Letters to the Editor

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


I think the hardest part of being a writer and putting your work “out there” is not the rejection, it’s the waiting, especially when that waiting doesn’t culminate in anything and you’re left in limbo. So we—the editors of Toasted Cheese—always notify everyone who submits whether or not they’ve been accepted. The acceptances usually don’t garner much response (occasionally we’ll get a happy note from someone we’ve decided to publish and we do love those!), but lately we’ve been getting a lot of bizarre responses to the rejection letters.

The letters we send out are form letters, sure. But if the submission warrants it, we add personal comments, for example, “Your work shows promise; please submit again.” or “Your work was disqualified for the following reason: _____. Please read the guidelines before submitting again.”

For the contest entrants, we include a compilation of comments from the editors about various stories, because the same gaffes often crop up repeatedly. We probably won’t do this anymore, because we’ve been getting more and more angry responses that attack us for our decisions.

In one letter, the writer notes how she worked very hard to write a story specifically for our Dead of Winter contest. She then goes on to complain because she didn’t receive a personal response, or personalized critiques. She whines about having put time and effort into “jumping through the hoops” of our entry process. Finally, she closes by snarking about not expecting a response to her diatribe.

This letter was written in dark red Lucida Handwriting. Now, I have nothing against the font, but it’s not exactly appropriate for professional correspondence.

I’m perplexed by the fact the writer seems put out at having to “work very hard to write a story specifically for the contest”. That is the point of a writing contest, is it not? The “hoops” she had to jump through were writing a story that conformed to the contest theme and length, pasting her story into the body of an e-mail, and including her contact info with her submission. Onerous, I know.

What I’m wondering is, who enters a no entry fee contest and expects not only a personal response, but a personalized critique? We do include comments on the winning stories as part of their “reward” for winning. If your story didn’t cut the mustard and you want a critique, post at the forums, as we suggest. That’s what they’re there for!

By the way— this writer got a response almost immediately, as the editor who does our correspondence was at her computer when it arrived.

In another oh-so-professional epistle, the writer complains about not being told her ranking in the contest. She then compares opinions to armpit odor, in that everyone has both. She signs her letter: “[name withheld], writer”.

Does any publication rank all the submissions/entries they receive? I think not. Where do people get these bizarre ideas? As for comment number two, I am simply gobsmacked. Apparently what everyone doesn’t have is manners.

And if anything screams amateur more than appending “writer” to one’s name, as if it’s a title, rather than an occupation, I don’t know what does.

From the latest round of submissions to the e-zine, here are a sampling of responses.

In one, the writer tells us our web site is “boring as hell” and closes with “FU”.

This letter displays such creativity. Seriously, what the?! Why did he submit to Toasted Cheese in the first place if he thought we were so boring? And who sends “fuck you” in response to a rejection letter? How does it even cross one’s mind to do this?

I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was twelve, if the first line of his cover letter hadn’t been: “My name is ________. I am forty years old…”

This next one really baffled me.

The writer claims not to remember submitting her work to Toasted Cheese. She then goes on to tell us that she has published a book, the title of which contains a word pluralized by adding an ‘s. She claims to be writing because she is concerned that we have responded to the wrong person. Finally, she asks what Toasted Cheese is.

At least this letter started with a greeting and ended with a closing. I am wondering, though, if she was so curious about TC, why not click on the link found in the letter she received?

Anyhow, her submission was included in the rejection letter, so there really is no question of what we’re referring to or that we received her work (I still have it in my submissions folder). So what exactly did she hope to achieve by sending this? If she honestly forgot she submitted to us, why admit to that fact?

Methinks this letter is really an opportunity to say “Take your e-zine and shove it! I have a publisher!” Judging from the grammar in this missive, I’d place good money on that publisher being print-on-demand. But inquiring minds want to know— does this book really have an extraneous apostrophe in the title?

As a matter of fact, yes it does! It’s listed at a popular online bookstore and there’s even a cover shot. Its subtitle indicates this is a compilation of the writer’s best, and that this is the first of a series. The publisher is a print-on-demand site, whose FAQ indicates they do not edit manuscripts. Really? I couldn’t tell.

Now, some may question my motives in writing this, so here’s my point in a nutshell: while sending nastygrams to editors may momentarily make you feel better, in the long run, it’s detrimental to your career as a writer, because those editors will never, ever consider your work again, no matter how much you may improve as a writer in the future. And really, can you blame them? I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I believe it’s worth mentioning.

Why burn bridges? We can and do accept work from writers whose work we’ve previously rejected. Instead of sending a rude letter, stomp around your office, complain to your friends, or pour it all out in a journal entry. And then write something new and try again.

One more thing: if the only way you can get published is to find a publisher who doesn’t read your work, at least consider the possibility that it is your writing that needs work, and not that all the publications that have rejected you are staffed by deranged individuals who live only to crush dreams.

Unlike American Idol’s Simon, we never tell people: “You. can’t. write. Do something else.” — even though in some cases it may be the more humane thing. But Toasted Cheese is a refereed journal. We make this clear in our submission guidelines. We do not subscribe to the “everyone’s a winner” philosophy. If you do, then be forewarned: this is not the type of journal for you.

However, remember that we do subscribe to the “writing is hard work but can be learned” philosophy. Before you set fire to that bridge, consider that maybe you have some learning to do. Take us up on our offer, and visit TC’s forums, where you can interact with other writers, receive honest critiques, and work on making your writing the best it can be.
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When not editing Toasted Cheese, Beaver masquerades as a law student.

Christmas Elegy

Best of the Boards
Glen


On August 22, 2005, the author of the poem that was on this page requested that it be removed. Apparently, he misunderstood the terms and conditions of the “Best of the Boards” contest that he entered the poem in, specifically, that the poem would be published in Toasted Cheese if it won the competition.

While we are under no legal obligation to remove his poem, after some consideration, we have decided to meet his request, as this course of action best fits with our philosophy that the Toasted Cheese forums be a place where writers feel comfortable sharing their work.

Those interested in reading the poem can find it here.

-The Toasted Cheese Editors
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Winter Buddha

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Linda J. Palmero


Nobuko shivered as the frigid, resinous air caught in her lungs. She pulled at her many-layered ceremonial kimono, unable to cover the spot on the back of her neck that had long ago gone numb. Pony bells jingled like jade chimes in the arctic air of the morning. Boreal winds dislodged icicles from their perches on the Manchurian conifers. Horses eyed the flying projectiles of crystalline water with due suspicion. Japanese soldiers of The Occupation pretended to be impervious to such things.

Nobuko felt another kind of numbness, in her brain, dream-like and surreal. Her mind felt like it was wrapped in the fibers of newly unraveled silkworm cocoons. She had never witnessed and execution before. Her father, an Officer of the Occupation, summoned her last night and informed her of his decision. He felt she was growing too close to the household slaves, especially the old Amah. He wanted her to understand that fear was necessary for the retention of power. The Imperial Japanese government was not going to relinquish power over Manchuria or any other part of China. To her father, these facts were divine mandates.

A frozen crust had formed on the path overnight. Her father and his lieutenants rode ahead of her, making a Swiss-cheese pattern in the frozen drifts. Three platoons of soldiers rode two-abreast behind her. Bayonets clanked and clamored on shouldered rifles as if trying to escape the leather straps holding them fast across their master’s backs.

Nobuko focused on the concert of staccato notes formed by the weapons and the horses. The words of the Buddhist chant Amah taught her echoed in her head. Ah-mi-to-fo, ahhhhh-me-e—to-o—fo, ah-mi-to-fo, ahhhh-me-e—to-o—fo. Amah knew she risked death in sharing these teachings with Nobuko, who did her best to keep these secret moments hidden from her father. Nobuko did not understand that this treason of the heart was forming the karma of her future.

The noon sun was at its zenith when the mounted entourage reached the outskirts of Plum Wine village. The microscopic village was perched between the teeth of two mountain crags. Nobuko was amazed to see she was now above the clouds. It looked as if she could ride right out onto them and disappear into the winter sun. Dread and powerlessness welling up in her heart made this seem a realistic possibility.

The smells of the forest gave way to the smells of a village full of people as the entourage approached the tiny mountain hamlet. Night soil, pigs, pickled vegetables, and frying meat contributed to the symphony of scent. Nobuko was surprised how prosperous the village looked after passing through the ruined outer walls. Ancient brick compounds surrounded a labyrinth of clean-swept inner courtyards. The last of the fall chrysanthemums stood shocked in their pots, capped with snow.

Twin lieutenants signaled the party to stop when it reached the village square. A new wooden platform stood in the center of the square. Nobuko’s father dismounted, followed by the rest of his party. He shot a look at Nobuko that told her to stay put, as if he did not plan to tarry long in this place.

Despite the smells, the village appeared as deserted as a cemetery at midnight. A lieutenant went forward and banged the butt of his rifle on the sagging wooden doors of a monastery. The gates creaked open like the lid of a casket, revealing a courtyard full of saffron-robed monks. Nobuko could se past he monastery gates, through the open doors of the meditation hall, into the face of the Buddha statue on the sanctuary altar. She looked into the eyes of the Amida Buddha, his hand gesturing her towards him, towards the Western Paradise. The horse shifted under her, breaking her concentration. She saw her father standing on the platform. She watched as the lieutenant led a tall Han monk towards him.

The truth of what was to happen dawned upon Nobuko. She realized her father was about to take the life of another being and she would have to watch. This was going to be like when her pet nightingale died of the cold, never to wake and sing her song again. She remembered Amah explaining to her, saying the Buddha does not make separations between human beings and animal beings. Remembering how sad she felt holding the corpse of her nightingale, Nobuko’s body began to be wracked with silent, suppressed sobs.

