Anna Rae’s Birthday Cake

Fiction
Suzanne Wiles Chapman


“Hey, Marcy!” I maneuvered my shopping cart into the three-deep crowd at the Kroger Deli and Bakery Shoppe.

“Hi Carla! What’s up?” Marcy wore her jeans like body paint. They strained against her belly as she leaned into her cart to open a package of Jolly Ranchers and grab a green one. She offered one to me.

I waved off the candy. “I’m picking up my daughter’s birthday cake.”

Marcy flashed a smile, then her face wrinkled with concern. “How is Anna Rae?” She sucked on the candy, which was stuck in her cheek like tobacco.

“She’s excited about her birthday. I had to wait until today to get the cake, or she’d have found it. I didn’t want her to see it until I come out with it all lit up.”

“Sounds exciting. I bet her having another birthday is extra special for you.”

“My whole family’s coming over to celebrate. I had to order a huge cake. Saved 10 bucks the last two months to be able to afford it!”

“Where is she, anyway?”

“My sister has her while I get the food. I think they’re decorating the dining room right now,” I rolled my eyes.

Marcy laughed. “That Anna Rae is a sweetheart, Carla. You’re really doing great with her, ya know? I couldn’t do it, I don’t think. Not alone, like you do.” Her eyes drifted to the counter, where a woman was shouting at a clerk.

“I ordered four dozen croissants! I have people to entertain and I have all this meat and nothing to put it on. And I don’t want those tacky buns!” The clerk held up her finger for the woman to wait and scurried to the back. The woman groaned. Her lipstick matched the deep plum of her sweater vest. Her hair was a buttery shade, swept back by designer sunglasses that glinted like a tiara.

Another clerk asked who was next and a man stepped up to the glass counter.

“Buns are tacky!” I whispered to Marcy. We giggled at the three packages of buns in my cart.

“Why are there so many people here?” Marcy asked, gazing at the crowd.

“It’s the first of the month.”

Marcy leaned toward me and whispered, “Oh, you mean like all the welfare people got their money?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. She must be afraid the ‘welfare people’ will hear her and attack, I mused. I imagined a band of angry shoppers marching after her with torches. I snickered, trailing a finger over my pocketbook.

“What?” Marcy asked, her eyes wide and innocent.

“Nothing, just thinking silly thoughts. Tyler okay since the appendix came out?”

“Never better. Kids bounce back so fast…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “I mean, uh, well, usually…”

“It’s all right, Marcy. Kids do bounce back most of the time. Hey, it’s your turn.” I was thankful for the clerk, who waited for Marcy. Another clerk pointed to me and I stepped forward.

“I’m picking up a cake, last name Ritchie. Oh, and I also need three pounds of sliced ham.” The clerk disappeared to the back. Croissant Woman was still waiting. She stood beside me, tapping her foot. Her clerk reappeared.

“Ma’am, can you come back tomorrow morning? We can have your croissants then.”

She fumed, “No, I can not. Forget it. I’ll go somewhere else. Just give me the meat tray.”

I tried not to look as the pitiful clerk slumped and headed to the back. The woman clicked her tongue and tossed back her gleaming hair. She heaved a dramatic sigh, rearranging the expensive-looking pocketbook in her cart.

My clerk reappeared with the cake. It was a couple of feet wide, with a bright yellow Pikachu winking up at me from behind the cellophane box window.

“That looks great!” I told the clerk.

Marcy leaned over and admired the cake. “That’ll feed an army!” she said.

“I’m gonna have an army to feed!” I laughed.

“It comes to $29.95, and you can pay up front,” the clerk said. I balanced the cake on top of the cart and said good-bye to Marcy. I wheeled carefully toward the checkouts in the front of the store.

Every checkout had four or five customers waiting. Computerized scanners beeped and plastic bags swished. In the checkout line beside me, a pregnant woman tried to console a screaming toddler seated in a cart. A dirty-faced girl with blonde ringlets clung to her leg, peeking at me. I smiled at her. She ducked under her mother’s protruding belly.

“Paper or plastic, ma’am?” The nametag on the cashier’s smock said “Brittany.”

“Plastic. How are you today?” I asked as I eased Anna Rae’s birthday cake onto the crawling black belt then unloaded buns, ham and candles.

“Okay for the first of the month, I guess.” She spat the phrase out like sour milk, shooting a glance at the burgeoning crowd around her. First of the month, when the ‘welfare people’ fill the store and double her workload, I thought. I wondered if they’d hunt her down with the torches, too.

She shot the scanner gun at Pikachu and punched buttons on her register. “That’ll be $51.34.”

“Oh, I have Foodplan,” I said, producing a plastic card from my wallet. Her face reddened. Each month, the Welfare Department encoded the card with my allotment for food assistance. As the cashier avoided my eyes, I wondered if I needed a torch, too.

“Okay, then. The food total is $49.97. Your candles are $1.37,” she said.

I swiped the card in the Foodplan machine, punched in my PIN, and handed the cashier a five.

My neck prickled.

I glanced back to catch a cold stare from Croissant Woman standing behind me in line. Her eyes shifted to tabloid headlines. Ignoring my gaze, she smoothed her khaki slacks with one hand, balancing her huge meat-and-cheese tray with the other.

I stashed the change in my pocket and pushed my cart toward the door. Outside, the parking lot roiled as cars hunted, carts clanged, and harried women restrained screaming children.

I scanned the lot for my mom’s car. Nothing. I walked my cart to the employee-smoking-area-slash-picnic table and sat to smoke and wait. Retrieving my cigarettes from my purse, I caught a whiff of conversation on the breeze.

“…big cake from the bakery that costs 30 bucks and then she whips out one of those food stamp cards at the checkout!”

Across from the picnic table area, I spied Croissant Woman gossiping with another well-dressed lady as she leaned on a Volvo wagon.

“The place is crawling with those people! Meanwhile, I preordered my croissants and they don’t have them!” she griped to her friend. “I guess they’re too busy with people spending my tax dollars to buy cake!” She threw up her hands and her friend shook her head.

Like that car wasn’t worth enough to buy a house for a family. I flicked my lighter and dragged hard on the cigarette.

Croissant Woman spotted me watching her. I smiled broadly and waved. Her eyes grew. They resembled lottery balls, flashing the day’s numbers from her head. The other woman ducked her head and walked to her car.

I flicked ashes. Mom’s blue Buick pulled into the space next to Croissant Woman. As Mom got out of her car, she smiled, but not at me. “Shana!” she cried to Croissant Woman, who was placing the meat and cheese tray on her back seat. “Oh, you must meet my daughter!”

Mom knows Croissant Woman? I dropped my cigarette and crushed it under my shoe. Mom’s friend stiffened when she saw me rolling my cart toward them.

