The Borrowers

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


The story in the April 18 San Antonio Express-News began with this paragraph:

“So the single mother, a teacher’s aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am who has her son missing in action. It’s very hard,’ said Anguiano, who speaks haltingly.”

The story in the April 26 New York Times began with this paragraph:

“Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am, who has her son missing in action,’ Ms. Anguiano said.”

The Times story’s byline belonged to Jayson Blair, who resigned in disgrace May 1 following several accusations of plagiarism.

Think this is unusual? Remember the plagiarism scandal that shook up the romance realm?

From the Nora Roberts novel Sweet Revenge (published 1989):

His breath feathered over her lips as his hand slid through the water and over her skin. When he leaned toward her, she turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently, patiently. Need rolled inside of her, with a pang that came as much from fear as from desire.

From the Janet Dailey novel Notorious (published 1996):

His mouth feathered over a corner of her lips as his hands slid onto her back. Eden turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently. Need rolled inside her, with a pang that came as much from fear as desire.

After the incident went public, writers and readers alike jumped to Dailey’s defense by saying that there are only so many story ideas to go around and that, especially in the romance genre, “All the story lines are the same. Only the names are different.” Dailey received vast amounts of support while Roberts was accused of stirring up trouble for Poor Janet.

Why is stealing someone else’s writing seen as such a trifle? Because publishers and editors reward plagiarists.

Editors at the New York Times had been made fully aware of Blair’s tendency to lift quotes and text from other reporters’ stories by higher-ups at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. They had printed numerous retractions and corrections of Blair stories. It was only when they were publicly busted that they decided enough was enough.

One of the reasons we instituted password-protected forums at Toasted Cheese was to allay writers’ fears of being plagiarized. While not terribly common, it does happen. We’ve had people post work to the forums as their own when it wasn’t. There’s nothing we can do except expect a level of maturity and honesty from our members.

If editors and publishers don’t seem to get the seriousness of plagiarism, what can writers do about it? What can anyone do about it? The American Historical Association has an idea: pillory the offenders.

“Publicity is the best way to handle [plagiarism],” said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, a former president of the association. He cited the 2002 Stephen Ambrose Wild Blue case as a prime example of a writer being publicly humiliated as a thief.

The association used to have closed-door investigations into allegations of plagiarism, not only in historical fiction writing but also in textbook and other non-fiction writing. The new policy reflects not only the effectiveness of letting the public be the jury but also the fact that the association doesn’t have the time or the people to investigate every accusation.

Good start, I say. The next step is to get the public to take the issue seriously. As with any job, it’s difficult to get your average layman to understand the blood, sweat and tears behind the writing process. One of the problems with writing is that just about anyone thinks she can do it as well as the pros. So what if a line of dialogue or a small descriptive paragraph isn’t exactly original? Who does it hurt?

When music is plagiarized, it’s slightly more scandalous. In 1976, George Harrison lost a lawsuit alleging that his song “My Sweet Lord” was the tune of “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison was guilty of “unconscious copying.” When the Rolling Stones realized that the chorus of “Has Anybody Seen My Baby?” was nearly identical to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” they issued her a songwriting credit in order to avoid any bad press or legal hassle.

What have been the consequences of literary and journalistic plagiarism?

After Wild Blue‘s February 2002 release, several writers came forward to say they recognized chunks of their own writing in Ambrose’s novel. An investigation was launched that found “borrowed” anecdotes in at least six more of his works. Ambrose said, “If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote.” Some critics, like Forbes magazine, accused Ambrose of merely editing together other writers’ stories and of not being a “writer” at all. Ambrose died the following October. His publishing house vowed to re-release the book with proper notations in place, including quotation marks and footnotes of the plagiarized sections.

Dailey admitted to plagiarizing Roberts, then turned around and blamed a “psychological disorder.” Roberts won a successful suit and donated the proceeds to literary causes. On the other hand, Dailey had a novel published by Harper less than a year after the settlement and in 2001 signed a four-book deal with Kensington.

Among other “reasons,” Blair cites “manic depression,” substance abuse and inattentive editors for his actions. After being the cover boy for shady journalistic practices for a month, Blair has begun to put together a seven-figure book deal. Some news sources say no big publishing house will touch him. Others say it’s likely he’ll get a single book deal worth about what he’s asking for, perhaps with a movie-of-the-week offer thrown in for good measure.

My sweet lord.

pencil

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

Between the Covers

Best of the Boards
Allen McGill


Between The Covers, the used bookstore on East 12th Street in New York, was like a magnet. I could not pass it without taking at least a cursory glance at the selection on the tables outside. Then, that accomplished, I was invariably drawn inside.

A pleasant smile from the elderly woman behind the counter was the greeting I’d grown accustomed to.

“Hi, Mandy,” I’d call with a wave.

“Afternoon, William,” she’d say. Before I’d have time to say anything else, she’d add, “I know, I know. You haven’t any time and will just stay a minute.” Her lips would purse into a knowing smile. “You are always welcome.” She’d then return her attention to the inevitable pile of books before her, reading glasses perched near the tip of her nose.

The slightly musty smell of old books drew me through the long, dimly lit aisles. The paper and bindings, the atmosphere of being surrounded by written expressions of thousands of minds made me feel as if I were wallowing in the tangible air of intellect. Mesmerizing.

New arrivals were piled daily on trolleys along the back wall of the shop. New old books. The concept was irresistible. I waved my hand slowly over the aligned ends of the bindings, reading titles. If observed, it would have appeared as if I were conjuring a spell to have the book of choice rise to place itself in my grasp.

How silly—until it happened.

I blinked and laughed, convinced I’d imagined it. But the book was in my hand, a hand-tooled leather cover with lettering so worn that I couldn’t read the title. The flyleaf, when I’d carefully turned to it, read: Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

A smile came inadvertently to my face. This had always been one of my favorite books. To me it was a magic portal to so many wonderful imaginings. The book itself seemed old, though, older than its original publication date. I searched for the printing information, but found none. What I did find, was that the entire book seemed to have been hand lettered, not printed. I’d never seen anything like it.

As I held the book by the binding, it opened naturally to a spot about halfway through, as if it had often been kept in that position. What seemed like a bookmark rested along the fold. A parchment, as it turned out, with precise curlicues, ink-brushed lettering of a sort totally alien to me, that surrounded a delicately painted flower.

I sat at a nearby reading table to look at the flower more closely, holding it as lightly as I would a cobweb. As I drew it closer to my eyes, a pale light emanated from its heart, growing brighter. I couldn’t look away, but my eyes began to close, weighted, with my thoughts.

A breeze sprung up, washing my face with cool air. I struggled to straighten up, to look for the source of the wind. After long minutes, I opened my eyes.

Before me, as I’d imagined it, rose the city of Shangri-La, with its soaring walls and gilded roofs, its cascading gardens and encompassing mountain peaks.

It couldn’t be, of course. I knew that, but reason was unimportant. I was there on a pathway with other people who were strolling in a realm of unbelief, yet, believing. They seemed as much in awe as I.

Many males wearing the saffron robes of Tibetan monks glided silently past, seemingly on their way toward the high-gated entrance of a central temple.

I held up my hand as one of them neared, wanting to ask—something. “Please…”

“Are you still here, William?” Mandy’s voice broke through my reverie, through the time and space in which I’d traveled. “It’s time to go,” she said, laying a hand on my mine. “I’m sorry. I know you’d rather stay.”

She reached for the book.

“No,” I exclaimed. “I want this book.”

Her smile was sympathetic. “I think you know that you can’t have this one, William. This is one of the Special Books. It is meant only for people who can truly appreciate it. For you, it will be here always, whenever you wish it or need it. But it can never be taken away, or it will crumble to dust.”

Rationally, I shouldn’t have believed her. But I did believe her. My chest felt heavy as I handed the book to her, and started along the long aisle that led to the exit. I felt as if I’d lost a world, although I’d not been away from the bookstore. An involuntary sigh rose to my throat.

“William,” Mandy called from behind me. I turned. “There are many special books that are for the likes of you. All you have to do is hold out your hand. Have you ever read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse?”

The young Buddha! Elation infused my body and mind. I virtually worshipped Siddhartha. I’d read it regularly, once a year, since I was a boy. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” I called, almost with a giggle. “Early. I won’t go to work. I’ll come straight here.”

“All right, William,” Mandy said gently. “For a while, that will be just fine.”

How would I get through the night, I wondered, as I left the shop. The bell over the door tinkled with the lightness I felt. Tomorrow. I reached for a subway token in my pocket and realized that I still held the bookmark with the flower in the center. I turned to go back, but the lights were out in the bookshop.

“Please don’t turn to dust,” I said. “Please.”

pencil

Originally from NYC, Allen (aljons[at]yahoo.com) lives, writes, acts and directs theatre in Mexico. His published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, etc., have appeared in print as well as on line: NY Times, The Writer, Newsday, MD, Flashquake, Herons Nest, Cenotaph, TempsLibres, Autumn Leaves, Poetic Voices, Bottle Rocket, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, many others. His flash fiction story, “Reconnections,” was published in the March 2003 issue of TC.

Small and Red

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Amanda Divine


Maude looked down at the spot on the end of her nose, closing her left eye and pressing her tongue into the sharp bottom edges of her upper teeth. It really is bigger, she thought to herself. Definitely. No doubts.

She had noticed it last week, though it had probably been there beneath the surface for months, planning its attack through the layers of her skin with subtle alacrity. A spreading red web of capillaries, the spot remained only the size of the body of a mosquito dead of old age, not the broad spreading force of a hand. The spot didn’t itch, or feel, to her finger, any different than any other freckle or smudge on her skin, but she had the distinct impression that it was numb to the touch of her finger. Hard to tell, though, she thought, rubbing the whole bulb of her nose with the pad of a forefinger. She half expected to feel a massive heat arising from the area, erupting in blood and fire and covering her hand, the force dripping down toward her elbow.

But it didn’t. It was just a spot. She had to remember that it was just a spot. So what if she hadn’t noticed it before—it couldn’t have just appeared; nor could it have grown to that size in just a week, if it had started out as something as simple as a bruised pore, or anything else so mundane.

Her vision was fogged as she leaned close to the mirror, eyeball to nose as much as possible within the dimensions of bathroom and glass. The spot had most likely started as a tiny red dot, a feature she’d occasionally noticed in her childhood upon the cushy areas of her palms, but had departed along with the memories. Branching from the tiny spot were two, no, three, she counted, tiny lines that bent slightly before disappearing into the dark tan of her skin. A baby octopus with only two arms, waving at me, she considered, or a period with wings. She stuck out her tongue, biting softly in the middle, and brushed her hair out of her face. Enough.

