Possibilities

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

After every disaster or tragic event, news reports inevitably include a sound bite of someone saying something to the effect of: “I didn’t think it could happen here.”

Until recently, this cliché of a reaction would get me riled up and I’d start hurling insults in my TV’s direction (no, I do not throw things at it). Why not? Why couldn’t it happen in your town? Why couldn’t it happen to you? What makes you so bloody special?

Because I always think: it could happen here. It could happen to me.

This attitude isn’t because of personal experience. I haven’t had a particularly tragic life up to now. But see? I feel obliged to add “up to now”. Because things could change. One never knows.

I’m not a pessimist; I don’t go through life thinking that bad things are inevitably going to happen, just that the possibility exists. They could happen. Of course, something good could happen too. But one doesn’t have to prepare for the possiblity of something good happening. Insurance isn’t for the day you win the lottery, it’s for the day your house burns down.

You may have heard we’re having a bad fire season here in BC. We haven’t had appreciable rain in months. In early August, the Premier declared a state of emergency for the province. It’s still in effect.

My husband and I are currently living in two places because law school doesn’t pick up and move where you are, you have to go to it. And also, there’s this small matter of tuition. So he’s working in the interior, and I’m going to school in Vancouver.

On the first weekend in August, a long weekend here in BC, he’d come down to visit. Friday afternoon, as emergency program coordinator of Chase, the town he works for, he started getting calls about nearby forest fires. After watching the news, and considering the pros and cons, we ended up making a midnight run back to his place to sort through our possessions and pull out irreplaceable items. We spent the night, loaded up the truck, grabbed the cat, and drove back down to the coast and enjoyed the rest of the weekend.

I’m sure some would laugh at my over-cautiousness. After all, those fires were some distance away—they weren’t an immediate threat to us. But two weeks later, lightning started more fires and this time it wasn’t a case of “it could happen”—it was happening.

Saturday the 16th, we’d met up in Kelowna, where he was going in a triathlon the next morning. But it wasn’t very long before calls started coming in about a fire that had started Friday night near Chase. The situation was deteriorating so quickly that we decided I should drive up that night in case kitty needed to be evacuated. As I approached my destination, it was dark and there was way too much traffic going in the opposite direction. A vehicle with lights and sirens on raced past me. I drove around the bend on the highway that comes just before the turn off, and there it was, this enormous wall of red.

From his driveway, I could see the fire all along the top of the ridge, all the way to the horizon in both directions. His neighborhood was dead quiet, and I wondered if I was even supposed to be there. I turned on the scanner and listened as I started pulling out stuff we’d missed the first time. I didn’t sleep until 5 am when I heard the police say the wind had shifted and they were sending home some people who’d been up all night.

In the morning, the house and surrounding area were filled with smoke. The top of the ridge smoldered. As I waited for him to arrive, I kept looking around and thinking this could be it. Goodbye first Ikea couch! Goodbye old textbooks! Goodbye plants! Okay, so it’s not like we have many particularly amazing possessions. And we do have insurance (Of course we do, come on.) But still. It was surreal.

When he got back, he packed up some things to take with him to work, where he’d spend the next week. I packed up the car and the cat and drove back to the coast. Midway through the week, the fire blew up and his neighborhood faced an emergency evacuation. And then the wind turned, the fire started moving in the other direction, and eventually the evacuation order was lifted, although they remained on alert.

Other people were not so fortunate. Last weekend 258 houses in Kelowna were burned in a fire that started the night of the 16th, the same night I drove up the valley and spent the night deciding what we could leave behind.

Many of those people were evacuated without first being on alert when the winds kicked up and sent the fire racing toward suburbia. And yet, when that happened, the fire had been burning for six days. It was right there. Everyone could see it. They were watching it nightly like it was a fireworks show. They simply didn’t believe that this huge forest fire would move from the park into a populated area. Because that never happens!

Um, yeah, right.