She looked again at the Buddha, praying for his help. The monk stood on the platform, staring into the eyes of Nobuko’s father. A soldier translated her father’s guttural screaming into perfect Mandarin.

“Do you swear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, the living emanation of the Divine on this earth?”

“I cannot swear allegiance to one who does not exist,” said the monk.

The monk was forced to kneel on the platform and with one swift stroke of his katana Nobuko’s father severed the head of the monk. Her eyes fixed on the empty gaze of the monk’s severed head. The monk’s body took several seconds to fall over, his life-blood pumping from the neck of his body in crimson arcs. She remembered the words of he Amah, and used them to buoy herself up. She imagined she could see the Amida Buddha come and scoop up the corpse of the dead monk, carrying him away in his arms, bound for the Western Paradise. This was the day, at nine years of age, Nobuko found her faith.

She breathed deeply, as if preparing to dive into a bottomless pool. Instead, she dove into the mud and filth beneath her pony’s hooves. Her father, still high on the opiate of his power, failed to notice his daughter’s coup. This moment of addiction gave her enough time to round a corner and disappear from sight before a shocked lieutenant bolted to give chase. Her eyes and nose burned with the foul mud forced into them by her fall; squeezing into the narrow opening of a granary, she hid in the cramped, earthen space. A rat peered at her through myopic eyes and ignoring her presence, resumed his meal of rice maggots. An excruciating weight pounded in Nobuko’s head as she fell asleep with the smell of rat urine in her nostrils.

While Nobuko slept, a punitive chaos raged. Out of fear of the soldiers, and respect for the monks, families of the village had closed off their compounds and hidden as best they could. Soldiers were sent in twos and threes to rout the villagers from their compounds. Families were made to watch as one by one, friends and relatives were eviscerated by bayonet. Each time a person was killed, Nobuko’s father demanded to know where his daughter was. Each time the villagers were powerless to answer.

Nobuko’s father had not felt such humiliation since he was relieved of his naval command in favor of a younger, more powerful, and socially well connected officer than he. When he was posted to Manchuria, he vowed to extract as much suffering from those under his control as he felt the day he was relieved of his command. Until today he had been thoroughly able to do so.

The afternoon sun spoke of fear. The only fear Nobuko’s father knew was that of being caught on the road after dark by remnant bands of General Chang-Tso Lin’s guerrilla army. He consulted with his lieutenants and decided to leave.

The smell of blood was on the air, like when old cook slaughtered a pig for the larder. Overnight, the winter dampness crept into the granary, causing Nobuko’s clothing to hang about her in limp, soggy folds. She noticed her own stink, and could never remember being so cold and filthy and alone. The sound of village dogs fighting over something pierced the air, and was cut off by the approach of huge, flapping wings. She crept out of the granary and peered around the corner. She was overcome by the sight in the square. Nine bodies lay cold and bloodless, strewn like rice straw about the square, one for each year of her life.

Nobuko squatted in the shadows of an alleyway behind the granary, unable to move. The gates of the monastery creaked open and eight saffron-robed monks emerged carrying lit incense sticks and chanting prayers for the dead.

The monks bound the sleeves of their robes out of the way with strips of cloth, and begun their grim duty. In a painstaking, deliberate manner, the monks collected every scrap of wood from the surrounding village. One by one, remaining villagers joined the monks in chanting, laboring over the pyre and the careful arrangement of their loved one’s remains. Sandalwood chips, hoarded over the years in the monastery treasure room, were spread over the human remains. The now-senior monk handed a torch to the father of a slain child. The father, feeling his own kind of disembowelment, ignited the funerary flames.

Nobuko scurried like a crab in her fetid garments. She made her way, alleyway to alleyway, stopping at the side entrance of the monastery. Dogs, cheated of their morning repast, growled and eyed the child warily. Sensing she was no danger, the dogs resumed their incessant clawing at the gate. Unable to understand why no food was thrown out to them, the dogs scratched in a concerted effort until the old mahogany gate gave way to their toil.

Nobuko seized her chance and scurried in behind the dogs. She made her way through a labyrinth on corridors. Reaching the sanctuary of the meditation hall, she paused before the statue of the Amida Buddha. Starving, she took some rice balls and a single tangerine from the offering piles on the altar. She did this with trepidation as Amah had taught her that these offerings were for hungry ghosts. The hungry ghosts were poor, disjointed souls who having died a violent or unjust death, wandered about in search of food and justice.

Nobuko squinted her eyes closed in her best show of sincerity, and humbly begged the Buddha to forgive her for stealing from the wretched, hungry ghosts. Deep, clanging noises resonated from the temple bell. Fearing reprisals, she crawled into the dark, close, cobwebby space under the main altar. She lived like a mouse under the altar for the next two moons.

One moonless night, when all was silent, Nobuko made her way to the rough latrine used by the monks. She was careful never to soil her place under the altar and sometimes had to wait endless hours to relieve herself. Leaving the latrine, still dazed, her eyes full of sleep, she ran head-first into what seemed to be a dark, unmoving pole. If she had been more alert, she would have noticed the pole was far too resilient to be made of wood. In fact, the pole was the senior abbot.

“What is this stinking ball of manure doing leaving the latrine?” asked the abbot in a low voice. “You are not a child of this village, from where do you come?” demanded the abbot, shaking the reeking ball of rags by its collar.

“I am a hungry ghost, you had better let me go!” screeched Nobuko, in the most convincing voice she could muster, while hanging a foot off the ground.

The abbot laughed loud enough to wake the monastery before dropping Nobuko roughly on the ground. He turned to speak to a monk standing beside him.

“Empty Eyes, take this piece of refuse to the bath house and wash it. If there is anything human left, clothe it and bring it to me in my oratory.”

Empty Eyes was the oldest monk in the monastery. As a child, he lost his vision to a parasitic infection. He wore a rag tied around his eyes to shield the rest of the world from the globular scar tissue dangling from each socket. Blindness was no hindrance to the old monk who had long since learned to make his way around the monastery grounds as much by smell as by feel. He reached out and took the stunned child’s hand. Cowed, Nobuko followed the monk in silence.

The abbot suspected the child’s sex and identity when he saw the rotten shreds of kimono silk hanging from her slight frame. Not wanting to cause a scandal, he chose the blind monk to bathe the female child. What in Buddha’s name would he do with her? Surely, karma was at work here. The abbot realized this might be a test for all of them. He had to be flawless in his response to the issue of the child’s appearance.

Word reached the village only yesterday, of the demise of the Japanese officer who had been the instrument of their sorrow. Warlord Chang-Tso Lin’s remnant army had shadowed the soldiers since the afternoon of the carnage. One night when everyone in the Japanese compound was drunk with sake, the General extracted revenge on behalf of the villagers. Pots of pitch were poured, one by one, around the perimeter of the compound. Silent specters entered the compound and doused the ammunition depot with coal-oil. Most of the slaves were able to escape when the word was given. Warlord Chang’s general gave the command and his best Mongolian archers shot flaming arrows into the heart of the glistening pools of pitch. Few screams were heard coming from the compound.

At the age of thirteen Nobuko took the precepts and shaved her head. Many years passed and the Cultural Revolution came into being. Mao vowed to cleanse the land of China. People began to live in fear. One of the villagers, terrorized by Nobuko’s father all those years ago, gave her away. At first the soldiers were disbelieving when the old village woman made her way to the garrison to tell her strange tale. The captain of the garrison recalled vague stories of the events before World War II, when the Japanese occupied China. He reasoned that true or not, this story would be an excellent cautionary tale to discourage rebellion among the country people.

Nobuko was captured and locked in a cell near the temple. She was beaten and starved. Her refusal to deny the Buddha in favor of Mao infuriated her captors. She knew in her bones, any morning could be her last. She savored the incense wafting through her window from the meditation hall across the alley.

On the morning of the first new moon of the year, Nobuko was dragged from her cell. She was not even given time to straighten her legs from the meditation posture. She was tied to a rough post erected in the middle of the platform constructed by her father, thirty years ago.

Bullets were scarce during the Cultural Revolution. The order was given for Nobuko to be executed by bayonet. Before she lost consciousness she observed crimson arcs of her own blood streaming into the February morning air.
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“I live in Arizona with my husband, cat, and other dear people. I am an R.N. and working on a Creative Writing degree.” This is Linda’s (Authorrose[at]msn.com) second publication at Toasted Cheese. Her flash story, “Transformation“, was published in Issue 2:4.

Good Intentions

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Theresa Hammond


I hate winter. Daddy drains the swimming pool and lets the air out of my floating turtle. At recess I have to zip up my coat, put on gloves that make my fingers sweat, and a hat that makes my hair stick up. And I hate the second grade. Today I asked my teacher if I could stay inside because my nose is leaking, but she said no. So I went outside and mommy was there, standing by the fence under a bright red umbrella. I didn’t know who she was, but she had a nice smile and black and white purse that looked like a zebra. She called me to the fence and took my favorite doll out of the purse.

“Hi Casey, Daddy asked me to come get you. You remember me, don’t you?” She said. “Why don’t we go for a walk?”

“My teacher won’t let me.”

“Mommies have more rights than teachers do.”

She lifted me over the fence and felt my hands. She said I was too cold and might catch a cold so we got into her little white car and we drove on the highway for a long time. I fell asleep and when I opened my eyes again I was lying in the little bed with Barbie sheets. I ran down the hallway looking for daddy but all I found was her, lying in the bed in a pretty pink nightgown with lace all over.

“You’re awake already?” She lit a cigarette. “That wasn’t a long nap.”

“I want to go home.”