The next day she counted four lines, each starting to curl as it lengthened. She sighed as she counted again, then pressed her nose into the mirror and stared into her own eyes. Tomorrow, she mouthed, pressure pain building in the flesh and cartilage, tomorrow, it’ll be gone. Just like that. She certainly wasn’t going to believe that it would keep on growing, at least at the same rate. It was ridiculous. It was just a mark from where she must have scratched it in her sleep, damaging the blood vessels but nothing on the surface. Like a pin prick. But how could she have done that in her sleep? She shook her head, slowly, letting the hair tickle the bridge of her nose. She would have to think no more about it—it was just a mark on her nose. Appearance be damned. And if anyone at the office looks at me funny…

On Friday the spot had spread and Maude could see it with either eye, the red marks reaching horizontally across the front, maintaining more width than height, making her feel like a lumbering bull. She was constantly rubbing the spot now, feeling the flesh dimple into the cartilage like it always had, running taut finger skin over the tight rims of her nostrils. It had occurred to her that this continuous touch might be some of the cause of the mark, but she couldn’t help it. Her finger and thumb prodded and petted without reason, following the air to her nose like wisps of cobweb. Besides. Her fingers would have made her whole nose red, not just a thick line of spreading capillaries. At least it’s Friday. And on Fridays, most people were out of office, and there was no Ray to assault her cubicle with his constant coffee fumes and that horrible mug and say something like—Hey, Maude, have you thought about getting that checked? Ray, with a puffy mole just under his eye that Maude would swear he had to trim hourly, was really in no position to point out infrequencies on anyone’s face.

The lines still spread out from the original dot, still on the right end of her nose, but just a hint bigger now. The lines were pencil lead thin, waving across to connect the faintly unsymmetrical halves of her nose, curling around but never entirely, branching into new lines but never crossing back on themselves. Never repeating the available space on her skin, but ranging across as much distance as they could. The upward lines were still short, as if the force of gravity were too strong for their featherweight.

Saturday noonish, when Maude finally dared to crawl out of bed, the lower lines, as if to prove the gravity theory, had advanced across the bottom tip of her nose and broached the skin of her philtrum. Her heart beat slowly, seeming to pause in anticipation of each message to her brain, while she felt along the new lines, and imagined a new variation of texture, but knew that her skin was still smooth. The growth, if she could call it that, was two-dimensional. Her heart sped up a notch. What if the third dimension goes down, what if it’s eating into the stuff below my skin? Cupping her hand around the end of her nose, nearly frightened that it might fall off, Maude shuffled back to bed. A package of Nyquil and the soap channel kept her out of it for most of the day.

In the evening, she washed her face, scrubbing the end of her nose for whole minutes with soap and a washcloth. It’s hideous. Maude wished she hadn’t slept all day, as she could have been calling the doctor. Is it serious? What is it? Will it stop? It has to stop, don’t be silly. When will it stop, Doctor? Doctor? Her list of questions grew as she imagined scenarios in the doctor’s office. One of the worst that came to mind was the doctor telling her that everything was fine, nothing to be worried about, her nose is normal, while never looking her in the face. He would look at his chart, the poster behind her head, her sneakers, but never once look her in the eye while he told her there was nothing wrong. Meanwhile, in her imagination, she could see the red web growing across her entire face, reflected in part by the doctor’s glasses.

After her wash, Maude dressed in some slumpy clothes—jeans and a T-shirt that she could practically sleep in—and drove two blocks to the grocery. She couldn’t imagine walking all that distance, having to place her hands, having to avoid her nose and the people passing by. The clothes themselves were for hiding in, a retreat against the stares of other customers, an excuse to look at the floor. She didn’t even want to go out at all, but her reasoning was inexcusable. And she was entirely out of milk.

At the store, Maude followed the lines of the squares, glancing up only to the bottoms of displays so she could turn corners properly. The dairy department was not nearly direct enough, not nearly close enough. Her skin was chilled beneath the airy shirt, and she crossed her arms and hunched her shoulders even more, wishing she had brought a sweatshirt to protect her arms. She risked a glance up the aisle, the yellow glow of the milk shelves looming backward with every squeaky step Maude took. It’s so far away. Mid-step, Maude almost paused. She would never make it. There was no one else in the aisle; Maude knew they were avoiding her. Like the plague. Ohmygod… What if it really is the plague? Maude covered her mouth, her eyes widening. She glanced back over her shoulder, calculating distance. She had come so far, it was too late to go back.

Maude covered her eyes. It was entirely ridiculous. She couldn’t even buy milk on a Saturday night, horrifying herself with what was very unlikely. It’s Saturday night. Who shops on a Saturday night? Of course no one’s in this aisle. Maude shoved her hands in her pockets, her nose cooling again from the absence of protective appendages, and started walking again to the milk.

The return came much faster, her hands occupied with the cold jug, her eyes allowed to play over the items on the shelves, pretending to shop. There was a short line at the checkout, only one checker on duty. Maude stood behind a stooped old man with a case of beer, who in turn stood behind a large woman writing a check for a huge stack of frozen entrees. Maude stared at the woman’s ankles, which extended out of pink slippers into, at some point, her calves. Maude’s eyes traveled jerkily to the candy shelves and back to the old man. He had placed himself in the exact center between the two sets of candy shelves, most likely unknowingly and habitual. His head was down as well, his plaid flanneled shoulders just slightly lopsided by the weight of his purchase. Maude looked up his back, at how sharp his shoulder blades looked, pushing out of his skin, at the porous and wrinkly surface of the back of his neck. He was mostly bald on the top of his head, with normal grey wisps at the sides, but in small, sparse patches on the top, his hair growth continued unevenly.

Maude transferred the milk to her other hand, almost dropping the jug when she tried to unclench her fingers from around its cold handle. The woman at the head of the line finished her transaction and carted away eight or so plastic bags of food, stepping so slowly that Maude thought even the old man would pass her on his way out.

The checker was a young man; too greasy. It’s how I feel. I wish I’d showered, thought Maude when she looked at his hair. He was easy to look at, like the woman and old man, because they weren’t looking at her. In fact, the checker wasn’t even looking at the old man as he took the wad of bills, glancing at the hands that paid him and for a long time at the register itself, but not really looking. This may be easier than I thought, thought Maude, but I really, really want to be home. Where no one can see me and this hideous thing. She started to rub her nose again, hoping the spreading itself wasn’t visible, that no one could see the lines actually moving, but the weight of the jug stopped her. It was too much effort to take her other hand out of her pocket either, where it refolded and gripped the dollar bills.

Maude handed the boy the money, and watched the milk as he hauled it to the end of the stand. She couldn’t tell if he was looking at her or not. And that was the worst of it, that she knew she felt like this for nothing, that she wasn’t ugly, she just had a mark on her nose. She could say she walked into a screen door, if anyone asked. She’d rather be clumsy than ugly. Not that anyone was going to ask. No one was that rude. Except for Ray, but by Monday the thing would be gone and she wouldn’t have to worry about it any more. Guuhhh, Maude sighed, expelling breath that she knew smelled rotten. She had passed the checker and was on her way out the door. It was over. She could practically trot out the door with her milk, and be in her own car until she was safe at home. Maude lifted her chin a few inches, head almost level. She could see her reflection approaching in the automatic doors. It didn’t look so bad, just a red mark on her nose. She could live with that. She nodded to her reflection as the doors opened, missing the image of red lines branching over the bridge of her nose, feeling a bit freer on her way home.

Behind Maude, the checker rubbed at the growing red spot on his neck and leaned against the counter. He hated this job, this life, where he had to face so many people every day.

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Amanda Divine (adivine1[at]hotmail.com) is not an alcoholic, in jail, or eighty years old with 300 cats, but instead maintains a husband and three jobs in the Tri-Cities, WA, USA. She has work appearing in Northwest Boulevard and Comic News Japan, and is currently up late working on a novel.

The Year After

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anandam Ravi


My mother disappeared on a beautiful day in April. It seems rather strange to talk about the day your mother disappeared as beautiful, but it was. It was a glorious, sunny day; the winter chill had just taken a brief respite. And it was on that day of almost freak sunshine that my mother decided to go for a ‘nice, long drive to the mall’. She never returned.

“She could be in Alabama for all we know,” Dad said darkly. I couldn’t disagree. Her sense of direction or lack of it was notorious and she was known to have taken three hours to locate a store that was three minutes away. Still my cochlea quivered as I detected a tone in Dad’s voice that was not mere annoyance and I could feel a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Because, besides being geographically challenged, my mother was also not exactly what the DMV categorized as ‘a good driver’. She managed to scrape through her driver’s test only on the third try. The first time she sailed blithely through a red light ‘because there was no white line to stop behind’. The second time she cut in front of a red Pontiac that my mother alleged was purely a figment of the instructor’s imagination, caused either by gynophobia or his love for scarlet automobiles or both. Dad had looked at her and asked her, “You know what the real problem is, don’t you?” Mama had just sighed and replied, “Yeah, red just isn’t my lucky color.”

Our peaceful home in Columbus, Ohio was suddenly teeming with policemen, reporters and detectives, clicking photographs and asking endless questions. What was my mother’s name? What was she wearing? My father looked at me for enlightenment. I shrugged. I didn’t know. I hadn’t been home. All I knew was what she had written on the little Post-it on the refrigerator. She had left a note? The police detective pounced on the information as if it explained everything. As a matter of fact, it didn’t explain anything. All it said was, ‘Going for a nice, long drive to the mall. Be back by 7pm.’

The police went about asking everyone we knew about Dad’s relations with Mama and didn’t seem convinced even when they all said they had never heard my parents argue and that they had seemed the happiest couple they had seen.

My mother’s picture came out in the papers, on television and on fliers stuck in every public place we could think of; airports, restaurants, hotels, restrooms, so that people could see it while performing any of life’s necessary functions, sitting, standing or lying down. Rewards were offered and information came flying in.

Some people said they had seen a woman like my mother with another man; though the description of the man varied from short, bald Caucasian to tall, slim African. Others said they had seen her in different states, even across the border. My father thundered around, threatening to sue every last one of them for slander.

It was three agonizing day later that they found my mother’s crumpled body dressed in a garment that I now recognized as having once been red even without the patches of dried blood that were caked on it. She was found half buried still in what remained of the black Camry under some bushes in an obscure little ravine about thirty minutes from home. The police declared it suicide. True, it had been a little dark and a little foggy; the sun had decided that it had bestowed more of its favors on the city than it was worth. Still, it wasn’t pitch dark and besides, the ravine had a warning red tape around it while fences were being erected. No one could have missed all those.

My mother had been right, red certainly wasn’t her lucky color.

She couldn’t have killed herself, I argued. To my father it didn’t seem to make a difference. She was gone and that was all that mattered. But I took pains to convince Detective Greer that it was extremely possible for my mother to have fallen in accidentally. I told him about her driving record, I explained that the mall was in fact in the other direction and that proved that my mother had been disoriented. Detective Greer shook his head sorrowfully in the manner of someone who has just found a loved child desperately performing CPR on a dead hamster. There were no less than six fluorescent warning signs, he said, not to mention the warning tape. Nobody who didn’t want to kill himself could ignore them.

It was bad enough that in one moment I had lost my sweet mother and my father, his adoring wife, but the thought that one of us in some way had caused her to literally go over the edge was one that haunted me day and night. She hadn’t even left a suicide note.