But listening to these people interview, a funny thing happened. I started to believe them. It wasn’t just denial. And it wasn’t simply a sense of entitlement. They really didn’t think it was going to happen to them. If they had, they would have prepared before the fire department came racing into their neighborhood telling them to get out. now. They would have taken things with them that they didn’t.

I started wondering what it must be like to go through life like that. I suppose you don’t even think “it can’t happen to me”, you just don’t think about worst case scenarios at all. Would that be better or worse? I suppose it’s better most of the time, and worse when something bad actually happens. Imagine the shock.

I think that must be what the difference is. Imagination. Me, I always have “what if” scenarios playing in my head. Always seeing six ways a situation could go, and most of them not good—because what’s a story without conflict?

I guess it might be nice to go through life never expecting anything but a happy ending. But I don’t know. I think I rather prefer my life of angst to one that’s just plain “nice”. It’s so much more interesting. Even if it does mean more than my quota of sleepless nights.

pencil

Beaver starts her second year of law school tomorrow.

The Other Woman

Best of the Boards
writergrrl


The bagels were stale. Sighing, Mildred gave them a toss into the stainless steel garbage can that stood sentinel alongside the refrigerator. A twosome of past-due eggs in their brown cardboard container, along with half a tub of cottage cheese met the same fate.

With a satisfying swish a quartet of sausage rolls followed, ending the refrigerator’s weekly exorcism.

After 24 years of dealing with Howard’s parade of she-devils Mildred was a connoisseur of eliminating the past due. The unredeemable.

A sated Mildred gazed out the window. It was 6:30 and Howard would be home soon. Her gazed lingered over the freshly dug trench.

Howard’s indiscretions began with a teenage cashier at Leask’s grocery. Then a co-ed cheerleader. She was followed by a string of Elizabeth Arden-wearing-up-hair-doing-martini-swilling harlots.

But, Howard had always came home to roost.

The latest, however was different. This one somehow had broken the ties that bind. It was not just the bitch this time that goaded Mildred; it was the man’s attitude.

Howard, naturally, never brought any of dalliances home. If she happened to answer the phone when one of them called, his story was that they were just friends, or clients. He had always seemed embarrassed, by their home, their life, even her. He had made quite a success of himself. But he had forgotten who had gotten him there. She had worked at least two jobs to get him through college, then law school.

When he got a cell phone, and she could no longer listen to him make hurried, whispered plans with his lovers on the extension in her bedroom, Mildred was not deterred. While Howard may have had the leg up academically, Mildred was resourceful. Taking full advantage of the modern age, she skulked through his emails. Gleaning bits and pieces about the paramours—their address, phone numbers, where they worked.

Once she hired a private investigator. It was a tough case for her to crack. In that instance she was only able to garner a given name and phone number from the torn bits of paper at the bottom of Howard’s wire trash pail. Her stomach gurgled watching the investigator’s video. There he was eating with this woman at their favorite restaurant. The next frame showed them holding hands. Then they were kissing. There was another shot of him coming out of her house at three in the morning with his hair tousled and clothes a bit rumpled, grinning, just like a little boy.

The confrontations were not always pleasant. Most times she was able to just threaten them, or rare occasions she had to dip into the pocketbook, and two times the other women ended up in the backyard. Howard usually moped around for a bit.

But the latest inamorata was very different. Howard had begun to flaunt her. First it was spending nights at a time away. “Business trip, see you in three days,” was the standard issue excuse.

“On the weekend?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“Mmhmm,” came the distracted reply.

She watched as he busied himself with the overnight bag.

Mildred knew that meticulous as Howard was, he did not lint-brush his dress socks.

After a few Fridays of this routine, Howard made an announcement. “I’m bringing a very important client home with me tonight. And I want you to be nice.”

“Of course, darling,” she replied. “I’ll be nice. I’ll be nice as pie,” she smiled.

“Besides, you two have a lot in common. I think you might like each other,” he added lightly.

Mildred met the other woman at the door. Silently she took her cream raincoat and led the woman into the dinning room. Howard pulled out a chair for his guest.

