Three Poems

Poetry
Holly Day


Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The Letters Keep Coming

cringe. draw away from me out
of me slough away
promises burn holes
in dreams I know
you, silent in the darkened hall, white armor
stripped and revealed to be paste. tell me why
I need you. don’t leave me yet. run. pull

yourself off of me out of me get
as far as you can from
me, I exile you because
I know. once a week

she calls me to let me know you’re still
sleeping with her, tells me about
the life you have planned
for the two of you. she wants forgiveness.
she wants to know if I’m okay with all
of this.

I tell her I’m fine

 

White Knight

it would be easier to think of my husband as being a white knight
if I wasn’t the one always killing spiders, digging holes for dead pets
waking up the middle of the night with babies and
going to work every day. If it wasn’t me putting food on the table
every night, I could maybe see him as some sort of hero.

I’m not sure why. My mother used to tell me that
being a wife and being a mother were two very similar things
that no matter how hard a wife works, she still has to pamper
her husband. I don’t believe this, but I still do it.

I think of the lessons my daughter is learning
from watching me clean crumbs up after my husband
at lunch, the way I shut down and just take it when he accuses me
of not contributing anything to the family, the horrible things he calls me,
his constant harping on the state of my hair and my weight. I want
to put my hands over her ears, fill her head instead with

Disney images of princesses
being worshiped by handsome princes
of housecleaning mice and flowers
that never stop blooming.
but mostly I want her to know
about the princes.

 

The Spot

Each day with the sun, I am up, running to each
new special spot in the yard,
uncovering patches of
frozen leaves and snow to look

at the little green buds waiting to
burst forth with the spring. Six months under

the snow and I, too, am ready to leap
forth into the sunshine, to surround
myself with yellow Thunbergia, orange
poppies and frilly red peonies. I breathe warm air
on the tightly-
curled buds, wish them life.

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Holly Day’s poetry has recently appeared in The Cape Rock, New Ohio Review, and Gargoyle. Her nonfiction publications include Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, Piano and Keyboard All-in-One for Dummies, Walking Twin Cities, Nordeast Minneapolis: A History, and Stillwater, Minnesota: A History.   Her newest poetry collections, A Perfect Day for Semaphore (Finishing Line Press),  I’m in a Place Where Reason Went Missing (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), In This Place, She Is Her Own (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), and A Wall to Protect Your Eyes (Pski’s Porch Publishing) will be out late 2018, with The Yellow Dot of a Daisy already out on Alien Buddha Press. Email: lalena[at]bitstream.net

New Micro edited by James Thomas & Robert Scotellaro

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Tony Press


New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro

My math may be off but I think there are 113 stories in these pages, written by 88 different authors. But numbers here aren’t important except to note that not one of the stories is longer than 300 words. This is New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (WW Norton & Company, 2018). People, let me say that editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro know flash fiction (just look at their editing and writing credits) and we are the better for it. This is the collection of the year.

You’ll find names you don’t know, names you do, and names that will surprise you. For that third category, I offer (the book does, actually) flashes by Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Edgar Wideman. Who knew?

But it’s not just name-dropping. Story after story grabs and grips and flat-out stuns. Sprinkled among my scribbled as-it-happened notes I found these words, frequently repeating themselves: perfect; heartbreaking; tough; yes; mysterious; haunting; scary (internally and externally); funny; sweet; and even everyday-life-yet-apocalyptic. And then there’s Wow! And Twelve Perfect Sentences! And Holy Shit!

That last comment actually came with the very first story, Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go.” The “twelve perfect sentences” arrived with Nancy Stohlman’s “Voodoo Doll,” and the “wow!” is thanks to David Shumate’s “The Polka-Dot Shirt”—but there are so, so many more jewels strewn among these pages. That one, for the moment, could be my absolute favorite, but there are probably twenty candidates for that honor. Or possibly fifty.

I did not love every single story but I’m glad I experienced each one, and I applaud the organization of the book. I’m sure each of us will find links between and among stories, as the tales occasionally talk to each other, or shout across from each other. Some connections we will all see, some will be ours alone.

A few lines that demanded I copy them into my notebook:

She’s got her clothes on, and the beginning is over.
—Richard Brautigan, “Women When They Put Their Clothes on in the Morning”

The snow falls and they can’t get warm, no matter how hard they make love.
—Michelle Elvy, “Antarctica”

They hated failure more than they hated each other, so they would do anything to keep their marriage from falling.
—William Walsh, “So Much Love in the Room”

My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender.
—Thaisa Frank, “The New Thieves”

Flash fiction, in this case, defined as no more than 300 words, doesn’t always translate to great writing. We’ve all read “flash pieces” that don’t know what they want or where they’re going, other than “oh, this will be short!” The stories in the collection, brief as they are, will last a long time, and will be read and re-read often. The subtitle “Exceptionally Short Stories” reminds me that, yes, these stories are exceptional. This project was in good hands, and now, lucky for us, the book can be in ours.

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Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection Crossing the Lines was published by Big Table. Equinox and Solstice, an e-chapbook of his poems, was presented by Right Hand Pointing. He claims two Pushcart nominations, five stories in Toasted Cheese, about 25 criminal trials, and 12 years in a single high school classroom. He loves Oaxaca in Mexico, Bristol in England, and especially Brisbane in California.

Ms. Anna by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Ms. Anna by Bill Lockwood

Bill Lockwood has done it again. In his third novel, Ms. Anna (Wild Rose Press, 2018), Lockwood puts together a curious and salty mix of romance, danger and adventure on the high seas. Set in 1990s Mayaguez, Puerto Rico—the tuna canning capital of the world—Mayaguez is “a working port city… on the opposite end from the upscale shops and restaurants of old San Juan and very different from the Jimmy Buffet world that tourists might imagine.” Lockwood’s historical notes in the first pages provide a detailed history of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Key West that ground the reader in local history and lore before diving into the story’s exposition. A notable hallmark of Lockwood’s writing.

The story begins in action. Protagonist Anna pilots her father’s fishing boat and her namesake, the Senorita Anna, into the dark port of Mayaguez at the end of a secret cruise. Told in third-person omniscient narration, Anna’s backstory is revealed early on: “She and her father were ex-patriots from the mainland who had come to the island about five years ago…” Lockwood adeptly uses the exposition not only to chronicle the characters’ backstories, but also to foreshadow the major conflict. Pay attention, readers. Lockwood likes to drop subtle hints and red herrings.

Then along comes Max, the second protagonist, in Chapter Two. Max is an academic from a wealthy New England family sent to the Caribbean to investigate fraud in his family’s tuna canning business. Max’s character is immediately appealing because he is humble, friendly, and courteous—a very likeable underdog. Max talks to everybody he meets. He tells a cab driver about his stuffy family and another funny story about why they invited him to Thanksgiving Dinner:

I’m the black sheep… They only get in touch with me when they need something… They think I once worked for the CIA, and my skills at checking things out are useful to them… Of course I can’t tell you, or them, for that matter if I ever really worked for the CIA. The mystery of it all works fine for me…

Max is a very round character, much more rounded than the other characters, even Anna. He has another interesting exchange with a stranger on the plane to Mayaguez, a stranger that seems very like one of the other main characters the reader meets later in the novel. This stopped me as I wondered about the purpose of this early moment. Was it to foreshadow Max’s future? Or perhaps to show that Max isn’t as smart as he thinks and may have been played from the get-go? Both? Neither? It is no surprise that Max clashes with another important character, Senor Confresi, whom he is investigating and who may or may not be the villain in the story. This intriguing character is written well because even if he is a villain, Confresi has some truly likeable qualities much like Max: good manners, a pleasant appearance, charm, and genuineness in his interactions. Senor Confresi doesn’t lie, yet the reader knows he isn’t telling the truth either. This is good character writing.

Returning to the women characters. There is much more to be said. They are sexy, smart characters and familiar in their objectivity. Anna and Miss Parker are both noted for their appearance first and then their intelligence later, a sexist stereotype that continued well through the nineties and whose treatment is heightened by the hot, tropical setting.

Lockwood describes Anna:

At age twenty-two, Anna was a recent graduate in the class of 1991… She had on the school’s maroon T-shirt with the bold gold letters “RUM” across the front. That shirt, or others similar, and a bikini bathing suit bottom was all she usually wore for either of her two part-time jobs.

The variety of Anna’s bikini bottoms are also noted once or twice more which seems more of a distracting sidenote than an important detail.

Also noteworthy is that Miss Parker is compared to Anna from Max’s point of view.

A mainlander, about Anna’s age. She was dressed in a sleeveless flowered dress that had a very short skirt. Like Anna, she was barefoot and had a full tan as if she were frequently outside.

It makes sense that Max would compare them, yet he only speaks of appearances. And later, she is seen by a disapproving Anna “sunbathing on the bow of the ship without her top on.” Miss Parker stands out to say the least. She is cast as a sexy siren character. Although beautiful like Anna, Miss Parker is much more calculating and worth watching closely.

Lockwood’s characters are also reminiscent of noir: a stranger rides into town on a mission. The stranger is a detective-type, searching for something or someone and meets two female characters. One is innocent, a girl-next-door, and the other, a femme fatale—much like Lockwood’s Max, Anna, and Miss Parker, who reminds me of a leading female character from one of Ian Fleming’s novels. (I can’t recall which novel, but I do think she’d be an awesome Bond Girl.) Conversely, I do like how the two women play off each other with their similarities as seen through Max’s male gaze and how these women quietly control the plot. Both are important. And as stereotypical as these women characters might appear, Lockwood is true to the times in his treatment of their sexuality. He gets full points there.