I remembered the hurt on Mama’s face when I talked in front of Dad about the harlequin romances that she had stashed under her bed secretly, because according to Dad only idiots read ‘that mindless stuff’. I now felt that I had betrayed her, though she had never mentioned it. Like badly edited scenes from a maudlin movie I replayed all the times I had seen Mama hurt. When my father made fun of her southern accent in front of company or made jokes about the way she drove to the principal of the school where she used to teach French part-time. Little things, hurtful things but surely nothing that people would kill themselves over. Alas, famous first words of anyone whose friend, spouse, sibling, child or parent has just committed suicide.

The day my mother’s body was discovered was the day I saw Dad break down and cry for the first time. He seemed to collect his massive frame and then heave it out again and again with each new heart-wrenching sob. He looked up from his monstrous grief and gazed at me as if he were seeing me for the first time.

Together we cried for the sweet woman whose curious accents we would never hear again and for the thought that we had to get used to dealing with each other now without her gentle intervention. Mama had acted like a transformer of sorts between her husband and daughter and everybody else for that matter, stepping up teenage whines and stepping down middle-aged rants to the level of mature adult opinions. She had been wasted in the role of a homemaker, and even as a part-time French teacher, though they were roles that she had relished.

Always a little short-tempered my father now seemed more volatile than ever. He seemed unable to express his grief without anger. He yelled at me for little things, for putting the newspaper away before he had read it, for switching on the lights in the evenings a little earlier than usual, for sleeping in on Sundays, for everything. He was angry at fate and he was angry with himself for being so helpless.

He insisted on packing up and removing every last hairpin of my mother’s because it was better, he said, to start afresh. Even talking about her was taboo. But instead of healing him inside, it only seemed to keep the wound fresh and embalmed.

I, on the other hand, tried to stick on to everything I had that even remotely related to my mother, a blouse she had once borrowed from me her perfume still vaguely lingering on it, her glasses that she had left by my computer, a recipe book I had found on my bookshelf full of her little squiggly writing, a lipstick here and a mascara there. I knew it was childish, that hugging them to me wouldn’t bring her back, but I wasn’t ready to let go yet. And so, I hid them in a box deep inside a closet where my father would never think to look, and clutched my secret to myself like a naughty toddler.

I even tried out one of her recipes, a castle cake that she made often. But instead of the well-risen golden structure that emerged when she made it, mine splattered itself all over the oven, filling the kitchen with acrid smoke, setting the alarm screeching, and bringing my furious father down in his dressing gown and slippers.

And then one day nearly a year later, I came home from school and right in the middle of my mother’s azaleas that had refused to die in the winter was a ‘For Sale’ sign. I stomped up the stairs, and burst into my father’s room. I found him sitting on the bed, his head in his hands. I stood over him.

“First it was her stuff, now you’re selling her house.” I don’t know why I said it was my mother’s house. It just came out that way.

My father raised his head slowly, and in the eternity before he spoke, I noticed for the first time, that though his voice, his words had grown so much older in the last year, his head of dyed jet-black hair still seemed the same, his body lean and muscular from the merciless hours at the gym where he often exercised like a maniac hoping to sweat out the pain. But somehow, now, it was not the healthy glow of youth I saw, it was the unnatural repression of growth, of time, like formaldehyde used to embalm a rotting corpse.

It was as if we had both fought time in our own ways, he by refusing to let it touch him, I by refusing to let it go, he by refusing to accept the past, I by clinging to it, he by trying to plunge into the future before it even came, I by trying to ignore it.

He looked up at me, his eyes reflecting the pain of a million years, and patted the bed next to him.

“I’m sorry, Jan, you’re right, it was wrong not to ask you or at least tell you. But I can’t go on, I can pack up her clothes, her contacts, her cosmetics, but I can’t pack her memories out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t go on like this. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

I sat down next to him, a thousand gloomy questions in my mind that I knew were also in his. We sat in silence for hours, my head touching his shoulder. Slowly his arms came around my shoulder, his fingers found my hair and stroked it. Suddenly I stiffened and threw his arm away. He sprang up startled.

“What is it, Jan, are you hurt? Tell me quick, what is it?” His eyes looked stricken, the way they had when my mother’s body had been found.

“Did you say you packed up her clothes, cosmetics and her contacts? Dad, think, are you sure you packed away her contacts too? It’s important Dad, are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I… well, I remember that day all too well,” he said dryly. I didn’t doubt it, despite all his efforts.

“Well, Dad, she didn’t wear her glasses either. They were in my room,” I explained triumphantly, happily.

For a minute we looked at each other. We said nothing, remembering my mother’s astigmatic eyes peering into some obscure French volume late into the night and the many confused strangers that she happily waved to. We would never know why she went out that night without her glasses or her lenses, but one thing we did know, my mother was virtually blind without one or the other of them, especially if it had grown dark suddenly and unexpectedly as it had that evening.

My father sat back down heavily on the bed, his shoulders sagging, his fingers trembling, his lips quivering. It was as if the load that had been there in his mind, had now relocated itself on his body, where he could handle it much better.

We smiled together at the face of Reasonable Doubt that we had just glimpsed with all the relief of a patient who has just had a cancerous growth removed, to whom time was a new gift, to be accepted, to be lived, and looked forward to with health and happiness.
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Originally from India, Anandam Ravi (Ravi_anandam[at]hotmail.com) now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her short stories and articles have appeared in The San Jose Mercury News, Indiawrites.com and Indiaparenting.com. In her spare time she also writes verses for greeting cards.

As Winter Falls

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright


Wake up. The sun is peeking over the mountaintop, and gentle fingers of sunlight probe at you, awaking again feeling and thought. Stretch your limbs toward the sky, let the wind rustle your leaves.

It is harder to wake, now, as the season grows cold. That was always the case, but once I did not reach as high as I do now, and once I could warm myself.

I have always felt an affinity with those creatures of the wood—that is how I think of them—that stand calm and unmoving, passive regardless of what happens around them. When I was five, I planted an acorn in our backyard. My mother and father insisted that it would not grow, that acorns and seedlings need devoted care if they are going to survive. I ignored their protests, and eventually they gave up in exasperation. I had watched, after all, many acorns fall from their parent trees and sprout without the slightest bit of human interference. But I thought that maybe little trees needed attention from their parents just as I needed attention from mine, so I planted my acorn in the shadow of a great oak.

If my parents hadn’t convinced me that growing things need plenty of ground and water, I might have dug it up and potted it in my room as soon as the tiniest hint of green appeared with the first hint of spring and rebirth. Instead, unhappily, I settled for a pot of roses my mother bought at the grocery store. Flowers were for girls like my sister Lily, who loved them; only the great oaks had that sense of majesty I admired.

Feel the insects buzzing around your trunk. They seek shelter, or food; either way they mean no harm. Feel the few leaves that remain grasping at air, longing to be afloat, even if their journey to the ground will be short and their life after that even shorter. Feel the knives bite into your skin, tracing patterns that will be there long after their designers have abandoned this place.

“Can we build a treehouse?” Lily asked, following my gaze out the window. “Or a swingset? Please?”

My mother, bemused and distracted, said, “We’ll think about it, honey. Here, have some cereal.” I was ten, and Lily was 6, and just starting school that day. She was anxious, but trying to hide it. Our parents’ eyes were blind to the clear signs on her face, but I reached over and offered a hand. She took it gratefully.

“Maybe I would be able to concentrate on my schoolwork better if I had a swingset to play on,” Lily baited. She was concentrating out the window at the great oak and the sapling growing below it, my sapling.

“I’ll have to ask your father.” Of course we did get one. Both, actually; a treehouse first and then the swingset a few months later, once the snows started to melt. By the time Lily’s first year of school had ended, and she and I were playing in the yard with Rob, my 8-year-old brother, there was a solid rope ladder extending down the trunk of my oak, on the opposite side from my sapling. Rob stayed almost entirely on the swings, but Lily and I climbed up into the tree.

“Do you think it hurts the tree?” Lily asked, her childish fingers caressing gently the place into the trunk where the boards had been nailed.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and wondered. Would I want boards nailed into me? I decided that if it were for these children, to give them something to play on, I would gladly make the sacrifice. I smiled, and Lily’s worried expression disappeared under a smile of her own.

Lily never wondered what I was doing when I wrapped my hands around the big trunk and closed my eyes, breathing in the scents. I stood perfectly still until one of my parents called us in for dinner, or until Rob, scoffing, yelled up at me.

“What are you doing?” he yelled from his post on the swing, trying to get his feet as high in the air as he could. Sometimes I thought he wanted to be a bird.

“Being still,” I said back, my voice muffled in the trunk. When I stepped away, I would have marks on my cheek from the parts of the bark that stuck out. They never lasted long, no matter how I tried not to touch them, not to push them back into my skin. Every time after that, when Rob yelled at me, Lily would defend me; the first time she was confused, too, though she no doubt would have jumped to my defense if she’d known how.

“Being still is boring,” Rob said with perfect authority. The swingset groaned with his weight, insignificant though that was, as he flew off it, through the air, to land just on the other side of the sand pit that had been filled underneath it. He stumbled, landed on his knees, and pulled himself up again. “Let’s go inside.”

I obeyed, but turned back to gaze wistfully at the paired trees as we slid the door open; I let a sigh escape my lips, and Lily looked at me oddly. “Come on,” she said, and pulled on my arm. The door slid back closed and though I wrenched my neck around backwards, I couldn’t get that last glance that I longed for.

Listen to the birds calling as they fly away in search of a warmer place. Listen to the last flowers wilting, unable to stand firm in the face of what cold awaits. You would shelter them if you could, but you will have enough trouble withstanding it on your own. Listen to the children calling out their happiness as they come home from school for the last time.

I was never very popular at school. I suppose I was lucky to have Lily, for she understood me more often than not, and more often than anyone else did. The year I was fourteen, there was a girl named Sarah. I think I liked her most because she was so unlike me, graceful where I was clumsy, energetic where I was calm, pretty and articulate where I was unnoticed, tongue-tied. For some reason she latched onto me, and so I invited her to our house.

Mostly I just wanted her to see the treehouse, to see if she would feel the same kinship with that place as I did.

“You still play in a treehouse?” she said, a faint amusement flitting around her mouth and eyes. “How cute.” I felt inadequate.

“Mostly with my brother and sister-” I tried to say, but she was already ahead of me, out the back door and running across the lawn. I stumbled to keep up.

“How do you get up?” Sarah asked, staring with her big brown eyes at the treehouse, towering above her heads, and the rope ladder, dangling at her waist.

“You have to take the rope ladder.” I demonstrated, hooking one foot on the bottom rung and swinging myself to standing. Here I was in my element. Here I could find for myself some of her grace. Sarah held out her hand and grasped mine, and I thrilled at the touch.

>From inside the treehouse, most of our large lawn was visible—everything that wasn’t hidden behind other trees. I felt the distance, looked out over it, clasped in my fist a thin limb that was just suited for my hand. Sarah was crouched in the corner, inspected the flowers Lily had planted. I thought she was standing behind me.