“But we just got here.” She stared back at the television on top of the dresser. “I haven’t seen you in almost two years. Haven’t you missed me?”

“I don’t know you.”

“Of course you know me. I’m your mommy.”

“I don’t have a mommy.” I backed against the wall. “I only have a daddy and I want to go home.”

“See how he’s turned you against me?” She dropped her cigarette in an ashtray on the small round table and sat up on the edge of the bed. “I used to rock you to sleep every night. You were such a good baby. You never cried, never did anything but smile and sleep.”

“I don’t know you.”

“You will.” She slipped onto the floor and crawled to me. She wrapped her arms around my waist and pulled me into her lap. “I’ll tell you everything.”

I sat real still and held my breath, waiting for her to let me go. She didn’t feel warm like daddy. Eventually she sat me back against the wall, picked her cigarette from the tray, and left the room.

“Get on out here girl.” She said from down the hall somewhere. “Keep Mommy company.”

I squeezed my legs to my chest and shut my eyes. Then I opened them slowly and looked around, but I was still in her bedroom and daddy was still gone. I went back down the hallway and shut myself in the bedroom with the small bed. I pulled back the curtains but the window was too high to see out. I stood on my tiptoes and jumped up, but I was still too little. Cold air came down from the glass and I shivered.

“What are you doing?” The door opened suddenly and she stood there with her hands on her hips. “Get away from that window, right now.”

I dropped the curtains, pushed my hands behind my back and stared at her bare feet. Her toes were painted bright red and one ankle had a small gold chain hanging around it. They were pretty feet but I told myself they were ugly and her long blond hair was ugly and everything about her was ugly.

“You’re not to go near the windows, the doors, or the telephone. Got it kid?”

I nodded.

“Come eat and then it’s bath time.”

“I don’t want any.”

“This is all you get for a couple days. I have to wait on my paycheck and then we’re out of here. So come on, make the best of it.”

“I don’t want any.”

“Then you can watch me eat.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I don’t care what you want. I’m not your father. I don’t take crap from a child.” She stepped forward, grabbed my arm, and pulled me down the hallway. She pushed me into a chair then sat across from me. “Now you just be quiet and let me have a peaceful meal.”

“I want to call daddy.”

“You’re not talking to him ever again. That’s the best thing for you.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s spoiled you.” She pointed at me with her fork. “I’ve been watching and let me tell you little princess, you need some discipline.”

“Why?”

“Because he lets you run around the neighborhood with that little boy, and half the time he isn’t even watching.”

“Billy’s my friend.”

“Let me tell you something about boys.” She said. “They’ll get you nowhere but trouble. Look where your father got me. I had you at sixteen, then he left me at nineteen. Took my little girl away from me, had me thrown in jail. But now it’s his turn to live upside down.” She kept talking and pointing her fork and I was afraid to move. “That’s what it’s like, going to jail. I’m not a bat. I don’t like sleeping upside down.”

“Why?” I didn’t know what she was talking about but I felt it was bad. Very bad.

“Is that the only word you know?”

“Maybe.”

“He’s turned you into a pain. I thought you were going to be a smart one.”

“I am.”

“No. You’re quite dumb actually. And you’re not half as pretty as I thought you’d be.”

I squeezed my eyes shut but the tears slipped down my cheeks anyway. I told myself that she couldn’t be my mother. No mother could be so mean.

“I’ll teach you some respect. Give you some discipline.”

“I want to go home.” My chest tightened and my belly ached and I thought I might throw up.

“Bath time.” She dropped her fork. “Then you can go to bed and I can have my quiet time.”

She pulled me back down the hallway and into the bathroom, where the carpet was a pretty pink and the walls had small flowers all over.

“Take off your clothes.” She sat on the edge of the bathtub and turned on the water.

I undressed slowly, embarrassed that she was looking at me. I backed against the door and the carpet was warm between my toes. I refused to go to her. She kept snapping her fingers and demanding I hurry but I couldn’t make my legs move.

She got up, grabbed my arm, and pushed me in front of the tub. There was steam rising off the water. I made my legs real stiff and tried to stand still but I started shaking all over. She pushed me from behind and I fell forward, catching myself on the hard tub. Then I sat down and pulled my knees to my chest, tucking my head down like a turtle in her shell.

“It’s too hot.”

“I don’t care, just get in.” She jerked my arm up but I wouldn’t stand. “You’re going to get it worse if you don’t get in right now.”

“It’ll burn.”

“Fine. I’ll bathe you right where you are.” She turned and left the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. There was nowhere to hide except under the sink. I pulled out all her towels and pretty smelling soaps and crawled under. I pulled the small door shut right as she opened the bathroom door.

I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut. I heard a thump on the floor and then I heard her calling my name in another room. I opened the door a crack and saw a large pot sitting next to the tub. I hurried out, picked it up, and walked into the hallway. Her voice came from her bedroom. I opened the door closest to me and it was a closet with lots of coats and a pile of shoes. I stood on top of the shoes and shut the door, but it made a loud click and she hurried into the hallway

“I heard that. Where are you?”

I knew she was going to get me and I wasn’t going to see daddy ever again. I squatted down and held the pot over my head with both arms stretched up high. It was heavy and my arms shook. When she opened the closet door I jumped as high as I could and swung the pot. It hit her on the chest and she stumbled backward just a little. Then she bent to grab me again. I stepped out of the closet and swung the pan and that time it hit her on the top of the head. Then she just fell down.

I waited for her to move but she didn’t. Then I kicked her hard in the head to see if she would move but she didn’t. So I kicked her another time just because I wanted to and then I went to the bathroom and put on my clothes. I stopped and looked down at her but she still wasn’t moving so I stepped over her body and hurried out the front door. I ran across the street to a small white house with green shutters. My toes were so cold I thought they would stick to the ground as I rang the bell.

A woman with pink glasses and long red fingernails opened the door.

“She took me from my daddy and now she’s dead.” I could see my breath as I spoke.

“Come on in, sweetie.” She held the screen door open but I backed away.

“Please call my daddy.”

“Do you know your phone number?”

I said the number and turned to look at the house. The woman hadn’t come after me but I was sure she would. I told myself it was all right. She’d wake up after daddy came to get me and it would all be over.

“Honey, come outside and sit with this little girl.” She turned and talked to someone inside the house then a girl my age came out. She had long brown hair and blue eyes just like mine. She held my hand and we sat on the front step together. I looked over at the house and my body began to shake again. I told myself she wasn’t dead. The girl squeezed my hand tighter.

The girl’s mother came back and we sat there on the porch for a long time, each of them holding my hand. My belly hurt just from looking at the house so I put my head in the woman’s lap and she rubbed my neck. I wanted to go to sleep, to close my eyes and not open them until daddy was there. But instead of daddy a policeman came and sat on the step in front of me. He put his hand on my leg and I squirmed away, pushing my head deeper into the woman’s lap.

“Your father’s on his way.” He said. “Would you like to wait in my car?”

“She came to get me.”

“Who?”

“She said she was my mommy but I know she’s not.”

“Oh, my god.” The woman pointed across the street. “Did you come from that house?”

“Yes.”

The woman wrapped an arm over my ears but I still heard.

“She’s been talking for months about her daughter coming back. She said she’s been in foster care and she was getting her back. Seemed like such a nice lady. I was glad for her.”

The policeman nodded and walked back to his car. He talked on the radio and soon there were four more police cars. Then an ambulance came and right behind that was daddy’s purple van. I ran across the yard and met him on the sidewalk. He dropped to his knees and hugged me. The air didn’t feel so cold anymore.

“Daddy, don’t be mad.”

“Mad?” He hugged me even tighter. “Oh, heavens honey. I could never be mad at you.”

“She had my doll.”

“I know honey. I know.” He sat on the sidewalk and pulled me onto his lap. The sun had gone down without my noticing and the red and blue lights blinked in his glasses. “Just relax. It’s okay now.”

“Is she really my mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie. At one time she was your mommy.”

“I killed my mommy?”

He put my head to his chest and began rocking, back and forth there on the cold sidewalk. I felt warm and safe until I lifted my head and saw the house. My body began to shake again. Daddy carried me to the van but the policeman stopped us on our way down the street. He shined his light into the car and looked at me.

“She’s not dead sweetie.” Then he turned the light off and spoke to daddy. “She passed out more because of drugs. I don’t see how the lady was functioning, she was so high.”

Daddy drove home slowly, with his hand on my leg. He’s going to let me sleep with him. He gave me hot tea but my body still hasn’t stopped shaking.

“Daddy, check the doors again.”

“They’re locked honey.” He cuddles me under his arm and kisses the top of my head. “I checked three times already. That’s enough.”

“The windows?”

“All locked.”

It’s good she’s not dead, but bad she can still come get me. I fall asleep remembering mommy lying there in the hallway, her hair fanned around her like a crown.
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Theresa (highwayoffice[at]aol.com) lives & writes in North Carolina.

Winterlesson

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Terry Kroenung


“Is he going to be all right?” the wan woman asked, biting her lower lip.

Joshua Paxon shrugged and kept working on his patient’s bleeding head. “I don’t know,” he sighed. With a hand cracked from cold and hard work he pulled the blanket up to the sleeping stranger’s bearded chin.

His wife’s brow furrowed. “Are you still going out?”

“Have to.” Paxon started pulling on his insulated boots. “Did you find any ID on him?”

She was still holding the old man’s scorched parka. “No. Not a thing in his pockets except a piece of a cookie. Oatmeal raisin.” Shuffling her feet nervously, she returned to her earlier plea. “Listen, why don’t you wait until morning? It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake.”

“I’m sorry, hon’. But if that was a plane crash we heard, there may be more people hurt. Maybe some who couldn’t crawl away like he did.”

