viscerally. The invisible enemy within. And the wolf is so sickly sweet. How else could it attract so many? Nobody dreams of growing up to be poor, homeless, a criminal, a drug addict. Demaree’s point of view often shifts as he continues to show the subject’s vantage point in dazzling psychedelic imagery, sometimes from the ground up.

This poem made me wonder about how many people made it home and were saved and how many more were so close to hope.

Sweet Wolf #25

The home
& the temple
are quite modest.

if you’re passed
out on the steps
that reach them.

Besides the bitter poignancy, some of the Sweet Wolf poems also gave me the chills. Especially this one that flashes the monster’s face and with it the overwhelming gravity of it all.

Sweet Wolf #12

Gestures to a mask,
did you know that if you
connect the location

of every drug-house
in the Knox County area
you will see my face?

The poem, “Jefferson Township, Ohio” explores the arc of the internal invasion and its devastation to communities in a simple, yet elegant elegy composed of pure metaphor.

The bees are here.
They’re in our veins.
We are the hive,

because we have
mislabeled the honey.
We’ve tasted too little

& we’ve tasted too much
& since we cannot
trust the beekeepers,

we have the whole
countryside to ruin
with our stingers.

Two Towns Over is an audacious and brave collection of poems filled with powerful, yet beautiful, poignancy and angst about the new American condition—communities such as those in Ohio that are currently being decimated by an insidious cycle of drugs that is gaining momentum coast to coast—and its devastating collateral damage to America’s heart and soul. Darren Demaree’s words fly high like a siren screaming to the mainstream static that this assault on what we hold dearest is not coming soon to cities and towns across America. It’s already here.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Bombing the Thinker, which was published by Backlash Press. He is recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Trapped in a Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Karen Davis


Photo Credit: mwwile/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Step right this way, sir! Win the little lady a stuffed animal of her choice!”

“Try your luck at the ring toss!

“Come see our two-headed cow, perfectly preserved for over fifty years!

“Come show your skills at the balloon dart throw! Everyone’s a winner!”

As the couple strolled down the midway, the sideshow barkers called to them with one attraction after another. The old man looked at his wife and smiled. After all these years, they still loved to people watch at one of the only surviving public events from their youth. They remembered going to carnivals together as kids, and it remained pretty much the same, even now. Freak shows, rigged games, mirrored houses, and rickety dizzying rides. It was a thrilling place to them, even though they knew there was a curtain that separated the magic of the place from the grim reality of the world.

There were crowds of young people walking along. A few of them were laughing, taking pictures of themselves together, and daring each other to try the various games and shows. The old man remembered what it was like, to be young and full of so much energy and enthusiasm. But many of the groups of people were trudging past the games without noticing, too busy looking down at their phones. The old man was sad for them. He was part of the last generation that had grown up without internet access, and he wished they could experience life the way he had. He sighed but then looked over at his wife and remembered the good life that he’d had with her.

As they were walking past one colorful attraction, he noticed a boy getting in line. It looked like he was trying to impress his young girlfriend by attempting to win the over-hyped contest.

“Test your powers of bravery and fortitude!” The man at the podium called to everyone walking by, while encouraging the boy to move forward to the front of the line. “Take a step back in time and see how you might survive the torture of the ages!”

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” the boy said with a mixed look of bravado and fear on his face.

“That’s a fearless young man!” the barker yelled to the crowd. And then he said quietly to the boy, “You sure you can handle it?”

The boy balked and then set his face to stone. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a joke, right? Of course I can handle it.”

“Fine. One ticket, please. You will remain inside the room until you ask three times to be let out. We will give you three chances so that you will be sure you want out. We wouldn’t want you to lose your chance just because you panicked.”

“Panic? Why would I do that? This is just a silly trick. There’s nothing in there that can scare me into wanting out.”

“Nothing, indeed, sir! I believe we may have our winner for tonight!” He gave a wide smile and a wink and gestured toward a small metal box that was built into the door. “Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The boy looked around with a smirk. “Why do I have to do that?”

“It’s for your own safety and for the integrity of the game, sir. Thank you very much!”

The boy emptied his pockets into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir.”

The boy looked at the phone in his hand and paused for a moment. He placed it in the box with his other items, and the man closed and locked it.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now just step inside the room of torture and see how you fare. Any man who can withstand this room is a brave soul, but the man who holds the record for the longest time in the room tonight will win free tickets to our main-stage show tomorrow night! Good luck to you, sir!”

With that, he closed the door behind the boy, who looked back one last time with confusion on his face as the door sealed shut.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this young man be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the boy’s friends looked at each other and smiled.

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“I want to come out now, please.”

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The young man has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

After another minute, there was another knock. “I really want out,” the boy called from inside the room.

“That’s two! Be brave, young man! We believe you can do it! Just another thirty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

At that point, there was a terrible commotion from inside the room. The boy was banging on the door and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! You’ve gotta let me out of here! I can’t stand it anymore!”

The man at the podium shook his head and opened the door.

The boy stumbled out of the room, looking disoriented. His face was flushed, and his hands were shaking.

His friends looked at him wide-eyed. “What was it? What was in there that was so scary? Is it another person? Did they hurt you? What? Tell us! What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he whispered as he quickly gathered his belongings from the small metal box.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? It’s just a gag, right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just… can we leave now?”

“Well, why were you screaming then?”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he yelled at his friends. He walked away, and his friends followed as they made their way toward the exit of the carnival.

The old man who had been watching turned to his wife and asked, “Should I try it? It can’t be that bad, right? He was just a kid. They probably spooked him with some flashing lights and fake monsters or something.”

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “That kid looked pretty freaked out. Do you think your body could take that kind of stress?”

He looked at his wife and frowned. With his recent health problems, a lot of the fun things in his life had been taken away. This would be just one more thing that he couldn’t enjoy like he used to.

As they were talking, another man walked up to the podium. He was in his thirties and was looking at his phone with an irritated expression until he stopped in front of the podium.

“One ticket, please,” the barker told him.

“What is this anyway?” the young man asked.

“A simple test of your manhood, sir! See if you can withstand—”

“Okay, okay. Whatever. Here’s my ticket. What do I do now?”

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

“Okay, let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” the barker scolded. “Don’t forget to put your cell phone in the box.”

The man dropped his phone in with a huff.

“Good luck, honey!” the young man’s girlfriend called from the line. She was laughing at him as he entered the room. “He hates this stuff,” she told the old man’s wife as they watched the door close for a second time.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the young man’s girlfriend looked at the older couple and smiled nervously. “He really does hate these types of things. I’m surprised he agreed to do it.”

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

The girlfriend spoke again. “I thought he would come out by now. He just wants to prove me wrong. I told him he wouldn’t last more than a minute.”

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Let me out,” the man called forcefully.

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The gentleman has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

Immediately, there was another knock. “Let me out, I said!” He sounded angry and fearful.

“That’s two! Be brave, sir! We believe you can do it! Just another sixty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

“Get me out of here, or I’m going to sue!” the man roared from inside the room.

The barker cleared his throat and opened the door, making sure to take a quick step back so the young man could rush out of the room. He was breathing heavily, gulping down the air as if he’d been deprived of it for the last couple of minutes.

“Where are my things?” he demanded.

He was shown the open box where he hastily grabbed his belongings and stomped off down the midway with his girlfriend following in a panic.

“Are you okay, honey? What happened? Did they suck all the air out of the room?”

“Of course not! Don’t be silly! Let’s just get out of this stupid place.”

“Don’t be mad at me, please! It was supposed to be funny! I’ll never make you do anything like that again!”

The young couple could be heard arguing until they were out of sight as they left the carnival.

The old man and his wife looked at each other in disbelief. What could possibly be so terrible in that room? The second person had been a grown man and was clearly disturbed when he left the room.

The old man’s wife shook her head. “I don’t think you should do it. I don’t want to take any chances. If these young people can’t withstand whatever is in that room, how will you do it? I don’t mean to insult you, but I also don’t want to risk your health.”

The old man looked at the small, colorful building and then back at his wife. He had a look of determination on his face. “I’m going to do it,” he declared to her.

After all, what was living if there were no risks to be taken. Plus, he was older and wiser than those other two. Surely, he would be able to see through the illusion of whatever scary thing was being done or seen in that room. He was smarter than those other two and was sure he could do it.

His wife begged him, “No, you don’t have to. I already know you’re brave. You’ve done so much over all these years. You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“But I can win,” he told her. “I’ve never been very good at games and contests, but I really do believe I can win this one.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“No, but it’s just a carnival game. How bad can it be?”

She looked at him and wished he would change his mind, but she knew there was nothing she could say now to make him do that. Once he got that look on his face, he was determined that he would succeed. She had learned over the years to trust him when he decided to do something. She knew that he wouldn’t do anything too dangerous. She knew that he would never do anything that could hurt him or her.

She felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, probably because of his recent health diagnosis. She had tried to shelter him so much more recently. She had tried to stop him from taking any risks that could damage his health. Maybe she had done too much to get in the way of his ability to live his life and to be the man he wanted to be. Maybe this would be a good chance to show him that she trusted him and that she believed in him.

“I’m going to do it,” he said again.

She smiled at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she said as she gave him a small kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. “I know you will.”

He turned confidently and walked up to the barker who was grinning at their overheard conversation. He put his face close to the old man’s ear and whispered, “That’s a good woman you have there. And I think she’s right. I think you can win this one. One ticket, please.”

The man gave him his ticket.

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The old man put his wallet, comb, and pocketknife into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir?”

“Phone? No, I didn’t bring it tonight. The only person I need to call is here with me.”

The barker gave him a strange smile and waved him into the room. As the door closed, the old man turned around to look at his wife, confused for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face.