“Pretty,” she said.

I glanced around, startled, and relaxed when I saw that she didn’t mean my view. Pretty—what a word to use to describe that. “Lily planted those. She likes flowers.” The words fell flat even on my own ears.

“You don’t like flowers?”

“Not really.” I scowled. “I prefer trees.” Sarah laughed. Maybe she thought that was cute, too.

Whatever she thought, she didn’t come back to my house.

Oh, it is hard to wake up. Harder, too, now that the leaves have left without looking back. More will grow again in the spring, but what use is waking when your only companions are scattered on the red muddy ground, their colors fleeting in a last triumphant orison? They still celebrate, the wind encouraging them to fly, a whirlwind of fading color. You remember pulling warm blankets up around your neck after waking to the cold, and would shiver if you could.

Rob grew up quickly. He forwent the pleasures of flying through the air as soon as he realized not everyone shared his passion. Though Lily and I would still often be seen digging in the dirt at the base of that great tree or climbing in the treehouse, Rob would be staring at us out his bedroom window, occasionally making faces as if to prove that he was much happier where he was. He discovered books, which were foreign to me and seemed artificial. I preferred living wood to the dead.

Then he discovered girls. Once he could drive, he started bringing them home. They were twittery, bright-colored; none of them could bear the outdoors.

“Oh, I don’t like to go outside,” they would exclaim. “I like to get tanned, but only at the beach.” They ruffled their feathers, and Rob watched them like that proverbial cat.

“Don’t you want a boyfriend, a girlfriend, anyone?” he asked me, his current whim hanging on his arm and complaining loudly about inserts, swatting violently in front of her face.

“Not really,” I responded, looking down on him from my perch in the great oak. Lily dug busily at his feet, fourteen years old and wishing that boys didn’t exist. She had confided to me that there was a boy she liked at school, but he’d laughed at her when she left a rose on his desk, pruned off the bush that had once sat in my room but now graced our front porch.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, and we watched them return to the house. I glanced down at Lily, and she smiled up at me uncertainly.

Winter comes quickly.

As I got older, my grades declined, and my parents worried. Lily was ever-studious, and even Rob passed every class that he took. I couldn’t make myself care, and instead sat at my desk, which faced the window, books open in front of me, and stared outside with my head propped up on my arms.

The moonlight made the great oak shine like a jewel. I had a sudden urge to go outside, and with only a twinge of guilt slammed the books shut. Lily’s door, across from mine, slammed shut. I snuck past it, hoping she wouldn’t hear me and come out; she did sometimes.

The shine was even more striking the closer I came, and I caught my breath in awe. Before I realized it I was running, and all clumsiness in my limbs disappeared.

I enfolded the great oak in an embrace, letting my heartbeat slow against the much deeper rhythm I felt there. As my breath quieted I became aware of another sound behind it, something whispering and calling to me.

“What do you want?” I whispered, suddenly afraid. The whispering became soothing, calming. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be drawn in. I let go of the great oak, walked farther toward the small forest that divided our lawn from the rest of the surrounding land. The cajoling whispers grew louder with every step I took.

Taking a deep breath, I raised my hands above my head and tilted my head back. The change began almost at once; my skin grew rougher and greener, my limbs multiplied and stretched toward the sky.

Across the lawn, the sliding door slammed shut. Lily was running across the grass, calling to me, but her words fell on ears that were covered no longer with skin, but with bark. She slammed against me, her arms circling me as mine had circled the great oak, her sobs echoing within me. In vain I tried to wrap my arms around her, but my branches merely rustled; all of my efforts made a movement much like the lightest breeze could, though the air was still.

Brace yourself, for every cold spell chills more fiercely than the one before it. Brace yourself, for as winter falls, you will be alone.

 

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Ellen Wright lives in Virginia and is a full-time college student and an aspiring full-time writer, though at the moment she’s compensated monetarily for neither. Her dream career is “freelance everything,” since her other hobbies include website & graphic design and translation. She’s never really wanted to be a tree, but thinks it might be fun for a day or two.

Tadpole

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jennie Kermode


“Mummy, mummy, come and look!” Meera shouted, clamouring into the kitchen where her mother stood wiping dishes with a checked cloth. “Come and look at my tadpoles! They’ve gone wrong.”

“What’s wrong with them, dear?” Her mother put down the cloth and followed her through to the dining room, where a white ceramic bowl stood on the sideboard. Black shapes wriggled beneath green pondweed.

“Look!” Meera pointed. “They’ve gone wrong.”

Her mother peered curiously at the contents of the bowl. Some of the shapes were starting to bulge beside their tails, the stumps of legs emerging.

“Is that what you mean?” she asked, pointing.

Meera followed the line of her finger, almost touching the tadpoles, which twisted round to try and nibble at her.

“They’ve gone the wrong shape.”

“Don’t worry about that.” Her mother drew her back, sat on a chair, lifted her onto her lap. “That’s perfectly natural. They’re growing legs. Soon they’ll start growing arms too, and they’ll turn into little frogs. Remember we talked about them turning into frogs?”

Meera frowned. “But they’re tadpoles.”

“Tadpoles become frogs. They’re just a beginning stage, like children are a beginning stage of grown-ups.”

The child thought for a while, cautiously watching the bowl.

“So they just grow new pieces?” she asked eventually.

“That’s right.”

“Can I grow new pieces?”

“You’ll change as you get bigger. But we don’t want you turning into a frog!”

*

At school the next day, Meera found a quiet corner of the playground, where the bushes grew close to the wall, and took out her book from her Miffy satchel. The book was called ‘The Adventures of Captain Zapp’; on the cover was a picture of Captain Zapp in his spacesuit, talking to a green alien. Meera put her finger on the picture and traced the outline of the alien’s head. When she stood up, even on her tiptoes, she wasn’t tall enough to see over the wall into the gardens she knew lay beyond. She should grow eye-stalks, like the alien, and then she’d be able to see. Eye-stalks could be as tall as she wanted, and being small wouldn’t be a problem anymore. She wondered if there were other children in the hidden garden. Perhaps they’d be her friends.

“What are you doing over here, Meera?” came a voice from behind her, stretching out the first vowel in her name to make it ugly.

Meera turned round. It was Julie, one of the older girls from her reception class. Julie had very pretty hair in braids, which Meera admired, but when she tried to touch them the other girl pulled away.

“What are you doing? You’re weird. What’s wrong with you, Meera? Your hair looks like a bush!”

“I made it big to cover my eye-stalks.” Meera explained. “I can see right over this wall. I bet you’d like to.”

Julie laughed nervously. “You don’t have eye-stalks.”

“Yes I do. I grew them.”

Julie stood staring at her, small fists clenching and unclenching. Then the bell rang.

“I’ll see you at lunchtime.” she muttered aggressively.”

Meera stood her ground. “No you won’t. I’m going home at lunchtime, to see my tadpoles. My mummy says I won’t be here for whole days until I’m bigger.”

“You’re so immature!” Julie shouted at her, and stomped off.

*

“I don’t think Julie likes me.” Meera announced later, at home.

“Who’s Julie?” asked her father, absent-mindedly.

“A girl. At school.”

Her father put down his newspaper and gave her a hug. “Well don’t you listen to her. You and I know that you’re the best little girl in all the world.”

“And I have the best tadpoles.”

“Yes, I suppose you do.”

“They’re going to turn into frogs.”

“I suppose they are.”

“I think Julie was going to hit me.”

“Why don’t you go and help Mummy set the table? Dinner will be ready soon.”

*

In her room that evening, Meera looked through more of her books. Using her new eye stalks, she could scan the contents of her top bookshelf even while she was lying in bed. She found a book about Rama and Sita and sat stroking the cover, which felt soft and smooth. Sita was very beautiful. It said in the story she was the most beautiful woman ever. In some of the pictures she had two arms, but in some others she had four. Meera thought about how useful it would be to have extra arms if Julie was going to hit her. She would have to concentrate very hard and see if she could grow two new arms by the morning.

At school they said you could grow better if you drank lots of milk, so Meera tiptoed cautiously downstairs to explore the contents of the fridge.

*

The following morning, Meera observed that the largest of her tadpoles had grown plump little hind legs and was now kicking its way through the water. Its tail seemed to have become shorter. She furrowed her brow at this; it didn’t seem good. But everyone was busy, and there was no time to ask about it.

At school, trouble developed even before she got as far as the playground. While she was putting some shapes together to make a tree, Julie grabbed her hair and pulled her backwards.

“Look!” she was shouting to the others. “Meera thinks she’s got eye-stalks.”

Meera growled at her. She had been feeling uncomfortable to begin with, now that her sleeves were so tight. Heaving herself up, she swung out with her two right arms and caught Julie hard in the stomach. Julie sputtered, eyes wide with surprise, and slumped to the carpet, where she commenced to wail.

“That serves you right,” said Meera. “You leave me alone.”

But the teacher didn’t see it that way.

*

When Meera’s mother came to collect her at lunchtime she had a long talk with the teacher, and she didn’t seem pleased. She held Meera’s hand very firmly all the way home. Meera tried to talk about the shapes and the things she’d been doing, but her mother didn’t want to listen. When they were sitting down at the dining room table she began speaking very sternly.

“Meera, your teacher told me that you’ve been fighting. I think Daddy and I brought you up to know that you shouldn’t hit other children. Don’t you know that?”

Sullenly, Meera nodded.

“How do you think it makes me feel when I hear that you’ve been doing that?”

Meera hung her head. She tried to look at the tadpoles out of the corner of her eye.

“Look at me, Meera. That’s right. You know, some people would give you a smack for that. I’m not going to smack you, because I think you already know you’ve been bad, but this had better not happen again. Do you understand?”

Meera nodded.

“Good. I hope so. What kind of a young lady are you?”

And Meera’s heart bounced, because she knew what kind of young lady she was; like the very most beautiful! Because she was growing and changing. Up in her room, she rolled up her sleeves and let her four arms free. Her eye-stalks wriggled out from beneath her tangle of hair and gazed off through the window whilst her other eyes focused on her toys. Rex the dinosaur roared as he chased the little Lego people across the rug. Tonight, she thought, she would grow a long dinosaur tail.

*

“How long have you been worried about your daughter?” asked Doctor Singh, leaning back in his chair.

“Well, to be honest, for a few weeks now.” Pareeta admitted. “She was a perfectly happy, lovely little girl, and then it seemed to change quite suddenly. I suppose my husband told you she was in trouble for hitting another child at school.”

“I did.” murmured Rajneesh.

“She became quite withdrawn. I thought she might be coming down with something, so I took her to our usual doctor, but he said she was fine. I’ve been making sure she gets plenty of water, and fresh fruit and vegetables. I didn’t want to suggest… anything else… You understand, I talk to you about this only because you are a friend of my husband’s.”

“Of course.” Doctor Singh nodded. “It’s not easy for you. Be assured, everything you tell me is confidential.”

“I just don’t know what to do with her, Doctor. I feel that she’s started to keep secrets from me. I’ve been afraid in case somebody’s hurting her.”