Mrs. Paxon touched her husband’s worn face and smiled a little. “You’re right,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”

He looked up, less surprised than she probably expected. “Riding shotgun, hmm? Who’ll watch our patient?”

Mary was squirming into her blaze-orange jumpsuit. “He’ll be out for hours. Others may freeze to death by then. Besides, those big fumble-fingers of yours won’t be much good if we have to do some serious first aid.”

Josh stood and gave her a peck on her thin warm lips. “If this turns out to be nothing, I’ll bring you back here and show you who has fumble-fingers.”

A corner of her mouth turned up. “Oh, so we’re playing doctor either way, huh?”

They were bundled up now. Josh had their big medical kit in one hand and a Maglite in the other. His wife grabbed blankets and an Army surplus five-gallon water can.

“Well, here we go,” Paxon announced, heading for the cabin door.

“Wait, Joshua. You must take me with you.”

Paxon turned back to ask Mary what she was talking about. Then it struck him that it hadn’t been her voice he’d heard.

Wobbly but upright, the pudgy old man was struggling into the burnt and torn parka. At the same time he was pushing wide feet into what was left of his old black boots. Despite the head injury, his blue eyes glittered with a clear fire. When he moved, tiny pale flames seemed to crawl through his white hair and beard.

“Mister,” cried the alarmed Paxon,” you really shouldn’t be out of bed.”

The stranger stared benignly back at him. “No, we must hurry to the crash site,” he insisted pleasantly but firmly. His voice sounded like dozens of crystal bells set to ancient music.

Josh’s will melted and flowed out of him like spring snow from a roof. He found himself following the odd little fellow outside as if he were being led on an invisible leash. Mary was at his elbow, a bemused smile on her face usually seen on small children at magic shows. A moment later they were sledding north through the Alaskan night behind the couple’s eight yelping dogs.

Paxon kept trying to ask the stranger questions, such as how he’d known his name when he’d been unconscious ever since they’d found him. But every time the opened his mouth, the desire to know mysteriously left him, as if the question itself were being gently nudged from his mind. Mary, tucked into the sled behind their visitor, merely kept gazing at him as if she were seeing a shooting star.

Twenty minutes of peaceful sledding was abruptly ended as the darkness was ripped apart by cruel lights and a harsh command to identify themselves. The dogs snarled and snapped at a pair of huge helmeted figures, which blocked their way, brandishing assault weapons. The soldiers were very young and clearly scared. Beyond the men Paxon could make out some sort of commotion of men and metal.

From under the rugs in the sled came that marvelous sound of melodious bells. “We’re friends, son. We have business here. Stand aside, please.”

Astonishingly, both sentries moved away and waved them forward. Paxon urged the dogs along again. No one challenged them again as they glided into a substantial clearing that was surrounded by burnt and broken trees. Stopping the rig at a hastily erected rope barrier, Paxon and Mary stared in horrified amazement.

Several olive-green trucks were parked at the edge of the open space, banks of lights in their beds pouring harsh illumination into the cordoned-off area. Behind them sat half a dozen helicopters—mostly Blackhawks, but also a pair of fully-armed Apaches. At least a hundred shivering infantrymen, their breaths clouding the icy air, crowded against the ropes. They were murmuring, shaking their heads, and occasionally pointing at the clearing. Inside the barrier a clump of dazed officers was gathered around a piece of still-steaming wreckage. Although it was shattered—and scarred by fire—Paxon could still recognize it. He felt Mary’s sharp intake of breath beside him as she also saw it for what it was.

A large red sleigh.

Scattered all around it were countless toys: dump trucks, dolls, chemistry sets, football helmets, books… all the trappings of childhood dreams. It saddened Joshua, of course, to see so much potential happiness lying in ruins. But they were merely things. Replaceable things. Their loss wasn’t what horrified him about the awful scene.

No, it was the eight dead reindeer that made his flesh crawl.

They lay in twisted, broken lumps, silver antlers shattered from when they’d ploughed into the frozen ground. The once-glittering golden harness was now dulled by snow and mud… and blood. No glee rang from the grimly-silent bells now. Paxon shook his head in disbelief. He blinked as he tried to absorb the scene. While Mary’s trembling arm slid into his and gripped him tightly, he tried to remember the names of the reindeer. When he’d got as far as ‘Cupid’ he finally dared to look over at the old man he’d rescued.

Tears were frozen on both their cheeks.

Stepping across the ropes, the stranger limped toward the corpse of the sleigh. No one moved to stop him. He halted near one of the dead deer and stroked its cold, still flank. Now he looked very old, indeed—as ancient as all fear and grief. With a sigh he stooped stiffly to thrust his hand at what looked like a bloodstain in the snow. When he brought his trembling hand back up, Josh felt Mary clutch him with a tiny gasp.

It was a red velvet cap, trimmed in ermine.

A wail of frustrated rage rose from the clearing, a keening cry that drove Paxon to his knees in empathy. Mary fell with him. The American soldiers seemed to be frozen to the ground where they stood, powerless to do anything but watch. Their leaders turned toward the tortured sound but made no other move.

To Joshua they all looked ashamed… the same feeling that choked him. Slowly the snow-haired man turned a complete circle, meeting the eyes of every one of them… at least, those who weren’t staring at their boots. No sound could be heard but the crumping of his boots in the snow.

He was glaring at the officers now, the wound on his head livid. It was as if he were daring them to try to explain away their crime. No one seemed up to the challenge. The bulk of the huddle eventually turned their eyes to gaze toward one man in particular. The one with the black stars on his helmet.

“We… We thought it was… an incoming missile,” he whispered weakly. “That was its radar signature.” The general managed to meet the old man’s cold stare for a quivering instant. “We had to shoot it down.” Then his eyes fell to the bloody snow.

A snort of contempt greeted this. The frozen tears shattered from his cheeks as the stranger cried, “When will you learn?!” He received only ashamed silence in answer. “Tell me! Is this going to go on forever, this madness?” His voice broke a little. “Have you learned nothing from me at all?”

Shaking his head, he turned away from them with a growl of disgust. He held his hands out. The trembling that had been there before was gone. Crystalline magic leapt from them and swirled round the clearing in a blue-white rush. Paxon and Mary squinted at the overwhelming lovely light. The sound was of a billion children smiling. Josh was certain he smelled brownies baking. He turned away from the agonizing goodness to look at his wife. Mary was still staring at their former patient. In her wide eyes he saw an enchanted three-year-old. It had his face.

With a sound of sadness leaving a sickroom the magic returned to the old man. Paxon turned back toward him, blinking. He caught his breath. The lights in the trucks had been blown out, but he could still see everything in the clearing as if it were noon. The sleigh was whole and full of toys once more, proud lively reindeer dancing impatiently in their glittering harness. Their antlers caught the moonlight like gemstones in a chandelier. Their master’s broad forehead was now clear and unwounded. His parka was a shining new crimson and his boots gleamed as if waxed. He hopped nimbly onto the sleigh and grabbed the reins.

“I don’t bring you toys, my children,” he said in a clear young voice. “I bring you love.” He smiled sadly. “May you someday learn to accept the gift.”

The sleigh rose slowly and silently from the ground. Mary’s hand slid into Joshua’s. She held a warm oatmeal raisin cookie out to him. Her husband raised an eyebrow, but she just smiled and shrugged. Nickolas winked at them, then let out a laugh that they felt, oven-warm, on their chilled faces. The reindeer shook their heads and pulled him aloft. Long after they were out of sight, Joshua and Mary could still feel the harness bells laughing.
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Terry Kroenung (kroenung[at]peakpeak.com) teaches Theatre/Humanities at Front Range Community College in Ft. Collins, CO. Primarily a playwright, he has had plays performed in Virginia, Illinois, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Europe, and New York City. His play Death Song was produced last October at the Theatre for the New City in Manhattan. Later this year his collection of one-act combat plays for women, Blood and Beauty, will be published.

Natalie Portman

Fiction
Aaron Hanscom


I.

“Hi, Lisa?” I begin in my most tragic of voices. “Can you talk?”

She says, “Leo, please don’t be silly. You know that I am always here for you.”

Lisa has one of those cheerful voices that never seems contrived. Yet these voices can deceive one just as easily as those of some spurious politicians who affect a tone of humility with the hope of touching each constituent in an intimate way. You might insist that only gullible people are unable to recognize fraudulence; but how many of you, upon walking out of your house on a misty morning, swear that the chorus coming from the trees overhead is intended solely for you, to herald the grandeur of your life and the unlimited possibilities of the day ahead?

Nevertheless, Lisa is as close to a sure thing as you can get. I really think she’s in love with me. It is probably because of her weight that I don’t mind her living on the other side of the country. I get everything I need out of the friendship from our phone calls. She never demands, criticizes, or complains. In fact, she is the only one who really listens to me.

The conversation that transpires is really no different from any other that we’ve ever had. After incessantly spilling my guts for about an hour, I’m given the usual exhortation: “They’re not all like that, I promise. Leo, you are such a wonderful guy. You just have to be able to realize that.”

I finally do realize—how wonderful I am—and then promptly but politely get off the phone. This proves to be good timing for just as I click Lisa away, Chris walks into my room.

“Hey, what’s up,” he says rather indifferently.

“Who let you in?”

“Your mom. She was walking out as I pulled up. Said she was in a hurry.

Something about meeting Jerry for some premiere. She’s still seeing that putz?”