He could hear the barker outside calling to the crowd, “The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes! Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

The man looked all around the room, which was dimly lit, to see if there was anything that might open to allow a “monster” to come into the room to scare him. He saw nothing. It was simply a white-painted metal room with no windows and no doors except the one he had come through. There was nothing.

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

But the the metal box in the door began to hum. It had the sound of a cell phone ringing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He hadn’t put anything electronic into the box, so he wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from.

After a minute, the barker called again, “Will this man be our winner tonight? Can he withstand the torture of this time-travelling room of the ages?”

The metal box vibrated again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

*What was that sound?*

Ninety seconds, and he could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. The noise of the people was muffled, but there were many voices of concern and fascination.

At two minutes, the man thought about the fact that there was nothing in the room. Nothing except that infernal buzzing. He wondered why on earth this would be tortuous to anyone.

At three minutes, he got bored and started daydreaming. He thought about the first carnival he ever went to. He had gone with his friends, and they had very little money between them. They had tried some of the contests on the midway and had lost every time. They hadn’t been told that so many of the games were rigged and that their money would have been better spent on spinning rides or cotton candy or popcorn. He had won one time—one of the easier games—and his prize was a plastic ring. He had given the ring to a girl at school who had blushed and run away.

At seven minutes, the man could hear the crowd growing larger and more agitated. The buzzing in the door continued, but he was able to ignore it as he thought again about times he had been to the carnival before. He had taken his wife to one when they were young and foolish, but he had learned some of the tricks of the contests and knew which ones he would lose and which ones he could win. She had come home with a giant smiling stuffed bear that night, and she had kissed him for the first time on her doorstep before she stepped inside, smiling back at him through the window in the door.

He smiled to himself now, thinking about how lovely she had looked that night, and how she was still that girl to him. He thought about her standing on the other side of this metal door and wondered if she was still proud of him today.

At twelve minutes, the barker yelled loudly, to draw more attention to “the marvel behind these walls, the man who could do the impossible!” He didn’t feel like he was doing anything spectacular, but if standing in this little room made him a hero to his wife, he would stay in as long as they would allow him to.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

It reminded him of a time, not so very long ago, when his phone sat buzzing on the kitchen table. When he had gotten the call from his doctor with that awful diagnosis. He hadn’t known that words could bring a man to his knees like that. He wasn’t worried for himself. He only cared about how it would affect his family.

He did everything the doctors suggested, every treatment that was available. Nothing seemed to work. He had resolved to die gracefully and without all the hysteria. But one day, he went to an appointment and his doctor said he was getting better. He said that the man might even be fine for a very long time. He had thought it was impossible, a miracle. It was unusual, but it did happen occasionally. His doctor told him, it was like winning the lottery. He had told his doctor that he’d never won anything like that in his life. And his doctor told him maybe he should try his luck more often.

At seventeen minutes, the man began to wonder how long he had been in that metal room. It didn’t seem like very long, but his mind had been wandering so he wasn’t sure.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He looked at the box and thought about the boy and the young man who had been in this room before him. They had been panicked, afraid, anxious to get back out into the world. To have their things in their pockets again. To get out of this dream world and back to their well-documented realities where they could escape almost anything at the touch of a button.

He had no need to escape. He was right where he wanted to be, in this strange little room with a buzzing metal box and a head full of memories. He was sad for those other two and also for the one who had set the three-and-a-half-minute record earlier in the evening—if he really did exist at all. He wished those others could have been comfortable in this place, locked in with themselves, but he guessed that was just too much to ask of some people. Or maybe of most people. He didn’t know because he had his small circle of people who concerned him, and the rest were of no consequence to his daily life. And he was of no consequence to theirs.

At eighteen minutes, there was a knock on the door. “How are you doing in there, sir? Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” The barker grinned at his clever techniques for getting the crowds riled up.

The old man’s wife had a worried look on her face, and she stepped forward to confront the barker.

“Let him out,” she told him forcefully.

“But he hasn’t called to be let out yet. I have to give him three opportunities—”

“You open that door this very minute!” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” he complied.

He opened the door to find the man standing in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. The crowd that had gathered gawked at him with their eyes wide and their mouths gaping.

The woman asked her husband, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call to be let out? I thought something terrible had happened to you.”

The man just looked at her and kept smiling. “I’m fine. You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been around long enough. I can handle pretty much anything.”

The barker seized the opportunity. “Come one! Come all! See the man who can endure the strangest and most debilitating torture our century of technology has ever cooked up! He stayed in this ancient room of torture for eighteen minutes! That’s, right, eighteen minutes! Do you think you can do better?! Come and see! Test your mettle in this impossibly horrific room! Who can do it? You, sir? Can you do it? Can you?”

As the old man and his wife walked away, he held his head high, proud to know that he was a man who would not be tortured by his own mind.

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Karen Davis is a short story writer from Knoxville, TN. Email: davisflyer.karen[at]gmail.com

Gift of the Gods

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Caitlin Cacciatore


Photo Credit: Jurek D./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

the moon is speaking to me,
as the wolf speaks to it;
my heart is listening,
beating slow and steady in the twilight,
but it is my soul that hears.

*

The physicists on the holoscreen were having a conniption. “What happened last night just isn’t possible,” one of them was saying.

“Truly, an aberration,” agreed another.

“The laws of nature will not abide,” put forth the third as she gesticulated wildly.

Yet, last night had still happened. The physicists couldn’t change that, the United Parliament of the Nine Worlds couldn’t explain it, and the rest of the system couldn’t stop talking about it.

Winford was hardly an exception. In the right corner of his glasses, Avery was speaking, her sweet, round face bobbing up and down in the corner of his vision.

“I can’t believe it,” she was saying. “You are going to enter, won’t you?”

“Me?” Winford scoffed. “Of all people? You’d have better luck,” he said in a tone that implied just what he thought of her luck, which wasn’t much at the moment.

“But Winford, think about it.” Her voice was as dulcet as ever, yet it grated on him today.

“I have,” he snapped, betraying just how much he had, indeed, been thinking about it. Last night had been… transcendental wasn’t the word for it, but something had sparked within him at the sight of what everyone was calling ‘The Being.’ Something electric had fizzled to life inside of him, a string of lightning that, once lit, he’d struggled not to kindle. What hope did he have, after all, of winning? What did he have to his name? What gifts? What beauty? He had nothing—nothing save for his words, and his poetry, and his writing.

“You know,” Avery went on, “I think we should both enter. What do we have to lose?”

“Everything,” said Winford, before he could stop himself. “I mean…” He tried to backtrack. “There’s an entry fee, for one. ‘Something valuable,’ that’s what this Being wants. I don’t have a single thing of value. I pawned every beautiful thing I had on Earth to get to the colonies, and now…”

“I know,” she said, face crinkling in sympathy. “There are other things of value, too, though, you know.”

“Look, I’ve got to go,” Winford said, and with a wave of his hand, dismissed the call. It was the height of rudeness, and usually, he’d never do such a thing to his best friend, but something inexplicable had changed last night, when every holoscreen in the system had simultaneously broadcast the message from The Being. It simply wasn’t possible for a message to travel such a distance all at once; simultaneous broadcasts were a thing of the past, back in those halcyon days when Earth, cradle of life, was humanity’s only home.

Light only travels so fast. Everyone knew that, from the physicists on the screen to the youngest schoolchild in the colonies. A message from Earth took a little over an hour and a half to reach Titan. Yet, last night’s message had appeared at exactly the same time, on every single digital screen in the system.

Little was known about The Being other than what he had said in his broadcast. Already, he’d captivated the hearts of millions with his speech. An immortal being, he’d said he was, from another system. One who’d lost his lover, and his home, to a war that had been waged across a millennium. The Being had one request for the people of the Sol System, and it was to be decided through a battle of wills, a contest of sorts. “Make me fall in love again,” was all he’d asked. “I want to feel the light of a foreign heart smiling once more upon my own.”

Winford had felt as though The Being had been looking straight into his soul as he’d said those words, and two things were for certain, one being that he had to enter the contest, lest he spend the rest of his mortal life wondering ‘what if,’ the other, that he hadn’t a shot in hell of winning.

*

somewhere further off,
in another place,
in a different time,
you, too,
are sitting under the light of the pagan moon.

*

Everything was going far too well. He’d sent out a burst of information through the System Wide Server to the spatiotemporal coordinates that he’d hastened to write down at the end of last night’s broadcast. As a poet, he was one of those rare few who still imported paper, a precious and expensive commodity, as trees did not grow well on the outer worlds.

Twenty minutes later, the SWS had informed him that his payment of a poem—unpublished, of course—was accepted as a form of ‘valuable’ currency. The Being had accepted it as an entry fee, and for that, Winford had been glad, but still, he’d had no hope of anything further.

Two days after that, he’d gotten an info burst stating that he was cordially invited to be amongst the first round of finalists to be beamed to a secret location on one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Fenrir, so named after the wolf that swallowed the sun in Ancient Norse Mythology.

Winford couldn’t believe his luck. He’d been waving off Avery’s calls since yesterday. Another simultaneous broadcast had announced him as one of the first waves of finalists. The physicists had another fit, at least, those remaining at their posts had a fit, most having quit their jobs in protest of the flagrant misuse and abuse of the laws of physics on behalf of The Being.

He had troubles other than the laws of physics at the moment, though. He had nothing to wear, and the finalists’ banquet was in an Earth week.

It was time to go to the marketplace.

*

there is no difference between us;
not much has changed
between the watcher
and the watched.
you, too, ache, and long, and lust
for the shores of another world.
the moon is shining through the cloud cover,
and she is speaking,
and something primal within us
flares and does not falter
as it turns its face towards the stars and howls.