Doctor Singh rested a calloused hand gently on her arm.

“I wouldn’t worry about that quite yet, my dear. Children sometimes go off in their own directions without any outside interference. Your husband has told me that Meera is a highly imaginative child.”

“She is… she always was. I don’t know now.”

“It’s possible she has imagined herself into her own little world. I’ll have a talk with her and see what I can find out. Perhaps I can persuade her that she wants to spend more time in your world again, or perhaps we can find a way for you to visit hers.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“Don’t mention it. Just keep on giving her plenty of love.”

*

Bathtime was the most difficult part. Since the incident with Julie, Meera had realised that she had to hide her newly grown body parts from other people. She had taken to stretching all her sleeves wide and making her hair big all the time. To conceal her tail, she wore long skirts, which pleased her grandparents. “Now she’s a proper young lady!” they said. But she could tell that her parents were worried. In the bath, she used as much bubble mix as she could get, to hide herself under a mountain of foam. She announced that she was grown up enough to be able to soap and scrub herself.

It was just after bathtime one day that Doctor Singh came to see her. Because he was a special visitor, she was allowed to stay up late and have warm milk and biscuits. She sat on the sofa with her favourite blanket curled around her. Doctor Singh asked her lots of questions. She was wary at first. Then, when he started asking why she thought grown-ups wouldn’t understand her, she began to wonder. And then he took off his jacket and showed her his wings.

*

“I don’t know how to swish my tail around like a dinosaur. I just can’t get the hang of it.” Pareeta sighed. It was so frustrating. She sat looking at Meera’s tadpoles. Their tails had almost gone now. They looked like perfect miniature adults.

“We have to try to reach her somehow, dear. She’s lonely. You can see that.”

“Yes, but I don’t have any extra limbs! She knows we’re just pretending.”

“So is she.”

“Are you sure?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, she seems very sure. More than I know how to be. How can we compete with the world she’s built for herself?”

“We don’t have to compete, Pareeta. We just have to persuade her to let us in. It’s got to be a good thing that she’s so confident. It’ll help her later on in life.”

“People used to say I was confident.”

“Oh, Pareeta, now you’re letting it all get to you too much.”

Pareeta sobbed, holding her head in her hands.

“She was always such a lovely child. I just… didn’t want to have a little girl with a tail.”

Rajneesh rested his hand on her belly. “Don’t be nervous. We’re going through some changes; it was bound to affect her too. This new little one is going to grow up just fine.”

*

“Mummy’s going to have another baby. A brother or a sister for me.” Meera told Doctor Singh.

“I see. And how do you feel about that?”

“It will be interesting to watch it grow.”

“Perhaps you can talk to it and show it stories. You won’t be able to play games with it until it’s already done a bit of growing.”

“Will it grow up like me?” Meera asked.

“I don’t know. Do you want it to?”

She nodded. “I get lonely sometimes.”

“Don’t worry. When you’re bigger, you’ll be able to find more people like yourself.”

“Does everyone grow up the same in the end?”

“Not everyone. Some children start off growing in their own directions, and they don’t ever change back.”

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Jennie Kermode (jennie[at]innocent.com) is a twenty nine year old writer, researcher and editor living in Glasgow, Scotland, with her partners Donald and Erith. She also runs a small clothing company and has spent much of the past decade as a carer. Born partially intersexed, she has serious health problems of her own to contend with, but endeavours to keep active, and was at one point a competitive swimmer. She has been writing professionally for fourteen years, mostly in journalism, and has published several short stories. She currently works for the Talk Film website and for TBD magazine, and is in negotiations to teach a writing course at the online Suite University.

Where did it come from? Where will it go?

Fiction
Sara Beth Jonassen


“Listen,” my mother says on the telephone. “Just because you’ve moved out don’t mean you can’t come and visit once and a while. You don’t got to be a stranger.”

I cannot bring myself to stop by my mother’s house.

The four plastic jugs I filled with water as a favor to her sit in the footwell of the passenger seat of the station wagon that she bought for me from a loan on her pension when I graduated college in May. The jugs sweat and drip. My mother, Elizabeth, boasts that her sulfur well makes for delightful showering but I think it serves as a stinky, rotten-egg reminder that Elizabeth has to buy fresh water for eating and drinking, unless I fill up the old jugs for her, as a favor, of course, and to save her money and hassle. But I just cannot stop by.

It becomes harder, ironically, as I grow older, to be a good daughter. I thought that growing up was the hardest part. But in truth that part was harder for her, not me. Back then I had teeth, nails, and the force of the argument on my side. Allowing Elizabeth her mothering is an unfortunate result of maturity, and so is compassion. Compassion is like a bird that flies up from deep inside of you and makes your relationships complex. It is this bird that gets caught in the back of my throat whenever I look into my mother’s round, hazel eyes. Imploring eyes. Eyes like those of a dog that tremble at my departure.

“Listen,” she says. “Just because you’ve moved out don’t mean you can’t come and visit once and a while. You don’t got to be a stranger.”

*

My lover, Dana, has a big, red dog of uncertain breeding named Hercules. Sometimes he looks like a rottweiler when he is threatened. His hackles go up, he paces from the two of us on the couch to the door, then back to us two. Most times he looks like a big, red dog of uncertain breeding. But always he is a delicate, emotional being.

Today is Labor Day and it is early and gray. Dana is already halfway up the mountain to work the holiday at the ranch. As I leave the cottage to do the chores, I sense the anxiety of school-fearing children all over the country. Sense them biting their hangnails and wishing for summer all over again. Hercules is anxious too, wondering how long I will be gone and if I intend to truly abandon him this time. It is difficult to walk out the door without first reassuring him by patting the top of his broad, soft head.

Today I have chores to do. Wash the bedspread, pillowcases and sheets that Dana and I make love on top of and sleep underneath. Grocery shopping. Uncertain as to whether or not I will stop, I fill the four plastic jugs with cold water in our sink and put them at the feet of the passenger seat in the station wagon where they begin to sweat.

Beyond that, there is nothing I can do. On Labor Day almost everything closes, forcing busy minds to close too. On the road, driving, I am in a perfect capsule of motion and purpose. I realize (strangely as the mist on the windshield obscures my vision) that there has been a cloud over the mountains and the valleys of New York State for days. It clings; vaporous and sticky with humidity. Low to the road. I cannot see far ahead of me for the fog. But I know the road precisely, and I have done these same chores as precisely since Dana and I moved into the cottage three months ago. The familiar routine gives clarity to a foggy perspective of the world.

On the face of the road, dark triangular smudges turn into crows at the moment they see my vehicle coming. They alight into the fog. I am relieved that they fly. The West Nile Virus produces dead crows, and we have numerous mosquitoes outside our cottage by the pond. Moving crows mean we will not fall ill. This week, anyway. Still, at the back of my mind I know that we will all fall ill eventually. That we will all end up frail, helpless and dependent—if only briefly—before we fly up into the fog. It is this thought that makes me honk my horn twice (as you might honk to a friend passing in the opposite lane) at the birds on the wire. The mist slung over the Catskills creates a gauzy backdrop to a string of birds like black beads on the wire. They weren’t there an instant before and then suddenly—BIRDS! I had hoped the honking would cause the intensely perched mob to take off in synchronized flight. But no. A couple swooped down to the grass at the foot of the telephone pole, and those two appeared to have been headed that way for breakfast anyway.

Inside the laundromat there is heat and humming but I am the first paying customer which relaxes me. I always put too much soap into the machine because I like to think I am making things clean. So many things cannot be made clean. Like dead crows, emotional dogs, and broken childhoods. I relish the process of making clean the things that I can. After the sheets and bedspread go into the dryer I consider driving over to my mother’s house in the valley. The plastic jugs are, after all, filled up in the car. But I cannot yet consider it. Instead, I sit in a scoop bucket orange chair and allow my mind a foggy space to fly off in.

*

And at once I am back there. Where did it come from? Where will it go afterwards? My mother is a tower before me, a tower of anger, which concentrates itself into her one pointer finger, the one pointing at belligerent me. She recites, in her schoolteacher manner, my wrongdoings. Using elevated language that I do not understand. The language is not the point, anyway. Her anger comes in loud and clear. I cannot look at her face for fear the force of fury will knock me right off of my feet. I stare straight ahead, into her stomach. The place she tells me she wishes I had never come from.

*

The laundry smells good. I pull it out of the washer in tight, damp knots. It looks like the roots of colorful trees. Last month I ran over a large root in our backyard with the lawnmower. It is surprising, really, that I even had a chance to mow at all, what with the incessant rain. In New York it rained enough even for a rainlover like me to resent it, even though it was badly needed out West, where the fires raged all summer, eating up the timber and acreage like so much kindling. Who is in charge of dropping down the moisture? I wonder, shaking wrinkles from damp pillowcases and tossing them into the drier. And why don’t They ration it around a bit?

Today the mist sucks and laps at the juicy earth. Much as it did yesterday and the day before. There is mold growing in our closet from the dampness. I noticed it yesterday. In out-of-proportion panic I pointed, hysterical, telling Dana,

“Everything is covered in mold! Can you believe it? Can you believe it?” It seems that there is always something popping up which takes away the cleanliness of things.

But Dana takes the moldy closet with a grain of salt, as she does everything, keeping the small things in perspective and only allowing the big things a moment of astonishment. Big things like shooting a broken horse in the head for compassion. Or the fact that I love her despite her 37 years of age, her poor paying job, her simple tastes. Sometimes I wonder at that too. But what difference does it make? What difference does it make really so long as you are not lonely anymore? Or worse, living with your mother.

Dana says, “Oh, well. We’ll fix it with some pipe insulation. We’ll fix that,” and this is exactly why I love her.

I’m a cleaner. She’s a fixer. Home Depot is her favorite place to be. A toy store. Fixing things must be a lot like cleaning things. She fixes furniture on her days off, which are rare days. Refinishing. Usually this makes me jealous, that Dana’s spare time must never be idle. But the way Dana works the furniture, I sometimes have to sit next to Hercules and admire her working. The cracked and yellowed paint flutters down around her as she sands. And then the slick, naked wood sings out under her constantly moving hands. A sort of poetry, if poetry is to be found in paint-stained jeans and T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show biceps.

Dana is handy, I’ll give her that. She fixed the aluminum screens around the porch, screens that Hercules—in his Herculean anxiety—sliced with his nails and teeth. She fixed the lawnmower the day I ran over the protruding root. She fixed it so that I cannot live without her. And every winter, during slow season at the ranch, Dana takes on a project for her mother up in Albany. Cheerfully she picks up the telephone, dials up her mother, and asks, “Can I come up next week to paint the house?” And the way Dana says it, you know that she will feel wounded if her mother isn’t agreeable to the idea. But why should her mother disapprove of such a good, daughterly gesture?

I am back in my mind to the water jugs in the car and my limitations. Some things grow too big to size up in one misty morning, that is all, so I fold the laundry and proceed to the supermarket.