Chris flicks back the blond bangs stubbornly falling onto his forehead. His damp hair is evidence of his earlier fashionable intentions. After showering he had initially slicked back his hair passionately while looking in the mirror with puckered lips. He had maybe even pointed a finger at his reflection and told it, “You’re the man.” In any event, he was unwilling to shape this cool style with gel or mouse, opting instead to let his hair fall any which way it might throughout the night. It is a lie that self-reflection’s primary benefit is to yield negative images that can be changed; no, we look inside ourselves because we know we will see who we want to be.

I answer Chris, “Yep, they’re still dating. They’re going to that movie he worked on in Spain. Was she dressed really slutty?”

He nods; I sigh. Lately my Mom has started to dress more and more like my sister who has been faithfully following the fashion of Brittany Spears for the past two years. Tight black pants and a variety of colorful halter-tops are essential items in all three of their wardrobes.

Chris is here to discuss tonight’s plans. We are going to meet his two friends from Yale Law School, who have taken their maiden voyage to the City of Angels. “They want to go to the bar where River Phoenix died. ”

“The Viper Room?”

“Yeah. They’re also huge fans of the Counting Crows and they heard that Adam Duritz sometimes bartends there to get in touch with real people. Anyway, does that sound good to you?”

“Sure,” I tell him, forcing a smile. I’d prefer to just stay home and watch Saturday Night Live, but there are no girls at home.

II.

The aquarium is built into the wall directly behind the front desk. Brightly lit, it provides a sharp relief from the rest of the dark and gothic lobby. Void of any rocks, verdure, or even water this huge aquarium only contains its one inhabitant, who from our vantage point on two cushioned footstools (all the chairs are taken), appears to be fast asleep and oblivious of all the humans outside the glass. The majority of these people don’t seem to be as interested in this marvel as I am. I stare intently as though I’m in third grade, and this girl in her underwear is a science project. I’m waiting for her to sprout.

“It’s like she doesn’t even know we are out here,” I say to Chris.

“You’ve never been here before?”

“No.”

“Oh, well a guy will take over for her later. He’ll be in his underwear, too.”

There’s nothing I’d rather do than watch this girl all night, but our visitors suddenly show up and make this impossible.

“Here they are,” Chris says, rising from his stool.

Ben-and-Matt or Matt-and-Ben (they are interchangeable) see Chris and head towards us. Both of them have their very black hair slicked back and in their equally black overcoats they resemble Johnny Depp and his clone. The slightly shorter one yells out “My man, Chris!” from halfway across the lobby.

“My boys! What up, fools!” It’s obvious from his response that I’ve already lost the real Chris for tonight. His friends’ presence seems to instantaneously change his vernacular.

“It’s great to see you guys. Glad to have you in my home town.”

Manly half-hugs complete, Chris introduces us in a very unhelpful manner. “Matt, Ben this is Leo. Leo this is Matt and Ben.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say.

“What’s up?” they respond in chorus.

Chris takes over from here. “All right, guys. I’ve got my car right out front. Let’s get out of here!”

“Sounds good.”

We walk out of the lobby, past the martini-sipping guests, and down the stairs to the valet circle. Forgetting for a moment the name of this bizarre hotel on Sunset, I peer up at the sign for a reminder. It is upside down but legible: The Standard.

In theory, it should only take us around 10 minutes to go the several blocks west on Sunset Boulevard to get to the bar. However, reality in Los Angeles is quite different than anywhere else. Turning left from the hotel onto Sunset proves impossible because of the stalled eastbound traffic directly in front of us. Even merging into this muddle takes time.

“I can’t believe none of these jerks will let you in.”

The “jerks” that Ben or Matt is referring to are the teenage cruisers who are too young to be part of the action on the Strip, but still like to be as close to the scene as possible. A big enough gap emerges for us to enter only when a black BMW convertible brakes suddenly to allow one of its young male passengers to scream at a group of girls walking into The Standard: “Hey, girls! Where’s the party tonight?” These girls smile, but don’t respond.

Chris turns South at the first light and says, “I’m gonna take us down to Santa Monica Boulevard and through gay-central. Then we’ll shoot back up to Sunset.”

“Sounds good, man,” is the answer from the back.

Suddenly feeling like a pioneer of my city, I decide to say something. “First time in Los Angeles for you guys?”

“Yeah, first time. We’re loving it. Bitches are hot here.” Then the other one: “Will there be a lot of girls at this bar?”

“Gentleman, there are hot women at every bar in Hollywood,” Chris yells out.

“Sounds good.”

“What are you going to be, Chris? Producer, writer, actor?”

Chris laughs and then asks, “You guys got your whole act all ready planned out?”

“We’re going with the Hollywood theme. Up and coming actors.”

At this moment I realize that Ben and Matt will have success tonight and I won’t. They’ve got their roles down and are intent on auditioning co-stars.

“God bless you guys,” Chris laughs. Then, acting like a Hollywood tour guide, he directs our attention to the sights of West Hollywood. “Well, welcome to my favorite part of town,” he lisps.

Laughter precedes absolute silence from the back of the car. There are crowds of men pressed tightly together in front of the many clubs that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Some kiss, others hold hands. All seem to be having a great time and to be completely unaware of our eyes gazing from behind the glass windows.

III.

The burly bouncer leans against the blanched wall. He waits just until we get up to the door to propel himself forward and ask for our IDs. His rashness comes as no surprise; anyone whose profession involves discerning the true identities of other people sometimes forgets his own.

Chris, Ben, and Matt are let in pretty quickly and painlessly; the bouncer doesn’t even perform any double takes. I’m the one he’s had his eyes on since we crossed the street and headed his way. I can almost swear that he licks his lips as he grabs the license from my hand.

“Name?” he shouts out.

“Leonardo Burns,” I shout back.

He glances at me for a split second before proceeding. “Date of birth?”

A slight hesitation from me provides this enormous man ample opportunity to interrogate me further. My lack of facial hair and baby-face only add to my vulnerability.

“Tough question?” he shouts out even louder.

“No. November 5, 1975,” I state. I can feel my face reddening: to have one’s identity questioned is one of the most degrading experiences someone can undergo. With nothing to hide, however, I am quickly emboldened. “4041 Sepulveda Boulevard. 160 pounds. Brown hair and eyes. A8501832.” The bouncer can only wave me through.

After paying the twenty-dollar cover charge and peering into the one empty room on the first floor, we make our way up the stairs in an orderly Indian Style fashion; Ben and Matt acting as our chiefs even though they are in foreign territory. The packed house is already grooving to the 70’s band on stage whose lead singer, running his fingers through his Afro Wig, is singing “Staying Alive.”

The four of us migrate over to the bar without any consultation on the matter.

“What’ll you boys have?” Ben asks us.

“How about shots all around to start out,” Chris says.

We all agree. I’ll drink anything at this moment. All the confidence that I might have had earlier in the evening is dissipating faster than the smoke being shot out from the smoke machine by the stage. It covers up the dancers for a split second before fading away forever.

After gulping down the vodka we order our individual drinks. I ask for a Long Island Iced Tea-step one in my plan to get drunk as soon as possible. Chris copies me, while Ben and Matt opt for Rum and Cokes. Armed with our necessary cocktails we proceed to an open space closer to the stage. It is a prime spot not only because it affords us an excellent view of the band, but also because we are right next to a group of very attractive girls. They seem to be enthralled with the lead singer. He is now introducing the next song and seems to have convinced himself that he is really black.

“This next tune goes out to all the ladies in the house tonight.”

The whole place goes crazy as he sings the first lines of “Good Times”. By crazy I mean that they all start to dance. My feet, however, remain glued to the floor. Doing my best to appear engaged I sip at my drink and survey the crowd. Even Chris, who has no rhythm at all, is conquering his fear and hopping to some mysterious beat in his head. Meanwhile, Ben and Matt have spotted their prey and are planning the attack. The girls that were next to us have made their way even closer to the stage and Chris’ friends eye their every move.

“Anyone else need another drink?” I ask eagerly. All of them shake their heads.

“Well, I’ll be back in a sec.”

“All right, but get back out here. We are all going to get lucky tonight. Look at all these bitches,” Matt says, shaking his way towards the girls before being eaten up by the smoke.

I’m already starting to spin, so I just order a Corona from the beautiful bartender in tight black pants. I’m more comfortable in the corner than in the midst of all the action.

Ten minutes pass until Chris, his blue shirt drenched in sweat, comes up to me.

“You’ll never guess who is sitting over there in the booth,” he says, pointing in the direction of the bathroom.

“Who?”

“Who is your dream girl? The hottest girl in Hollywood.”

“Julia Roberts?”

“No, come on! Who do you always obsess over? You’d marry her, you always say.”

The first smile of the night comes to my lips. “Natalie?”

Chris nods, “Natalie Portman, my friend. Ben pointed her out to me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. She definitely looks good enough. Go look for yourself. She is in the far booth with a bunch of girls.”

“All right, I’ll be right back.” I’m skeptical as I weave my way through the dancing throng in the direction of Natalie. A part of me doesn’t believe that this ideal personification of beauty can really exist. That button nose and those deep brown eyes seem like products of my imagination now.

I immediately recognize who Chris is talking about and just as quickly I realize that it is not Natalie Portman. First of all, her hair is too short and light. Also, it hits me that she wouldn’t really be in Los Angeles since she goes to school back east. I read that in an article in People. But there is something about her…I slip into the long line for the bathroom to observe further.

Every time she smiles I can place her in that scene from “Beautiful Girls”. The one where she smiles at Timothy Hutton while playing in the snow… But she was 14 then—she shouldn’t look that young now. All of a sudden the strobe light that has been directed at her table all this time is shut off as the band takes a break. Without the artificial light her blondish hair turns brown. I remember that it is summer and that I also go to film school back east. It really could be her after all. A puff of smoke is exhaled from the machine, blurring her out of sight. I go into the bathroom. When I return she is no longer sitting at the table.