Lockwood is also adept at building worlds in his evocative adventure story which is frequently peppered with Spanish language and local colloquialisms and customs. There is authority in the writing and a strong sense of place. When the characters are on the Ms. Anna, the reader can feel the sway of the ship and smell the salt. When Max is running for his life at the tuna factory, the reader can see Max trying to find his way out of the factory labyrinth.

Max describes La Salida, the bar where he first meets Anna:

The place would have been very dark except for the many slatted shutters that were open to let in any breeze that might pass through. Salsa music, similar to that in the cab, blared from speakers that seemed to be all around. Max noted that what little wall space was left was heavily paneled, with ropes, nets, lanterns, and other nautical ware hung everywhere. A group of obvious locals sat in groups or as couples at various tables scattered around. Max went up to a deserted part of the bar and climbed up on a stool.

Then along comes Anna and the story takes off. The reader is the cliché fly on the wall.

Ms. Anna wraps up nicely in the end. Lockwood takes his time as the story rounds the climax, allowing the reader to savor the falling action and see the effect that the resolution has on the characters.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his second novel, Megan of the Mists, in 2017. He lives in New Hampshire.

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

Derecho

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Pat Gaines/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Mile 1, Elise, Metro 295, Morning Dove Coffee

One of the new hybrids, sparkling and quiet, pulls into Transit Center Bay 4. It is early dawn and already hot, rather, still hot. There is a pneumatic puff as the doors open and cold air from the bus tumbles out, lost to the heat wave outside. Woven scents of soaps from all the morning showers descend and hang in the air as students bound for the community college, office workers, laborers, and nightlifers step down off the bus.

Elise rolls her bike to the curb and waves at the driver. He gives her the thumbs up. She rolls it off the curb, lowers the bike rack, loads her bike on the front section, secures the support arm over the front wheel and moves into the queue, bus pass ready to scan.

She smooths the back of her skirt as she settles on one of the higher seats at the back of the first section of the articulated bus. She pulls out her iPad and balances it on the backpack in her lap. She leaves the seat next to her open anticipating a full commute into the university district, Pill Hill, then the downtown core. The pneumatic puff repeats as the doors close and the bus pulls away like a quiet dragon. The air conditioning works double-time to make up for the heat that boarded the bus like another passenger.

The deep blue sky is full of towers of cumulus clouds doing a quickstep march. They are positioned exactly where one of the local hot air balloon festivals takes place. She watches them sail quickly toward her. Her attention shifts as the kids bound for early university classes settle in with their energy bars, Odwalla drinks, and bloodshot eyes. A few pull out texts or tablets; most look hopeful for a few more winks. One is already curled up in a fetal position, her checkered canvas sneakers tucked on the seat, jungle red nails at the ends of her small delicate fingers cup her ankles. Her black knit watch cap implores “Love Me.” She has a little pout painted red.

Back outside, the sky on the horizon has turned from deep blue to dark gray-green and the cumulus clouds, racing in her direction bump into each other, flare out flat, and connect at the top. She hears something slide as the bus rounds a corner and brakes for the next stop. She looks down to see a bright pink toothbrush with green bristles slide out from under a seat. A woman’s cane crashes to the floor. Across from her an Asian girl in black watch plaid skinny jeans and four-inch suede peach stilettos picks up the woman’s cane for her. A wraith thin woman with a fever sheen to her face climbs on with heavy luggage. Elise wonders that she could lift it. She sits and a big shiver wracks her body. She digs out her cell phone and throws one leg atop her bag.

A woman sits down next to Elise. Her benchmate’s feet with celeste blue toenails swing freely in white leather flip-flops. A flash of departing morning sun lights the chin of a passenger in a dragon tee and the forehead of another across the aisle with his Beats and his music. Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones. The crackle of a couple of good old-fashioned newspapers, books. Watchers with smiles, with arms crossed bleary-eyed, with straight-ahead stares. The articulated center of the bus, the last seats to be filled, hosts a lanky boy with baggy trousers and a ball cap pulled down low.

There comes a changing of the guard at the transit center. The new benchmate sits down on the flare of Elise’s skirt. Thumbs still poised over his phone, one man sleeps through it all. Beats person reads the newspaper over another man’s shoulder and the bus is now at standing room only. Elise watches the lake turn serious gunmetal gray-green, reflecting the color of the horizon. Sunlight no longer makes its way past the bank of clouds which have formed an arched shelf. Low, dark, and menacing.

The couple across from Elise release hands as the man gets up for his stop. The woman, smiling a private smile, now holds her own hands on her lap as they pass into the dark of the tunnel.

The bus emerges from the tunnel to amplified crackling and an alarming jagged light. Another, followed by two enormous booms, reverberates Elise’s insides. The clouds now form a ceiling, like the low dark roof of a sports dome, crack, crack, crack—a series of lightning bolts is followed by the bellowing thunder.

In the seat in front of Elise little hands hang on the window sill. A child’s face, freckles pressed against the glass, head turning, laughing, pointing, smiling with joy, and speaking his own special language. His world goes by the window of the 295 and it is wonderful. His fellow passengers show mixed feelings, few share his enthusiasm, most of them have never seen a sky like this, some hope this means the end of the heat wave.

As Elise puts her iPad away and readies for her stop, the deluge begins, driven almost horizontal by the wind. Great! She’s early for her meeting. She shrugs her shoulders. Oh well. As she waits in line to get off the bus she spots a place of refuge from the storm, Morning Dove Coffee, named after the Mourning Dove, but the proprietor feared the word mourning might steer some people clear of the premises. She isn’t the only passenger planning a dash for the Morning Dove. She taps her bicycle helmet at the driver and he gives her a nod and thumbs up. She removes her bike from the rack, lifts the rack back into place in record time. Soaked, she runs head down against the driving rain with her bike across the street and locks it on the bike rack near the entrance. She is not alone taking refuge in Morning Dove Coffee. It is packed with bedraggled folk, pools of rainwater are already gathering on the floor. Streaks of lightning crackle and thunder booms.

The screen over the baristas that usually displays album art and info about the current song has been tuned to a news channel. A news anchor is interviewing a NOAA spokesperson who is standing in front of storm cloud diagrams. “…and can you explain why the extent of this thunderstorm, this, um, derecho, was not predicted?”

“While typical thunderstorms are reasonably well-forecast, the complexity of a derecho-producing storm system is not yet fully understood and observation networks…”

Elise orders a quad, no room.

Mile 325, Exit 18, Peg’s, “Homemade Pies, Fresh Coffee All Day”

Peg carries the round tray full of plates of food as though it is an extension of her left arm. The coffee pot in her right hand, likewise, seems like part of her anatomy. Skinny as a rail, tough as they come.

“Ha ha ha, what Lucy don’t know won’t hurt ya, Dan’l, fresh out of the oven this morning. Peach, loaded with cinnamon the way you like.” Peg’s smoker’s voice can be heard from one end of the little crossroads café to the other.

“Come on, go for it, Dan’l, you know we’re not squealers.” Jolene, Daniel’s cousin, chimes in from the center of the café.

An impromptu barbershop quartet from the back corner starts up:

I dream of pie with the light brown crust
Baked by Peggy, with loving care
I dream of fresh peaches baked within
That crust of care and cinnamon

“All right already you clowns, but if Lucy finds out about this…” Daniel growls.

Peg, who knows her customers, already has Daniel’s pie on her serving tray. She triumphantly places it in front of him. “There you go, Dan’l, I think this is one of my best yet, but you tell me.” She sets the coffee pot down and puts her right hand on her cocked hip, waiting for his first bite.

He cuts his first piece from the point, closes his eyes, and makes a wish as he chews—a childhood habit. He chews dramatically slowly. “Hmmm, mmumph.” He nods, opens his eyes, swallows and reaches his arm around Peg’s waist. “Darlin’, they’ll be serving this up in heaven.”

She nods, satisfied, picks up the coffee pot, tops his mug off and continues her rounds.

“Gettin’ dark in here, Peg, did ya pay the light bill?” Jeff asks from the counter where he likes to sit, the first stool but one.

Peg dips at the waist a little and peeks out a window. “Say, would ya look at that sky? Ain’t seen a sky like that, since, nope, well, never like that… dark like that, but not that big… damn if it don’t look like an alien spaceship dominating the sky like that. Well, folks, hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Peg’s.”

“I could think a worse places. Peg, top off all our coffees, and how about pie all around since Dan’l says its good enough for heaven! Oh, and make it on the house. Har har har har.”

“Now I just might to spite ya, Levi, you old coot!”

The door opens and bangs and bounces as a gust pulls it out of the new customer’s hand. The couple are probably travelers, no one knows them, but they are just as welcome as the regulars. Peg, still busy with serving, says over her shoulder, “Sit anyplace you like, well except Johnie’s table over there.” She points with her chin at a table in the corner window. It has a single place setting, a poppy in a vase, a photo of a boy in uniform and a display of medals. Sitting on one of the window sills is a US flag folded and displayed in a triangle.

“Say, what is this storm you’ve brought in folks?”

“We feel like it’s been chasing us!” the woman says as she heads for a table toward the back. “Davey tells me not to worry so, of course, now I’m really scared.”

Everyone in Peg’s chuckles.

Davey grins, as he pulls out a chair for his wife. “Aw, now, Lois. Well, everybody, I don’t believe I can take credit for this one. The radio is saying it is what’s called a derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders. Not very common especially this far west. From what I can gather we are maybe about in the middle of the thing. I guess over 250 miles is not uncommon. They say the North American record holder covered 1,300 miles. Yah, Minnesota, into southern Canada then headed out off the coast of Maine.”