*

The marketplace was bustling, yet it seemed that the ocean of people parted for him as the Red Sea had for Moses. There were stares and gawking, and many people were waving their arms to take photos with their hologlasses. It was a spectacle, to say the least, and Winford wanted none of it.

Hurrying into the closest shop selling the high-end robes he’d decided on wearing for the banquet, he stopped short when every eye in the store turned to him.

“You must be Winford,” the merchant said, hurrying towards him with a simpering smile.

Winford blushed. “That is my name, yes,” he said.

“You’ve been all over the SWS,” the merchant cooed. “I am so glad you deigned to come to this shop. We’ll treat you like royalty.”

As the merchant ushered Winford further into the shop, he had to wave away another call from Avery.

He was swept up in a whirlwind of colors and patterned robes beaded with pearls, imported directly from the seas of Earth. He had a moment of panic when he decided upon a deep burgundy robe with cloned Arctic fox fur at the cuffs and a simple yet elegant stitching pattern. How in all the moons would he pay for it?

“Didn’t you hear?” the merchant asked. “The Being has arranged for all of your expenses to be fully accounted for.”

Winford’s jaw worked, and his mind raced. Just who was this Being, and what knowledge did he have of Sol’s currency and bartering systems? Why was this new arrival, this stranger in a strange place, so powerful after such a short while? The physicists had been right; the laws of nature, nor of man, would not abide.

And above all else, why was Winford, of all people, on the fast track to winning, when mere days ago, he’d been just another voice in the fugue of the twenty billion Earthen descendants in the colonies alone. Another ten billion people lived on the homeworld, and out of everyone, from everywhere, it was he who had been chosen.

A storm was brewing. That much, he knew.

With a simper and a smile, Winford allowed the attendants to pack up his bags while the merchant made idle talk of the contest, and the announced contestants—if Winford had been listening, or, indeed, if he could hear anything over the fog of voices in his head, he’d have learned that eleven were women, five were men, and the other four identified beyond the binary. They ranged in age from 17 to 63, and most, if not all, were rumored to have some fabulous, eccentric ability to their name.

“And what, darling, is your claim to fame?”

“Oh, me?” Winford asked, shaking out of his reverie. “I’m just a poet.”

“Then you, my dear,” said the merchant, “must be the poet of the ages.”

*

the moon grows bright,
and the separation between you and me
and the endless waters of the soul of the sea
and the fruits of our youth,
hanging from the boughs of Eden in various states of tempestuousness—
you, wine-sweet and ready, you—green and new,
you—small and unsteady—
you, still discussing the details with the Devil,
you—in Eve’s brown hand,
poised on the precipice between the fallen and the fall,
you—newly defiled—
you, turning back into the Earth from whence thou cometh.

*

The banquet arrived all too quickly. The days passed in a blur, and there were no more holo-broadcasts from The Being. In what seemed to go by as a flickering of many-colored leaves falling from the autumnal trees, the week went by, leaving Winford reeling.

The banquet arrived, and Winford stood, feeling painfully plain in his burgundy robe with the golden stitching that had seemed to delicate and refined at the time, in a corner of the palace that had been erected for the purpose of this night, watching the other contestants wait and pace on the gilded floor for The Being to bless them with his presence.

A booming voice that resonated throughout Winford’s being spoke, voice cavernous and echoing the in high-ceilinged hall. “My name,” it said, “is Thaddeus. I was last on your world three-thousand years ago, in the company of another immortal.”

Gasps and whispers ricocheted through the room like bullets.

“Silence,” the voice said, more quietly than it had previously done so. The room fell still, and Thaddeus continued.

“I have brought you here, today, to share with you a gift that not many ever receive—that of eternity.”

A murmur rose again and fell like a tidal wave over the room.

“Silence,” the voice whispered, and all was once more calm.

“I will call you all by name. You will, one by one, step forward and into the adjacent room, where I will be waiting for you on the far side of the door,” Thaddeus spoke.

“And then, I will ask you a question, and your answer will determine your fate.” A long pause ensued, long enough that a voice or two raised in protest. Then, Thaddeus continued. “Most of you, in fact… all, save for one of you, will become Eternals. You will be scattered across the rivers of time, your memories tossed to the wind like seed, and I will not look to see where they land. Do not worry; my people will sing of you for ages to come. This is how we are able to live to see years untold; this is how we have become like Gods.”

This time, when Thaddeus finished speaking, an outraged roar thundered through the hall. Everyone, it seemed, was scattering already, frantically looking for a way out, but there was none.

“Do not run. Be unafraid,” said Thaddeus, and a hush fell over the room, as if everyone had accepted their fates at once.

“I will proceed to call you… now.”

Winford blinked. It was as if he had fallen out of a trance. “Wait,” he called out, in spite of himself.

“Yes?” Thaddeus sounded patient, and infinitely kind.

Winford wondered, desperately, whether that same electric spark that had been tugging at him ever since the broadcast was somehow connected to Thaddeus, if the other felt that same pulsing, vibrant, beating heart of beauty that he did.

“What happens to the one? Nineteen of us will be…” He hesitated. “…scattered, as you say, but what will happen to the one who remains?”

Winford could hear the smile in Thaddeus’s voice. “They will stand by my side until the end of time, and I will love and cherish them until the stars burn out. Now. Onwards and upwards, and on to greater things. Lucius, The Architect of the Future. Please step forward.”

The assembled contestants parted, and Lucius stepped forward. He gave a weak smile, and stepped into the adjacent room. After a few moments, a flash of light could be seen from the tiny gap where the door met the floor.

“Hayden, Thinker of Timeless Thoughts.” Hayden went forth, and this time, only moments passed before the blinding light came again.

And so it went. Elden, Healer of Time, was called, then Mar, Dreamer of Impossible Dreams.

Ralu, the Hunter of Yore. Tawi, Hero Who is Always Fain to Fight. After a while, the contestants passed in a blur of names and titles. Kiria, and a woman who was wearing a blood orange ombre ballgown. Durla, and a man who trembled and fumbled as he tried to open the door. Tra’Li, who tried to run before it seemed as though he was possessed by some incredible calm and practically floated through the doors. Amaranth, whose beauty rivaled the flower after which she was named. A few others whose names and titles Winford did not hear, so consumed was he by the fire of betrayal and the sting of deceit.

He’d had such hopes. Such dreams. It was a while before he realized that no names had been called in a few minutes, and he startled. Was he alone?

No; there was a woman left in the room with him. Where had the time gone? Perhaps that is what happens when one gets too close to eternity, Winford thought.

“I guess it’s just you and me, then,” she said, extending her hand for a shake. “May the best person win,” she spoke, though her voice was shaky, and her grip weak.

But Winford knew how she felt. He tried, and could not speak at all, so he just nodded, dumbly.

Thaddeus spoke. “Lovina, Far-Seer,” he said, and the woman smiled bravely and went into the other room.

Winford crumbled to the ground, half in relief, half in despair. Then, he waited.

*

time’s arrow only flies one way,
but tonight is eternal,
bright and blue and bare as the moon.
autumn is standing in the entryway,
knowing the inexorability of her arrival,
yet coyness keeps her features schooled
into an expression of indecision.
Do I stay, or do I go, she ponders,
yet we all know how this story ends.

*

After a long while—Winford was not sure just how long, as time seemed to pass like molasses, dark and slow and sticky, while he waited—Thaddeus spoke again. “Winford, Poet of the Ages.”

Slowly, Winford rose.

He opened the door, and entered the other room.

Thaddeus was seated in a throne, one leg crossed over the other.

“Well, my boy, well done,” he said.

Some previously untapped vein of fortitude welled up within Winford. “I believe you have a question for me,” he said, straightening his spine.

“My dear, we have all the time in the world. You are the final contestant to be left standing. What of pleasantries? What of the ebb and flow, the give and take, of polite discourse? I have missed that ever so much. I have been alone for too long. Breaking the speed of light may be child’s play for me, but eternity passes only so fast.”

“What do you want? I mean, really? You brought us all here under pretense—with the hope of fabulous riches, and an immortal lover. And now nineteen of us are dead, and you expect me to believe that I will stand by your throne for the rest of my life?” Yet, even as Winford spoke, some sort of hope bubbled up within him. Perhaps that was just what Thaddeus was offering him.

“No,” Thaddeus said after a long while. “I don’t expect you to believe anything. Faith… faith is overrated. And your fellow beings—what do you call yourselves?”

“Humans,” Winford bit out.

“Ah, yes. Your fellow humans are simply living a different kind of life. Surfing the cosmic winds as elemental particles, their souls freed from their mortal confines. As I said, this is how I and others of my kind have achieved a sort of immortality. I sacrificed them on the altar of my people. They should feel blessed to serve us, as we are like Gods.”

Winford didn’t speak. The courage he’d found earlier was quickly ebbing. He was next, wasn’t he?

“But I am different,” Thaddeus finally said when no answer was forthcoming. “I tire of immortality. The winner of this contest—the one who stands before me—Winford, Poet of the Ages—will not merely have a station beside my throne. He shall sit upon it.”

It took Winford a moment to process those words. “You mean—”

Thaddeus interrupted before he had a chance to finish that thought. “Yes, my dear. I mean you are to become like God, and take my place as an enteral being who shall die only when the last of the stars burn out, when the universe is dark and cold and empty and in her death throes.”

Winford paled. “No,” he whispered. “No. Just… No.” Everything was unraveling. He had wanted so desperately to win this contest when it had first been announced. Him, luckless and hapless and unsteady on his feet. He’d wanted to feel the love of an immortal, to be scattered across the sky when he died as King Jupiter scattered Ganymede, his cupbearer and young lover. He’d wanted a fantastic life, one filled with adventure and bonbons and fantasies beyond his wildest imaginings.