IV.

We are without Matt on the drive home.

“She was hot. Didn’t you see her? The one with the big tits. She was wearing a black skirt.” Ben’s explanation proves adequate.

“Oh yeah. That lucky bastard,” Chris says.

“Any numbers for you, Leo?” Ben asks me.

“Nothing, and you?” I fire back.

“Yeah, I got a number. She seemed cool. I might call her tomorrow, but we’re only gonna be here for a week. I’ll see.”

We drop him off at The Standard.

“Thanks guys. Chris, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

We watch Ben Affleck walk through the automatic doors and out of sight. It strikes me as the perfect hotel for him to spend the night.

The drive to my house is silent. Chris and I are both very tired. He drops me off at my driveway. Not only is my Mom’s SUV already there, which surprises me, but the light in the living room is on. I press my nose to the window and look in on her.

Pressing an open book tightly against her heart, as if ready to give an oath, my Mom lies asleep on the sofa. The serene smile on her face reveals that she has just had some profound reading experience. I turn my head so I can read the upside down title clearly: The Evolving Self. She looks so peaceful that I don’t even consider waking her up when I walk inside. I just cover her up with a blanket and go to my room.

I have too many thoughts in my mind to even think about sleeping. I look at the clock: 1 in the morning. I’ve done it before. She won’t be mad. Taking a deep breath, I pick up the phone.

“Lisa? Can you talk?”
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Aaron (ahanscom[at]hotmail.com) teaches elementary school in South Central Los Angeles. Although he graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in economics, he spent most of his time on the seventh floor of the library reading literary critiques and writing stories.

The Storekeeper

Fiction
Mark Poltera


Hey, young man. Yeah, you. Come over here. That’s it, come on over. Yeah, take a look at what I’ve got in here for you. Don’t be so shy. Why are you hesitating? I promise it will only take a minute, then you can go.

Come on into the store here. Wait, put your bicycle up against the wall there. Watch your step. I wouldn’t want you to trip or anything. Watch the door there. Here, I’ll hold it open for you. There you go. Doesn’t that bell I have on the door sound nice?

I was about ready to lock up when I saw you riding by on your bike. Of course, I’ve seen you before, riding by on your way somewhere or coming back. I have no way of knowing what you’re doing really, and you never quite come by at the same time everyday, but I have noticed you. You didn’t know that, did you? I thought, What a nice young man there on that bike. Yes I did. I thought that more than once, and you didn’t know you had an admirer. Although I never had cause to stop you before today.

Actually, I’ve wanted to stop you for a few days, but I haven’t seen you. If you’ve been by, I must have been too busy to notice. It gets that way sometimes in here, you know. An old man like me gets distracted by his customers, especially when there is more than one person in here. Can’t keep track of too many things I guess.

I didn’t used to be that way, but I suppose that’s part of getting older. I can still lift these boxes for the most part, which is why I still keep working, but I’m not quite up on top of things like I used to be. There are moments when I find I don’t know how much time has passed. Can you believe that? Two or three hours just missing from my memory as if they never occurred. I don’t know how else to explain it. Maybe I’m bored and need some kind of excitement. But I haven’t forgotten about you for some reason. Oh, listen to me. I hope you don’t mind me going on like this. I tend to ramble a lot. I even talk when no one else is around.

You caught my attention several months ago. It may be because you’re about the age I was when I used to ride my bike all over the place. You go by and I can see the wind blowing your hair, and I’ll bet your legs are strong from all that peddling. What are you, in fifth grade or so? Oh, sixth grade. Well, you are even more mature than I thought, what a pleasant surprise. And so polite too, you didn’t even get upset at an old man for making a mistake, and it is so easy for me to do these days.

Hold on a second, I forgot to lock the door and turn the sign. Stay right here by the counter a minute while I take care of that.

I’m sorry sir, we’re closed, you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Thank you, yes, I’ll be here first thing in the morning.

I like that glass door, even though people can still see me in the front end here after I lock up. It is kind of like my picture of the world when I look out through it. The background is always the same, but the activity in front always changes. There now, all taken care of. I’ve seen you moving through that picture making my little view of the world a little brighter. Oh, I almost forgot the lights. The neat thing is when people come in that door. They step out of the picture and into the store and the doorbell lets me know they are not part of the view any more but right here in front of me. Outside never quite seems real anymore. Inside is real. I’ve wanted you to step through that picture and ring the bell for a while now. You never came in on your own though, so I found a reason myself, and now you’re here.

Come over here around the counter here where I am. Yeah, it’s back here. That’s right. You’ll have to wait a minute while I get it from the storeroom. It may take me a little bit; I can’t quite remember where I set it down, but I know it’s back there. Since the lights are off people shouldn’t think I’m open. Don’t worry, that streetlight out front always shines in here. I’ll bet you could even read and not strain your eyes a bit. Except, the only reading materials on this side of the counter are the cigarettes.

I suppose while I’m back here I’ll have to talk kind of loud so you can here me. I can trust you to leave the cigarettes alone, can’t I? You don’t smoke do you? Of course not. Little boys shouldn’t smoke. It would make your breath stink. You wouldn’t want that.

I know some boys smoke. I’ve seen them walk by here cluttering up my view with their cigarettes, usually ugly, dirty boys, not like you. Some even come in here, step right through that picture and try to buy from me, but I won’t sell to them. I don’t know where they get them from, the cigarettes, but it’s not from me. Sometimes they even talk nasty to me for not selling to them. Where in the world did I set it down? Those kids make me so angry, I could just… well, it doesn’t matter. I’m happy knowing there are still nice young men like you. I do sell a lot of cigarettes to adults though, but they shouldn’t smoke either. I don’t smoke, but I let customers smoke in here anyway. Ah, here it is.

You’re still out there aren’t you? You wouldn’t go hiding from an old man trying to do something nice for you would you? Why don’t you close your eyes? That way we could make it a huge surprise. I’m glad you’re letting me do this for you. This should work out well for the both of us.

Was that the doorbell? Did I not get it locked? Where did you go? Out. Right out the picture. I can’t blame you. It’s hard to keep promises. I was going to keep it though; I definitely was. But you wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ll keep this for you.

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“I live in the Kansas City area where I am teaching an alternative high school self-paced program using a combination of computer software and teacher directed one-on-one instruction.” E-mail: mpoltera[at]kc.rr.com.

The Magnificent Shrine to Magdalena Medlewicz

Fiction
John Biggs


Today is 13/5/2003 and I, Lukasz Bulka, aged 15, am living with my parents in a small apartment in Ursynow, not far from the center of Warszawa. My room is three meters by three meters, very small. There is a bed on the left wall, as you enter, that folds into a couch. On the left wall I have my desk, computer, and all my books. As you enter, facing you, is my shrine to the Virgin Mary, which I must take down today.

The bed is upholstered in a scratchy brown material. It is filled with foam and once belonged to my brother, who is now doing military service. I will not do military service, which is compulsory, because my mother, who is a doctor, said that my eyes are too bad and that she will have a heart specialist in Gdansk attest that I have a rare ailment the makes me unfit. We all worry that my brother will tell on me to the Ministry of Defense, but we have an understanding. He will receive the apartment when my parents move out and I will get a car when I graduate university.

My parents now think I will be a priest. They see I am learning English and that I am in love with the Virgin Mary, but I am good at English because I love video games and I am only in love with Magdalena Medlewicz, aged 16, who is the most beautiful woman in the world.

Magdalena, or Magda as her friends call her, is one year ahead of me in high school. She has blonde hair, hazel eyes, a figure that none of her friends have. She is as beautiful as Pamela Anderson, and much more intelligent. She talked to me today and perhaps this is the beginning my life.

Yesterday, the parish priest came to see me.

—Lukasz, your mother believes that you want to be a priest. I haven’t heard this from you. Do you want to be a priest?

I shook my head.

—But Lukasz, you have a shrine to Mary, the Holy Mother of God, in your room. I have seen it and it is quite… stirring. Why?

This is why I must admit my love. I lied to a priest yesterday and then will have to go to the same priest and admit my lie. It is a compound sin.

—Tell me about your shrine.

The symbolism, which I learned in Polish class can make small things more meaningful, is thus. The shrine is outlined by an arc of five photographs. The central photograph, or capstone, shows Mary’s house on Bulbul, near Ephesus, Turkey. It symbolizes Magda’s house. She lives in a new house by the woods, across the highway from my bloc. The house symbolizes the closeness Madga and I may soon share, if all goes according to plan, that is if she falls in love with me and we marry and live together in a small apartment as I work towards my Master’s Degree in computer science at the University in Wroclaw.

The photograph to the right is a detail from a stained glass image of the Madonna and Child and symbolizes our future. The photograph to the left shows Our Lady of Sorrows, La Pieta, that symbolizes my sadness without her. At the tips of the arc are two angels, who symbolize faith and hope and encourage me to love Madga more dearly every day.

These are the symbolic photographs.

—Lukasz, said the priest, can I help you in some way? Your mother says you are not eating. You need not be embarrassed. You are at a strange age. You are not yet a man, but you are thinking big thoughts. I think this is true, no?

Certainly. I am a thinker, which makes it difficult to talk to Magda. She is a doer, a woman of action. She went skiing with her friends this Winter. I was almost invited to go along (I have a friend who has friends in her group) but I had a cold and when Magda’s friends discovered that my friend had invited more outsiders, they told him he could not come. This is why I have a statue of Mary, Queen of Snows, in my shrine. To symbolize the thwarted ski trip.