“Shana, remember my granddaughter, the one we’ve had on the prayer list? She’s recovering from a brain tumor? Well, this is her mom, my daughter, Carla.” She leaned over the cake. “Oh, Carla, Anna Rae’s gonna love this!” She tapped the plastic window, as if to wake Pikachu.

“It’s… uh, a pleasure to meet you,” Shana said. “Your mother’s mentioned you at church.”

“Hi.” I offered a polite smile.

Mom laid her hand on her chest. “Shana, I thank Jesus for this day. My granddaughter made it to her birthday.”

“The Lord will provide,” Shana said, patting Mom’s arm.

“This I know,” Mom nodded.

Shana breathed in and shot a glance at me. “Well, I must run. I’ll see you Sunday, Mae, and, I’ll keep praying for your granddaughter.”

“Thank you, Shana. So good to see you!”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Mom, let’s get this cake in your car. I have to go home and get ready.”

Shana sprang into her car, pulled out and drove away. I lifted the cake into Mom’s trunk.

“There goes a fine Christian lady, Carla,” Mom said, waving to the back of her Volvo.

“Yes, Mom, I’m sure she is,” I said, winking back at Pikachu.

pencil

Suzanne can be reached at barrister[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Soup to Nuts

Fiction
Amanda Marlowe


It is always embarrassing for a host when a dinner guest slumps face forward into the soup. It is even more embarrassing when that dinner guest has just been poisoned. But it is excruciating when the host of the dinner party also happens to be the world’s best private detective.

Nigel Rathskeller had always loved a good formal dinner. And tonight he had been entertaining five of the city’s more notable residents with tales of his exploits. Suddenly he was entertaining four. Harvard Pomfrey III, the richest man in the country, had collapsed in the soup just as Nigel was reaching the climax of his story. Nigel stared in horror at the tablecloth, now splattered blood red. Borscht stains terribly. The silence that followed that heart-stopping splat was shattered by a melodious crash.

Dr. Whitsun had leapt from his seat, sending his wine glass plummeting to the floor. Shards crunched unheeded beneath his shoes as he rushed to Harvard Pomfrey’s side. Morris Whitsun avoided touching the flabby fist that still gripped a small soup-splattered spoon as he sought for a pulse. Finally he pronounced, “He’s dead, Nigel.”

Jarvis, Nigel’s butler, appeared in the doorway with the salad tray. The multicolored leaves peeping over the edges of the stark white plates quivered as he paused in the doorway. His eyes swept over the table, lingering on the borscht-covered body. “Shall I tidy up the mess, sir?”

Nigel considered. “No. Do not disturb Mr. Pomfrey’s place, Jarvis. I have reason to suspect it may be murder.”

Both Dr. Whitsun and Chief Inspector Mansfield whipped their heads around to stare at Nigel. Angelica LeMarion screamed dramatically.

Her husband, Bradford Kincaide, snapped, “Calm yourself, my dear. We all know you have the best scream in the cinema. You needn’t prove yourself.” The shrill sound stopped as Angelica pouted dramatically.

Inspector Mansfield glowered. “It would be murder on my day off. How do you know, Rathskeller?”

“My dear Inspector, use your nose. Borscht generally does not reek of bitter almonds.”

Dr. Whitsun sniffed at the corpse’s mouth. “He’s right, Mansfield. It was poison.”

Mansfield growled. Give someone a doctorate for writing a few murder mysteries, and he thinks he’s qualified to identify poison. “I’ll have to call the medical examiner. Unless,” he said as he eyed Nigel, “unless you think you can have the whole thing solved before dessert.”

Nigel Rathskeller lifted his wine glass and swirled the pale liquid inside. He raised it slightly in Mr. Pomfrey’s direction, then touched it to his mouth in a silent toast. He carefully placed it down again and stared for a moment at the silverware reflected off the glass. Finally he said, “Nothing would be easier, Inspector. Obviously it is one of us here. Jarvis, you may serve the salad now. I trust you can work around Mr. Pomfrey.”

“As you wish, sir.” Jarvis placed the crisp greens in front of Angelica. She looked at the plate, sniffed dramatically, then looked over at the dead body.

“I can’t eat this. It smells like almonds.” Her voice rose hysterically. “Mr. Rathskeller is trying to poison us all one by one! How does he expect us to eat with a dead body sitting at the table??”

“I believe what Madam smells is the aromatic almond pesto vinaigrette dressing. A family recipe. Quite safe, I assure you.” Jarvis kept his tone soothing. “Mr. Rathskeller would no more poison you than I would, Madam.”

With a melodramatic gesture, she raised a small leaf towards her mouth. She paused, and turned to her husband. “If I die, sue Nigel, my love!” The scrap of green vanished behind scarlet lipstick. Disappointment flooded her face when, after a brief interval, she found herself still alive. Death scenes were always a specialty of hers.

Nigel was talking, “Indeed, Miss LeMarion, I am also a suspect in this murder. My motive? Mr. Pomfrey dined here last week. I believe Jarvis hoped I would not ask him back. Mr. Pomfrey scandalized him by using a dessert fork for the salad. But I digress. We were discussing raising money to help my favorite charity, The Home for Aging Detectives. Mr. Pomfrey felt this was not a worthy cause. We had words. He said I could have the money for my Home over his dead body. I fear I lost my temper, and told him that could be easily arranged.” He paused to savor the vinaigrette soaked mescaline.

Inspector Mansfield pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “I always did want to arrest you, Rathskeller. You make the police of this city look like idiots.”

“Inspector, patience. I will deliver the culprit into your capable hands in due course. I said I had a motive. But I am innocent. For only a dastardly miscreant would murder a guest at his own dinner party. No, if I had wanted to kill Mr. Pomfrey, I would have poisoned him at your dinner party next week, Inspector.”

Jarvis disappeared with the almost empty salad plates. Rathskeller continued, “And that brings us to your own motive, Inspector.”

Mansfield sputtered, “My motive? What do you mean?”

“Why, you are due to retire soon. It would be very much to your advantage if I had been able to raise that money for the Home. But I exonerate you as well. You would not stoop to poison. You don’t have the dexterity to slip something into a cup unnoticed. Instead, you would have had Mr. Pomfrey shot in one of those unfortunate police accidents that we are continually reading about in the papers…”

Rathskeller was interrupted by the reappearance of Jarvis bearing a suckling pig on a wheeled cart. The aroma of roast pork wafted through the room, mingling with the scraping sounds of the knife against the honing blade. The pig, roasted to crispy golden-brown perfection, presided on a throne of lettuce and pineapple. The golden snout tapered into the red of a small apple. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the delectable dish vaguely resembled the dead millionaire. Several of the guests shuddered as the knife first slid through the skin and shaved off a razor thin slice. After precisely layering the slices on the antique china, Jarvis served. Since Nigel refused to discuss crime over the main course, an appreciative silence followed. Amid the gentle clinking of cleared dishes, Nigel commanded their attention again.