He’d never wanted to take Thaddeus’s place, never wanted the immortal he’d fallen in love with the instant the broadcast had cut off to die.

“Winford,” Thaddeus said, not unkindly, “I don’t think you have much choice in the matter.”

“But don’t you feel it?” Winford asked, eyes wild. “Tell me you feel it.” He could still feel it, that golden, electric thread connecting him to Thaddeus.

“I’ve lived too long,” Thaddeus explained. “I don’t feel anything, anymore.”

And with that, the very last of Winford’s hopes and dreams were crushed, scattered to the wind like seed, and he could not look to see where they landed.

A sense of resignation overcame him, and he was unsure if it was genuine or if Thaddeus was forcing him to feel it. It truly didn’t matter at this point. Here, on Fenrir, alone with Thaddeus and the lingering echoes of nineteen other sacrificed souls, no one would hear him scream.

“Fine,” he spat out. “I will take your place, coward though you are.”

Thaddeus smiled. “Yes, you shall.”

With that, he rose, slowly, bones creaking, chair shivering in his absence.

“Go on. Sit.”

Winford did, and at first, nothing much happened.

A moment later, Thaddeus burst into flames before him, and a moment after that, there was nothing but ash to show where he had been.

And as he closed his eyes, Winford, who had just witnessed every ounce of faith he’d ever had turn to dust, did not pray.

*

even the moon, beautiful though she may be,
cannot escape eternity.
she cannot flee from death
as desert merchants are wont to do,
and even if she did,
he’d still find her,
somewhere between Samara
and the constellation Sagittarius.

*

Winford, Poet of the Ages, immortal being, God who would not falter in his beauty or his strength until the stars burnt themselves out, sat upon his lonely throne and recounted his days—the day of the broadcast, the day at the marketplace, the day of the banquet, then every day after that, stacked on top of one another like the pages of a book.

Time passes, but only so fast. Eternity was a long while to wait.

Yet wait he would, traveling the winds of time and feasting on the souls of the vanquished, those valiant, noble creatures from the Sol system and other star systems across the galaxy, who had been sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s immortality.

Wait he would, watching the flickering of the stars like dusk to dawn, each hour an eternity, every eon an hour.

One by one, the stars went out. New ones burned bright in their place. Years passed, their numbers uncounted, untold.

Winford was so very alone, traveling from world to world in search of someone, anyone, who could ignite the flame that had long since died within him. Mortal lives are only so long, though, and flared and faded before he could even think to blink.

Lonely, lost, and far from home, Winford waited, reciting the lines of a poem that had been ancient when the stars were new.

no mortal hand can fashion eternity out of an hour,
and even the moon in her blue lace
grows older by the moment.

shhh—Lune, I shall keep thy secrets, if thou shalt keep mine.

tell only the watchers,
and even then, only whisper.pencil

Caitlin Cacciatore is a New York City-based poet and writer. She enjoys writing science fiction, space operas, and love poems. She finds beauty and elegance in the simple yet profound elements of life, and wishes to immortalize that beauty in her stories and poetry. Email: caitlin.cacciatore[at]macaulay.cuny.edu

Business as Usual

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Michelle LaValley & Jon Meaders


Photo Credit: Jan Fidler/Flickr (CC-by)

Alex Kessler darted through the main lobby doors of the place she worked and was greeted with a crisp female voice. “Welcome to the offices of Traditional Banking and Investment Technology Services, TBITS, the leader in financial services and technologies both home and abroad as rated by Universal Standards of Business Services, a proud TBITS subsidiary. If you are here for spectating the Frederick H. Martin Grant Competition, please have your QR Code ready before approaching a reception drone. If you need help…” The voice faded away.

Alex ignored the announcement, pausing only long enough to get a sense of her surroundings. It was unusual for her to enter the building this way, but she knew she needed an employee elevator as soon as possible. Of all the days to be late, she lamented to herself. Normally she was very punctual, but it was just one of those days where everything went wrong.

From the moment she had woken up that morning, she had taken great care with her appearance. On a typical day, she would not have bothered as much, but she had been preparing for this presentation for weeks. She was irked when all of her hard work was ruined by her morning coffee that had, of course, sloshed out of her cup and down her white blouse and jacket. It had taken more time to find a suitable alternative than she had realized which forced her to skip breakfast in order to make up for the lost time.

In the end, Alex was still able to reach the main floor of her apartment on time. She had not made it more than eight steps down the sidewalk when the heel to one of her favorite pumps broke, forcing an aggravating trip back up to her fourth-floor apartment barefoot. She was not surprised when she missed her bus, but she just about threw a fit when the live feed indicated the next available transit was delayed indefinitely due to closed lanes. Alex cursed those stubborn few who still drove; it was probably an accident of some sort. The only option left for her was to hail a cab. It should have been easy since she kept a premium subscription to the app just in case she needed an auto-taxi. However, Alex’s app kept hailing auto-taxis on the other side of the city. By the time Alex had reached the outer doors to TBITS, she was forty-five minutes late. Once there, she simply melded into the crowds entering through the front lobby.

She felt a brief sense of relief when the elevator doors finally closed. She selected floor five and thought to herself, I don’t even have time to prep the sim rooms. Diana’s probably speaking with the competitors already. Hopefully someone in DGMS saw the group text. Her moment of desperation imploded when she bolted out of the elevator and nearly bowled over Mr. Davidson, the Director of Operations. “I’m so sorry, sir!” she exclaimed.

The stern man began to shrug off the incident off and carry on with his business; unfortunately, it occurred to him who she was before they parted ways. “Ms. Kessler, you’re supposed to be at the contestant’s presentation,” he said. He watched Alex wilt as he continued, “Diana’s already in there with the competitors!”

“Yes, sir. I’m on my way to do the presentation with her right now,” Alex replied.

Mr. Davidson hummed and chewed his tongue. He sighed in frustration. “I hope you realize the importance of this project, Ms. Kessler! I can’t stress how much is riding on this event.”

“I do know,” Alex answered heatedly now that he was holding her up, “which is why I really have to go!” Before Mr. Davidson could say another word, she was halfway down the hall.

In record time, Alex found herself in front of the side doors of Auditorium Eight. She stopped only long enough to smooth her hair, which she hoped was not as frizzled as she felt, and entered the room. Thirty faces lined up in neat little rows turned to look at her.

Diana, the Head of Public Relations and lead on the grant project, glanced up from her notes on the podium screen and graciously introduced Alex as if nothing was amiss. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ms. Alex Kessler, the lead developer for the Dynamic Global Market Simulator used for this competition. She will be able to explain the technology in detail and answer any questions you may have about the DGMS system. Ms. Kessler, everyone.”

Alex forced a charming smile on her face and waved as she walked up to the stage to stand next to Diana. As Diana took her time changing the podium prompt, she covered the microphone with her hand before hissing, “What the heck, Alex?”

Alex flushed a little. “I’ll explain later,” she said through gritted teeth.

Alex took the podium and addressed the competitors. “Hello contestants. Thank you for being here for the first ever Franklin H. Martin Grant competition,” she opened briskly. The room of young men and women stared back at her intently. Normally, Alex would have been unnerved by the public speaking portion of this project. However after the morning she had, this was the first part of the day she was actually prepared for. She took a steadying breath as the opened her notes onto the podium feed. “The DGMS system, as Diana pointed out, stands for Dynamic Global Market Simulator. This technology has been designed for full immersion, as most modern simulators are. However, what makes the DGMS different is that it has been built from the ground up specifically to test how decision-making can affect global markets in real-time. As such, it uses real-time information from the TBITS Department of Data Analysis feed to provide immediate feedback projected from your own actions within the simulator. As each of you interact with your environment, the simulation will emulate the reactions across two-hundred-and-seventy different markets. This makes it both the most immediately accurate and dynamic market simulator to date.”

“Furthermore, as you make decisions and take action the program will record, react, and adapt to your methodologies and processes in order to feed this data back to the other competitors. This dynamic input of information is constantly altering and challenging the way in which each participant within the DGMS must make decisions and react, much like many of the video games of today. Also, the program stores all pertinent data from all players in the core system in order to provide the most comprehensive resource against each of your competitors. This technology is intended to be used in conjunction with real market analysis to measure the competency of major actions by TBITS and its clients—and be used to determine the competency of the participants relative to TBITS’s general practice standards.”

“That is where all of you come in! While this technology has been used and tested in-house extensively by business leaders, financial analysts, and technicians such as myself, this will be the first public operation of the DGMS system. For its maiden voyage, we have invited you all here in order to filter TBITS’s prospects for hiring the best of tomorrow’s business leaders today.”

Alex had to pause as the audience began applauding, much to her confusion. She watched as thirty of the most successful business students within TBITS jurisdiction looked up and clapped. She saw Mr. Davidson step into the room as her eyes tracked back down to the screen. Alex began again, “The Frederick H. Martin Grant Competition is not just an opportunity of a lifetime for you as promising candidates and future leaders; it is also an opportunity for us at TBITS to test some of our most advanced market algorithms against the greatest minds of the next generation and gives us an opportunity to seek out the newest talent in our rapidly evolving world. Therefore, DGMS technology promises to bring great opportunity to all of us as we combine the brightest thinkers of today into the learning experience of a lifetime. If any of you have any questions about the DGMS technology or the technical elements of the competition, feel free to ask your questions now.”

Immediately, about five hands shot up into the air. Alex pointed to a young man in the second row.

“Right, but, what are we actually supposed to do?”

The rest of the audience laughed mildly.