Then I have a rosary draped on a wooden statue of a sad-faced man who may be Jesus. The rosary is Magda’s love and the man, who looks more like an old man and not at all like Jesus upon closer inspection, symbolizes me, sitting in sadness, waiting for her to acknowledge me.

—If there is a problem, you can come to me to talk. I can take you with me next summer on a pilgrimage. There will be a number of your classmates going. We will go to Rome next year to meet the Pope.

But my Pilgrimage is much different. It is a hike towards an unconquerable mountain. It is a climb up Mount Medlewicz.

The last statuette, a tiny statue of Mary crowned in stars and standing on the serpent’s head, symbolizes Magda herself. She is my future. She symbolizes Magda in glory. She symbolizes Magda in love.

These are the statuettes.

So I will not go to Rome but I will go to Spain when Magda and her friends go this July. I will not meet the Pope but I will meet the devil himself, Przemek, Magda’s boyfriend, and I will win her from him.

—The soul of a young man is a delicate thing, said the priest. I want to help you nurture it. You are very smart, Lukasz. Your mother says so. She wants me to lead your heart towards goodness. She is afraid you spend too much time with the shrine and not enough doing good in the world. Thou shalt not make any graven image. It is right to worship the Holy Mother, but you spend hours looking at her, your mother says. You aren’t eating.

But this is what I want. I must plan. It is like a great battle. I have a mission, a reason to live. I will take down my shrine today, but its radiance will never leave my heart. I will find other ways to embody my love daily. I will no longer lie. I will not fear confession.

pencil

“I’m a New York writer and lived in Poland for three years.” E-mail: john[at]bigwidelogic.com.

The Minefield

Fiction
Andrew Compart


If you want to know my opinion, and I think you should, Valentine’s Day is like a minefield. For a guy, anyway. Or maybe I should say, a guy like me. So this year, even with Donna, my only goal had been to survive.

The problem, as I see it, is that Valentine’s Day is just a mark on the calendar, but it becomes this big deal in a relationship. For that one arbitrary day, every little question and action is loaded with more meaning than it deserves. Where should you go for dinner? Boom! What should you buy her? Boom! What will you say? Boom! Will you be forced to have—and I shudder just to think of it—the relationship discussion? Just pick up the pieces of my explosive-shattered body.

And all this for what? I’ll tell you what. For a holiday that’s named after a Christian martyr. That’s martyr, as in killed. Imprisoned and beheaded, to be exact. How’s that for romance?

So here is Valentine’s Day, as I picture it. The O is me, Chaz (really I’m tall, thin and a little gangly, not round like the O, but you get the point). The Xes are the mines. E is the end of the date, assuming I make it that far.

O X dinner X her gift X discussion

X conversation X my gift X cuddling E

X her card X sex X discussion

X my card X discussion

See what I mean? The discussions are the most dangerous. They can be set off by the littlest things. And as carefully as you step, sometimes you still run into the trip wires.

I met Donna one month after the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2002.

It had been another predictable disaster. My girlfriend of three months, Valerie, bought me a card that read, “Dear Valentine. If we hadn’t met… I’d be waiting until I found you.” My card to her read, “Dear Valentine, I’ve got the key to your heart….” On the inside it continued, “Wanna reach into my pocket and try to find it?” Complete with a drawing of this wild-haired, bug-eyed sex fiend (looked a little like me, some would say, especially since my thick brown hair tends to scatter in uncontrollable directions).

Anyway, I thought it was funny.

Weeks later, unattached and still picking out pieces of shrapnel, I walked into My Place with Billy and Guy. They were my two best friends from the five years—a personal record—that I’d been in Washington, D.C. Guy is nearly my height, but bulkier and more crudely aggressive; Billy, at 5 foot 6, is more than a half-foot shorter than both of us and more of an observer than a doer when it comes to women. He could use a little more self-confidence, I often tell him. I consider us a bit of an odd trio, but it seems to work.

My Place (“Let’s all meet at My Place,” is its ad nauseam-recited slogan) has a square bar in the middle of the room with space on all four sides and standing-height tables, which makes it conducive to meeting people. It also has three side rooms filled with deep-cushioned sofas and love seats, coffee tables and other furniture and decor for lounging and more intimate chatter.

The bar was typically crowded for a Friday, filled with people ranging in age from young 20s to early 30s. I was talking with Billy and Guy when I first met Donna—or, I should say, first heard Donna, her staccato laugh ringing out clear and uninhibited through the din. When I looked over for its source, as Guy droned on about his usual bad luck with women, I saw that she was the shortest in her group of four or five women. Nonetheless she stood out, vocal, animated and gesturing with her hands. She had full, wavy, brunette hair that hung to her shoulders and, from what I could tell from my quick look, a fit and shapely body.

“Well Guy,” I said after a few more minutes of his tales of woe, “maybe you’re pushing just a little too hard.”

“What do you mean?” he replied. I stole a couple of glances over at the brunette’s group as we talked; once I thought I caught her glancing back.

“C’mon Guy,” I said, laughing. “The way you stare and whip around your head in here, you’re going to need a drool bucket and a neck brace.”

“Yeah, very funny. Like you don’t rush around after every tall blonde,” Guy tried back. But it was weak—true maybe, but weak—and Billy already was in hysterics over my remark.

After a few more minutes of talk about sex, women and, inevitably, the upcoming season of the Orioles, I offered to get the next round. Of course, conveniently for me, I would pass the pretty brunette’s group on the way to the bar. I prepared to make my move.

Some of my friends marvel at my ability to meet and pick up women, but I think it’s just because I’m not afraid to try. As an Army brat, I never spent more than three years in one town. Every few years, I had new classmates, neighbors and surroundings. As I see it, that left me with two choices: I could retreat into a shell, or I could be sociable and learn to make new friends quickly. I chose the latter. Whether all this moving had any other affect on me, I can’t say. But I definitely count the sociability as a plus.

So I wasn’t at all nervous as I walked casually to the bar, near the brunette, and pretended to try to get the bartender’s attention. I turned to her to make a comment, but she beat me to the first line.

“Hi, good to see you again,” she said.

Had we met before? I didn’t think so, but I meet a lot of people, so I played along just in case. “Yeah, you too. How’ve you been?”

“Really well. But I can’t wait until summer, to get back on the beach again,” she said with a slight New York accent.

I nodded. Hmmm, the beach; I could have met her there. But her expressive green eyes and mischievous smile betrayed her as she added: “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“Of course,” I replied. I could play this game, too.

“Oh really?! Who?”

“The prettiest woman in the bar.” It was a bad line, a groaner, but she tilted her head back and laughed. I liked the sound.

“And who am I?” I challenged her back.

“The luckiest guy in the bar,” she replied, without hesitation.

Now it was my turn to laugh. From the beginning, it was one of the things I liked most about Donna: She gave as good as she got.

DONNA AND I had a fun spring, summer and fall. We hiked and biked, and Donna convinced me to slow down enough to enjoy the scenery, although it took a few outings for me to appreciate it. We shared a passion for news and politics, and although I’d voted for Bush and she’d voted for Gore, we both were cynics who considered ourselves politically independent (and, believe me, we got even more cynical after that election). With our eclectic tastes, we felt comfortable discussing books ranging from Brave New World to the latest Dilbert collection, and going to movies ranging from quirky independent films to the newest formulaic but fun James Bond flick.

The sex quickly became open and uninhibited. In three summer visits to a group beach house, we drank, danced and committed general debauchery in the bathroom, on the beach and in an outdoor shower. In winter we skied and rented movies, half of which we never saw through to the end, including “9½ Weeks,” which we emulated immediately after the scene with the blindfold, strawberries and ice.

Not that we didn’t have tender moments. Several times, late at night, we took strolls by the Lincoln Memorial and the Tidal Basin and discussed childhood memories, other safe parts of our personal histories, and the romance of the moment.

Yet somehow, all the while, we avoided the discussion I always dreaded.

We approached Valentine’s Day, 2003.

Donna, surprisingly, didn’t say much about it, but I was determined to plan more carefully this time. I scouted out the restaurants and reserved an Italian one that was romantic without being too ritzy. I spent more than a week looking for a card that wasn’t too serious but wasn’t too glib, finally settling on one that read, “Of all the places in the world I like….” On the inside it continued: “I like being with you the best.” I spent another three days deciding whether to sign it, “Love, Chaz.” (I did.)

But with a few days to go, I still had no gift.

I brought the subject up with Billy and Guy in a Friday night after-bar pizza-and-beer attack at my apartment.

I had the night free because Donna still let me have my nights out with the guys, even some weekend nights, while she went out with girlfriends. She didn’t even seem to mind when I couldn’t call for a couple days. It wasn’t what I was used to; usually I had to push to create more freedom for myself. So it was quite a deal, I suppose. It was what I had imagined I always wanted.

“Shit,” Guy yelled as he stumbled, nearly spilling his Budweiser. “Don’t you think it’s time you unpacked that one damn box? I trip over that thing every time I’m here. After two years in the same place it is OK to unpack, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ll get to it,” I said, biting into a slice. “But after two years, shouldn’t you have figured out it’s there? Anyway, let’s get back to my question.”

“Well, I don’t see what’s so hard to figure out,” Guy said. “Just get her earrings, that’s all.”

Billy scoffed.

“What? What’s wrong with that?” Guy asked.

“That is so typical,” Billy said. “He’s been dating her for more than 10 months, as hard as that is to believe for Chaz. Earrings are too safe. They’re not personal. It’s like buying a guy a tie clip.”

“Well, I think earrings are fine.”

“Naturally. And when’s the last time you dated someone for more than a month.”

“Oh right, Mr. Sensitive. And when’s the last time you dated someone for more than a night.”