By the time she served the roasted chicken and steamed asparagus, Howard and the woman were lost in a debate about Nietzsche. The woman called him Howie and sat shoulder to shoulder to him at the dark-stained maple dining table.

Mildred took the other woman’s inventory. Quel surprise. Blond, hair done up. Elizabeth Arden.

Silent, Mildred ogled the couple. Convinced that, underneath the table Howard’s hand was resting on the woman’s bare knee, she spent the reminder of the meal willing the other woman to combust.

After the chocolate-swirl cheesecake, she cleared the plates, and addressed the woman. “Well, Howard has had a long day, and has to get up early tomorrow to catch the train into the city, we’ll have to say good night. Now.” She got the woman’s coat from the brass rack by the front door and waited.

“We still have some things to go over, for her case, it looks like we’ll have to put in a long night,” Howard stated, meeting her steely stare with his own.

The woman tucked a strand of brown hair over her ear and smiled.

“If you are tired, you can run along to bed. We can take care of ourselves,” Howard added.

Mildred made the pretense of going to bed. After slipping on her nightdress, she crept to the second floor landing and listened. She heard some murmuring and then the screen door slide open.

To get a good view of the backyard’s deck she crept into his room across the hall. Grinding her teeth she watched the two figures remove their clothing and slide into the hot tub. She eyed them, sipping wine, his arms around her. Then they kissed.

Mildred felt a hard lump start forming deep in her chest. Her stomach gurgled. Cold sweat left a thin trail down her sharp nose.

This morning she called the woman and invited her over for some tea and cheesecake.

Mildred and the other woman did not exchange in small talk. “It’s over,” Mildred said, as soon as the woman stepped inside. Spitting at Mildred, the woman told her to give up. That nobody would come between her and ‘Howie.’ She abated that they were soulmates that Howie had told her everything. She knew what she was like and she wasn’t going to chase her away or buy her out like the others.

Mildred’s stomach gurgled. She raised her hidden hand and brought the frying pan down on the woman’s up-do. Her stomach settled.

Long ago, before the other women, five-year-old Howard had taken her hand, looked her dead in the eye, and said “I’ll love you forever, Mommy and I’ll never leave you.”

She was going to hold him to it.
pencil

E-mail: t_doerr[at]hotmail.com

If We Shadows Have Offended

 A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Jennifer Justice


If life was fair, clouds would have darkened every inch of the summer sky, obscuring the stars’ merry dance. Thunder would have crashed in waves over the quiet suburbia of Lake Park, disturbing the idyllic silence. Instead, the night was perfect. The moon, bright and full, hung heavily in the sky like a silver fruit, just ripe and ready to be plucked from the velvet sky. The stars seemed to dance with the quiet song of the crickets and cicadas. The air was warm, and thick with the smell of night.

The night’s beauty was wasted on Shana. Despite the heat, her windows were closed, and the shades drawn as she huddled in her room. She had Bon Jovi blasting on her stereo, successfully drowning out the crickets, but it wasn’t able to hide the storm that raged downstairs. Between songs she could hear the shouting echo up into the hallway from below, tearful shouts and accusations stabbing through Shana’s closed bedroom door.

She sang along to the music, as if she might be able to wish all the fighting away by ignoring it. But with each new silence, the shouting returned, and her disguise was blown away. It wasn’t alcohol this time or, at least, Shana didn’t think so. She hadn’t really taken the time to check. But it reminded her of too many nights, too many fights where alcohol had been involved.

She would have welcomed a real storm if it could take the anger and pain from the house. Trumpet it for all the world to hear. Maybe then she would be able to stop pretending that everything was all right. But the night was quiet, and the fighting continued until she couldn’t take it anymore. They wouldn’t check for her until the fight was over, which could be all night. It didn’t matter what it was about. Her parents didn’t really need a reason to argue.

Shana spun the handle on her window, opening it as far as it would go, before removing the screen. She worked quietly, as if they might hear her escape over the fighting and the loud refrain of “You Give Love a Bad Name.” She half wished they would, that her door would slam open and her mother would be standing there, hands on her hips, demanding to know what she thought she was doing. But the door stayed closed, and she slipped out onto the roof, followed by the sound of a guitar solo.