“It is a pity Mr. Pomfrey did not survive another half hour or so. He did so enjoy roast pig. But let us proceed in finding his murderer. You, Miss LeMarion, wanted Mr. Pomfrey dead as well. The two of you were having an affair, but he was about to break it off, was he not? And Hell hath no fury…”

Angelica gasped. “How dare you!! You couldn’t possibly have known that.”

“Now, now, my dear. Don’t bother to deny it. The clues are all obvious to the alert observer. The back of your dress shimmers with a phosphorescent pollen found exclusively in a very rare South American orchid. The only local source of these orchids are Mr. Pomfrey’s greenhouse. So I knew you were having an affair, either with him, or with his gardener. A quick glance at Mr. Pomfrey’s clothing confirmed my deduction that you would not stoop to dallying with a gardener. I will not bore you with the other details that led to my conclusions.”

“And I don’t suppose that our arguing about the matter as Jarvis was opening the door had anything to do with these so-called deductions?” muttered Kincaide.

“Certainly not. Jarvis merely confirmed my already well formulated theory. And you, Mr. Kincaide, you also have signs of the pollen on your shoes. From which I deduce you walked in on your wife and Mr. Pomfrey as they had their little spat. Ah, yes, from the clenching of your hand, I see that your rage would be sufficient motive for his murder.”

“I begin to feel left out,” murmured Morris Whitsun, fidgeting with his coffee spoon.

“Don’t, my old friend. For I know that Mr. Pomfrey was about to sue you for plagiarism. He mentioned how you had stolen his idea of murdering his mother-in-law for your latest book. By poisoning her soup.” Nigel’s sharp gray eyes observed Dr. Whitsun’s face growing pale. The Inspector pulled out the handcuffs again, but a wave of Nigel’s hand arrested him. Nigel continued, “But, despite all these motives, I know you are innocent. Just as I know I am innocent.”

Angelica’s brow wrinkled delightfully. “But that eliminates us all as suspects. Which means it wasn’t murder.”

“Ah,” announced Nigel, “but it was. For there is one more person in this house, with an overwhelming motive for murder.” He got up and slipped over to the dead man’s chair. “With your permission, Inspector?”

Inspector Mansfield nodded, and Nigel worked the silver spoon from Harvey Pomfrey’s flaccid hand. He flourished the cold silver implement under his guests’ noses. “This, my dear friends, is the final clue. Observe this spoon.”

Kincaide frowned. “It’s just a spoon.”

“But, no. It is not ‘just a spoon.’ It is a dessert spoon. Mr. Pomfrey was slurping his soup with a dessert spoon.” He gazed at each living guest one by one. “Surely that makes it all clear.” He glanced at Jarvis. “Doesn’t it, Jarvis?”

The butler placed a quivering crème caramel in front of his employer. “Indeed, sir, you are correct. Mr. Pomfrey would be alive now had he used his soup spoon. I would have contrived to replace the dessert spoon at this juncture, before he could use it.”

Nigel smiled. “Inspector, you may pull out your hand cuffs now.”

A cacophony of “Why?” burst out around the table. Nigel held up his hand for silence. “Jarvis is the perfect butler. In his eyes, anyone crass enough to use a salad fork for the main entree, as Mr. Pomfrey did when he dined here last, deserves instant death. But, being a fair man, he was willing to give Mr. Pomfrey a second chance.”

“Indeed, sir. It is as you say.”

“Thank you, Jarvis. That will be all. Please take the body with you on your way out, Inspector. Justice is served.”

Jarvis cried out, grabbing a bowl from the side board with his manacled hands and dumping it on the table. Several pecans clattered onto the tablecloth. A nutcracker hastily joined them. Jarvis turned to his erstwhile employer and pleaded, “But not, sir, before the nuts!”

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Amanda can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Mother’s Bouquet

Fiction
Lisa Olson


The cool forest canopy welcomed Callie as it always did, with forgiveness. She took slow steps, savoring the feel of springtime and homecoming. Wind rustled through the pines, dropping needles into her gray hair. Leftover drops from the morning’s rain splattered down from the heights onto the flat fronds of ferns, coating her plastic jacket. Robins whistled in loud voices, drowning out the drone of cars on the nearby interstate.

More than thirty years ago, the city had turned the woodland into a park, riddling it with jogging paths and picnic tables. She was grateful they had preserved this slice of wilderness, and the childhood memories it contained. Others thought of it as a park, but Callie still thought of as her backyard.

She paused to lean against a familiar Sitka spruce, giving her memories time to catch up with her. She remembered exploring every bush and tree, and there had been a hundred games of hide-and-seek with her best friend, Ellen. She knew the exact spot where she’d received her first kiss, and remembered her terror at seeing a full-grown bear.

But the strongest memory was of a clearing filled with trilliums. She had been six years old, but she remembered every detail of that summer afternoon.

“Look at them all, Callie!” Ellen exclaimed as they entered the clearing. “I told you I found the biggest patch of flowers!”

“Nifty!” Kneeling, Callie examined the closest. A green stem thrust up from the ground, ending in a trio of veined leaves. A shorter stem supported three white petals that met in a yellow center. They looked like fat angels sitting on green clouds. “They sure are pretty. Do you think my mama will like them?”

Ellen dropped down beside her, her short blonde hair bouncing as she nodded. “Well, my mommy gives daddy a hug when he brings home just ONE flower. And this is a whole field! Why, she’ll give you cake for dinner!”

Callie snapped the blossom off, leaving the leaves behind. Lifting it to her dirt-smeared face, she breathed in the sugary smell. “Oh, she will not, dumbbell.”

“She might!” Ellen argued. “Your mom loves flowers! She has a whole garden full of them.”

“That’s true. There are vases all over the house.”

“Ab-so-lute-ly,” Ellen said. “C’mon!” Bending down, she began picking the bright flowers.

“But she never gets them from the forest,” Callie sighed.

“Bet I can get more than you can,” Ellen taunted.

“Can not!”

“Prove it.”

Kneeling, Callie lifted the edge of her dress and began filling it. Not a single flower survived the harvest. They walked back to the house, arguing over who got more flowers.

Shoving through the screen door, they entered the kitchen. “Mama! Look what I got for you!”

Her mother turned away from the stew pot on the gas stove, wiping her hands on the edge of her flowered apron. “What is it, honey?”

Callie offered up the bouquet in her skirt, smiling. “We picked them just for you, Mama!”

Her eyes widened and she breathed a single word. “Trilliums!”

“Don’t you like them, Mama?” she asked.

“I picked some for you, too, Mrs. Harris,” Ellen boasted. Callie’s mother stood frozen, eyes glued to the abundance of white.

“Mama?” Callie whispered. Her mother turned away and hid her face against the icebox, her bobbed hair shaking.

Callie stared at Ellen, then at her mother. What did we do?

“Take them away,” her mother hiccuped.

The pair retraced their steps to the clearing. Callie let the edges of her dress drop, spilling the trilliums into a pile at her bare feet. Her friend added hers to the pile.