“Never heard of one. You, Nosey?” Peg pours Clement “Nosey” Gray another cup.

“Not I, not I, Peg. Cheers!” Nosey lifts his now-full cup, nods at Peg, then downs the hot brew in short order.

Outside the windows it looks like nighttime until a bolt of cloud-to-ground lighting lights up the sky and the café followed by a rolling thunder. Another streak of bright electric light reaches from above the clouds to the ground and rebounds back. Its thunder roar takes less time to reach them. It feels like Peg’s little café actually shakes. Crack-crack, double-strike, and a roaring rolling boom prompts sounds not dissimilar to the sounds made by crowds watching fireworks.

The lights flicker.

“Oh oh, get out yer Zippos, boys and gals, we’re about to go down, glad we got the gas going in the kitchen already!”

The regulars pull out lighters or matches, lift the little glass globes from the candles in the center of their tables, light the candles like it is common practice here. Davey and his partner Lois, non-smokers, look around. Jolene, at the adjacent table, passes them her lighter and Davey lights the candle. “Much obliged.”

Mile 815, Holly, Code J45.901, Mostly Caff Café

Holly, a long-time barista at Mostly Caff, is now also interning as a pulmonologist at Mercy, the nearby university hospital. Very near—across the street actually. Many of the customers at the Mostly Caff Café are in scrubs. She was advised to quit her day job as soon as her internship started but she is young and energetic and has her eye on an elite racing bicycle. Everyone told her she’d be consumed by exhaustion, but she decided to wait and see.

She likes working the café. There is something familiar and comforting about it. Even crowded. Somehow the blending of multiple, low conversations sounds like a loft full of messenger pigeons coo-coo cooo, coo-coo cooo. Then there are the regulars, many of them fellow students. She likes the contact.

She and Hank are an efficient duo with the shift change crowd. It is especially busy today with regulars and non-regulars. Today is a guest day. Easy to spot, the first group huddles rather than queues. Five of them all wearing visitor badges around their upper arms like blood-draw Cobans. They are talking amongst themselves; she pegs them for the type that chat constantly as the line moves forward. She is right. They form a block oblivious to the people just trying to maneuver through the café. When it is their turn they look almost shocked, the clump disperses as they peer into the cases of food and crane their necks to read the drink offerings. She smiles, right every time. Her eyes make contact with one of her regulars behind the group; they both shrug their shoulders, amused. “What are ya gonna do?”

Holly has not seen the sky since arriving for work. Everyone coming in is describing it differently, but all agree it is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Fast-moving, a solid bank of low cumulus-like stuff, dark and menacing and heading their way. One person likens it to Birnam Wood’s assault on Dunsinane. All she knows is that, her ears, particularly sensitive to pressure changes, are bothering her. Suddenly the already dim Mostly Caff becomes even darker, like blackout curtains dropped, they way they do in the classroom prior to a video lesson. Just as sharply, darkness is broken as strobes, brilliant and revealing—almost blinding—flash brightly and give the room the feel of an old Gothic mansion in a bad horror film.

Soon a deluge is audible on the roof. More people pour into the already crowded café. Many, just off work, decide to wait out the thunderstorm before catching their bus home. None of the bus shelters are adequate to the task of shielding people from this thing.

Pitched above the cracks of lightning and the rumbling of thunder comes the sound of aid cars. It is not unusual to hear sirens since the ER is just across the street, but it is unusual to hear so many so close together. Suddenly beepers, phones, and watch alerts are capturing the attention of almost everyone in the place, including Holly. She glances down at her watch and asks one of her co-workers who was about to leave, “Hey Rhond, can you, um, not leave? I have an emergency call, I gotta run over to Mercy.”

Rhonda looks at her, shrugs back into her work apron by way of answer and mutters, “I won’t say it…”

“Thanks, Rhond, I owe ya.”

Over at Mercy, Holly is startled by the array of ambulances and aid cars. Inside, she finds chaos instead of what is usually a well-oiled machine of efficiency. She recognizes at least three triage nurses with their hands full with so many patients looking “life threatening” or at least “urgent.” She races through gurneys with people clearly in distress, many with intubations, and makeshift stations with oxygen bottles. She makes it to the locker area to jump into her scrubs. The locker room is more crowded than she’s ever seen it.

“What’s up, Bec?”

“Just up your alley, Holly, severe asthma attacks, some folks who’ve never experienced it before. The numbers… crazy. Almost like a fast-moving epidemic.”

“An outbreak of asthma attacks? Sure it isn’t some demented terrorist chemical attack?”

“Here? You watch too much news, kid. Hey Zack! They called you in too?”

Sandy, still in scrubs, who works in the office of the Unit Secretary, pops in just to drop off his backpack and interjects, “Yep, they even called me back. I guess they’ll want me pre-filling intake and charge forms. I already have it memorized. Code J45.901—asthma, unspecified, acute exacerbation.”

“I think they are calling everyone in. I saw this when I was a paramedic in Melbourne.” Zack is a resident. “Thunderstorm asthma. Lots of work done on this in Australia.”

Holly, Bec, and Zack, now into their scrubs, continue their conversation as they rush down the hall to see where they are most needed.

“Come on Zack, this is no time for one of your down-under stories.”

Zack continues. “No, straight. Lots of research done after several events including deaths. Theory is the violent activity of a thunderstorm breaks pollen grains into even finer particles than usual. The fragments or particles are so small they pass through the body’s natural defenses and get into the lungs. That’s why it gets some people who’ve never had asthma before and really does a number on asthma sufferers.”

The charge nurse puts Holly on preparing salbutamol and adrenaline syringes, some for the ER, some to go out with the aid cars. Bec is sent to help set up more resuscitation beds. Zack is given his first patient, a terrified boy. Already intubated, eyes wide, he clings to Zach’s outstretched hand.

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Lou Nell Gerard’s “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes “Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement” (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams,” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Lou Nell and her husband, Klee, live in Ashland, Oregon with three cats, her muses, Little Bear, Louie, and Valè. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

10 O’Clock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mike Wang


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

The summer of 1978 was meteorologically insignificant in Western New York. By all accounts, it was business-as-usual for the weathermen of Buffalo, but for me July of 1978 was a strange season of contrasts: days of pure bliss and nights of unadulterated terror.

My grandfather had died that spring: heart attack while driving that led to a tragic collision with a bridge abutment. I was only nine, but I remembered him well. At least, I thought I did. Today his memory is mostly a mélange of impressions: the smell of pipe tobacco, the proud look in his eyes when he introduced my siblings and me around at their country club. The summer before, in 1977, we had all made the long trek from England to their house in East Aurora. We were living overseas because my father was a pilot in the Air Force.

That first summer, at the tender age of eight, I thought I was pretty brave, but I had never met a thunderstorm. Living in England, we rarely had summer days topping 80 degrees, let alone generating enough heat and humidity to spawn anything like the gargantuan monsters that blew off Lake Erie every evening. That summer, I had quickly learned to hate bedtime because I knew what nightfall had in store for me.

It was diabolical. While every morning the sky would be clear and flawless, I learned not to be fooled. We would come down from our beds in the converted attic room that served as my grandparents’ office to the smiling faces of its owners. As we ate breakfast: juice and toast with homemade currant jam, an occasional egg, we’d plan the adventures for the day. We’d shop, we’d go to the local pool, get ice cream at Chet’s, maybe go into Buffalo proper to see a museum. Some evenings we’d go to the country club for dinner. As each day wore on, I would nervously note the small, puffy clouds building into cumulus. By the time we were back at the house, playing in their enormous unfenced backyard, I could see the towering fortresses of terror glowering at me from the stratosphere. Invariably, by dinner time, the muted roll of distant thunder asserted itself like a physical presence, making me nervous as a hare. My mother could see the anxiety building behind my eyes. She’d pat my leg and reassure me, but it never worked. I was terrified of thunderstorms.

As if to add emphasis and some tactile sense to my unease, one of the nights that summer we were all sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching a program on their enormous oak console TV. Certainly nothing could go wrong there. My grandfather and my father were in the room. All us kids were bathed and dressed in our PJs for bed. We were safe.

I remember being curled up on the sofa next to my father when an unearthly blue-white light filled the windows on three sides of the room. Not an instant later, the boom, no, the crash, no, the deafening roar of the thunder seemed to crush me down into the plush of the upholstery. My mother screamed at the same instant that the TV went black with an emphatic “Zot” and a wisp of smoke curled over the back of the set. Lightning had struck the antenna… which was bolted to the outside of the attic room where the kids slept.

The next day I loitered in the living room while the TV repairman (they came to your house back then) opened the vault-like back of the TV, revealing its intricate innards. When he removed the panel you could still smell the acrid aroma of burnt electronics. Pushing his cap back on his head, he said, “Whew! Never seen that before.”

Reaching into the guts of the set, he pulled out something that looked like a thick pencil lead, about half an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he poked it with a finger and it squished down into a powdery smear. “That’s a one million volt resistor,” he explained, holding out his hand to my grandfather. “It’s part of the lightning protection circuitry in this set. Good thing, too, or you’d have yourself a new coffee table. I’ll have you back up in a jiffy.”

At eight years old, I didn’t know much about lightning, but I knew that a million volts was a lot and that whatever a resistor was it had given its life to protect the TV. And, more importantly, I knew that the attic didn’t have any resistors and neither did my squishy little body.