The quiet of the night washed over her, and she took a deep breath, thankful for the silence. She couldn’t hear the shouting out here, in the night air. With the practiced ease, she shimmied along the edge of the roof until she could step onto the branches of the old oak that grew alongside the house, its sturdy limbs reaching to hang over the eaves. After that it was only a short moment to climb down to the ground and walk away.

Not that she had anywhere to go. She shuffled slowly down the street, her arms crossed around herself as if to ward off a chill, her shoulders hunched. She didn’t want to think. It hurt too much. She wished she was a bird. Then she could flap her wings and fly away. Maybe she would even fly to the moon, pick it out of the sky, and eat it. The thought made her giggle, the slightly hysterical sound disturbing the quiet. For a moment she even stopped in her plodding walk, half tempted to wave her arms and see if, maybe, she could actually do it. But the absurdity of it made her blush, and she hunched her shoulders again and kept walking. She focused her eyes on the ground, afraid to look over her shoulder to see if someone had seen her from their window.

No flying. Instead, her feet carried her to the small community playground. Swings hung from a rusted pole, and an old tire swing swayed quietly in some unfelt breeze. There were the remains of a sand castle in the sand box. Most of the playground had long been too small for her. She was too grown up for such things, anyway. But, right then, she wanted to forget that she was 18. She wanted to be young again. She wanted to still believe she could fly. So she sat down on one of the two large swings, closed her eyes, and pushed off.

At first, her feet brushed against the sand, slowing her. She hadn’t done this in a long time. But soon she was moving, her long legs kicking in a slow rhythm, until the swing went higher, and higher, and higher. With her eyes closed she felt the breathless rise and the sharp thrill of the fall as the swing moved beneath her. It seemed to go higher, if she didn’t look. If she let herself believe…

But she couldn’t. With a sigh, she opened her eyes and let her feet drag through the sand, jolting the swing from side to side. None of it was real. None of it ever would be. Even the perfect peace of the night wasn’t real. Real was the storm that would be raging at her house. Childhood was just a daydream. Like flying.

Her momentary happiness fled, Shana stood up, shaking her head as if she could chase away all the memories. Which was when she saw the eyes. They were watching her, no more than a foot away as they hovered above the next swing over, brilliant as they seemed to catch the starlight and reflect it back at her. Then came the face, a mischievous smile alighting beneath the all-too-knowing eyes, topped with tousled hair that just begged for someone to run their fingers through it. Then the body, a young man’s, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. His appearance reminded Shana of the Cheshire Cat. But then she was back in reality, knowing that it was impossible, of course, that the boy next to her had ever been anything but whole. More fairy tales and daydreams. She’d just missed his arrival. How long had he been watching her?

That smile widened slightly as he studied her unsettled expression, like he was reading her mind. Like he knew her. “What fools these mortals be.”

Shana blinked, confusion wrinkling her brow. “Who are you?”

He grinned. “Me.”

“You don’t live here…” There was a wild edge about this stranger, something that attracted her and made her want to run away at the same time. Slowly, she took a step backward, giving herself the comfort of distance. He didn’t move. Only watched her with that knowing smile.

“I live everywhere.”

Shana took another step backward, her expression uneasy. Suddenly the night seemed much less friendly, with this stranger here. Much more wild. He didn’t move. Which was good. She would just go home. But she didn’t want to turn around, partly because she couldn’t keep an eye on the young man, partly because it meant going back to the storm. But the young man was silent, and she had no reason to stay. Finally, she turned reluctantly away from the uncomfortable silence.

“Don’t you want to fly?”

Shana stopped, and turned back, her brow furrowed. “What?”

“You wanna fly, right?”

“You’re nuts.”

He only grinned. “Maybe.” He stood, and she took another step backwards at the look in his eyes. But she didn’t try to leave. “You’re afraid of me.” It wasn’t a question, but Shana suddenly felt defensive.