“Think I’ll go home now,” she said.

Callie nodded her agreement. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She watched Ellen weave out of the clearing and into the shadows of the trees. Sighing, she returned to the kitchen.

Her mother sat waiting at the round table, clutching an embroidered handkerchief against her red nose. Pulling out one of the chairs, Callie joined her. Silence surrounded them.

“Why did you cry, Mama?” she asked at last.

Her mother sighed, twisting the handkerchief into a cloth snake. “Honey, I know you meant well, but those are some very special flowers. Those leaves love their petals so much, that they die without them. And even if one does survive, it can take many years for it to produce seeds that will make more flowers.”

Callie slumped in the cushion.

“Is that why you don’t get flowers from the forest?”

Her mother nodded.

“How long will it take for all the flowers to grow back?”

“You won’t see any at all for at least three years. And you’ll never see them fill that clearing again. You can’t pick them ever again, promise?” Brown eyes pleaded.

“I promise,” she choked out, a tear spilling down her cheek. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

Her mother opened her arms, and Callie slid across the table to her, nestling down against the cotton apron. She remained there until her sobs stopped.

Callie shoved away from the tree trunk, and continued on her annual walk to the clearing, wiping a stray raindrop from her cheek. Seventy-three years had passed, and she still mourned those flowers.

She followed the path as it wound around carefully around the three dozen trilliums growing in the clearing, starkly white against a carpet of green. Smiling, she forced old knees down into a reverent kneel, and inhaled the sugary sweet smell.

There are more this year, she thought.

But it would never be as she had once seen it, a field of angels resting on green clouds.

pencil

Lisa can be reached at boots[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Fiction
Theryn Fleming


By the time we leave for the dance, I am exactly the right amount of drunk. The rum and Cokes we swizzled while devouring my birthday cake blur the rough edges of my anxiety and tilt my world the teeniest bit. We clatter down the stairs, hollering at each other and giggling at our echoes in the stairwell.

Summer lingers this year and outside it’s warm, even though some of the trees on campus have started to turn. I always expect it to be cold when it’s dark, as if dark and cold are inextricably entwined, but as we cross the quad to the cafeteria, a sultry breeze flicks at the leaves on the tall chestnut trees surrounding the dorms and a trickle of sweat drips down between my breasts. The lime mini-dress my roommate Mira lent me clings to my sticky skin and the hair at the base of my neck grows damp.

Music vibrates through the open doors as we enter the building. Papier-mâché palm trees, giant beach balls and plastic patio furniture give the place the tacky look of a TV sitcom backyard, but that’s unimportant. It’s my eighteenth birthday and I’m determined that tonight is going to be the best night ever.

Aisling and I walk toward the stairs that lead up to the cafeteria, but stop when we realize that Taylor and Mira are gabbing with the ticket-takers, four tall rowers in Hawaiian shirts and surfer shorts. We wait for what seems like forever, too far away to hear their conversation or to get a good look at the guys who are obscured by a large “palm tree”. I marvel at how good my green school kilt looks on long-legged Mira. Course, it helps that she’s wearing it with a bikini top, rather than a white shirt and tie. Her dark hair hangs loose down her back, swinging as she talks, alternately hiding and revealing the new tattoo on her left shoulder. All the rowers have them since last weekend’s initiation. Taylor’s circles her belly button, drawing attention to her piercing. In the three weeks I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her wearing a shirt that covers her stomach. Tonight, along with her de rigueur crop-top, she’s tied Mira’s batik sarong low around her waist and pinned her sun-streaked blonde hair on top of her head with a pencil.

Aisling babbles about the cute guy from her biology lab who she hopes will be here. I pay little attention; all she’s talked about for the last three weeks is Bio-Mike this and Bio-Mike that. Instead I berate myself for being jealous of those tattoos, or rather, what they represent. I’ll never be a rower; I’m too small to row eights like Mira, too big to cox like Taylor. I can only tag along and hope of some of their charisma and self-confidence oozes off on me. I close my eyes and rock back and forth, basking in fuzzy alcoholic numbness and letting the music envelop me. I feel dizzier with my eyes closed.

“Come with me to the bathroom.”

I sigh. Just because we met in the bathroom, doesn’t mean I want to join Aisling every time she goes. But then I figure I may as well go while there’s still toilet paper, so I follow her.

We’re in there so long I wonder if the dance will be over when we emerge. It isn’t, but now Mira and Taylor have disappeared. At the door, two gigantic girls have replaced the four Hawaiian-shirted boys.

We shrug at each other and head upstairs. A stage has been set up at the far end of the reverse-L shaped cafeteria and the white plastic tables with umbrellas that are usually outside are arranged in the foot of the L. We thread our way past wallflowers and couples necking to the “dance floor” in front of the stage.

“Do you see them?” Aisling shouts, as she peers into the heaving mass of bodies.

“No!” I yell back. We’re never going to find them. They probably took off with those rowers. Aisling will be miffed that we’ve been ditched, but she’ll get over it once she hooks up with Bio-Mike. I can’t believe I’ve been abandoned. This is like high school all over again.

Someone tugs on my arm. It’s Taylor, all four-foot-ten of her, beaming up at me. Apparently, for some people, losing your friends at a dance is no big deal.

“We’re over here.” She gestures toward the tables and chairs. She’s holding a glass of draft and it slops on the floor as she points. “Oops!” she giggles. She chugs the rest of it as she leads us over to the table.

We drag a couple chairs over and sit down.

“Calle and Aisling, this is Mark, Jason, Tim and Drew,” Taylor bellows, naming the guys we saw her and Mira talking to at the door.

Even though an ear-piercing guitar solo reverberates from the stage, I have no trouble hearing her, but then that’s what she does best. Yell.

“They’re my crew… well, half of it,” she adds.

I look across the table. They’re huge. If these guys are JV, what does the varsity team look like? They all have blue hair, another legacy of initiation. Mira and Taylor must have washed their hair twenty times this week, trying to get the blue out. The one she called Drew has his back to the table. He turns, and I suck in my breath, which is such a cliché, but there it is. I shiver, even though the room is stifling. My stomach churns. I take the glass of beer Taylor hands me and drink it down in three gulps, trying to calm myself.

I set the empty glass down on the table. Taylor is arm-wrestling Mark; he’s letting her win. Mira and Aisling are head to head, deep in a conversation that undoubtedly centers on either Bio-Mike or Mira’s beloved, Cory. Jason and Tim are leering at a group of girls on the dance floor. And Drew—he’s smiling at me, a crooked half-smile that shows his teeth. He has fangs. I had teeth like that, before my braces.

I smile back, a reflex, because of the teeth, and then feel a hot tingle rush from my scalp to the soles of my feet. I’m grateful that the room is dark, because I know that when I blush, red and white blotches mottle my skin. I stare at the floor and will my body to stop betraying me.