So here we were again: new summer, old problem. This time the reassuring presence of my grandfather was gone and my father had stayed in England because he had to fly in some exercise so he couldn’t get time off. I was the man of the house. My little brother was useless, as they usually are. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time around the coffee table, speaking in low tones and abruptly changing the topic when any of the four kids strayed too close. There was an innate sadness the two ladies shared, sort of like a gray patina over both of them. We did a lot less adventuring that summer. Mostly stayed around the house and did things in Grandma’s little town of East Aurora.

I spent a lot of time in the basement. It was cool and dark and surprisingly dry. My grandfather’s tools and hobby equipment lived down there. I don’t think my grandmother was able to clear it out, not yet anyway. So my nine-year-old self spent many of those summer hours down amidst his train sets and golf clubs. I’d tinker at his work bench and look out the windows, high up in the cinder block foundation, watching the clouds build through the dirt and spider webs.

As evening approached, I’d get more anxious and taciturn. This summer my mother didn’t have the emotional reserves to spare for  me, so I’d work on comforting myself as night fell and atmospheric battle commenced outside. Eventually, the dreaded call of “bedtime” would ring out and all of us would trail upstairs to get in bed.

The attic was paneled and painted, but it had the strange ceiling contours of the inside of the roof, angled 45 degrees. Four twin beds took up the space where there was usually a small sitting area, while the desk and filing cabinets stood against the end of the room. There was one round window high up in the angle of the roof. Because of the shape of the ceiling, the acoustics of the room made it sound like my siblings across the aisle were right beside me. One by one, I could hear them drift into sleep and settle into a deep, regular breathing. As for me, I would lay there with the sheets pulled up to my nose, my eyes darting to the high window, waiting for each lighting flash and counting the seconds before the timpani of thunder reached me.

When the storm got close, the wind would increase and send the weathervane spinning in wild, rustily-shrieking circles. Rain would lash the window and pound on the roof tiles above my head. Then all I could do was curl into the fetal position and grit my teeth, clenching the covers over my head. Through my eyelids, each flashbulb pop of lightning registered as a pink haze. It was exhausting.

Eventually, the heat of the day would give up all its energy to the storm gods and the thunderstorms would wear themselves out. When they went to sleep, so would I, sweaty in my sheets and worn thin. That’s how every night passed. Slowly, so slowly, in a mindless terror. No one bothered to weigh me, but I’m sure I lost a couple pounds that summer. I stumbled around hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived most days.

But I started this missive speaking of blissful days. What of them? In actuality, there were only about three weeks of bliss. We had been there a fortnight and had 21 days to go, when on one of our trips to the public pool, I saw her. Beauty personified. To a nine-year-old, she was angelic. It wasn’t physical, really. I mean, she was nine as well. Her hips were straight and her chest was flat as mine. If it wasn’t for social convention, she could have pinned her hair tight and worn my swim trunks; no one would have seen a difference between us… though, that’s not exactly true.

She had an air, a certain carriage of the head and shoulders that set us apart. She seemed to float where I plodded. She dove into the deep end with the lithe grace of a naiad, pointed toes and hands reaching, long and lean. I plopped in like a baby duck.

We had been to the pool in the previous two weeks that summer, but I hadn’t seen her. Later she’d tell me that her family was visiting her aunt in Albuquerque (wherever that was). But the first day I saw her, it was like she singled me out. Across the pool, she nimbly lifted herself onto the edge and grabbed a towel, careful with the glasses that were wrapped in it. As she dried her face and put the glasses on, she turned and looked straight at me, smiling. I remember turning to look over my shoulder; certainly there must be someone she knew behind me. When I looked back and discovered it was me she was focusing on, her smile became a cascade of good-natured laughter. She had a strangely deep alto laugh for such a young girl. It had a tripping, almost singing quality that made people around her laugh along. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t talk to her that first day at the pool, nor at Chet’s where we usually went for ice cream after swimming.

Her family pulled up two slots down in the parking lot while we stood at the window and ordered Chet’s famous peanut butter ice cream. I looked away and pretended not to notice her while my family shuffled over to a concrete table under the corrugated metal awning. It was a thin pretense since my young psyche was constantly and acutely aware of her. It was like she was a magnet that made the compass needle in my mind follow her every move. We didn’t speak, but she caught my eye as we piled into the back of my grandmother’s Plymouth. She waved: a tiny but graceful motion of her still-raisiny hand. Somehow, I forced myself to wave back and added a wan smile.

That night, I gritted and sweated my way through another tortuous bout of thunderstorms, but it was somehow a little easier, a little less tortuous. I thought of her, out there somewhere, lying in her little bed, probably sleeping the sleep of the blessed, and it comforted me. In retrospect, it was strange that where both my mother and grandmother were so smothered by grief to lend me aid, an unknown little wisp of a girl could do just that. At the time, I couldn’t process that idea. All I knew was that thinking about her helped me weather the storm. As I drifted off to sleep, the thunder still echoing outside, I resolved that I would talk to her the next day at the pool.

But, it didn’t happen. At least not the next day. “It’s not fair!” I raged. “Why can’t we go to the pool?”

My mother was a little taken back by the outburst and my uncharacteristic vehemence. “Samuel, you know why.” She used my full name. “We’re going over to the Edmondses’ for lunch. Your grandmother wants to show you off,” she said, smiling. “Now be a good boy and get your shirt on.”

You can’t fight city hall. We drove off for lunch and then spent the afternoon playing in the Edmondses’ backyard while the adults spoke in the same muted tones that pervaded Grandma’s house. As it turned out, that little pause probably steeled my resolve to talk to the girl the next day. Now I was determined.

Sometimes temporary insanity masquerades as resolve. That next day, I was certainly mad, but full of resolution to speak to her. As soon as we got to the pool, I threw my stuff down and walked right up to her. She and her friends were quietly chatting on some chaise lounges at the far end of the pool. Socially inept as I was, I broke in without a pause in their conversation. Her friends awkwardly ended their confab in mid-sentence. I was vaguely aware of their puzzled censorious faces turning towards mine, but hers was smiling and open.

“I’m Samuel,” I blurted.

“Hi Sam-O,” she smirked back.

I wasn’t sure she had heard me, what with all the splashing and kids yelling behind me. “No. It’s Samuel.”

“Yeah, I heard you, Sam-O.” Now her friends were smiling too, but not in the same friendly way that she did. “You don’t mind if I call you Sam-O, do you?”

How could I mind? I mumbled something about, “No… fine with me,” as I looked at my bare feet, suddenly self-conscious about how dirty they looked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Helen,” she replied, blue eyes dancing behind her large frame glasses. In later years I would have called the color of her eyes heliotrope, but at that point I only knew that they were blue. Bluer than anything I had ever actually seen in person. The centers of the irises were slightly lighter than the purplish rim around each. “Captivating” is the word.

As if to exhibit my learned character, I said, “Helen. That’s name of a lady who launched a hundred ships.”

She laughed. That beautiful sound of falling water. It wasn’t a wicked retort, just an amused acknowledgement of my small mistake. “I think you mean she had a face that launched a thousand ships,” she giggled.

Now I was really confused. I contemplated my dirty feet again and murmured that maybe I wasn’t so good at math. That little comment brought forth another little gush of laughter, this time joined by the tittering of her friends. Aware that I had accidentally said something funny, I looked up and smiled back. Helen invited me to sit down and the circle opened to admit me. That was how it started: an awkward interruption, an instant nickname, a botched reference to The Iliad, and some good-natured laughter. Oh, that more of my lasting relationships were so easy to break into.

From then on, we seemed to be inseparable. Every day followed the same basic pattern: a quick breakfast and then a sprint into my grandma’s backyard. It turned out that Helen’s folks lived in a house that backed up to Grandma’s just a few doors down. No one had fences, so all the huge yards flowed together to make one giant park for the neighborhood kids to play in. We’d meet at the junction of the yards at the base of an ancient elm tree. Most times my pesky younger brother tagged along, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Other kids from the neighborhood knew that there was a daily meeting of the minds under the big tree, so it usually turned into an opportunity for hide-and-seek or tag or red rover. Sometimes we’d play kickball until lunch when the whole gaggle would pack into someone’s kitchen for baloney sandwiches and then it was off to the pool. After swimming, Chet’s was the order of the day, and then we’d chase fireflies in the falling light while the thunderheads built overhead. Eventually, all the moms signaled dinner time, and we would reluctantly retire for the evening. Helen and I were usually the last to trail inside; we’d stall and dawdle and look at each other over a widening expanse of grass until the elm tree blotted out our view.

The thunderstorms still raged every night, joining battle over Lake Erie, but somehow I didn’t care so much. It wasn’t that I was “cured” or anything, just that the space where the fear had rooted in my soul was slowly getting filled with the warm feeling of fellowship, kindred spirit, dare I say it? Love? I couldn’t articulate it then and I wouldn’t call it love today: it was both more and less than that. It was a call and answer. The recognition of “likeness” in another that was new to me then. I’ve felt it since, with my best friend, Bill, and with my wife; I can put words with concepts today, but then it was merely the awareness of a resonance between Helen and me.

It was as if that resonance served as a frequency that offset and canceled out the terror that had once vibrated through my heart at the first muffled sound of distant thunder. I still avoided bedtime. I still hated the darkness and the sudden stabbing white-hot light that filled the little window in our room, followed by the madly bellowing thunder. The weather vane shrieked and I still cowered under the covers for a time, but with less conviction, less urgency, less fear. I usually fell asleep early in the storm cycle of the evening and rose refreshed, ready to meet under the elm tree again that day.