*

Nobody here has had a summer for the rain and the cold. They gripe about it in the laundromat. They gripe about it in the supermarket. “What happened to summer?” “I want summer to do all over again.” “Where’s the sun been hiding out?” But we are told that life goes on. There is no one voice that is saying this. If there were only one voice then I would know who I could complain too. I would know who to tell to go screw themselves and then I would float in a swimming pool inside of an inner tube sipping margaritas all through September, even as the leaves–pastel yellow, red, orange—lilt down to break the surface of the blue, blue water. Still I know, and they know, we all know it somehow. It’s all our own doing. Summer has ended. And tomorrow we’re all expected to appear at school, at work, at life—the same as every year, tan or no tan, vacation or no vacation, fun or no fun, summer or no summer. We all feel cheated. By whom? By the sun? The wind? The rain? The Earth? Who cheated whom here? Anyway, Labor Day morning is thick with fog and silent mourning. And I’m supposed to be a grown up now. So instead of crying I do chores.

*

My three sisters and I are no longer children. Funny, really, that your childhood can end so suddenly in one cold, rainy summer.

Last summer our mother was too sick to come upstate. Downstate, in a Brooklyn surgeon’s office, portions of her big toe were removed due to complications with diabetes. Meanwhile my sisters and I enjoyed her absence at the country house. There was hot sunlight that tightened the skin and all of us sisters swam in the pool and danced ridiculously on the newly mowed lawn. The tiny bits of grass clinging to our bare ankles. We were idle, irresponsible, goofy or flamboyant, if that’s what the mood of the day called for. Sometimes we were fiery with anger and fought over trivial things, like who would mow the lawn, do the dishes, make the phone calls to mother. But we could scream at the top of our lungs the worst profanities and nobody was there to tell us that we were wrong, uncivilized, lazy. We baked pizzas, ate ice cream, drank suitcases of beer. Late afternoons were spent cracking up dry wood for the campfire and picking blackberries as fat as our ruddy cheeks. Evenings we swam and warmed up by the fire in turns; dried out our underwear on long sticks of wood held over the fire; schemed about tomorrow and yesterday and the present. One day we scored some pot in Woodstock and basked in the hot sun, giggling and winged, like perfect birds. Even the sun and the moon cooperated; we had long, hot days and clear, star-studded nights; the occasional rainy day to keep things green. Mostly we laughed from the gut a lot and got back to being children. Got back to playing games. Got back to the mystery.

We did so, unknowingly, for the last time.

In late August, we all drove downstate on the Thruway, convened at our mother’s hospital room, smiled and shifted our weight from foot to foot. Mother was dramatic. The general assumption was that she would die, even though we busted our chops to smuggle in some real food for her from the greasy cafeteria. Raising up the bagel with salmon cream cheese she says,

“You girls are such brilliant, magnificent young women now. When I’m gone from this Earth you will all have to take care of each other.” Then she sinks her dentures into the pink cream cheese and emits an enthusiastic, “Mmmm!”

Yet, I cannot imagine the woman, my mother, ever letting go of anything. Not pride. Not indignation. Not her daughters. Much less her life. And I am right (at least for now). Another year passes, she retires from the Board of Education in her own big way; celebrates with colleagues at parties held in Brooklyn diners where the food and the accents are heavy to digest; spends money lavishly from her pension; buys a $1,000 telescope too complicated to use, buys an $800 dollar guitar that she doesn’t know how to play, buys me a car for my college graduation, buy herself one too; moves up to the country and plants a garden, fiddles with my personal life on a day to day basis. And her professed physical demise is once again postponed, at least a year. Like our childhood dog, Silky, who we were warned was dying for five years before Elizabeth paid the vet to stick her with the needle and crumple her down into her own feces.

*

Last week I stopped by to pick up my mother’s empty water jugs. My mother, too, seemed like an empty receptacle of sorts.

“Oh, my gosh!” she said, delighted to see me on the other side of the screen door. “What a surprise! Come in, come in!”

“I really can’t stay long.” My usual defensive maneuver: I kept the screen between us.

“Well, I don’t see why we have to continue this conversation through a door, sweetie!” she said, offended, the ‘sweetie’ tacked on with a patronizing tone.

“Oh, just for a minute,” I say, “I have to work today.” Thank goodness for the job. One excuse that leaves little room for argument.

My mother is old. Much older than her sixty years. This summer it hits me for no particular reason. Her round hazel eyes are surrounded by puff and wrinkle, her hands are swollen and impotent. They no longer have the power to threaten my well being. Her stomach is large, sagging and battered by the countless jabs of insulin syringes. When we were growing up, that big soft stomach was her power. It was what she pushed our faces into when she hugged us (what was lying pliant under her polyester nightgowns, what yielded against our faces to console us)—and it was also what we stared at from a distance as she scolded us, afraid to confront the eyes. Sometimes she cited her fat powerful belly as the unfortunate result of all her pregnancies. “You made me this way,” she once accused. And then my tearful defiant thoughts: How could I make you anything? Didn’t you make me? I never asked to be created! I never asked to be born! Believe me, I was a lot happier inside your fat belly than out of it. My mother and I were at war with each other then. But as the years were spent the war became a recital, then it graduated into tradition. Eventually it was simply dismissed. Shrugged off. No apologies, no understandings, it was just a bad age to be a daughter to a mother. Which means that, by extension, now was a good age to be a daughter to a mother.

“Can I fix you something to eat before you go to work, sweetie?” she asked hopefully. “I’ve got fresh, delicious cantaloupe the size of your head!”

My mother looked so old, shuffling around the kitchen in search of her medication and the supersized cantaloupe. Diabetes had made its mark all over her body but so had a hard approach to life. During my adolescence, hers was an approach that stretched anger out until it could no longer be restrained… and then finally let it snap with stunning force. One time I grumbled a curse word as I went outside to unpack the groceries from her car. She waited for me, ensconced from view behind the front door, with a large sneaker held high above her head.

Well, that’s it, I decided, lifting two empty jugs in each hand with my forefinger. Her missing anger is what makes her empty.

*

At mid-day a cold, sharp wind swaps places with the hot, humid one and resumes pushing the misty fog around the valley. The plastic jugs in the station wagon resume their sweating in response to the shift in temperature. On the major routes, driving five miles over the speed limit through the fog on Labor Day, it feels as if nothing at all can catch me, not even time. I do not want to stay inside today. I stop home briefly just to put away the food and laundry, to reassure Hercules that he hasn’t been forgotten and to promise him of my inevitable return. Then back in the station wagon with a sweatshirt zipped up to my chin, cowboy boots on my feet. I head up the mountain to see Dana. I’m imagining her on ranch property: sitting atop her papered quarter horse and winding through the misty mountain with a cigarette in her hand. That is how she looked when I met her for the first time. I like returning to the ranch because it reminds me of where my departure from Elizabeth began.

Dana, pleasantly surprised to see me, makes sure I get to ride the best horse on the farm. I ride the big smooth-gaited chestnut who responds just fine without a bit in her mouth at all. Just a gentle tug of the hackamore reins.

It is remarkable the way the misty vapor decorates the mountaintop. All the rocky, muddy trails I’d ridden hundreds of times over the years seem new and surreal. A cold blast of wind and the mist rushes down to meet us causing a momentary lack of equilibrium and a drop of the stomach. Horses know, thank heavens, where to put their feet (even in the dark) so I just sit back and look up at the trees appearing—like apparitions—all around us. And the webs.

Startling and lovely, the branches of the forest are all full of jeweled spider webs made white by the drops of mist caught in their threads. I examine each one breathlessly: their perfect geometry, resilience and design. Some are tossed over the muddy ground like tattered pieces of tissue paper one-cell thick. Others are comprised of haphazard, sloppy strands, which coalesce into cornucopian funnels. If they were in the cottage, I would be possessed with the urge to clean the webs away, wipe out their beauty in the name of cleanliness and order, stretch down their dainty designs with brooms and featherdusters. Clean it up. Fix it. Make it right. But out here on the mountain, on this horse, it all seems right. The mess is all part of it. Bright and wispy in the breeze, the webs look like little souls caught in all the fingers of the mountaintop. Breathtaking enough, I know that this image alone will sustain me through the cold, sudden change of seasons.

pencil

“In addition to working privately with Laura Marello (winner of the Aniello Lauri Award for Fiction from VIA and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant), I have also studied fiction with the Writer’s Studio and the NYS Writer’s Institute fiction workshop with Doug Bauer.” E-mail: sbjonassen[at]juno.com.

Pinky Swear

Fiction
Erin Rigik


Uncle Albert promised to walk on hot coals. But Uncle Albert never kept his promises. I remembered this as I arched back in my seat and strained to grip his colossal hand, wrapping my little finger around his rough pinky. We were at the circus, my Uncle Albert’s present to me for my eighth birthday. It was June and my birthday was in late January, but it was the perfect present none the less. He had noticed my expression of awe as I watched an ample, hairy man with a white turban step with ease across a path of hot coals.

“Oh, you like that do you?” Uncle Albert scoffed, as he pressed his unshaven face against my ear; “You’re not impressed by that simple trick. That’s easy. I could do that.”

“No you couldn’t, Uncle Albert!” I laughed, turning my attention to the large bouquet of cotton candy slowly making its way down the isle.

“You don’t believe me?” Uncle Albert gasped. He hopped to his feet and summoned the cotton candy vendor. “Fine. I promise you,” he grinned, raising an eyebrow as he handed one of the sticky pink clouds to me, “I promise that I will walk on hot coals for you by… August 6th of this year.” It was June 23rd. I squinted up at his soft periwinkle eyes, trying to decide if maybe this time he was actually serious. I decided he wasn’t.

“Still a little skeptic?” He frowned, collapsing into his seat, his forehead wrinkling into dozens of horizontal lines. “What do I have to do to make you believe me?” He asked urgently. As I searched for an answer, my eyes wandered toward the scantily dressed woman in the center ring, who hung gracefully from an elephant’s trunk. Her fingers gripped tightly around the elephant’s leg for balance. I had an epiphany.

“Pinky swear!” I blurted, and my uncle nodded rapidly with approval. To anyone else the pinky swear represented a binding, unbreakable oath, but I knew my Uncle Albert well enough to expect disappointment. His history of empty promises dated back as far as I could remember. When I was three, he promised that we would visit the moon in a massive, gleaming spaceship to gather moon rocks before my fourth birthday. My fourth birthday, however, came, as did my fifth and my eighth, and I have yet to feel moon dirt under my shoes.

On my first day of kindergarten, Uncle Albert had promised to pick me up from school and treat me to lunch at Hamburger Castle. I waited on the front steps for him for over an hour, before I gave up and wandered through the school to find a payphone. I clasped my hand around the emergency quarters my mother packed in the back pocket of my book bag and slipped the change into the phone outside the girl’s bathroom; the only payphone low enough for me to reach. From my pocket I pulled the warn piece of fabric, a scrap Uncle Albert tore from his favorite flannel shirt and scribbled his number on in case I ever needed him. I knew the number by heart, but nervous and alone in the vast hallway, I studied the numbers carefully and gingerly found their match on the silver square buttons of the payphone.