When I peek up, he’s talking to Tim. Relieved that he’s not watching me have what looks like a bad reaction to strawberries, I reach for the nearest pitcher of draft and fill my glass. He gestures as he explains something, his hands weaving through the air like my math prof’s do when he’s writing on the blackboard. I tell myself that love at first sight is a lie fabricated by Harlequin and Hallmark, that his voice will be high-pitched and whiny or that the intense conversation he’s having is about something inane, like wrestling. But every so often, he glances in my direction and gives me that half-smile, and I shiver and blush.

The others head out on the dance floor. In between dances they return, flushed and sweaty, to guzzle quantities of draft and switch partners. It should bug me that no one asks me to dance. Yeah, I’m used to it, I have years of practice as everyone’s favorite purse and sweater holder, but this isn’t another high school dance. Here, no one knows about my pathetic past. Here, things are supposed to be different.

It should bug me, but it doesn’t. I’m content to sip beer and watch him talking to his buddies. He only dances once, when Aisling asks him. He says no, protests that he doesn’t dance, but she persists, and he follows her onto the dance floor. He moves like a pre-teen at a lunch-hour sock-hop: right foot behind left foot, left foot behind right foot. The whole time he gazes into the distance above Aisling’s head. I’m surprised he’s not staring at her ample T&A, which are accentuated by Taylor’s pink spandex T-shirt and her own strategically ripped cut-offs. He’s not quite as tall as the other rowers are and he’s definitely skinnier than the rest of them; his pineapple print shirt hangs on him. After listening to Mira moan about her growing pains — she says she’s grown six inches in the last year and a half — I suspect he’s in the midst of a growth spurt.

When the song ends, Aisling tries convincing him to stay for another, but he flees. As he passes by me, his leg brushes against my arm. I gape, sure that the imprint of his bare knee must be seared on it.

“Sorry,” he smiles. His voice is quiet and measured.

“That’s okay,” I gasp. I reach for my glass and take a big gulp of the flat, musty-smelling beer. Over the top of the glass I see him watching me. He raises his left eyebrow slightly, and gives me that same half-grin. I flush hot and cold again. My hand shakes and the glass clinks against my teeth. The rest of the room reduces to pulsating music, the sticky-sweet smell of coconut suntan lotion and a blur of color as dancers shimmy past the table. I am completely focused on what little separates us: the white patio table, the half-empty draft glasses, the plastic pitchers of beer. If I stretch my legs out under the table, my feet could touch his.

I stare. He stares back. I feel something nudge one of my toes.

“Hey, Calle!”

I jump. Literally. I shoot up out of my chair and back down. Thud.

“Where were you?” Aisling laughs, tossing her curly auburn hair. “Calle, this is Mike, my biology lab partner, and this is his friend, Steve.”

“Oh, hi.” I drag my eyes away from Drew’s to look up at them. I register that they are two average-looking males of the frat-boy variety. All fake-n-bake and hair product. Mike is blond; Steve has dark hair. Otherwise they could be twins.

“Mike and I are going to dance,” Aisling says.

Why she is telling me this? She’s been dancing all night. I guess I’m supposed to be happy because this is Bio-Mike. “Have fun,” I say, dismissing them.

Aisling glares at me and jerks her head to the left.

What is she on about? I glare back. Not now, Aisling.

“See you later,” she chirps as she pulls Mike out on the dance floor.

Stevo is still standing beside my chair. I snicker because I’ve already renamed him. “Um, Steve? Would you like to sit down?” I gesture at an empty chair. I only ask for Aisling’s sake.

“No.”

“No?” Why is he still standing there then? Whatever. Leave.

“Come dance with me.” He holds out an orangey-brown hand adorned with an enormous grad ring.

My mouth falls open. I clamp it shut. He has to be kidding. This can’t be happening. Not now, not in front of… I glance across the table. My stomach tumbles. Drew is gone. In his place, Jason is making out with a girl I don’t recognize. “Noooooooooooooooo!” I flip my head from side to side in a futile attempt to spot him.

Stevo waits for my reply. Apparently I had the sense not to scream out loud.

A couple hours ago, I’d have been thrilled that he asked me to dance. Now, it’s meaningless. Where did Drew go? Did I imagine the whole thing? I shake my head. No, I’m not that drunk. I sigh. He was probably just playing with you, Calle.

Stevo still hovers over me. Aisling must have told him to ask me to dance. I down the rest of my beer and follow him onto the crowded dance floor, where the hardwood is slippery with sweat.

He doesn’t notice that I’m looking for Drew the entire time we dance; he’s too busy playing air-guitar. I stick it out through five songs, all fast enough to keep us a safe distance apart, but when the band segues into a slow song, I motion to him that I’m going outside for some fresh air.

A narrow concrete balcony, wide enough for a single row of tables, lines two sides of the cafeteria. I squeeze past several entangled couples and find an empty space to lean against the railing. A warm breeze tugs at my sweat-soaked hair. I twist it up and let the wind roll over the back of my neck. Maybe I should leave now. Cut my losses. It’s obvious that my wish won’t be granted tonight.

Stevo sidles up to me and hands me a can of Sprite. “Thought you might be thirsty.”

“Thanks,” I force a smile. He would have to follow me, wouldn’t he? I roll the can, dripping with condensation, over my forehead, before cracking it open and swallowing some of the fizzy liquid. Choking the sharp bubbles, I hand it back to him. I hate drinking from cans. He chugs it, then lets out a belch.

He chortles, “‘Scuse me.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. I can’t think of anything to say. I’ll admit, it was nice of him to ask me to dance, even if Aisling pushed him into it, but I want him to leave me alone, so I can wallow in self-pity.

“So, where do you think Mike and Aisling are?” he winks.

“I have no idea… aren’t they dancing?”

“No,” he leers at me. “I saw them heading toward his dorm.”

“Oh.” Oh. Well, good for Aisling. It’s what she wanted. “Does Mike like her?”

“Oh, yeah,” Stevo breathes, leaning toward me. “He thinks she’s hot.”

The way he says it, I feel like it isn’t just Mike who has the hots for Aisling. “Aisling seems to like him too.” Will she kill me for saying that? I’m too disconcerted by Stevo panting on me to think clearly.

“It looks that way.” His breath hits my face in hot, smelly waves.

He reeks of beer and cigarettes and Polo. His hair is slick with Dippity-Do and his shirt, unbuttoned to the waist, reveals a thick gold chain around his neck and shiny pecs. I edge away from him, my nose wrinkling at the pungent mixture of smells.

He inches toward me, grinning like he’s been lobotomized. I have no idea why he’s still here with me, but I’ve had enough. I’m going back to the dorm, if that’s what it will take to shake him loose. Surely his sense of responsibility will end when I leave.