“Right…” Alex said as the young adults laughed again. “No, it’s a fair question. After the privacy conflicts back when you all were in diapers, some of the more invasive technologies aren’t used as much as they should be. If you haven’t used full-immersion simulation before, basically you get into a chair in a room. By thinking, you prompt the simulator to present on the wall any information or coding it determines to be relevant so that you may interact with it using your thoughts. Your first thought should be to visualize the current prices of stocks or commodities you want to invest in, or a map projection of any territories globally that you may trade with or within. From there, the whole interaction should feel rather intuitive. For the sake of the competition, TBITS’s published assets will be divided among the thirty competitors. If you ever get confused on how to proceed, looking up to the ceiling will manifest any keywords based on your recent thoughts.”

The audience sat quietly. Alex waited a moment before asking for more questions. She pointed to hand in the back row.

The young business student from the audience asked, “You mentioned several global markets. Will the interface feed data on all markets through a conscious mental feed or HUD?”

Alex quickly confirmed the data could be fed consciously and pointed to a young woman sitting near the door.

“How long is the competition expected to last based on in-house testing?”

Alex murmured a vague answer about no more than six hours then pointed to a serious looking man in the middle of the audience.

“You mentioned dynamically-fed data. Supposing a competitor made decisions with the intent to help another competitor, could the system detect these actions?”

Alex gave a short response of how these actions are anticipated, and making deals was the very point of the competition, but considering pro-social behavior as exploits was out of the purview of the DGMS since the pool of potential hires had been filtered so much already. Alex answered a few more basic questions before passing the podium back to Diana.

Alex acknowledged Mr. Davidson’s presence with a small nod before exiting the room and heading toward the elevator. The DGMS labs were just one floor down.

If Alex had any illusions that her team could function in her absence, she would have been a bit disappointed. She did find a few of the thirty simulation rooms prepared though. She gave her colleagues a short greeting before helping them complete the work, and she was pleased to see preparations go smoothly. After all, the last thing Alex needed was Mr. Davidson finding a problem with the DGMS on the company’s big day. Once that was done, Alex did a manual check of the critical systems and common faults. It was a rush job, but she was sure it was fine since the system was checked nightly. Full diagnostics were the last thing she ran last night.

As Alex headed to the DGMS break room, she noted that, despite everything, things were going alright. It was just she was walking past the elevator that Alex decided to go up and see if Diana would join her on a short break. She really wanted explain to Diana why she was so late. Alex thought, she has been all right while we’ve been working on this project together, and my absence must have put her in a terrible position.

It was just as Alex was passing an empty office that she heard Mr. Davidson talking within the room. Alex was not one to engage in office gossip or politics, but knowing his mood may prevent a formal reprimand. Alex pulled up her phone and pretended to check messages while she eavesdropped on the boss she had already irked once today.

“And the others too?” Mr. Davidson asked.

“Yes, sir,” a familiar male voice answered. “Everything has been set up, checked, and rechecked! I had plenty of time, thanks to you.”

Mr. Davidson let out a small chuckle, “Yeah, I don’t like calling in favors, but that woman is stubborn and resourceful. Having her run late was the best bet. Shame that we have to let her go after what she built.”

The other man scoffed. “HR insists there’s no way if we’re going to realize the potential of the DGMS. We don’t need her anymore, anyway. She has very limited range.”

Chilled, Alex turned back towards the elevator. The men’s voices started to emerge from the office. She walked as quickly as she could without sprinting. Just then, Alex saw Diana emerge from the ladies’ room. Alex ran to her friend and linked an arm through Diana’s. “Alex!” Diana exclaimed.

Alex gave Diana a nervous glance. “Please, just act like I’ve been with you,” she begged. The two walked in the direction Alex had just sprinted from.

Diana had only enough time to smile before Mr. Davidson and a serious-looking man came into the hallway. “Hello, Mr. Davidson!” Diana said. “I had not expected to see you until I had the mid-afternoon update.” Diana looked at the other man. “Oh, I didn’t know the two of you were acquaintances. Aren’t you one of the grant contestants?”

Both men smiled back. “What are you two ladies up to?” Mr. Davidson asked.

Diana turned at Alex before answering with a smile, “We were just headed to the break room and catching up.”

Mr. Davidson nodded. “Is that right? I was just looking for Ms. Kessler, and the employee app said that she was on this floor,” he said. He watched Alex for a moment before continuing. “Oh, this young man is Mr. Leonard. He is one of the grant candidates. He had a question about the DGMS.”

Alex was stunned that this man lied so easily. Alex tried to shake off her unease and introduce herself to the man who would probably be taking over her project by the end of the day. She attempted to smile and feign interest in his question, but it felt more like a grimace to her.

Mr. Leonard cleared his voice and gave a glance to Mr. Davidson. “Augment Implants, Ms. Kessler. I was wondering if the simulator was rated for them.”

Alex took a second to gather her thoughts. “Augment Implants? You mean AMIs?” she asked. She wondered if someone so young could still get augment implants. “Oh, yes, of course,” she replied. “Even though AMIs have fallen out of favor, and some break humanitarian and privacy laws in some sovereigns, all products TBITS produce for regular use are rated AMI-compatible as a safety precaution.”

“Ah, of course,” Mr. Davidson interjected. “Lucky for us that we ran into you here.” With that, Mr. Davidson bid farewell, claiming that they had to return to the brunch that was being held for the contestants.

When the two men left in the elevator, Diana was no longer in any mood for this. “What in the world was that, Alex? Davidson has AMIs, so how could he not know? What did you do to them?” she asked in a flurry.

Alex struggled to not burst into tears as she told Diana the entire chain of events starting from when she woke up this morning and ending with the conversation she had just heard.

Diana listened to whole story without an emotion crossing her face. Diana mumbled mostly to herself. “Leonard… Leonard… I know that name from somewhere. I believe it is the Department Head from Data Collection. Why would they want to keep you out of your office?”

Alex thought hard about the situation. “The only place I ever really spend any time is in the DGMS module! It is just a gaming program. I don’t see why I would be any kind of threat.”

Diana shrugged, unable to provide Alex with an answer. “Whatever it is, my advice to you is to mind your own business and keep your head down if you want to keep your job here.”

Alex nodded absently, still feeling bewildered. “Thanks for covering for me,” she said. “I was coming to apologize to you before all of that happened. I hope my tardiness didn’t put you in an awkward position.”

Diana smiled warmly and said to Alex teasingly, “Not at all! I’m glad that nothing worse happened to you. The weirdest things happen to problematic employees!”

Alex was troubled by that last statement. “With that in mind, I’m going to head back down to the DGMS lab to ensure that everything is still running smoothly. I don’t want any more problems today.”

Diana chuckled. “That sounds like a great plan!”

Slowly, Alex made her way back to the simulator lab as she tried to process everything. The cold, concrete walls could not contain the energy of the crowds of businessmen, entrepreneurs, and spectators who came to watch the competition on the direct feeds. The cheers and competition above echoed throughout the DGMS floor, but Alex was distracted. She knew that she had assured Diana that she would stay out of trouble, but despite the fact that she knew it was in her best interest, she could not leave it alone.

Alex sat at her station monitoring the progress of the grant contestants. Many were hovering right around the range that they should be at this point the competition. However, there was one just soaring above the rest by about sixty percent. “We have a shooting star,” she mused to herself whimsically. Her amusement only catalyzed the worries in the back of her mind though. We don’t need her anymore, anyway. She has a very limited range, she recalled. Before she even knew what she was doing, Alex was launching in-depth system checks, searching for some sign of unauthorized entry or tampering, but she found nothing. Everything was TBITS authorized and verified. Frustrated, she sighed. “There has to be a reason,” she muttered to herself.

It was then that she noticed something strange. The grant candidate in Room 12 would accumulate a large number of points at once, but rather than climbing to the lead the program kept averaging his points with all the other candidates keeping dead in the center of the rankings. When she thought about the alteration it was neither nefarious nor complicated. All that was really required was a slight change to the scoring codes in the program of that particular room. Tentatively, she clicked it to see if it was something she could easily correct. However, she was not surprised when her username and password were denied. “Leonard,” she growled softly to herself.

She knew this was the answer to everything, and her curiosity was piqued. As calmly as possible, she rose from her chair and made her way down the hall as if she was heading to the restroom, since Room 12 was in that direction. She casually strolled past the room glancing through the doorway as she turned into the restroom, and sure enough, Leonard was the occupant. He was most definitely immersed in the simulation. She washed her hands in case anyone was watching while she mulled over these knew revelations. What could they be up to? she asked herself.

Again, she passed the room on her way back to her lab. It was then that she remembered Leonard’s question about AMIs. The technology had long since been abandoned, so a question about AMI compatibility from someone below the age of forty was definitely strange. If Leonard had an AMI then he could be running any program that he wanted from his room, and she would have no way of figuring out exactly what that program did from her end. However, what she could do was eject Leonard from the simulation until she had a better idea of what the two men were doing. She picked up her pace as she made her back to her to her lab. She hesitated for only a moment while she thought about what Diana had said about inconvenient employees. She remembered that she was probably going to be fired either way. She could dress it up as an integrity issue within the scoring system explaining that she had noticed an error.

With a reckless abandon, she opened the details to the Room 12 simulation by way of a backdoor that she kept in all of her programs in case she found that her files had been tampered with. She let out a hiss in annoyance when she saw that her entry had tripped an alarm. She had to admit that Leonard was frustratingly good; not only had he managed to get into her system and alter her program without leaving a trace, he had also left a baited back entrance in case she figured out too much. She figured she could probably guess who had received that alert but she thought she had enough time to finish the task before she had company and some explaining to do.