Of course, it couldn’t last. We were going to be heading back to England in a week or so. My father finally joined us, done with his flying exercise. He’d watch me, puzzled, then shoot meaningful looks at my mother as I wolfed down my breakfast and bolted out the back door, screen door slamming. She’d sigh and smile and shrug her shoulders as they watched me running across the grass towards the big tree. I think she was happy to have my father, her man, in the house again, and I also think she saw the budding of joy returning to the family as well.

But, that summer, joy was working on a time limit. The spate of perfect days couldn’t go on forever. I tried to ignore it, but the paradox of time was, and is, that the very passage of each wonderful day with Helen brought the end of those days closer. I felt it. We both did.

As the day of our departure drew nearer, Helen and I would look for opportunities to break away from the rest of the kids. We’d find a tree and sit on opposite sides with our backs to the bark and just talk. We didn’t need to see each other. We didn’t need to touch each other. In fact, I had never purposely touched her except when we were playing tag, or handing the kick ball back and forth. There was no romantic physical yearning, or anything so poetic, though had it been a couple of years later, there might have been. There was only an acknowledgement, a settled agreement between our two souls.

The things we talked about were inconsequential. What do nine-year-olds have to talk about, really? It was the act of communicating, of “communing,” in truth, that we were interested in. All the more as that last day of August crept closer.

The fact of our impending separation stalked us, tracked us, and eventually moved in for the kill. My family was leaving the next day.  Mom could see the strained sadness on my face, but she was too involved with the logistics of getting her four kids and husband ready for a transatlantic flight to give me much solace. My dad was no help either. He was hustling around the house at the direction of my grandma, trying to finish all the little chores that had been neglected for almost six months now.

That last day, we went to the pool, of course, but it was an awkward interlude. Helen and I were both filled with a sense of impending loss that was tough for kids to identify. We talked softly and swam a little bit. As we dried off and sat in the sun to warm up, we chatted, averting our eyes from one another. I mumbled and bumbled and tried to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let me. We were desolate.

At Chet’s she got progressively quieter. I could read her mood. There was a deep contemplation raging behind her eyes. She was forming a plan, coming to some resolution. Right before we left for the evening, she whispered to me, “Meet me at the elm tree at ten.”

I nodded.

Our families were saying their goodbyes. We would be leaving for the airport early, so we wouldn’t see them tomorrow. Amidst that confusion of handshakes and back slaps and promises to “see you next summer,” I caught Helen’s eye and nodded again.

Dinner at home. Baths. The final packing that needed to be done. It all drug along with the somnolent sluggishness of a bad dream. In the back of my mind I heard the distant rolling thunder, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had promised to meet Helen outside at night when the storms were sure to be raging. For a moment, just an instant, my courage wavered. But then the look of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the totality of our summer together, crystallized my resolved to be there, under that tree, no matter what.

My father had given me a watch that year, one of his old ones. It was too big for me, so I hardly ever wore it, but that night I had it strapped to my skinny wrist. I hid under the covers so my siblings wouldn’t see the glowing hands on the watch face as they inched towards ten o’clock. Far away, faintly, thunder cracked and rolled across the lake. The lightning flickered, but at a distance. I held out hope that the storms would peter out before they got to us tonight. Maybe they would just march in another direction. Not to be. By eight-thirty, the rain was pelting the roof, the wind was busy pummeling the weather vane, and I was balled up under the covers steeling myself for what I knew had to come.

By 9:55, the storm was raging, but it was time. I slipped out of bed, momentarily caught in the strobe light of a flash of lightning. I saw, frozen on my retinas, the images of my brother and sisters sleeping. Then it was black again as the thunder pounded my eardrums. I was terrified. I took advantage of the noise that the thunder made to open the door and step out onto the creaky landing. The light from my parents’ room made a bar on the carpet in the hallway. I could hear their voices, muffled by the partially-closed door. My mother’s shadow passed over the light and I froze, but she was just walking to their closet. Downstairs the house was already dark.

I glanced at my watch. Just a few minutes to our meeting. I had better hurry. I slipped down the stairs and out the kitchen door, this time holding the screen so it wouldn’t slam closed. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressive. The bulk of the house sheltered me there on the stoop, but even so the wind was whipping the tree tops into a frenzy, blowing sheets of water that had already made a quagmire of the backyard. Lightning flashed, outlining the elm tree in black and white. The thunder tore the sky, louder than I had ever heard it.

I almost turned back, almost just went back into the house, but then I saw her. Across the vast expanse of the yard, I could just make out a white smudge, a blur, moving towards the tree. I instantly started moving too. Within moments, I was soaked to the bone, but not cold. Those summer storms had a sweet, warm quality to the rain. As I splashed across the yard, lightning cracked the sky again, followed very closely by the crash and peal of the thunder. She beat me to the tree. Underneath it was drier but still blustery.

She was in her pajamas too, a lightly ethereal, diaphanous white night gown. Our eyes met in the gloom, slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was smiling. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” I admitted, forlorn.

“Yeah, but you did,” she smiled again.

“This probably isn’t safe,” I had to nearly shout over a peal of thunder.

“I know,” she replied, the corners of her lips curled up.

“I think I love you, Helen,” I said, looking into her eyes.

“I know,” she answered.

“When will we see each other again?” I quested, a little frantic about the answer.

“We see each other now, don’t we?” she laughed and took my left hand in hers.

“I’m serious. Will you come to England?” I had to shout. The lightning and thunder were beating the sky overhead almost continuously, cascading in an avalanche of light and sound. Wind and rain buffeted us under the elm and I could hear branches snapping close by.

“Probably not.” She answered matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford that. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Much later.” She took a long look up into the branches overhead. “But I think we’ll always be… special to each other. You’ll always know me; I’ll know you.”

At that moment, she stepped back towards the trunk of the ancient elm. I clung to her left hand with mine. At that instant the air was filled with blue light, it flashed and froze the raindrops in mid-air. The thunder was so loud, so immanent, I felt it rather than heard it. Even today, in my mind, I see the ropey lightning, as if in slow motion, twining down through the crown of the tree, burning bark and leaves as it comes. Helen’s eyes were fixed on mine as the bolt flew out of the trunk behind her, passing through her night gown just to the left of her sternum, and then down her left arm into mine. We flew apart like a landmine had gone off between us.

Raindrops. My face is wet. Something smells like ozone and burning wood. As I opened my eyes, the scene came back to me. I was dazed. All I knew was that the old elm was a wreck, split from crown to root, and smoldering in the wind and rain. Helen? Where was she? I sat bolt upright off the wet grass. There she was lying on her back amidst the wreckage of the tree. I ran to her, a deep throbbing pain in my left hand slowly registering. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face was dewy from the rain; it held a serene half smile. The only thing that looked out of place was a small burn mark over her heart.

I touched her face. I sat looking at her then I started to cry. A moment later, my father was next to me, along with several of the neighbors. They had seen the old tree take a hammering, seen the destruction, and come out to investigate. If they were surprised to start with, imagine their astonishment when they found a little dead girl and a little boy with one of the fingers on his left hand nearly burned off.

Naturally, our plans changed. We couldn’t leave the next morning. There was the funeral, of course. A specialist had to remove the ring finger from my left hand and sew up the gap. He said he was giving me a “Mickey Mouse” hand. I think he was trying to connect with his pediatric patient and be funny at the same time. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but my parents didn’t see the humor in it. In any case, it was a week before he would let me fly back.

Eventually, we did go back. Life went on. Almost returned to normal. I never worried about thunderstorms after that. My hand healed and I got along just fine without that finger. I’m right handed after all, but it did affect me in one way later in life. I couldn’t wear a wedding ring. My wife understood. She knew about my accident when I was nine. I never told her about Helen.

pencil

“My name is Mike Wang (pronounced like “Long”). I know, Vera pronounces it like “Bang.” I’ve never talked to her about it, but I think she changed the pronunciation because it’s just easier in business. I get it, but if I ever do get a chance to talk to her, I’ll have to mention how difficult her choice has made my life! Anyhow, I’m a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls, 12 and 9. Been married for 28 years to the same great lady, Kris. I grew up in an Air Force family and I flew fighters in the Air Force for 21 years. Now I fly 737s for Southwest Airlines. We’ve lived in Phoenix for the last 19 years and I think we’re officially anchored here for the long haul. I’m not an author and I’ve never had anything published, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. This is a first step into a new world.” Email: mnkwang[at]aol.com

Seven Disconnected Facts about the Human Heart

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Patrick B/Flickr (CC-by)

1. The heart beats 115,000 times a day

The sky darkens and my heart beats uncomfortably fast.

I put the phone down and try to absorb the information, letting it pass from ear to brain. This is it. A possible match. Please get here as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.

For weeks the heat has built; for months I have waited for this call. Now it is here, I’m not ready; I long to return to balmy warmth and postponement. I look down at my list of shakily scribbled instructions. Nil by mouth. Not a problem now nausea has taken hold. Bring all current medication.

My rapid pulse is not good; it is important to remain relaxed and calm, to steer clear of all strong emotion, avoiding undue stress on a damaged organ. The wind has picked up, setting the windows rattling. The rattling of my heart feels like terror; perhaps it is also something else.

I breathe in slowly and slowly out, inhaling the smell of dusty heat through the open window.

I think how this is my once in a lifetime chance to regain my life.

I think how the operation has risks.

I think how someone has died, someone who most likely got up this morning expecting a perfectly ordinary day.

A car accident. An operation gone awry.

A murder.

A suicide.

A bolt out of the blue.