“Stevo…” The name slips out and I rush to finish my sentence, blushing brighter than Aisling’s pink shirt for about the hundredth time this evening. ” I’m going to leav—”

His lips, slick with saliva, press down on mine. “My friends all call me Stevo,” he murmurs as he thrusts his hot, sticky tongue at my mouth.

I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, scream or give myself up to the moment. My mind revolts at his too-wet lips and his probing tongue that pokes at my teeth, trying to prise them open. His hands slip around me and knead my butt. I feel like a lump of dough in a bread machine.

My brain tells me to shove him away, to say, “Get lost, creep”, but all the years I’ve waited for this moment scramble my sense of logic and my body reacts to the kiss, even as I tell it not to. I let his rubbery tongue find its way between my teeth and find myself kissing him back, my own tongue entering his hot, stale mouth, even as I try not to spew.

I tell myself to savor the experience, even if it is unexpected, rotten and with the totally wrong person. I waited a long time for this first kiss… who knows if there will ever be a second one. I close my eyes and imagine that I’m kissing Drew, that for once, the wish I made when I blew out my birthday candles had come true, without being a lesson in irony.

When I open my eyes, Stevo is ogling me with a self-satisfied grin. Over his right shoulder, I see Drew standing at the open door, staring at us. Our eyes lock, then he turns and vanishes inside. I push Stevo aside and run after him. I circle the cafeteria, plowing through sweaty bodies, stopping every tall guy in a Hawaiian shirt. I find hula girls, birds of paradise and surfboards, but no pineapples.

Biting my bruised lips, I stumble outside and curse the stars pricking the indigo sky. I feel like the foolish family in The Monkey’s Paw. First stars, birthday candles, white horses, found pennies, I’ve wished on them all, and this is what happens. It’s true; fate rules people’s lives and those who interfere with it do so to their sorrow. I swear I’ll never make another wish. I scuff back to the dorm and crawl into bed without bothering to undress.

Hours later, when Mira returns from the dance, I pretend I’m asleep.

The door cracks open and light from the hall spills into the room. She tiptoes over to my bed and whispers, “Calle? Are you asleep?”

I lie still and struggle to breathe evenly.

She hovers there for a couple seconds. Out in the hall, I hear Taylor say, “I’m starrrrrrving.”

A couple of the guys start chanting, “7-11, 7-11, 7-11…”

Mira pads back out. As she closes the door, she says, “She’s asleep. Let’s go.”

I roll over and stare at the ceiling. I’m wide-awake and hungry.

pencil

Theryn can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Linda’s Ticket

Fiction
Tawny McDonald


George Russell sat hunched over his desk, sorting through a stack of bills and punching numbers into his calculator. A thin bead of perspiration worked its way across his forehead as he gnawed his thumbnail. Things were not looking good, not good at all. Every time he hit the equal sign their debt grew bigger. He took his thumb out of his mouth and reached for a new bill and that was when he first heard it. It wasn’t a loud noise, and he probably wouldn’t have heard it at all if the house hadn’t been so quiet. But there it was, a very distinct, familiar noise.

Scratch-scratch-scratch.

He looked up and saw Linda, sitting on the sofa across the room. She was bent over the coffee table, her long auburn hair falling against her face. From where he sat it looked as though she might be scratching at the table. Linda looked up and the elated smile on her face told George that it wasn’t the table she was scratching at. It was a Bingo ticket—one of those three-dollar lotto gimmicks that coyly suggested you could scratch your way to $50,000. She lowered her head and the scratching resumed.

Linda was hooked, despite the fact that she never won anything other than free tickets and the occasional five dollars. Once, he remembered, she won twenty dollars. Poor odds and enough to deter most people but not Linda. She insisted at the beginning of every new card that this could be the one, or that one day, she’d get the $50,000 ticket.

Normally he didn’t mind her habit even though she could scratch at those cards for hours if given the opportunity. It cost money but she was good in other ways—she didn’t smoke, nor did she drink and her tastes were simple. Her only jewelry consisted of her gold wedding band, her tiny diamond engagement ring and a pair of small gold hoop earrings, which she always wore. She’d always been a competitive shopper at both grocery and clothing stores and if she found something that was a true bargain—at least fifty percent off—she bought a dozen. For the most part, Linda saved him money so he turned his head the other way when she came home clutching her Bingo tickets.

Scratch-scratch-scratch.

Today though, for some reason, was different. Today, the sound of the scratching was driving him crazy and though he tried to ignore it he couldn’t. Perhaps it was because there were too many bills and they couldn’t afford to be frivolous. Or maybe it was because the house was so quiet that it magnified the sound of the scratching. Either way, he couldn’t concentrate. He stared at her, tapping his pen against his desk. She ignored him and kept on scratching and her indifference only added to his frustration.

“Will you stop?” He asked.

She didn’t acknowledge him, didn’t even look at him, just kept on scratching. He sighed and went back to his work. Let her scratch. She’d run out of cards soon enough and then he’d reclaim his silence.

He picked up yet another bill and frowned. The debts were accumulating and the bill collectors were calling—he’d hung up on two already today. If he didn’t find a way out of this mess, they’d risk losing not only the store but the house as well.

“Oh Linda,” he said out loud, “What are we going to do?”

Scratch-scratch-scratch, came Linda’s reply.

“This is useless,” George muttered and began gathering the bills into a neat pile. “It just keeps getting worse and worse.” He slid his calculator into his desk drawer and stood up. He went out to the kitchen and decided he should probably eat. He rummaged through the freezer until he found a frozen dinner and stuck it in the microwave. He didn’t ask Linda what she wanted; he knew it’d be futile. She hadn’t eaten anything in days and he didn’t feel like arguing with her. She sat at the small kitchen table with him though and while he ate, she scratched.

He washed the few dishes he had dirtied and placed them on the dish rack to dry. He thought about what to do next. He didn’t enjoy the television very much and he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a book with Linda and her persistent scratching. He decided to go to bed and climbed the stairs to the bedroom.

Linda followed him and it seemed that she would be merciful and let him sleep. He basked in the silence as he turned out the lights and crawled under the covers. His concern over the bills began to subside as he took deep, even breaths. He was drifting on the edge of sleep when he heard it.

Scratch-scratch-scratch.

“Jesus!” He roared, sitting upright in bed. “Will you stop the scratching?”

There was silence from Linda’s side of the bed until George lay back down. Then it began again.

George couldn’t be sure but he thought that Linda scratched all night. The George that greeted him in the mirror seemed to support that thought. His eyes were tired and there was a shadow of a beard on his jaw. He reached for the razor but then changed his mind. He didn’t want to shave so he wouldn’t, simple as that. He’d just grab some breakfast and get to the store.

While he ate, Linda scratched at what was looking to be an endless supply of Bingo tickets. He rinsed the dishes and left the house. George hoped that Linda would stay home today but she decided to accompany him to the store. The short drive seemed so much longer with Linda scratching in the backseat.