Unfortunately, her calculations were off by a few seconds. She was just about to hit the enter key when Mr. Davidson and three security guards casually strolled into the room. “Good afternoon, Ms. Kessler! Hard at work I see?”

Alex tried to hide her unease, “I have some bad news, sir! It seems as if the scoring program in Room 12 has some sort of glitch in it.”

“Come now, Ms. Kessler, we both know that Mr. Leonard is in that room running a test on his own project. He is not harming the competition.”

Alex paused considering the admission before replying, “No, I wasn’t aware, Mr. Davidson! But perhaps I should have been, then I would not have been seconds from removing him from the simulation. What kind of project is he testing exactly?”

Mr. Davidson eyed her thoughtfully, “Mr. Leonard was been working on an algorithm that collects, learns, and projects creative thinking and problem solving probabilities for a couple of years now. He thinks he has finally worked out the program’s kinks, and he is currently using your program to gather the data necessary to test the latest version of the algorithm over the course of a long-term study.”

Alex pondered the implications of what her boss was telling her. “So, wait, you’re using my virtual reality game to gauge how these kids think and reason so that you can plug that information into an algorithm to see if you can accurately predict what they will do throughout their careers?” Alex blinked as she processed the information. “Why? I thought we wanted to ensure that the grant money reached the right hands so that future leaders could have an advantage to reach their goals.”

Mr. Davidson laughed a little to himself, “Diana is gifted with public relations, but no! I do not want to read about the successes of future leaders as our company falls behind. I want to be strategically ahead of them. This grant program will ensure that we have everything we need, and in a few years, it will be one of the most prestigious awards in the country, and the virtual simulation that you created will have graduate students lining up for a chance to compete with each other!”

Alex could not hide the look of disgust on her face, “That is creepily invasive and tortious interference!”

Mr. Davidson shook his head in disagreement. “We aren’t interfering in anything. We are simply beating our competition to the punch, so to speak!”

Alex crossed her arms across her chest and shook her head defiantly.

Mr. Davidson gave her a bemused look, “I can see we are not going to see eye to eye on this, Ms. Kessler, but that is of no consequence. As of today, TBITS will no longer require your particular expertise.” He turned to the security guards who had been standing idly by until that moment. “Please help Ms. Kessler collect her things and escort her from the building.”

Alex thought about putting up a struggle. Just simply leaning over and hitting the enter button, and ruining Leonard’s research. However, it was at that very moment that the simulator began to beep loudly. It was too late. The first winner of the Franklin H. Martin Grant had already won first prize. Feeling that the damage was already done, she followed the guards out of the room without making a fuss.

It had not been even fifteen minutes when she found herself back out on the sidewalk as the doors slammed closed behind her. She stood staring up at that building for a while, trying to decide on a proper course of action. She had never before noticed how intimidating the building looked from the sidewalk. It was just as she was about to take what she knew to the police, or the press, or anyone who would listen that her phone let out a couple of soft pings. The first was an alert about a money transfer to her account of $500,000. The second was an email.

She clicked it open and a brief video of her attacking Mr. Davidson as he tried to stop her from tearing apart the DGMS room flashed across the screen. The image was followed by a message that read:

To Ms. Alex Kessler:

This is email is to inform you that you are not longer an employee with Traditional Banking and Investment Technology Services. The company has wired you a severance package in the amount of $500,000. Please remember that upon your hire you signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Please be advised: Failure to honor this agreement will lead to aggressive prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

Thank you so much for your services and good luck in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Meredith Blossom

Head of Human Resources with TBITS

Alex opened and closed the email a few times, but the video feed did not reappear. However, she understood the message. Angrily, she threw her phone into the street where it was promptly run over by an automated taxi. Despondently, she turned away from the building and began the long trek home.

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Michelle LaValley is thirty-two years old, and resides in a small town in Western Massachusetts. She lives with her boyfriend, Richard, and their two cats, Jack and Keenan. Email: Spigglez4[at]yahoo.com

Jon Meaders is twenty-nine, and lives in a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. He lives with his brothers, niece, parents, and their dog and cat, Chopper and G. Email: joncmeaders[at]gmail.com

Confessions of a Sinner

Creative Nonfiction
Fiona Chai


Photo Credit: Matthew Peoples/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

1. “I wish you were a lesbian,” I tell my boyfriend.

He rolls his eyes. “Well, I like girls, so I’m halfway there.”

Later, after we are full of dinner and each other, he asks me,

“Why do you wish I was a lesbian?”

I sigh and roll over. “I’m sick of all this heteronormativity crap. I want to disappoint my parents again.”

I think with the temerity of a war anthem.

2. I am thirteen years old, and I am saying we love all men. Is this forgivable, at thirteen? I am saying, “We love gay people. We just don’t support their lifestyle.” My crush is bisexual, his anger at me bright and brimming. But it’s hard to yell at someone who says so vehemently,

“We love you.”

I think to remember that I am a part of everything.

3. My family prides itself on cleanliness; we have always swept everything under the rug. I don’t know what “bisexual” is until my fifth grade Growing and Changing unit. Then Mom tells me that sometimes men touch their penises together. This is wrong, but we still love my uncles.

The other thing Mom tells me is that bisexual women were probably all abused as children. This sticks with me for a long time. To the best of my knowledge, I have never been abused.

I think so no one can do it for me.

4. I am called a bigot in tenth grade. Earlier, my father said, “If you have to take so many hormone supplements, well, it says something about whether or not you should do that to your body.” It’s an internet forum called Wattpad, and I’m responding to some diatribe about the awful suicide of Leelah Alcorn. I say,

“It’s not helpful to rail against her parents. They just lost a child. They’re hurting too.”

“Bigot,” is the reply. “Get off my page.”

Bigot. Bigot. Bigot. Bigot.

I don’t like what you say

but I would die for your right to say it.

5. I’ve never called anyone a bigot. I’ve thought it—I’ve thought all sorts of horrible things. But I don’t say it. What’s the point? Saying “bigot” has never changed anyone’s mind.

I think to change my mind.

6. I don’t like what you say but I would die for your right to say it. “When did you lose your virginity?” he asks.

We’re both hungover, aftereffect of a drunken threesome. I can still taste the vodka clenching down my throat. “I was seventeen,” I say.

“Who was he?”

“Her name was Emily. We still talk.”

“Oh. But, like, when for real?”

I think to destroy.

7. “So who wears the pants in your relationship?” he asks. This is a different he. I almost can’t believe I’m faced with this cliché question, so stereotypically unacceptable. I should say, who wears the pants in your relationship? I should say, screw you. Instead I mouth, weakly,

“Well, she’s wearing pants right now.”

My skirt feels childish around my kneecaps.

I think to raise and calm a storm.

8. I leave the church when I am sixteen because the prophet decides that gay marriage is as immoral as child abuse, rape, and murder. There is a vinegar taste in my mouth, intangible and prickly. When my Sunday School teacher says gay people make him want to vomit, I get up and leave. No, I don’t. I want to leave, but instead I stay, tasting the vinegar. The silence of my own tongue is a mute agony.

What would they do, if I told them I am gay? I know a kid who was kicked out of his home. I know a family who houses many kids like that, the pariahs, the rejects. We are all outcasts or conformists. I spend freshman year of high school trying to fit in and fail in epic proportions. I leave the church because I’ve never had friends there, anyway. It’s hard to be religious without conforming.

I think because it is better than being invisible.

9. My family is in little pieces, tiny ripped paper confetti, a kite in shreds. We don’t talk about it. I am not allowed to tell my little sisters I am gay; my brother doesn’t know what bisexual means. It doesn’t exist. I am on my fourth girlfriend and have only dated one person. I don’t exist. My mother erases me, the burnt-out match head beneath a dying flame.

I think you are killing me.

10. Emily and I get into our second-largest fight over her joining the church. The first largest is when we break up, but that is ancient history by this point. We are over each other, we have told each other, again and again. But we care about us and that is why it is so infuriating when she tells me she is becoming Mormon.

“I hate the church. You know what it did to me. How can you—”

“I have a community here. I have friends. Why can’t you—”

This is what it did to me:

11. Snowflake cuts, paper-thin lines like rusty ink, my wrist a trembling menace. I am very young and very old, this is an eternal slice. I had to steal a pocket knife to do it. My sister found out and took the first one, a gift. At some point, I can’t stop, and the paper lines become cardboard, thicker. These are pinstripes of calamity, my head is a calamity, this is havoc, and I am praying, over and again, again, again,

Change me. Change me. Change me. Change me.

Maybe I should kill myself before I sin again

Maybe I should kill myself before I sin again

Maybe I should                                             

12. Her hair tosses in the wind, unbridled and rampant, laughter scattered in staccato streaks. I’m laughing too, and I am always restrained but right now there’s a quality of hope behind the sound. She is gorgeous, her hand soft under mine, and the sun glows carmine over the steering wheel. She turns the music up. I think,

What’s the point of Heaven

if you can’t be with the people you love?

13. My mother writes: Did we see this coming? Will she outgrow it? Does she just need to find a nice Mormon boy who will appreciate her precocious and feisty nature?

My mother writes: My beautiful daughter.

My mother writes: She will never outgrow it.

My mother writes: She will never graduate from Seminary because the test questions asked her to explain why homosexuality is a sin.

My mother writes: She’ll never go on a mission because how can she preach about a God of love when she feels no love in His church?

My mother writes: You are divine, exactly as you are, because that is how God made you.

My beautiful daughter.

14. My parents are better now. My dad asked for donations to pro-LGBTQ organizations for Christmas. Mom lets me tell my little sisters that there are sexualities besides hetero, and that I am one of them. I am better now. I do not love all men; the only sin is hurting others.