I won’t be told the details, not now. It is morbid to speculate, impossible not to be curious about the stranger whose heart is still beating, the heart which will become mine. Afterwards I will be given the opportunity to write a letter to the grieving family. Thank you for my gift of a heart from someone you loved and lost.

Presupposing that I am still around.

2. The heart is the size of a fist

Lightning flashes across the sky. I don’t want to do this: the thought sparks up hard and fast and I fist my fingers, reason battling against instinct. I stare at the veins on the back of my hand, their bifurcating pattern.

Operative mortality—death within thirty days—is between five and ten percent. Toss a coin four times, all are heads, fail to wake up, or wake up only to succumb to septicaemia. Is the former any worse than the latter? Is dying from the operation worse than dying from this natural but unlucky defect? There are no satisfactory answers.

I have little time left, but am unlikely to die today, not if I stay here safely at home. This is not the way I should be thinking.

The decision is made, my consent given when I agreed to my name being put on the waiting list. No amount of prior discussion—calm and rational—with doctors and my daughter, settles the matter within this instant. But the call has created an obligation. I owe a debt to unknown people—the person who died, the family who have said yes, the one who was next after me on the waiting list—to seize this chance. Even though, right now, every ounce, every minute of here and now life seems so much more precious than my nine in ten chance of a future.

Thunder cracks. I relax my hand. I stand and drive myself forward through the procedures. I retrieve my already packed bag, essentials pared down, keeping things light. I sweep up my cornucopia of pills. I make the single call I need to, leaving a message when Amanda fails to pick up. ‘It’s Mum. They’ve found a match. I’m making my way to the hospital now.’

She knows the score. She has been waiting for this phone call too. I know what she would say if she was here, all the reassuring words she thinks are good for me to hear, reinforcing all that the doctors have already said.

I am doing this for you, I think. So my adult daughter will not be orphaned, so her future children will know their grandmother.

This is my final call for an added decade.

3. The heart beats to an electrically controlled rhythm.

Lightning again, electricity discharging chaotically, then thunder, the gap between them shorter, the storm moving closer, a scattering of rain across the windows. I ring a taxi and try to still the waver in my tone. The woman’s voice—laid back, indifferent—does not provide confidence that this booking is being taken sufficiently seriously, the details properly marked down. ‘It’s urgent,’ I say, and I repeat my address.

‘We’ll be there soon as.’ She sounds annoyed at my pushiness, at my inflection of doubt.

And now there is nothing to do but pull on comfortable shoes and check I have my keys for the umpteenth time. To wander round my flat and double-check all the windows are closed. I confirm the battery level on my mobile phone and go in search of my charger and list the possible ways this will go.

Option 1: I will be in hospital for four weeks. Option 2: I will be sent home immediately, the match not confirmed, or tests revealing an infection, or a deterioration in my health. Option 3: I am not going to think about that.

If sent home, would relief or disappointment gain the upper hand? Best not to ask unanswerable questions. The rain builds; it clatters and runs down the windows in all directions.

4. The heart pumps 2,000 gallons of blood every day

I operate on autopilot, heading out into the deluge of rain to the taxi, suppressing the instinct to make a quick dash for it. Raindrops bounce off the tarmac; they course down the windscreen and I watch the smear of colourful umbrellas, grey buildings, and greenery outside. The trees with their summer leaves, which I hope to see turn to autumn reds and gold. Roses on the turn. Scorched grass. The people I don’t know, all of them precious, I hope, to someone.

Water drips from the ends of my hair. Shivering, I place my hand over my damp clothing above my poorly functioning heart, which is giving out in the summer of my life. I have no reason to feel attached to this, yet it has been with me from the beginning and I feel reluctant to let it go. I picture how the donor—the person, the body—will be scalpelled and then sawed open, the lungs still inflating, the organ still beating as it is cut free. The same process will be enacted on me, and then the reversal. I will receive a secondhand heart, be sewn back up and brought round. The details provoke a swell of nausea, my brain dwelling on the blood and guts details I’d prefer not to know.

At the hospital I am taken though to a small room whose closed window looks out onto the expanse of low-lying cloud. Someone will be with you soon. I have forgotten to bring anything to read. Unlikely I’d be able to concentrate, but I miss the page turning distraction. Minutes pass slowly and I ought to appreciate every one; instead I feel a fidgety anxiousness, and I try to mute my emotions down while, beyond the glass, light continues to flash and thunder rumbles distantly. I long for the cool freshness of the outside air; I am trapped here amidst the suffocating stuffiness.

The nurse arrives, briskly cheerful and I wish she wouldn’t be. ‘How are we today?’

How would anyone feel before such a major operation?

She takes my pulse and blood pressure, and then a blood sample. I’ve had this done so many times and you’d imagine I’d be used to it by now. Still, I manage to dislike the whole procedure. The application of the tourniquet, the prod and prick as she tries to find a vein. I close my eyes tight and try not to think about the pumping red flow. I have always been squeamish and it’s an unfortunate thing to be, given how much time I spend in hospitals.

5. A disconnected heart continues beating

I stand under the warm downpour of the shower and close my eyes. I wash thoroughly using plenty of soap, mud-brown and smelling of iodine. Dried, I pull on the hospital gown and draw a sterile dressing gown round tight. The doctor turns up, the man who I have seen regularly for months now. He runs through the practical details which I already know. ‘Have you any questions?’

His smile is forced, yet not unkind. I wonder how he feels. Trepidation, knowing what is at stake? The excitement of imminent performance?

I ask if the other heart has arrived yet.

The surgeon looks me in the eye in that disconcerting way he has and I picture this being part of his training. Always make eye contact. Don’t avoid awkward answers. Be honest.

Honesty is not a well-defined thing.

‘Not yet, but it will be by the time we need it.’

‘You won’t remove the old one until the new one arrives though?’

He lets his silence speak.

I have become an expert in this operation. The maelstrom of medical activity involved in cutting me open and severing my heart cannot be done in a hurry. The longer the other heart is on ice, the poorer the chances of success. Timing is everything. The logistical chain is complex. The heart might be in a hospital far away and a team from here will need to travel there for the process of harvesting. Harvest. It’s an uncomfortable term. I don’t know what word I might prefer, but not this one, conjuring picturesque farms abundant with fruits and grains.

What ifs pound in my head. What if the storm means the plane cannot take off or the courier car crashes in the wet? What if the icepack fails? I picture myself lying prone and opened out, my defective organ set aside and still beating, and the finger tapping wait for the new one to arrive. At what point would they put the old one back and what sort of chance would it have?

‘Trust me,’ the doctor says. ‘We’re not going to leave you high and dry without a heart.’

Trust is the hardest of things.

6. Laughter is good for your heart.

Time ticks by and I try to exist outside these moments, to rest suspended, in a state beyond thought. My last moments may thus be unarticulated ones.

The rain against the window starts to ease. My phone rumbles, interrupting my quasi-meditative state. I jolt alert in a wholly unpleasant way, heart beating fast. I pick up.

‘Mum.’

I feel reluctant to take this call, lacking the energy to adopt my usual role of not wanting to worry her. Nurturing, that’s how a mother should be; not needy. Yet now that her voice speaks in my ear, I discover how desperately I need to hear it. Neither of us will refer to the possibility of this being our last ever call, but we are unusually tender with one another. She makes a joke about my heart-age becoming younger than hers and we both laugh and I feel the tension ease. Rays of sun peak out from the leaden sky, the rain reducing to a few heavy drips.

‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ she says, though very obviously she cannot be sure, not beyond the ninety-percent-plus success rate of at least getting through the first thirty days.

‘It had better be,’ I say.

She tells me that she is going to get a train later this evening and should be here for when I wake in the morning. I try to picture opening my eyes, feeling groggy and crap, yet alive, knowing this thing is over. I picture placing my hand on my bandaged chest and feeling a heart beating inside me, one which is not mine, one which has the capability to keep on going. I focus on the image of my daughter being there and the sun shining once more through the window. I am doing this for her.

We are out of things to say and we spend a moment listening to the imagined sound of the other’s breathing, and of their heartbeat. ‘I love you,’ I say and wait for the returning echo.

The door opens. ‘The nurse is here,’ I say. ‘I have to go.’

7. The beating sound is caused by the valves of the heart opening and closing.

The room is windowless, cocooning me from the outside world. I have always hated submitting to anaesthetic, that feeling of drifting away. As a child in the dentist chair, gas mask placed over my mouth, I kicked out, tried to fight the dentist off, before consciousness was switched off and I woke in an eye-blink to a painful, bloody mouth. In bed, sometimes, I catch myself on the very verge of sleep and the thought jerks me awake. The terror of the void. Of not emerging from it. Even though, once I am there, it will not be terrifying at all.

The anaesthetist has a carefully practised manner. She chats about everyday things, things which have no importance within the scheme of facing death. She wouldn’t talk about tomorrow’s weather—the calm after the storm—unless she thought I’d survive, would she?

What would she talk about?

The odds of my coming round are better than nine in ten. The odds will shortly turn binary: life or death.

A person has died; I ought to get my shot at living as cosmic compensation. But there is no ought to this.

The prick of the needle hurts. The woman apologises. Just my luck that she’s less than competent, or having a bad day. I dislike the thought of the cannula, of this opening into my vein. I cannot bear to think of what will happen once I go under. I long to rip the needle out, to shout and scream, to claw and fight my way out of here, to run carefree through the rain-washed world, inhaling the scent of green, to flee my only hope of living.

I don’t. I breathe in the scent of hospital and try to relax. ‘Count down from ten,’ the woman says. And dutifully I do.