“No… it’s just… that…” She took a deep breath, not even sure why she felt she had to explain herself. “You caught me off guard, is all.” More than that, and yet she couldn’t say what it was. She thought she might be the crazy one.

“You don’t have to be afraid.” He stepped towards her, and she didn’t move away, but she felt her heart catch in her throat. He was taller than her by several inches, and the effect was intimidating, whether he meant it to be or not. She had the feeling he did. “I can teach you to fly.”

Shana was silent, confused. Then her eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to her, and she backed away quickly. “I’m not interested in drugs, if that’s what you’re selling.” Her breath caught as he laughed softly and she turned to go, to run, anything to get away, but he caught her arm and turned her around to face him.

“Not drugs. I can help you really fly. You can even reach your moon.”

She tried to pull away, but his grip was firm, though not tight enough to hurt her. “Let me go.”

He watched her for a moment, before his smile faded away. The silver of his eyes seemed to darken. “Sure.” Shrugging his shoulders, he released her, and turned away. Shana stood for a moment, frozen to the spot. She should run. Should go now. He was willing to leave her alone. But she couldn’t. Had he actually looked disappointed in her?

He didn’t look at her as he sat back down on the swing, but he spoke, as if he knew she was still listening. “Go back to the storm. It’s where you belong, right?” There was a sting in his words that had to do with more than the sounds his lips shaped. It cut something in her, tore away a part of her defense. For a moment all she could do was stare, silent, shaking. Then the tears came, and she turned away, hiding her face in her hands as if it could hide her pain. She didn’t ask which storm, or how he knew. She didn’t care. He was right. She couldn’t get away from it, no matter how she tried.

She never heard the creak that should have announced as he rose from the swing, never heard him approach, but suddenly he was holding her and she was clinging to him as she sobbed into the rough material of his T-shirt. His hand stroked her hair, soothing her, reassuring her that she didn’t have to be ashamed as she broke down. He didn’t speak. Instead he simply waited, until she’d released the pent up frustrations, cried her hate and anger out into the night air. Then, when she was silent except for the uneven catch of her breathing, he let her go, his smile a little less wild and a little more kind as he looked down at her.

“I don’t want to go back,” she mumbled, feeling very much like a small child. At some point during her cry she’d forgotten to be afraid of him.

“You have to.”

“I know.”

The young man didn’t speak, instead tilting his head and listening to the night sounds. When he did speak, he seemed to be no more than a small child, excited, breathless. When Shana looked over the moonlight seemed to play a trick on her eyes, so that he really looked younger than he had before. Impossible.

“Let’s fly. I’ll show you.”

She opened her mouth to protest, to say it wasn’t possible. But something about his excitement caught her, and she found herself nodding. The boy caught her hand and jumped up, pulling her to her feet. He was so close, his mischievous smile inches from her, and the wild look was back in his eyes. Shana felt a quick pulse of fear, but she was too entranced now. She couldn’t pull away. “Believe,” the boy murmured, his voice a surprisingly soft contrast to the wildness in his eyes. He leaned forward, closing the last bit of distance between them, and kissed her.

Suddenly, the whole world was spinning around her. She could feel herself rising, as if she was back on the swing, her eyes tightly closed. Except, when she opened her eyes, she wasn’t on the ground. She wasn’t even on the swing. Beneath her the ground swept past, man-made lights small specks of gold and silver against the darkness of the night. Frantically she looked around, and felt herself begin to fall. Panic rose in her, until she heard the voice, as if in her head. “Flap your wings!” Flap her wings? She didn’t have wings! But she did as she was told, moving her arms in a desperate attempt to keep herself in the air. And it worked. She rose again and, awed, stared around, trying to catch a glimpse of herself. She could see the tips of her feathered wings, rustling in the wind. And she could see another bird, not far from her, showing off in the warm air. Because she truly was a bird. Then the realization faded away, along with memories of storms and tears, until all she knew was being a bird. Being free, and flying.

“Thank God… here you are. Shana, wake up!” Shana blinked, startled awake as hands shook her roughly.