“Hey, you’ve reached Al’s cell phone,” the sing-songy voice began, “I’m out of town for the week, but I should be back around the 10th of September. Leave a message and…” I clicked the cumbersome, black receiver back into place, and bit the sides of my gums deliberately, willing the heated tears forming in the corners of my eyes back from where they originated. My mom’s voice echoed inside my skull, “Crying doesn’t solve anything, sweetie.” But the tears fell anyway.

“Everything okay, honey?” A voice interrupted my sobs. I turned to notice the janitor, a chubby, twenty-something girl with bright red hair like mine, who stood in the entrance of the girl’s bathroom holding a toilet brush. She knelt beside me, and I asked her in the most grown-up voice I could muster what the date was today. She scowled up at the ceiling as she searched for the answer, “September 4th, honey. Are you okay? My name is Darlene. What are you doing here in the middle of the hall all by yourself?” Together we called my mom from the payphone, and I followed Darlene into the bathroom where I spent the remainder of the afternoon.

Uncle Albert taught me to count to three hundred a few months before to ensure I would be ahead of the other kids in my class, and I used that skill to count each repulsive, salmon-colored tile that made up the bathroom floor. There were 196 not including the small cracked tile in the corner, which reminded me of Uncle Albert and his stupid promises and the way he was different from everyone else. I thought about the message on Uncle Albert’s cell phone and worried that a burglar would call and hear the message and know he was out of town. Then they would break into the van Uncle Albert lived in and steal his clothes and his food.

My mother was irate when she picked me up later that afternoon. She thanked Darlene profusely and gripped me roughly around he wrist, whisking me toward the car. Apparently, Uncle Albert had jumped a plane to California late the night before when his agent called him about a very important audition, or so he said on my mother’s answering machine.

“How can a man who lives in a van in his brother’s driveway afford a plane ticket to California!” She exclaimed, pounding her hand on the steering wheel of the car. She reassured me that her anger was not directed at me, but her rage toward Uncle Albert scared me, and I felt afraid for him. I told her of my concern for Uncle Albert’s possessions, but she laughed and told me not to worry about that.

I slept in the backseat of Uncle Albert’s multicolored van every night for the next week, amidst the crushed cartons of cigarettes, empty pop cans, and dirty laundry. The van lived in my parent’s driveway, much to their dismay, and although my mother hated me sleeping out there alone, she allowed it once my temper tantrum reached full volume. My legs beat the kitchen floor, my face red and scrunched into wrinkles like a cherry tomato, my head slamming against the bottom of the refrigerator between operatic yowls. My mother’s migraine fighting on my side made the victory swift, and I was soon nestled in the back of the automobile with a flashlight and a few stuffed animal friends.

When Uncle Albert poked his head through the side door of the van a week later and wagged his tongue at me, I snapped from my sleepy state, gripped him fast around the neck, and breathed in his spicy cologne. In my excitement to see my friend, I didn’t care about his empty promise.

“What are you doing out here?” He laughed, scooping me up in his arms and planting me on the sidewalk next to him. I explained about the burglars, casting my eyes downward, worried that Uncle Albert would find my concerns silly.

“Good thinking, Shelley. What would I do without you to look out for me? Come here.” Again he lifted me into the air and stood me inside the van. Then he rustled around in back of his van until his hand fell upon a creased, cardboard crown buried under a pile of books. One of the ones they give out at Hamburger Castle when you order extra fries.

“Bum, Bum, BUM!” My uncle hummed as he carefully unfolded the crown and set it gently atop my head.

“I now crown you Lady Shelley, for your great bravery.” He announced in a deep voice, and with that he took my hand and led me down the sidewalk. It was early morning, and not fully light out yet, and I sensed that Uncle Albert didn’t want to enter the house and face my parents.

“How was your addition?” I asked slowly, quickening my steps to keep up with his long stride.

“My what? You mean my audition? Oh, um. They gave it to me. Yep, I got the job, but…um, I didn’t like California much. Did you know it never snows there?” He exclaimed.

“For real?” I questioned with wide eyes.

“Of course for real,” Uncle Albert burst, “Can you imagine living in a place where it never snowed? How would I build snowmen?” He bent down and stared hard into my eyes.

“Besides,” he whispered, “I’d miss my best friend too much.” He punched me playfully in the arm, and with a deep breath we marched inside to face my parents who were already at the breakfast table.

They waited until later that night when they thought I was asleep before confronting Uncle Albert. I sat huddled up against my bedroom door, trying desperately to catch every word. My mother’s sentences were loud and crisp, but Uncle Albert and my father spoke at a softer decibel, and I struggled, squishing the side of my face to the doorframe, attempting to hear the fate of my best friend. I gleaned tiny sections of the conversation.

“This is the last time!” My mother was proclaiming, “I’m tired of picking up after you.”

“When are you going to take responsibility, Al,” My father mumbled. I strained to understand my uncle’s reply, but the remainder of the conversation was inaudible. After his upbraiding, Uncle Albert trudged up the stairs to my room.

“She’s sleeping, let her be,” I heard my Grandmother hiss from below the stairs. But Uncle Albert knew all too well that I would not be asleep. He ignored my grandmother, pushed open my door, and closed it quietly behind him. He stood before me for a long time, squinting through the darkness at my tear stained face. I wiped my eyes gruffly with the palms of my hands, and he squatted in front of me.

“It’s okay to cry, Shelley,” he said as he consoled me, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” With a heavy sigh he collapsed beside me, and I rested my head against his blue and red flannel shirt. I traced its checkered pattern with my finger, as he pulled playfully at my pigtails. Suddenly, Uncle Albert sprang to his knees and rubbed his hands together as I toppled to the floor.

“Watch the wall,” he murmured excitedly. I turned my head and smiled with amusement at the shadow puppet Uncle Albert had created.

“Let me try,” I laughed, and together we twisted our fingers, forming butterflies, bunnies, and squirrels, mocking the argument between Uncle Albert and my parents. The bunny represented my uncle, the squirrel my father, and my mom, the butterfly.

“Bad bunny, don’t leave your van in our driveway, and abandon Shelley at school and forget to pick her up. You need to grow up.”

“I’m sorry squirrel, I forgot. I didn’t leave her there on purpose-” He glanced down at me for my reaction. Accepting his apology, I raised my hands, joining the game.

“It’s time to take responsibility,” I demanded in a hushed whisper, as I assumed the role of my mother, the butterfly. We snickered late into the night, endlessly entertained by the characters we created, and I grinned from ear to ear, overjoyed that Uncle Albert was home to stay.

Uncle Albert’s promise to buy me a real live boa constrictor for my kindergarten graduation renewed my faith in him. We sat Indian-style in the corner of my room and held hour-long pow-wows to discuss the snake’s arrival. We decided to name the snake Larry and keep it in a cage under my bed where it could protect me from the monsters that hid there after dark; and it would eat all the kids who made fun of me at school.

My mother bought me a goldfish a few months later, but I never did receive the boa constrictor. Instead he presented me proudly with a used card, that originally read: “Happy 40th Birthday,” but the 40th Birthday part was crossed out, and “Graduation” was scribbled above it in green crayon.

Uncle Albert’s inability to honor his promises became a joke between the two of us. Some of my favorite promises included his oaths to go skydiving, take me camping in the Rocky Mountains, and to star in a movie with a famous movie star. He also promised my mother he would give up his failed acting career and hunt for an actual job.

It might make sense for me to resent my Uncle Albert, but in truth he remains my favorite adult. I have yet to meet another adult who would take the time to discuss moon rocks and boa constrictors for hours with a six-year-old. Always taking my concerns seriously, Uncle Albert listened intently, never laughing, or speaking in that condescending tone at which my mother excelled.

As we pulled our fingers out of the pinky swear and turned our attention back to the circus clowns and fire breathers, Uncle Albert and I laughed about the boring day my parents were having. I looked down at Uncle Albert’s worn jeans with the gigantic hole in the left knee.

“For air,” he always explained, “My knees need to breathe.” He continually wore that same torn pair of blue jeans, no matter what the occasion. All the adults I knew wore suits or dresses to a job they hated each day. In the evenings they sat around the table drinking coffee or wine, while they read the newspaper and discussed things like politics and the stock market in monotonous voices.

Uncle Albert never joined in these conversations. Instead he would sit hunched over his evening bowl of cereal and stretch his tongue out at me from behind the big blue box of Toastie Crunch. Then we’d race upstairs to my room where Uncle Albert would imitate my father’s voice, announcing the Dow Jones of the day, and chugging imaginary bottles of Maalox. We’d crash to the floor in fits of giggles and conclude that my parents would be much happier if they discussed fun things like balloons or fast cars or circus clowns.

I quickly forgot about Uncle Albert’s promise to walk on fire. It wasn’t until almost a month later when my mother flew screaming from the house in her bathrobe that I remembered our trip to the circus and Uncle Albert’s sacred vow. I pulled myself down the stairs to determine the cause of the ruckus, and was shocked to discover Uncle Albert dressed in an obnoxious purple leotard, waiting before a trail of burning hot coals that adorned the center of our driveway. My mother flailed her arms with distress, while my grandmother extended her thin frame over the front porch, ordering her son to come to his senses.

“Al, this is ludicrous. Have you lost your mind completely? Think of the example you’re setting for Shelley. Shelley, go inside,” my father boomed in his usual irritated, mature bellow. I, however, remained frozen in place, mesmerized by my uncle’s bravery. In disgust, my father stormed inside and emerged a few seconds later with cell phone in hand, prepared to summon an ambulance. I was certain this flaming line of hot coals was merely for show, until my uncle approached the start of the blazing trail and gingerly hoisted a trembling foot into the air. My grandmother screeched, burying her head in the arm of my father’s suit coat.

“You don’t have to do this, Al,” my mother murmured with a nervous laugh, “Shelley won’t think any less of you.” She clutched the top of her bathrobe self-consciously.

My friend Jared pedaled up to the scene just in time to witness my uncle slowly lower his pasty foot onto the pile of burning embers. We winced in pain, cringing as he set the other foot firmly beside it.

“What’s he doing?” Jared whispered from beneath the curtain of brown hair that always seemed to hang in his face.

“He’s keeping his promise,” I answered with amazement, my eyes fixed to the beads of sweat creeping from my uncle’s neck. Uncle Albert seemed to feel no pain as he stared calmly, with cool, blue eyes at the horizon line, his six-foot frame wavering from side to side.

“Al,” my father tried again, this time in a softer tone, “Al, please, this is insane.”

I prayed that my uncle would ignore them and finish his feat. I should have known better than to think my uncle would allow my father to deter him from his moment of glory.

Breathing carefully, Uncle Albert trudged forward. We watched each step in utter silence, as the dark coals turned a ghostly white and glared fiercely at us with mischievous, bright orange eyes. Albert froze for a moment, and my heart plummeted to my ankles, for I was certain the eccentric man had lost his nerve, but he merely scratched at his untamed gray hair and shifted his arms to his sides for balance. By this time a few of the neighbors had crowded onto their front porches to observe the crazy man on the flaming driveway.