Ten…

— I feel the steady beating of my heart —

…nine…

— I fist and relax my free hand —

…eight…

— I imagine the lightning jolt which will kick-start my new heart —

…seven…

— blood courses through my veins, carrying the drip feed of drugs to my brain and adding a mugginess to my thoughts —

…six…

— I picture my heart, disconnected, still beating —

…five…

— I hear the rumble of children’s laughter, my daughter long ago, the grandchildren who might one day come —

…four…

— I feel myself sinking, can hear nothing but the opening and closing of valves, the closing of one chapter, the opening of another —

…three…

…two…

…one…

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Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher Prize, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Best New Writing, and Shooter. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York. Twitter: @sarah_mm_evans

Bird Watching

Baker’s Pick
Thaddeus Rutkowski


Photo Credit: J. Robinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My family acquired a duckling at a local carnival. The bird was a prize in a game of chance. The way the game worked was, contestants threw ping-pong balls at small glass vases. Most times, the tossed ball would bounce off a lip and dribble into a trough, where it would be redirected to the next player. On one throw, however, someone in my family hit a cup and won a duckling that was dyed blue.

The duckling appeared to be female—she had a wide chest and a relatively short neck. She grew fast, and soon all of her blue down fell out. The bird, who wasn’t named, became her natural color—white—as feathers grew in. She also outgrew our living room, where she had been living on newspaper sheets spread on the floor. I didn’t miss the newspaper duck nest; we already had two dogs that made the kitchen their home.

To accommodate the growing bird, my father built a coop in the yard. He made a duck house out of plywood, with two-by-four legs to keep it off the ground. The coop had a wire-mesh front so the bird could see out—and we could see in. My father scattered straw on the wire-mesh floor.

She seemed to thrive there. Sometimes we let her out so she could roam the yard, though someone had to watch her all the time. She clicked her beak as she walked. She was snapping at insects and so was reducing the number of pests. But her snapping action might have been a threat; she looked like she could deliver a strong pinch. When she came toward me with her beak clacking, I got out of her way. I didn’t want to be “goosed.”

I remembered seeing an artist’s illustration of a child herding ducks with a stick. The image was in a book of Mother Goose rhymes, though not all of the animals in the book were birds. The inclusion of ducks among the verses seemed coincidental; the only bird with a purpose was Mother Goose herself. She had to tell the stories through rhymes.

In any case, the birds in the Mother Goose book were running away from the stick as the child held the weapon over their heads.

I tried the stick method with our duck. I picked up a branch and held it behind her head. She was afraid and didn’t want to be touched. With the stick in my hand, I was in no danger of being pinched. But I didn’t know where we should go, she and I, so I “herded” her in random patterns in the yard.

Over the weeks, the duck laid eggs, and my father collected them. The eggs were larger than a hen’s eggs, and the shells concealed a tough inner skin. Nevertheless, my father cracked the shells, pierced the skin, and cooked the eggs. He served me one, sunny side up. The yolk was darker than that of a hen’s egg, and it was larger than the egg white. “Eat,” he said.

I complied gingerly. I picked at the egg with the tip of a fork.

Whenever I was outside, I didn’t look in the straw of the coop. I didn’t want to find an egg and have to turn it over to my father.

Presently, the duck began to fade. She spent her time sitting in the straw that lined the bottom of her coop. Maybe she was brooding over her eggs; more likely, she was unhappy with her captivity.

My father transferred her to the house cellar, where she did even worse. The darkness and dampness got to her. Now and then, my father went down to feed her, but otherwise she received no attention.

I wanted to free the duck from the basement. I found a large cardboard box and gathered my brother and sister to help me. We went down to the damp, stonewalled room and pulled a string to switch on a bare lightbulb. The duck was sitting on the dirt floor. She didn’t get up when she saw us.

My brother and I carried the duck to the nearby creek; our sister followed. I had the idea that our duck would find a new life in the stream. She was a descendant of wild mallard ducks, bred by the Chinese to be white and relatively tame.

She still didn’t stand up when we placed her on the ground, so we put her in the water. She floated slowly away, with her neck extended and her head up. When she reached a distance from us, she looked like a white flower bobbing on the surface.

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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. His received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Email: Thadrutkowski[at]aol.com

The Dunes

Broker’s Pick
D.W. Moody


Photo Credit: Bernd Thaller/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

the dust swirled around us
the house
lost in view
behind hills of sand
we ducked and hid
winding our way
through the maze of hills
unseen from the world
the others somewhere behind
lost around
one or another turn
there in the sand
that caked my skin
I touched your hair
looked into your eyes
desired what my mouth could not say
as you turned
to the sounds of the others coming
I let you slip from my hand
like the grains of sand blowing through our hair

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D.W. Moody grew up between California and the Midwest, lived on the streets, hitchhiked around the country, and held a variety of jobs in Kansas and Southern California until settling into life as a librarian. His poems have appeared in Shemom, The Avalon Literary Review, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. As a new father, life is busy juggling the demands of work and being a committed parent: he writes when he can. Email: d.w.moodysmailbox[at]gmail.com

How I Spent My Summer

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


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

It was the worst summer of my life. But it really began in the spring when my parents were yelling at each other all the time; I don’t know why. My mother even threw a dish at my father’s head. She was cranky and I was usually her target because my father was at work and my older sister could anticipate her bad moods and disappear. But I was only eight years old and usually didn’t know how to read the warning signs.

One morning I fidgeted while she was braiding my hair. When she yanked too hard, I yelled “Ow!” She stopped and said she had enough of my whining and snipped both braids off with a pair of large scissors. If she was sorry she never said so. I cried. I looked like a girl I saw once in a picture of children at an orphanage. The only good thing was that school was over for the summer so none of my friends would see me. My hairstyle already stood out because all the other girls wore theirs loose. But my mother insisted on braids—so my hair wouldn’t get in my eyes, she said—until she lopped them off. Right after that she took me to a resort hotel in the mountains, without any explanation. We went by bus. My father stayed in the city and my sister had a job at a girls’ camp.

It wasn’t a vacation. My mother left me alone for a few hours every morning and afternoon because she had to work. I learned she had taken a summer job as a chambermaid, which meant you had to clean other people’s rooms and change their sheets and towels. If they were satisfied, they might leave you a tip. It seemed strange to me they couldn’t make their own beds. At home my sister and I did, although my mother never really taught me how. To this day my husband marvels at the labor-intensive way I change pillowcases, which I worked out for myself when I was around six and have never abandoned. But I didn’t know why my mother needed a job anyhow, because my father had one.

I ate breakfast alone in the hotel kitchen. Also lunch. My mother and I had supper together, but by then she was tired and didn’t ask me much about how I spent my day. Mornings I explored the hotel grounds. I picked wild flowers and tied them together around my head because I thought they made my ragged hair less noticeable. I also picked up stuff I saw lying on the ground if it looked interesting. When I found a few bird feathers I stuck them in my floral headdress so I could be an Indian princess. A fancy cigar band was a ring. Sometimes I took off my shoes and waded in a shallow stream nearby to watch the frogs hop around. When I imitated their croaks it scared the rabbits out of the bushes. I made dolls from twigs and straw and scolded them if they were bad. One I named Sonia after a Russian doll my aunt gave me for my birthday. Sonia always behaved. After lunch I looked through old magazines and books I found on a shelf in the hotel lobby. Best of all, I played with a dog that belonged to the owner of the hotel, a black cocker named Inky. He was always jumping on me and licking my face. But even with Inky to play with, I was lonely.

One afternoon while I was throwing a stick for Inky to fetch, a boy my age came over and wanted to join us. His name was Monty. For a few days we had fun acting Robin Hood and Maid Marion; I got him to agree that a girl could shoot a bow too. We also pretended to be pirates looking for treasure from a map we made and rubbed dirt on so it would look old. When it rained we played checkers with an old set we found in a hotel closet. I beat him.

But Monty came over to me one morning with his head down and said in a whisper so low I could hardly hear him that he couldn’t play with me anymore because I wasn’t a guest. His mother told him she didn’t want him to “associate” with the children of the help. We really couldn’t understand it and I didn’t tell my mother. I was by myself again except for Inky, who didn’t seem to mind that my mother made beds.

By the time we got home, school was about to start. My parents stopped yelling at each other as much and my hair had grown in a little. My mother evened it out so it didn’t look as terrible and bought me a barrette in the shape of a bow. At school our first assignment was to write about how we spent our vacation. I wrote that I had a great summer and made a new friend.

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Marsa Laird retired after teaching art history to undergraduates for 20 years and took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of stories about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation”). Last spring she tried her hand at op-ed writing and had a piece published in the Daily News on starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

End of a Light

Fiction
Dana Verdino


Photo Credit: Andrew Atkinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I’m nearly forty, and the days turn over with blind haste. My dog has grown older and her kidneys are failing. It is nearing the end of winter, which was a mild one. Not too cold most days, with a single dusting of snow that frightened southerners into buying up all the bread and milk at the stores. It seems as though Lucy has died already. All I can muster are moments of glee and the rest is keeping my head above the water. I spend my days teaching part time at the college to a bunch of apathetic freshmen. I come home to my husband and four children. I drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and prance around the house, ragging on my children, pretending to listen to my husband, who is talking about work. He paints houses, interiors and exteriors, and he often uses ladders. I try to pet Lucy as much as possible now. She lies on her dog bed in the living room by the window. We once were best friends—just me and my dog in the big city.