“All right, all right, that’s enough,” I broke in. “Let’s get back to me here. Billy’s right. Earrings are out. So what else, Billy?” I trusted Billy’s judgment on these things more than Guy’s. True, Billy’s dates were few and far between, but, unlike Guy, when Billy started dating someone, the relationship tended to last a while.

“Well, it depends on how serious you want to get. But I think, probably, some other type of jewelry is a good idea. Something with a personal touch. Try to find something a little different. But definitely not any type of ring. You’re not a ring man….” He paused. “At least not yet.”

Billy gave me a studied look. I clutched my heart in mock terror in response, but I was surprised how little it bothered me for real. How serious did I want to get? Billy was right: 10 months was long for me (for Donna, too, she once mentioned). But I was more comfortable with Donna than anyone I’d been with before.

“Hey, how about this? An engraved vibrator,” Guy tossed in.

“Right. Very funny,” I replied. But I couldn’t resist asking: “And what would it say?”

How about, “I’m really into you,” Guy suggested.

I took Billy’s suggestion—and Guy’s, sort of, although I’m sure it’s not what he had in mind. I found a black-faced watch with a string-of-hearts gold-plated band, dainty enough for Donna’s small wrists. Then I had it engraved, to make it more personal: “To the prettiest woman, from the luckiest guy.”

Thus fully armed, I left for Donna’s house on Valentine’s Day.

A RED TABLECLOTH covered our table, its fringes finely stitched with heart-shaped patterns. Donna sat across from me, talking scatter-fire and gesturing with her delicate hands. I nodded, smiled and reached for the half-empty wine bottle sitting by the flickering candle.

So far, so good. We had talked about work, politics and the relative merits of Jerry Springer and 60 Minutes, but, even by dessert, still nothing about our relationship.

While waiting for the cheesecake, we exchanged cards. I had suggested we do the cards and gifts at the restaurant, and thankfully she had agreed; I figured it would be safer this way.

“Thanks Chaz,” she said after she opened my card. “That’s very sweet.” Fidgeting, she gave me a close-lipped smile and a quick pat on the hand. What was wrong? Was that not enough?

I opened her card. “Sweetheart,” it read. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Let’s talk.” Oh shit, I’ve stepped right on a mine.

On the inside, it continued: “I’ll say ‘Oh God.’ You say ‘Oh baby.’ ” The drawing showed a couple underneath the bunched covers with clothes flying out in all directions. I laughed. Ha. Like a card I would buy. Almost too much like a card I would buy, actually.

The cheesecake arrived, strawberry topping on mine, cherry on hers, a bit of whipped cream on both. Inspired by her card, we began a ten-minute discussion about things people saying during sex.

“Hmmm, yes, give me more,” she moaned as she licked the cherry topping off her fork.

“Oh honey, you taste so good,” I said as I ate the strawberry topping off mine.

The waiter came to take away our empty plates.

We exchanged gifts.

She opened mine first. “This is really beautiful, Chaz.”

“Look on the back,” I said.

She turned it over and read the inscription. I heard that warmly familiar staccato laugh, but it seemed to end a note short.

I opened her gift.

A tie clip. Gold-plated, with my initials engraved on the front. But a tie clip, nonetheless.

AFTER THE RESTAURANT, back at Donna’s apartment, the sex was, as usual, a little wild and a lot of fun, maybe even more so.

“Oh baby,” I said as she reached down and began to stroke me. That set off a laughing fit that got worse the more we tried to hold it in.

“Oh God,” she said, as soon as I began to return the sexual favor.

All the way through, we sprinkled the love-making session with the phrases we had talked about during dessert. We finished and cuddled, kissed a few times. I closed my eyes and tried to seem relaxed, even as I wished she would just go to sleep.

She fell asleep within minutes. Was this a trick? Why hasn’t she even tried to ask me anything? It just doesn’t seem right.

We had sex again in the morning, and then Donna rushed off to the kitchen in her nightshirt to make eggs and toast bagels. We sat there eating and talking about items in the morning paper. And still, nothing. She took the plates and went to the sink to rinse them off. Why isn’t she asking? Doesn’t she care?

“Donna?”

“Yes.”

“Why haven’t we talked about us?”

Silently, for a few seconds, she kept rinsing the cleaned plates. As she set them aside and turned off the faucet, she answered nonchalantly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean us, this relationship, where it’s going.”

“Do we really need to talk about that, Chaz?” she asked as she dried the dishes and placed them back in the cupboard. “I mean, it’s going fine.”

“Fine? We’ve been going out for more than 10 months, and it’s going ‘fine’? What does that mean?”

“That means ‘fine,’ ‘great,’ we’re having a lot of fun. Now can we just drop it?” Her voice had turned shaky and higher pitched, and she turned to look at me for the first time since the discussion started.

“No, we can’t.” I was determined now. “Why don’t you want to talk about it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she insisted. “It’s just….” She stopped. Her eyes pleaded.

“Just what?” I demanded.

Donna sighed resignedly and plopped down onto the kitchen chair, facing me. She looked down at the table as she talked.

“We’re having a lot of fun, Chaz, we really are. I like you a lot. But you know this is about the longest relationship I’ve ever been in and it’s just, you know, I still have doubts. I’m not sure yet what I want. Why can’t we just have fun? Do we have to talk about this now? I mean, you seemed to be fine with it before. You weren’t exactly pushing for more.”

“Yeah, Donna, it’s fun. A lot of fun,” I continued, oblivious to the warnings. “But maybe it would be more fun if we spent even more time together. Ten months is long for me too, you know. Maybe that should tell us something.”

“Yeah, tell us not to mess with it,” she said. The words were flat and stern. For the first time in a while, she made eye contact, giving me a hard stare.

“Oh, and what. Just keep going on like this forever? Not getting too casual, not getting too serious?”

“No, not forever,” she said more quietly. Her eyes looked down again, with her right elbow on the table, her head bowed and her right hand pressed hard against her forehead. She sat that way, staring at the table, the silence broken only by her sniffles, for what must have been at least 60 seconds. I waited.

“I just don’t know,” she said.

“Don’t know what?” I demanded.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she repeated, her voice quavering. She moved her right hand and ran her fingers roughly through her long brown hair. Somehow, the anguished look made her even more attractive. Her shoulders slumped.

“Maybe we need to take a break for a while, just a while,” she said, “so I can see how it is to be apart.”

“Take a break?” I exclaimed, running blindly through the minefield now. “How can you say that? How can you say that? On Valentine’s Day, of all days?”

She still didn’t look up. “It’s the day after Valentine’s Day,” she corrected me. “Anyway, I know I never mentioned this Chaz, but you never asked me and, it seemed so important to you. I mean, you reserved the restaurant weeks in advance and everything. But I have to confess: I really, really, really don’t like Valentine’s Day. I hate it actually. I hate it with a passion. I always have.”

IN THE MILITARY, they have what they call “after-action reviews.” My Dad used to help with them at the Pentagon, analyzing what went wrong or right during various missions. They call that part of the report “lessons learned.” I never joined the military, but I guess some of that carried over. So I’ve been reading and rereading my story, diagramming it, trying to figure out what went wrong and what I can or should do about it.

Donna hadn’t done anything. After all, I could have said nothing, and everything would have been fine, such as it was. I planted my own mine, then set it off myself. Was this what I wanted? I didn’t want the relationship to end, that’s for sure. So I guess I needed something more.

At least that’s my current theory. The only thing I know for sure right now is I really miss Donna, already, and it’s only been 72 hours. We have news and politics to discuss, hikes to take, movies to see, jokes to tell. I want to hear her laughing.

I know that, after another three weeks of anguished discussion and tortured dates, we agreed to a break, to wait a few weeks and see “how it is.” But as I sit here, unpacking my last box, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. So I figure, before the end of the week, I’ll pick up the phone and give her a call. I’m thinking of how great it would be if it all worked out. I’m thinking that, if it did, I might even look forward to next Valentine’s Day.

pencil

Andrew Compart (acompart[at]ntmllc.com), 39, lives in Vienna, Va, and works in Washington, D.C., writing about airlines for a travel publication. He was a quarterfinalist in the New Century Writer Awards 2001 short story category.

Small Change

Flash
Yehia Samir Lababidi


She totters in, frail and formidable. Her entire frame rocking, like a pendulum coming to a steady stop, or the final tremors of a dropped coin. Hair thinning and smile spreading, the little old lady makes her way to the pharmacy counter.

“Let me tell you a story to make you laugh,” she offers, eyes dimmed, but gleaming still with an irrepressible mischief.

Two men by the counter turn to take her in, one with the impatient insolence of youth, the other with the mindful amusement of middle age. The pharmacist is transfixed, mid-sentence.

“Once I thought I was going to die,” she begins. There are sharp intakes of breath. “So, I asked to take a look at some coffins. I was shown two: one for LE80, the other for LE120.” She speaks matter-of-factly, with the ennobling dignity that comes of courage in old age.

“And, what’s the difference between them, I asked?” she exclaims. “Well, they told me, the one for 80 is shorter, but you can stretch out your legs in the one for 120.”

The pharmacy is silent as the grave, faces deadly serious. Then, she cackles. A big booming sound, with a sharp quality to it, as though her throat were clapping.

She laughs heartily, defiantly, at death, at life, at herself—as only she can. The men seem to shrink in size, diminished, while she looms larger than life, a Laughing Goddess. They grimace and nervously smile.

She nods to herself wistfully, shrugs, and totters towards the door, a little old lady once more.

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“My name is Yehia Samir Lababidi (Yehia[at]mail.unesco.org.eg), I am 29 years old, Lebanese-Egyptian, and work as Editor for UNESCO Cairo Office. I write aphorisms, poetry, and fiction.”