And still, there is so much. I feel so much of everything. I am not permitted to talk to my little brother about being gay. Mom is worried he’ll make fun of people at school. Teasing is taught, but I say nothing, because she has come so far, because I remember when I was worse than she is now. We love all men will always be painted on my tongue. The scars on my wrist fade but never disappear.

The Sunday School teacher who said gay people make him want to throw up is now a bishop. When I leave for college, he sends me a letter. It doesn’t matter what it says except that what it says is not an apology.

I should tear it up.

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Fiona Chai has been writing since she was eleven and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Major from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work typically focuses on LGBTQ themes and interpersonal relationships while making use of poetic language. Email: fchai.veritatis[at]gmail.com

It Would Never Be This Clean Again

Fiction
Charles Rafferty


Photo Credit: Brian Ford/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Christopher and his new wife, Molly, had moved into the tree-filled neighborhood two days before. They had always lived in apartments and didn’t know a thing about yards. It was April, and as they stood at the picture window, feeling the sunshine warm their faces, Christopher realized he would have to cut the grass.

“Look at that big bird,” said Molly. A turkey buzzard hopped along the border of the woods and lawn. Then she saw another.

“I think they’re vultures,” said Christopher. “Something must have died.”

When he opened the front door to investigate, the birds looked over at the sound of the whiny hinge, but they weren’t ready to abandon whatever they had found. They ignored his approach until he was halfway to where they stood. Then they looked at the sky and took off. The birds were ungainly. It was like watching two copies of the Sunday New York Times trying to take flight.

When Christopher reached the spot where they had been, he saw what they were after. A black cat was lying in the grass.

The cat must have been struck by a car. It wasn’t broken in any obvious way, but the buzzards had made a couple of preliminary tears into the cat’s asshole. Christopher looked up into the April sky. One of the buzzards was wheeling above the street; the other had settled on a branch two houses down.

The cat wore a pink collar with a brass tag. It belonged to the people across the street. Its name was Paws.

*

Molly sat at the kitchen table, pouring out wine for both of them.

“You can’t just leave it there,” she said

“Why not?”

“Because no one wants to come home and find their pet getting eaten by vultures,” she said, rolling the wine dangerously close to the lip of her glass. “You have to let them know.”

He watched Molly walk to the window. The two birds were in the tree just above the cat. It was plain that others would follow.

“What am I supposed to do? Dig a grave?” He finished his wine and put the glass down on the stone counter with a clink.

A minute later, the first bird dropped down, and Molly handed Christopher a Hefty bag. She told him to get the shovel they had just purchased at Sears. When the birds saw Christopher coming, they each took another bite before setting sail above the neighborhood. He heard their wings beating at the flowery air as they departed.

Christopher had trouble balancing the cat on the shovel, so he picked it up by the collar, dropped it in the bag, and knotted it. The dead weight of it swinging as he walked felt indecorous, so he asked Molly to find one of the moving boxes they hadn’t taken to the dump yet. He wrote “Paws” on the side, then tried to scratch it out. Dissatisfied with the result, he asked Molly for another box.

“I guess I’ll bring it over when they get home from work,” he said, placing the box at the end of his own porch, as if the UPS man had just delivered it.

Back inside, Christopher broke a head of lettuce apart under a running faucet. He felt the grit of the sand as the water sped over his fingers. Deep in the folds of the romaine leaves, he found a caterpillar stuck to the browned hole it had eaten through. He folded the leaf against the caterpillar, smashing it on the stainless steel of the sink basin, and washed it down the drain. He did not tell Molly about the caterpillar.

*

The grill was a housewarming present, and Christopher was pleased he’d been able to hook up the gas on the first try. He lay the thin, marbled steaks onto the pristine steel and regretted, for a moment, that it would never be this clean again. He thought of the grill he’d grown up with, coated with rust and chicken grease, and wondered how soon this one would become like that. Christopher checked his watch and went inside.

“They just got home,” said Molly, pouring herself another wine.

Across the street, a man in his fifties got out of the car and carried a briefcase into the house. He looked old to Molly and Christopher, successful. “Get over there before he opens a can of cat food,” Molly said.

“The steaks,” said Christopher. “Three minutes a side.”

“I’m on it,” said Molly, and then took up position by the picture window to watch the hand-off of the dead cat.

Christopher lifted the box and carried it birthday-cake style across the street. It was heavier than he thought it would be. He considered whether to cut across the lawn or walk up the driveway. He kept to the driveway.

Christopher placed the box on the porch railing, his left hand resting on top of it as he knocked. When the neighbor opened the door, he had a drink in his hand. It looked like scotch. Christopher explained that he lived across the street, and when David (that was his name) opened the door to shake hands, Christopher had to step away from the box and it tumbled into the bushes.

Christopher smashed a couple of tulips as he clawed the box out of the shrubbery. He handed it to David with some ceremony and explained that it contained Paws, that he had found him on his own lawn earlier.

David put his scotch down and pulled open the box. When he found the bag, he looked up.

“Vultures,” Christopher said.

David tore open the bag, and the sight of Paws overtook him. He began to weep. Christopher would have backed away, but his exit was blocked by David, who was now on the porch, boxing him in against the railing. David explained they’d had the cat for fifteen years, that they got him when they moved in, that now they were splitting up, that Paws was a point of contention.

“Where’s your wife now?” Christopher asked.

David wiped his eyes and stood up straighter. “Sucking cocks in her new apartment,” he said. “That’s why I threw her out. I caught her sucking cocks.”

Christopher could see he’d said the wrong thing, and he knew it was beside the point, but he kept thinking about “cocks.” Had he caught her with two guys at once? Or had he caught her with different men on different nights? Or was he merely using the plural for effect?

“I would have done the same thing” was all Christopher could think to say.

Christopher stayed there with David until he was fully composed. It took a long time. David recounted how the cat had taken care of the mice that sometimes wandered into their home. He told Christopher how Paws had kept his feet warm during the winter months. Then Christopher helped David get the bag back into the box. He clapped him on the shoulder and worried that David might break down again. Eventually, David backed into the house and shut the door.

As Christopher headed over to his own house, he saw Molly staring at him from the front window. He could tell she’d been watching the whole time. She gave him a thumbs-up sign as she took a sip of her wine, which even from that distance appeared to be fully replenished. He wasn’t sure if she was being serious or if she was poking fun at him for having dropped the cat into the bushes.

Behind their new house, gray puffs of smoke were billowing off the porch, and Christopher could tell that Molly had never turned the steaks, that the dinner they had planned was not the dinner they would eat.

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Charles Rafferty’s most recent collections of poems are The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017) and Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party (Mayapple Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and New World Writing, and his story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013). He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, as well as the 2016 NANO Fiction Prize. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Email: cmrafferty[at]yahoo.com

The Bend, Rock Glen 1981

Fiction
Marcie McCauley


Photo Credit: The Cookiemonster/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Tessa left the candy necklace under an up-folded corner of the faded Underdog beach towel.

We’d eaten the purple-coloured beads first; we planned to eat the pink ones next.

I straightened and patted down the towel’s other three corners, not watching their backs—Tessa’s and my mom’s—move away from me.

I didn’t want them to see me watching, see me still wanting, as they moved towards the line for the water slide.

By the time they rejoined the queue and turned to wave, I’d positioned myself exactly in the middle of the towel, on Underdog’s neck.

The grass was springy and thick under the towel, like a mat, but dry and broken beyond the edges of the tree’s shade.

I waved quickly, then resumed flicking bits of dirt and splinters of dried grass off my feet like marbles.

My glasses slipped down my nose and my bangs stuck to my forehead. I stretched my legs out to cool the hot creases of skin behind them.

Not that I was looking, but periodically, sliders burst out the end of the water slide, like a cat coughs up a hairball.

Tessa and I first saw the slide the night before, from the wagon. (“Ohmygod,” Tessa mouthed to me, silently, because her mom had a rule about not saying it, even if my mom didn’t.)

The wagon was actually a flatbed pulled by a tractor through the campground every night. If you wanted to ride, you went to the store at six o’clock, unless it was raining. Any kids who hadn’t known about the wagon before would probably be first in line to board the next night, but the wagon never stopped, so at first they could only watch.

The kids whose families brought their bicycles rode behind, like they were in a parade. Everyone on the wagon sat on straw bales and rode and waved to everyone. The people sitting in lawn chairs and at picnic tables looked up from their books and games and food and drinks and naps, as the wagon approached.

We saw the slide’s silhouette against the slumping sun. There was another side to the campground, farther from the store and the pool, with sites on a ridge, and the slide was taller than that, with only a single bend.

As the truck rose and fell with the uneven surface of the dirt road, I thought about the bump in the middle of the tallest playground slide at Southside Park, that brief moment of weightlessness when your butt caught lift-off on the way down. On a hot day, you had to lift your legs too, so the metal slide wouldn’t burn the backs of them.

That first night, in the dark of our pup tent after we had seen the slide, we guessed that the older kids would sneak in (like skinnydipping, which I’d also never done). We were still and quiet in our sleeping bags, straining to hear the lawless splashing. Made breathless by what we couldn’t see. The seconds tripped over each other until we fell asleep.

Now I was watching. Trying to look like I was not watching. Not sliding. Definitely not sliding.

I unhooked the band which secured my glasses when swimming, and dragged the vinyl cooler bag on mom’s towel closer to me. The plaid bag’s handle was slippery, glazed with the baby oil that my mom rubbed into her arms and legs to help her tan.

I stuffed my band in the bag’s front pocket, with Mom’s sunglasses and her Agatha Christie novel. Tessa’s Garfield comic book was there too. We were reading it together, a few new pages each day, restarting and then reading beyond, until I said to stop.