Sex is not what it once was, but nothing ever is. It isn’t that the sex is prosaic; it’s just that our parts of flesh are so familiar that duty and mere satiety have usurped desire. Making love to the same and only person year after year seems unfair, but the alternative is a malignant force in a marriage, so I’m stuck, isolated with only love without the lust. Also banal are the vegetables I cook with dinner. We are getting older and we need to eat better, plus the children should learn to find vegetables agreeable. My husband picks the vegetables out of his food, and this is not good for the children to see, but I can’t complain because they see me smoking my lungs out. One week I come down with the flu. One Sunday, my son falls off the couch and splits his cheek open good enough to get four stitches. Lucy grows weaker. My daughter loses a tooth. The dishwasher stops working. Lucy is dying more quickly.

The end of March ends in rain and it continues into the beginning of April. Lucy starts waking me up two or three times a night, summoning me from worlds away as I fumble through the maze of a dream. She comes to the side of the bed, breathing heavily, nudging my arm. She stares at me with her tongue hanging out, glossy eyes, writhing tail. I try not to wake the children, tell Lucy to shush as she shakes her collar and the metal charms clink and clank. At the top of the stairs, she sits and fidgets. I pick her up, my arms behind her hind legs and front legs, scrunching her into a loose ball. Then I follow her as she trots languidly over the wood floor on her twig legs. On the kitchen tile, her hind leg slips away from her, and she falls on her rear, but quickly gets up and makes her way to the water bowl. I pet her small head, a head too small for her Labrador body, but she isn’t all lab. She is all black, part lab, part collie, maybe. I refill her water and sit at the table, waiting for her to slurp it all up. Then, I let her outside into the backyard, although I know it is in vain, as she will go to the bathroom on the hallway rug, as she normally does.

Over the back porch light, the trees cast shadows on the clover patches in the yard, a bat swings low through the air, and I wince. The Orion is clear and I can make out the Huntsman’s torso and bottom parts, over the distant neighbor’s house. I learned how to spot Orion at work, from one of the other teachers, Mr. Poleck. He talks about constellations and swing parties. He and his wife go to parties and trade spouses; sometimes they dress up in animal costumes. He invited me to one such party, but I’m not interested in sleeping with someone that I don’t get to choose ahead of time, neither am I a fan of dressing up as a fox or bear and humping another person in a monkey or cat costume. None of that ignites my lust. So I say, “No, thank you. I’ll just enjoy listening to your stories, if that’s ok.” He had said, “There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s all so natural, like the stars in the sky.” He doesn’t believe in a God. He believes in stars.

After a while of her hobbling around out in the dark, Lucy comes to the door and I let her back inside. She drops down onto her bed in the living room, and I climb back upstairs and into my bed. I hear my two sons and my daughter breathing heavily as they sleep. My other one, the baby, sleeps in our bed in the middle. He sleeps with his delicate, tiny mouth ajar, silent breaths coming out of him. I like to watch his small face and soft mouth breathing air, by the light of the moon through the window.

There are bats living in the attic. A dog, two cats, four children, and a man also live in this house. I try to avoid having to open the trap door on the ceiling and have turned the washroom into the storage area. It is getting too full, but I’m afraid to open the attic door. My husband doesn’t care about organization and there isn’t anything he cares about in the attic, except for his old sports trophies and newspaper clippings of his sporting accomplishments. He says the bats are harmless.

Lucy used to bark when the bats made fluttering noises, which was likely them squeezing their way in through a hole behind the shutter on the attic window. She also used to bark at the mailman, the stray cats, and the occasional squirrel on the back porch. She is dying quickly now, so she doesn’t bark anymore. I ignore the bats and I ignore the death that is eating my dog. Sometimes I kiss her and whisper, light of my life, which is something I used to say all the time. When I met my husband, he became my light, and when I had children, they became my light. They became the lighthouse of my universe, and I stopped being a good friend to my dog. She became a fixture in our home, and sometimes she was even a nuisance. “I’m sorry,” I’d say to her, in those rare times we were alone. “I’m sorry I can’t do this all; I’m just so tired.”

Lucy soon stops waking me in the night and begins using the rug in the living room as her bathroom. I clean rugs and floors and spray the air. In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I’ll lie next to Lucy, my body draped on the floor, my head next to hers on the dog bed. I hang one arm over her and bring her close to me. I asked my husband if I should come home early one day from work and shoot her in the backyard, before the children come home. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, that I’d regret it. Then I get too busy to think about it, and as the days pass, the closer she gets to not existing anymore. In the evenings, my husband reminds me that she’s dying. “She can barely walk,” he says. “She didn’t eat anything today. She hasn’t moved from her bed.“

By mid-April, spring brings the pollen, and the air gets more sluggish. I only wake in the night to make a bottle for the baby. I pass by Lucy on her bed and I sense life. I look over at the couch as I fill water in the bottle at the kitchen sink. The television is on and a blanket lays on top of the mound that is my husband. I can barely keep my eyes open. In the morning, the children and I go downstairs. I start on pancakes and eggs for our Saturday breakfast, while the baby plays with wooden spoons on the floor and the kids watch cartoons. I don’t know where my husband is. I’m thinking he went to the dump before we all got up. Until he arrives home, closes the door lightly, and comes into the kitchen. He looks at me, then shows me a piece of paper. I glance at it and understand fully where he’s been. No wonder I couldn’t make out a head when I looked at the couch in the middle of the night. He wasn’t actually there. He was in jail all night after being arrested for a DUI.

I say, “Good for you. Want some eggs?” I wanted to skip over all the tasks of this giant inconvenience and be in a morning in the future, when everything would be forgiven and it wouldn’t hurt just to speak.

“No,” he says. “I feel sick to my stomach.”

I continue to work the eggs. The kids need breakfast, preferably with protein. I crumble the American cheese into the egg mixture and stir. My husband starts from the beginning. His words are accusatory when he talks about the rookie cop, as if the blame could even partially be placed elsewhere. I feel as though I’ve been through stories like this a million times. I roll my eyes. I don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t matter. We wake, we rear children, we eat, we sleep. Our dog is dying, and our flesh is drooping around crumbling bones. Love has become an act of distribution, and with each passing year, there is less to give. I don’t want to hear the story because I’m enervated and time is of the essence.

 

I’m groggy when I go to work the following Monday. In the tutoring center, I settle into the corner of the large table, where Mr. Poleck sits on the other side, a bag of bagels in front of him. This is where the tutoring takes place, either from teachers at the school, or other student peers. It’s a little extra money, and we get paid even if we don’t tutor during those four-hour blocks. Mr. Poleck offers me a bagel and says he got them free because they’re a day old. He shrugs his shoulders and chuckles, as if to say a world that discards day-old bagels is cruel and foolish. I secretly agree with him, even though I know people want their bagels fresh in the morning. I tell him to rip me a half of a plain one, and I gnaw on it while I start grading student papers, and Mr. Poleck talks about architecture in Chicago. It’s hard for me to concentrate, and the center is empty, so I say, “My dog is dying.” I’m not close to Mr. Poleck but he tells me things he shouldn’t about going to swing parties and dressing up in animal costumes. He is an intelligent man with a PhD in Science, and he has red streaks in his hair and wears sneakers. There is something very trustworthy about him.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he says. “How old is your dog?” He takes a calm sip off his coffee. We talk about my dog. Then, he says “Your Lucy is a supernova. Right now she’s spreading herself into pieces, shining brighter than any other star.” He flutters his fingers, illustrating the pieces of a star like the pieces of my dying dog.

A few nights later, on a cool night in April, we sit at the long, wooden table and eat chicken and rice and string beans. I have moved Lucy’s bed into the dining room, so I can look at her while I’m wandering about in the kitchen, as I do most evenings. My children are laughing and making noises like animals when I hear a whimper, and I look toward Lucy to find her seizing up. She is lying there, her legs sprawled out in front of her, eyes wide open. She is hardening inside, her organs icing over. I curse at my children to shut their mouths and rush over to her. I kneel down and hover my body over hers, cradling her head with one hand and holding her side with the other. The children are laughing at her. I yell at my husband, “Get them out of here right now. Just get out!” They all go into the living room and continue to make their noises there, while I tell Lucy it’s going to be okay. Her body is stiff and stretching, her head shaking against her vertebrae. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. I love you.” Her tongue falls out of her mouth, she lets go of a light sigh, and she is gone. Her eyes stay staring into the air at nothing at all. The children clamor in and yell, “Lucy’s dead! Look at her eyes!” I wonder how it is that it doesn’t hurt them, as if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child.

I cover Lucy with a sheet from the linen closet. We don’t use top sheets, just blankets, so I save the sheets for occasions like picnics, and apparently, for the death of pets. I used one just a few months prior to bury the cat. We clean up the kitchen table while the children play and Lucy rests like a boulder on sticks under the sheet. After we wash the dishes and sponge off the table, I take the baby and go upstairs to lie down. I lay there while the baby drifts off to sleep, and I listen to my husband carry my friend out to the backyard. In the light of a lantern, he buries Lucy while the children watch. They ask questions like “Why are you putting her in the ground?” and “What will happen to her now?” I lie still on my back, my hands cupped on my chest, and I watch the lantern flickering through the window. The flickers of light and Mr. Poleck’s fingers dancing like the spirit of my dying dog make me smile. I know she isn’t going to fade into blackness like a supernova. Not in my universe. I close my eyes. Light of my life, I whisper and turn on my side to rest my eyes on my baby’s silvery face.

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Dana’s work has appeared in Pank, Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English Instructor for Gaston College and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children. Email: dcv206[at]nyu.edu