He opened up the gourmet kitchen shop—what had once been his pride and joy but was now a hindrance—and turned on the lights. Linda perched on a stool in the corner and started a new card. A few customers came and went that morning but didn’t seem to mind Linda sitting there, scratching away. In fact, they didn’t even appear to notice her.

Scratch-scratch-scratch.

Lunchtime came and George’s exhaustion set in. Locking Linda inside the shop, he ran across the street to deposit the store’s weekly sales. The bank’s silence engulfed him; a welcome reprieve from Linda’s scratching. George wanted the line to last forever.

When it was his turn, George approached the teller who greeted him warmly and with recognition. He tried to smile but couldn’t—life was not so good these days and he couldn’t be bothered to pretend otherwise.

“Are you okay, George?” The teller asked as he counted twenties. “You don’t look so well.” He initialed the deposit book and handed it back to George.

“It’s Linda,” he sighed, and the teller nodded sympathetically. George continued. “I just can’t handle anymore of her damn scratching.” He waved his book in farewell and walked off, not registering the startled look on the teller’s face.

When he got back to the store the lack of customers and his weariness convinced him to call it a day. Linda trailed him out of the store and waited beside the car as he locked up.

“I want to go home and have a nap,” he told her as he opened her door for her. “Do you understand?”

Scratch-scratch-scratch.

 

The house was quiet for about three seconds when he opened the front door. Three seconds before Linda brushed past him and then, scratch-scratch-scratch. He headed straight up the stairs and into the bedroom. Linda followed him but he must have been utterly exhausted because as soon as he shut his eyes, he slept.

When he woke it was evening—the house had grown dark while he had been asleep. Dark and quiet, so quiet that it took him a moment to realize that Linda was no longer scratching.

He got out of bed and turned on the lights as he looked for her. He checked the bathroom and then the guest room. He even opened the linen closet, in case she was playing with him.

 

“Linda?” he called, thumping down the stairs. He went through the rooms on the lower floor and even lifted the curtain on the back door so he could peer into the backyard. She was no where to be found in the house, yet the car was in the garage and her keys were on the hook by the door.

“Linda?” he asked, but there was no answer, not a single scratch. He went into his office and looked around again. Linda wasn’t there but she had been. He saw that she had moved the papers around on his desk and as he drew closer he saw his stack of bills on top. He sat down in his chair and begin to sort them, wondering what Linda would have wanted.

It was then that he found it, tucked in between the bill for Linda’s casket and the bill for the florist. A Bingo ticket, scratched neatly just as Linda had always done. He peered at the scratched card, wondering what it was about this ticket that Linda wanted him to see. He examined it carefully and discovered its appeal. This was the ticket that Linda had sought, the $50, 000 ticket, and it was in his hands.

“Linda?” He asked, his voice echoing in the room. “Linda, are you here?”

There was no answer, only silence and George knew that he was alone. He put his head down on his desk, on top of the ticket, and began to weep.

pencil

“Linda’s Ticket” was originally published at No Noun-Sense. Tawny can be reached at butcher[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Signal

Fiction
Stephanie Lenz


Gaudy strips peel alternately under the August sun. Middle of a drought and I’m contemplating a yellowing billboard of two intertwined advertisements, one for cellular service, the other for cigarettes. A rivulet of sweat traces my spine. Tranquility of a dark, false pool, broken by splashes of bright foam. Two perfect worlds. I stare, trying to figure out which image stripped to reveal the other.

Half of it is some obnoxiously cheerful, under-fed blonde, her flawlessly tanned arms encircling the six-pack abdomen of the Jet Ski’s Ken-doll driver. The other half consists of concentric, nested rings on the surface of deep blue water. Reflective. Not-quite-cooled glass. Tenuous. Too dark to be transparent.

Matt’s no Ken doll, I smile into the rearview mirror. Then again, you’re doing this for yourself, not for him. He’s your friend, nothing more. Memories of our heart to heart in the dorm laundry room catch in my throat. Never will be. Platonic. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be happy.

So I wasn’t just kidding myself? When I got on that plane? I dig through my purse and target the vanilla SPF15 lip balm stick. I really wasn’t happy? It wasn’t just an excuse? I’m not just bored?

“Well, that’s what you get,” I say aloud to my reflection. “You married Gary because you didn’t know what else to do with your life.” Snap. The black plastic cap hugs the end of the tube. I hate hearing it aloud, but I picked up the habit of scolding myself to long ago to curb it now.

“You went from being somebody’s daughter to somebody’s wife. It was smart to do this before you were somebody’s mom,” my voice mingles with the slightly smoky rental car smell and fills my head. “Better to come here and take the chance than stay there and never know.”

Why? He didn’t beat you. He didn’t intentionally hurt you. He wasn’t addicted to drugs or booze. Just his job. That damned job. You were the problem, not Gary. Not his job. Not those precious three hours a night you got with him while he sorted mail, ate supper, surfed the Net and finally fell asleep with his cold feet on your lap. All the money you needed. Anything you wanted. You could’ve had a Jet Ski, just like Barbie up there. “But you’d have ridden it yourself,” my voice full of ice. All by yourself.

“Time away. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I shudder at the cliché. “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder,” I repeat with a light laugh. It was Matt’s joke, not mine, and an old one. “Not that it matters,” I chuckle. We take a joke, hammer it into the ground until it’s flush, then grind it in with our heels. We always have. I couldn’t remember the last time Gary’d laughed aloud.

You’re abandoning him, I scold, concentrating on the traffic light, making a conscious effort not to see the smiling Jet Ski/cigarette girl. “Like he didn’t abandon me? He was only in the house. He was never really there.”

But you gave up. “I got tired. I can’t live on Valium and water alone.” Matt would like that one. “Besides, this doesn’t have to be permanent. We just need some time.”

You need some time. In truth, you can’t leave Matt alone. You want to forget that you don’t know the day-to-dayness of Matt anymore. It could be worse than Gary. Much worse. At least Gary has some interest in you. He used to anyway. Both of them are deep water. At least you know Gary’s ebbs and flows.

“I thought I knew,” I barely whisper over the talk radio program. “It’s the riptide I couldn’t navigate. In either of them.” In front of me, a few cars speed through the intersection under an amber light. Traffic starts turning left from the lane beside me. Last light before Matt’s house. He seemed thrilled I was coming to see him again. I won’t let him see my luggage. The monogram of my initial entwined around that “G.” Seemingly inextricable.

“We can go fishing,” Matt had said when I called from the airport. “Fishing” was a reference to a day in college we spent skipping class and skipping pebbles across the slow-moving campus river. Matt dropped out the next year; I transferred.

“I’ll do anything,” I said swallowing my daily diazepam with as much saliva as I could muster. “Anything you want.”

His laughter cooled. “Are you all right?”

“Will you be home tonight?”

“Um, yeah. I can be there. What time?”

“Soon as possible.”

“Okay. I can be there by seven. Unless you want to go to Publix with me?”