My mother covered her eyes with shame. “Please, Albert,” she pleaded through gritted teeth, “The neighbors are staring.” My uncle smiled at this comment and winked at me as I grinned with him.

With three quick steps, Albert teetered to the finish line, dismounting safely in the cool grass. The entire block erupted in applause, and I flew at him, catapulting myself into his muscular arms. Even my parents smiled in relief, thankful that an ambulance was not required. Later that night, we soaked Uncle Albert’s feet in a bucket of cold water and brought him aspirin for the pain.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I found out Uncle Albert’s miraculous trek across burning embers had nothing to do with the promise he made me. My mom accidentally let it slip that Uncle Albert had been planning on auditioning for the very same circus he took me to for my birthday, and walking on hot coals was one of the prerequisites. I pretended not to care.

The circus never hired my uncle, but amazingly enough, Uncle Albert did find his calling in life thanks to the public display in our driveway. His amateur fire walk made the local paper, and a small acting company saw the article and called my uncle a few months later. The company was called “The Traveling Players,” and they performed variety show acts around the country, such as walking on fire, juggling, improvisation, puppet shows, and balancing brooms on the tip of their chins. Uncle Albert left with the tour the following November.

He procrastinated as usual, and waited to tell me he was leaving until the day before he was set to depart with the troupe. I wasn’t stupid, and unlike my parents, who had been tiptoeing around me for the past week, Uncle Albert wasn’t foolish enough to believe I hadn’t figured out his plans. I knew exactly what he was preparing to tell me as he sidled up to the thick wooden fence where I sat, sulking.

The fence separated out backyard from the tennis courts behind our house, and during the summer, collections of tennis balls accumulated in our yard. It was November, and no one was playing tennis, but I gazed intently into the grass, frantically searching for a random tennis ball that may have found its way over the fence in the last few weeks. In all honesty, I didn’t care about the tennis balls, but it was the only way I could think of to avoid my uncle’s eyes. He timidly hoisted himself onto the fence beside me, and we perched there in silence like the birds on the telephone wire above us.

My uncle was strangely taciturn for what seemed to me like the first time in his life. He was usually so quick to transform any hint of unpleasantness into a comedic moment. I wanted shadow puppets. I wanted hysterical imitations of my obtuse, unexciting parents, or vivid descriptions of circus clowns and beautiful movie stars. I wanted him to promise- to promise he would come back in a month, or even a year. But Uncle Albert frowned down at the ground, as if he would find the right words hidden in the patch of clover below his dangling feet.

“When do you leave?” I managed to push the sickening phrase past my chapped lips. He tucked his hands under the seat of his ripped jeans and focused straight ahead, “Tomorrow morning,” he mumbled.

“What time?” I pressed, not fully expecting an answer. He didn’t offer one. Instead he slid off the fence and turned to face me.

“I’m selling my van,” he began. I shivered as a breeze passed over the fence, and he reached up and buttoned my light blue sweater, “We all travel in one big van together; me and the rest of the troupe. I was wondering if you’d help me paint my van before I sell it.” He finished casually, resting his hands on my lap, as he looked at me expectantly. I stared back at him for a moment, taking in his five o’clock shadow, steady blue eyes, wild gray hair, and bright red raincoat that he wore with pride, despite the clear sky. I felt a smile spreading its way across my face, and I scrunched up my nose to prevent it, but Uncle Albert had already noticed, and he too scrunched his face like a prune and pushed his forehead gently against mine. He kissed me lightly on the nose, and lifted me off the tall wooden fence. Together we approached the vibrantly colored van that we had painted together almost four years before.

I remembered the day he first appeared in our driveway, with the enormous van after his girlfriend at the time kicked him out of her apartment for one of his many irrational acts. His van rumbled up the drive, and out hopped Uncle Albert. He handed four-year-old little me a paintbrush dipped in bright pink paint, and together we shook our brushes, splattering paint across the side of the van, and all over each other. Uncle Albert explained to my aggravated parents that if he had to live in a van, it needed to be painted the way he liked it.

My mother spent hours scrubbing the paint from my bright red locks, all the while begging my father to send his brother away. From that day on, Uncle Albert had been my constant companion, providing hours of endless entertainment with trip to zoos, parks, and even his ex-girlfriend’s house where we decorated the bushes with rolls of toilet paper and drew on the windows with shaving cream.

Now we painted over the sporadic splotches of indigo, yellow, sea green, and neon pink with practical brown spray paint. Then we climbed into the back of the vehicle and sorted through all the junk my uncle had accumulated over the years. He had saved every picture I had drawn for him, not to mention every candy bar wrapper that had ever crossed his path. The van was spotless by the time we finished that evening, and I hugged Uncle Albert one last time and breathed in his spicy cologne. He promised to wake me before he left, and I laughed to myself as I entered the house, knowing all too well Uncle Albert didn’t keep promises. Still, I popped out of bed early the next morning and rushed down the stairs, bounding from the landing to the floor a few stairs below.

“Watch it young lady,” my father snapped as I dashed into the kitchen, “We don’t run inside.”

“He left a few hours ago, sweetie,” my mother explained carefully, afraid to upset me. “He was going to wake you, but he decided it would be easier on both of you if he just left.”

“Easier on both of us,” I repeated the words over and over in my head. There was nothing easy about losing a friend. The house seemed empty without Uncle Albert around. I watched out the window for hours at a time, trusting that at any minute his huge multicolored van would rumble into our driveway and he’d come bursting into the living room with a crazy adventure planned. The van, however, was revolting brown now, and a friend of the family had purchased it a few days after Uncle Albert departed. My uncle called me every once in a while to relate some wild tale about being shot out of a cannon, or riding an elephant across a tight rope, and then he’d promise to come and visit soon. And then I would hope with everything in me that maybe this time he really would. But he never did.

I almost shouted in surprise when I opened my mailbox this morning and discovered a letter from him in the mail. It was a birthday card. Today is October third. My birthday is in late January. However, when I read the card I had to smile. It was a Happy Kindergarten Graduation card, but Kindergarten Graduation was crossed out and 21st Birthday was written above it in orange crayon. I’m nineteen. Good old Uncle Albert.
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Erin Rigik (Gimmesomemo2[at]yahoo.com) is a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, IL, where she is majoring in Theatre Arts and minoring in creative writing and journalism. The soon to be 22-year-old was born and raised in Evergreen Park, IL. She hopes to spend her future writing, traveling, and working professionally in many aspects of theatre. Erin is spending the summer stage managing at Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minnesota.

Shadows

Flash
Sarah McConnell


The whizz of skateboards receded slightly in the distance. We laughed at their goofy mistakes with the camaraderie of pleasant friends. For a moment, I felt much older than I really was: as though we had all come back from our pained adult lives for a fond reunion of a bygone era. That era was now, I had to remind myself, though I felt that I was meeting these people, these beloved ones, after many years.

The cold night air made our noses run, and as the girls tried to delicately sniff, the old friend to my left snorted unabashedly. Laughter to my right over a joke I couldn’t make out. Nothing propelled me to know what the funny was; I was old and at ease, strolling down the center of the dark street.

The streetlamp a few paces behind caught the four of us perfectly from the back, casting long shadows that walked in front of us. I studied them for a moment, my eyes moving in the traditional Western left-to-right. Short hair, a set of broad shoulders tapering to nondescript waist and long legs. Another set of broad shoulders, with long hair forming a triangle veil from the top of the head down to collarbones, waist tapered and flaring into voluptuous hips. Smaller, hair in a chin-length halo, waist and body in a model hourglass. Taller, fine-boned, long hair caught up gives the illusion of masculinity as boyish lean body glides to the pavement.

“Look,” I say, finished with my own appraisal and ready to share my discovery. “Our shadows. Look how butch we are. Like The Matrix.” I grin as my friends instinctively strike poses that make their shadows look even more like the movie: arms arc into the air and hands pull at the edges of coats, making everything into a chic, windswept triangle. All except one. His body doesn’t move: I hear him laugh softly but his hands stay in his pockets and his shadow remains unaltered.

It might be because he’s cold. After all, he is as old as we all are and undoubtedly bothered by the night’s chill. But I’d rather believe it’s because he doesn’t want to upset our unit: his arm looped with mine.

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“I am sixteen, a junior in high school in the Midwest. I am your basic overacheiver, and I write so that my narratives can take me to a place slightly less flat than where I live. I have never been published aside from pieces in my school’s literary magazine, the Plain Brown Wrapper, and an a brief article a while back in the local paper.” E-mail: dragonsinger21[at]hotmail.com.

Remains of the Day

Flash
Ryan Nielson


Alan doesn’t feel 40, doesn’t feel middle-aged. But as of today, that is what he is. Sitting in front of the spreadsheets his mind bogged down in pixelation earlier than usual—just after the obligatory morning tea shout. Mike, the national Parts Manager, had chirped through a mouthful of flaky sausage roll, ‘So what you got planned at the bachelor pad tonight?’ then changed tack without missing a beat when it looked like he was coming over maudlin. Mince casserole for one. Nothing, really. None of your bloody business.

At ten past five Alan braced himself for the wind and jostled into formation with the other umbrellas. If he’d waited around there probably would have been a few work drinks on offer, but he couldn’t face the forced joviality. Not tonight. They’d been there for him after the breakup, but right now he felt a bit adrift, like he’d somehow been too honest, too down, not contained enough.

Turning right into Manners Street he splashed past a huddle of teenagers outside Burger King and found himself wondering how they’d be spending the evening. He briefly considered driving to a vantage point above the fog to clear his head and mark the day with some sort of significance, a set of resolutions. But a hot meal held more appeal.

Back at the flat, Gingerbear was quietly staking out the goldfish bowl from his usual spot on the windowsill. ‘What do you do all day cat?’ he said aloud, and vaguely wondered if the fish saw a new cat each morning. In the kitchen he spooned chunks into Gingerbear’s yellow bowl, opened a bottle of Shiraz and leant into the heat of the stovetop. What a crap day, and there’s going to be mince casserole for miles. He hoped the leftovers would still taste good for tomorrow’s lunch.

One glass turned into one bottle, and the late show weather lady looked far too chirpy for that time of night. ‘I’ll put my head out the window if I want to know about the weather’, he promised, and poked a finger at the ‘off’ button.

When his head sunk into the pillow he thought: same as ever, the good days pass quickly and the best you hope for is a memory. Better not to worry, surely, he concluded, head throbbing with the glow of his 40th birthday epiphany. He reached an affectionate hand down to Gingerbear, and dreamt of two pale green eyes watching him from the gentle rise and fall of his stomach.

Alan woke with a start just before the alarm went off—and thumped it before it had a chance to bleat. He got ready for work as quick as he ever had and slammed the door behind him, forgetting the leftover casserole on the bench. Gingerbear didn’t, and, with little ceremony, dispatched the remains in an unmarked grave somewhere in the back garden.

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Ryan Nielson (ryann[at]ihug.co.nz) sweats it out as a freelance writer and editor in Wellington, New Zealand, working on a variety of publications for local government and various organisations.