I was timing it so that we could read the whole book straight through on our last day, which would put something good in that day. The next morning, mom would drive Tessa back to Windsor, where she still lived with her mom and three older brothers.

We all lived in Windsor until my mom and dad got divorced; now, mom and I live in Sterling, where I don’t share my candy with anyone. Tessa had never seen Sterling, but I knew all the places she knew in Windsor.

I also knew that the steps to the water slide had cut-out triangles in rows, and if you pressed your foot down hard, it would leave a faint pattern on the sole. I knew what that pattern felt like with my fingertips.

As I sat and watched, the minutes puddled around me. I knew that at the top of the steps was a long platform covered with a big sheet of plastic like a curtain, its thin ridges like corduroy bunched up in places, allowing the water to gather, shallow and warm.

And I knew about the landing pool at the bottom, filled not with swimming-pool water but dark water. Mom said that water wouldn’t sting our eyes and that there weren’t fish in it because they’d have nothing to eat.

She knew that I didn’t like things sneaking up on me in the water. (The summer before, when we had visited cousins at the lake, I wouldn’t go swimming with the other kids, because they talked about the tiny fishes nibbling at their legs. They said it tickled. When it came time to go swimming, I said that I wasn’t feeling well.) (Every day.)

This landing pool was not like either a regular swimming pool or a lake. You couldn’t see anything beneath the surface. You could not see the nothing that Mom said was down there.

The slide-guy at the top occasionally hollered: everybody had to wait behind the red line. While we were standing on the stairs, I imagined it would be blood-red, but it was actually faint in spots, like a tissue mom used to blot her lipstick.

The slide-guy at the bottom occasionally shouted: everybody must hurry out of the landing pool so that the next mat could come down.

Tessa had latched onto our mat, clung to it like an overstuffed pillow while we stood in line. I poked at it gingerly in her arms, fingering the torn edge, which looked like cottage cheese. Those bits were rough, but other parts were slimy, off-coloured and smeared, like fingerpainting in green and brown and black.

The mats were strong, like the plastic carpets you used for toboggans in the winter, the ones which you could barely flatten when they were new. Even unfolded they curled back on themselves like potato bugs rolled away from danger on the sidewalk.

When we got to the top, I stepped from one puddle to the next behind that scuffed red line, as though the puddles were stepping stones across the Amazon River, which is filled with piranhas, fish that are not nothing, fish that eat people for breakfast.  We could hear another set of riders splash into the pool.

A grandpa-ish man sat down hard on his mat and knocked it askew, but the slide-guy yanked it straight, even while the little boy was still curling up in front of the man like a cat settles on a cushion.

The man used his heels to inch the mat closer to the top of the slide, and in only a moment they were sliding. From behind the red smear, it looked like they were heading straight for a blue wall, but it was only the bend in the slide. From there, they couldn’t even see the pool.

They went forward and I went back. Mom was directly behind me, and she dropped her own mat when she put her hands out to steady us both. It landed between us. Tessa was already pressing our mat down on the ground. When she turned, I wasn’t behind her anymore; Mom told the kids behind us to go ahead and beckoned to Tessa.

When we climbed down, everyone moved aside.

Everyone pressed to the edge of the steps.

Like they were watching a parade.

Two other kids splash-landed in the pool, just as my foot touched the ground.

Now, sitting on Underdog while Tessa and mom climbed, I unfastened and refastened the belt on my swimsuit.

It was my brown-and-yellow-striped one, because my favourite with red stars down one side, was still damp. The whole day before—our first day—we’d been swimming, and it hadn’t dried on the saggy line strung between the car and the tent.

I fingered the green bead closest to the knot of the candy necklace as Tessa and Mom neared the top, and I arranged the bead so that it was perfectly aligned between my teeth.

Green was our least favourite.

They waved again, before they lowered themselves onto their mat, out of sight.

I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t see the bend. I shut my eyes and waited for the splash.

When I bit down, the bead cracked into sweet, green dust.

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Marcie McCauley’s prose has won the NOW’s Feminist Fiction Writers’ Award (US) and has appeared in Room (Canada) and Other Voices (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK) and Orbis (UK), and online at The Rusty Toque and The Empty Mirror. She is equally passionate about writing and reading. You can find her at buriedinprint.com and on Twitter @buriedinprint Email: marcie.mccauley[at]gmail.com

Warm Milk

Flash
Shani Naylor


Photo Credit: Charlie/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The first time Sylvia travelled through time, it caught her by surprise.

She’d been sitting at the table eating a sandwich when she found herself tottering around a garden with rose bushes towering over her. At first she thought she was drunk then a spaniel bounded up and rubbed his head against her hand. “Jessie,” she said tentatively, recalling the dog she had when she was a girl.

The second time she was pulled back was also confusing. This time she lay on a blanket on the ground and tried to call out, but no words came. She looked down to see she was wearing red rompers with an embroidered yellow duck. The surprise made her lightheaded and she spun back to her bathroom, where she’d been brushing her teeth.

She tried telling her daughter Meg, a lawyer at a big city legal firm. Meg nodded with pursed lips and started discussing the merits of local rest homes, so Sylvia closed her eyes and willed herself back to her parents’ home.

She found herself enveloped by warm bare arms and being held securely. A milky smell wafted around; she leaned forward, nuzzling, looking for its source. Her eyes stayed closed and she felt at peace. She wanted to stay in these arms forever. She filled her tummy with milk and softly fell asleep.

She woke up at midnight; Meg had gone and she was in bed.

Sylvia decided to go back. There was nothing in the present to keep her. Nothing in her house or her small town. Meg didn’t need her. She wanted to be back with Mummy and Daddy. With Jessie and her brother Alfie.

She lay in bed and willed herself to travel back again.

This time she wouldn’t be returning.

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Shani Naylor lives in New Zealand and has had stories published in the Top of the Morning Book of Incredibly Short Stories and Flash Frontier. Email: shani.naylor[at]gmail.com

Streaming

Flash
Ona Gritz


Photo Credit: DeeAshley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s the summer before my son leaves for college, the season, friends with older kids warn me, he’s likely to rail, accuse, anything to cause a rift large enough to walk through to his new life. Mostly he’s just quieter than usual, internal, except the times when, knowing I’m at my writing desk, he tosses a deflated soccer ball against the living room wall.

“Sorry, I forgot,” he responds when I call to him to stop, a claim so outrageous I wonder if he does this less to rankle than to hear his own name spoken—loudly, firmly—to assure himself that we’re still us, he’s still here.

One evening we watch Friday Night Lights: the pilot, the second episode, and, though I’ve got a stack of dishes waiting, he’s supposed to walk the dog, and I don’t actually care for football, we can’t help but allow ourselves one more.

From then on, this is what we do, night after night, worry together about the star quarterback turned paraplegic; the bookish boy briefly loved by a troubled girl; the addict’s son whose body is brilliant at sports. At dinner, we talk about these Texans as though they’re our neighbors here in New Jersey. We gossip, predict, offer advice only the two of us hear.

Too soon, we finish the series and, for days, we’re both doleful, aimless, grieving this loss in place of the one we rarely mention, though of course it’s streaming toward us, mere weeks away.

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Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with Daniel Simpson. Email: onafawn[at]gmail.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Mandy Haggith


Photo Credit: Alex Schwab/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Araucaria

how still
still
still they stand

They have no rustling, fiddling leaves. They are poised. Calm. Open to the sky’s endless moods. Pumping quietly, breathing in what we expire. Perhaps preparing to dance. In their homeland they burn. They take sanctuary here, finger the breeze tenderly, tentatively. They have come with their fear and hold it like all parents. They cannot let it go. They know what happens in the world. They carry part of their forest here. They bring Gondwanaland. They give us the past.

how?
how they stand
still
stand
stand
still stand

Untarnished by our wonderings, they know no why at all. They embody one how and two wheres. But all the whens we can imagine and more are in the needles of just a single branch. Each is a treeful of answers to the only question worth asking. I ask it over and over. They answer with whorl upon whorl of time, and all the answers are the same. Now and then. Now, and then. Now. And then.

they stand how?
still
still
they stand still

 

Coco de Mer — Lodoicea maldivica

This is monkey Mojo’s hot house.
It’s tropics in a box.
We bathe in the steamy green,
dining on sea-coconut jelly
from a coconut bowl with a coconut spoon,
thatching our roof with palm leaves.

It’s a jungle of silence,
no breeze to tease the leaves to sound,
no insect whine, no bird calls from the canopy.
Just a flowering ginger, attended by an ant
and monkey Mojo whispering
his eerie, lush, lush, hush.

 

Greenhouse denial

‘Most of the things here are fake’,
says a boy with a big plastic gun.
His father remonstrates, ‘No, they’re not.
It’s the Botanical Gardens. All the plants
are natural. That’s the deal.’

The boy takes aim at a cycad.
Since long before the dinosaurs
its kind has survived extinctions,
earthquakes, meteors—it’s very real.
‘Fake,’ he says—and fires.

 

Pitus withami

John Playfair, ‘The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.’

Out of fossil depths
a 320-million-year-old tree
hauled up from a carboniferous swamp
perches on this precipitous edge of time’s ravine.

I am daring myself to peer down into the abyss
giddy with the vertiginous height
of this fleeting moment
of one brief life.

 

Triptych

a tree’s shadow on snow

the tree itself

words about a tree

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Mandy Haggith is a writer and environmental activist living in Assynt, in the Scottish Highlands. Her poetry collections include letting light in, Castings and A-B-Tree, a celebration of the Gaelic Tree Alphabet written while poet in residence at Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens. She is the editor of Into the Forest, an anthology of tree poetry. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands and also writes novels and plays. Email: hag[at]mandyhaggith.net