“I’d love to go to Publix.”

“Feeling homesick? Or just missing my smiling face?”

“Both.” I smiled as my luggage shimmered through tears I couldn’t call happy or sad.

“Okay. Six then. You remember how to get there?”

“See you then.”

“Okay, see ya.”

When she asked, I told the bored clerk at the car rental counter that I needed directions to downtown. Dreamily, she wrote my directions upside down and left out the exit number I knew I would’ve needed to get to the city’s heart. I loaded the car and idled in the airport parking garage, inhaling the false coolness of the Pontiac’s air conditioning, until five o’clock.

So here I wait, 45 minutes later, tapping my French manicure against the leather-wrapped steering wheel, anticipating that green light, seething at Barbie and Ken on their waxed Jet-Ski-Built-For-Two. That snapshot we consumers are allowed to witness of their plastic, imagined lives, interrupted by long, deckled strips of a rippling pool.

So that’s the lie, is it? That two-dimensional airbrushed splash? Or the water rings? So smooth and even, captured during those few seconds when only a single drop disturbed the surface.

The arrow turns yellow and, keeping a foot on the brake, I shift out of park. A single drop. A single action disrupts the evenness, the perfect, the stillness and reflection of that dark, glassy water. I have only a moment more to stare, wondering which was the top, which was the bigger lie, which illusion I wanted to buy into. The cool, dark, even ripples or the light splash of foam.

Green light.

pencil

Stephanie can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Me

Fiction
Erin Nappe


“What do we do now?”

Shadows from the single candle flickered on Heather’s face. It masked the basement smell with green apple. She rolled her eyes at me.

“Nothing, Kristy. Just wait.”

I sighed. I was sick of waiting. My arms, and my butt, were starting to hurt. I drummed my fingers impatiently on the plastic pointer thingy.

“Stop it,” Heather hissed. “You’ll make them mad.”

“Make who mad?”

“The spirits, stupid.”

Right. The spirits. Like I really believed the spirits were going to talk to us on a piece of Parker Brothers cardboard.

We were sitting cross-legged on my basement floor, with the board between us. There was nothing much down there—a couch, an old TV, a box full of old toys. We thought the basement seemed like a good place. Heather had brought the board. She insisted she’d talked to lots of spirits. I wasn’t convinced. The silence was starting to make me jumpy, though.

“You know, in CCD, Sister Helen told us this is a sin,” I said, just to hear the sound of my voice.

“Sin, shmin,” Heather said.

“I don’t think it’s working any—”

The thing started to move under my hands, slowly at first, then faster, gliding around the board in a figure-8.

“Hello, are you there?” Heather said.

Are you doing that? I mouthed at her. She shook her head.

The pointer moved to Yes.

“Can you tell us your name?” Heather continued.

It moved in circles, around the alphabet, then stopped on M. It moved to E, and stopped.

“Me? Your name is Me?”

No

“Well, can we call you Me?” Heather looked cross-eyed at me, a giggle ready to burst from her lips.

Yes

“What do we ask?” I asked her.

“Whatever you want. I’ll start,” she looked back at the board. “When did you die, Me?”

The thing moved again. It felt charged. It felt… I don’t know… alive. It was creepy.

No

Heather wrinkled her eyebrows at me.

“No? You didn’t die?”

It moved to the center of the board, then back to No.

“You’re still alive?”

No

“Were you ever alive?”

No

She frowned.

“Have you always been a spirit?” I asked.

Yes

“Ok then Me, do you mind if we ask you some questions?” Heather continued.

No

I shifted. The basement floor seemed to be getting harder. The old carpet didn’t put much padding between us and the cement. Our shadows danced on the wall.

“Ask about Jason,” I said. Jason was in my math class, and I was hoping he’d be going roller skating on Saturday.

“Okay, Me, Kristy wants to know if she’s gonna play tongue hockey with Jason this weekend.” She giggled.

Heather,” I moaned. “Don’t be gross.”

The pointer moved in circles.

Yes

I blushed, then tried to think of another question.

“Me, what’s your real name?” I said.

Slowly, it started to move again. M-E-F-A-

It stopped.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

“Sometimes they have trouble spelling,” Heather said. “Just wait.”

The planchette slid to S-T-O. It paused, then crawled over to F.

A

L

“Do you have any idea what it’s saying?” I asked.

Heather shook her blonde braids. “No clue.”

It sat still for a long time. Heather’s face looked creepy in the candle’s glow. “Me, are you still here with us?” I said.

Yes

It moved to the letters again, spelling out l-e-e-s.

“Lees?” I said. “What do you suppose that means?

Heather shrugged. “Can you see us?” she chimed in.

Yes

I shivered.

“How?” I wondered aloud.

The pointer moved furiously, spelling out n-a-k-e-d b-a-b-y.

Even though she was the one who warned me about making the spirits mad, Heather couldn’t keep from laughing. She actually snorted.

“Naked baby?” I said.

S-A-L-L-Y.

“Who’s Sally?” Heather said.

“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t want to let her know I was a little freaked, but I was. “This is boring,” I said instead. “Let’s quit.”

“Okay,” Heather said. “We have to say goodbye. Is that okay Me?”

The thing started circling the board, faster and faster, until it flew out from under our hands, across the floor, without stopping on “good bye.” The candle went out, and I sucked in my breath, jumped up and ran for the light switch. I flicked it on. When the room filled with light again, and the dark scary shapes turned back into furniture, I looked at Heather and laughed. “What happens when they don’t say goodbye?” I asked.

“I dunno. Some people think they hang around for a while,” Heather said.

“Well, let’s put the board away and go upstairs,” I said. I turned around, to see where the pointer had landed, and I saw it.

Cold hands gripped my spine. I wanted to scream, but all that came out was a whisper.

“Heather—”

It was sitting on top of the toy box, naked, ice-blue doll eyes open and staring.

My old doll, the kind with eyelids that closed when you laid her down, and opened when you sat her up. Her name was Sally.

I bounded up the stairs, Heather following right behind me.

*

I snuggled under my covers, clutching my teddy bear, but I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that doll. Heather had gotten up, and I heard her go into the bathroom. I guessed she couldn’t sleep either.

Sally had been inside that toy box for years, buried under countless other toys. She hadn’t been there when we went downstairs. It was impossible.

“Just go to sleep.” I told myself. “Tomorrow, you and Heather will laugh about this.”

The bedroom door creaked open again, and a shape loomed in the doorway.

“Heather?”

I hoped it was her. I didn’t want to be alone.

In the silence that followed, I listened to my own breathing. It seemed so loud, it filled the room. I squeezed my eyes shut, afraid to look.

Please let it be Heather. Please let it be Heather. Please let it be Heather…

“Yes Kristy,” breathed a voice that was not quite Heather’s. “It’s Me.”

pencil

Erin can be reached at billiard[at]toasted-cheese.com.