“Wha…”

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, young lady!” Her mother’s words broke through her dazed mind as she was pulled into her arms, the hug squeezing the breath from her.

“What happened?” Pulling away, she looked around herself. She had been sitting on the swing when she woke up. She must have fallen asleep there. Glancing around, she saw her father, standing off to the side, his expression a mix of guilt and angry worry. Shana nodded to him. He didn’t have to say he was sorry for her to know it. She was sorry too. “I didn’t mean to… to fall asleep.” She didn’t remember sleeping. She remembered a boy. And flying. But she must have been sleeping.

“It’s all right. Just… just don’t do it again. Please.” Her mother’s eyes begged her forgiveness, and Shana nodded. She understood. She wasn’t angry anymore. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, tongues of flame licking away the deep violet of the sky. She’d been gone all night. “Let’s go home.”

Shana nodded again, but as she began to walk, following her parents back, something caught her eye. For a moment she almost thought she saw the boy, sitting on the swing next to her, smiling mischievously at her. Then it was gone, but the light caught on a single white feather that shone brightly against the black plastic of the swing. “Hold on a sec.” Pulling her hand from her mother’s protective grasp, she picked it up, staring at it, before she smiled wearily at her parents. “…Caught my eye.” Holding it carefully, she walked to the car that was parked alongside the curb, and slid into the back seat. She didn’t know if it had been a dream or just her imagination. She didn’t know if there had ever really been a boy at all. But none of that mattered, because he’d taught her how to fly.

pencil

Jennifer Justice is a freshman in college who adores chocolate, books, and air conditioning… something that her dorm is lacking. Her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, but she will read just about anything that is put in front of her, including the backs of cereal boxes. E-mail: GoldenEyes1[at]aol.com

The Owl Dancers

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
S.B. Jonassen


At 8 o’clock P.M., Tammy Snyder pulls the shade string, compacting the sun-repulsing fins of her mini-blinds. Her moist arms glow, orange. She has not raised the blind in many years. She says, “Let’s allow some light inside tonight.”

The sun is sinking late on Tammy’s 40th June birthday.

“One cup of coffee in the evening never killed anyone, right Chimera?” Tammy regards the head-cocked beagle. “Anyway, we don’t want to sleep tonight, do we now?”

“No.” Tammy hauls up the windowsill. “We will not sleep tonight.”

Late day bird song intrudes upon the small cabin. The sounds ebb and surge, like raindrops on a tin roof. Last night, this down winding twitter would have made Tammy’s stomach queasy. Instead of hearing, Hurry! Hurry! Time to sleep— tonight’s birds seem to sing, Hallelujah.

“There!”

The coffee grinds send steamy lines into the orange sun shaft. It was unwise, Tammy knows, to have drunk Colombian dark on a hot June night. The shower is still wet on her skin, the lilac powder coagulated at her fingernails—and yet the sweat, in a flash, pushes up through her every pore, as the dark liquid whirlpools inside her second mugful.

“I say it’s time for a morsel or two.” Bent at the waist, Tammy Snyder tips the bag towards the ceramic bowl on the floor. It is encrusted with painted bones. Dusty, round dog feed jangles inside the previously vacant crater. “Eat, Chimera, eat! It’s my big birthday. There won’t be much sleep for you tonight, old girl.”

The beagle shuffles, ears flapping, to the bowl. She sniffs, and then looks up over her shoulder, brow wrinkled.

“It happens, old girl. Why should we fight it?” Tammy sips off the top of her second mug. “It’s not the worst thing in the world, after all.”

Chimera regards her mistress with a quizzical expression. Her brown earflaps face forward. Tammy pouts down at the beagle and says, “Well, it isn’t!”

Every year, a persistent bout of insomnia encroaches upon Tammy Snyder, like an ailment, in response to the sultry summer heat. Raised in the cool mountain shadows of a ski slope, the heat of this Southern valley presses her into fitful wakefulness. And it does so with nightly regularity.

Tammy reviles the heat. The heat makes her skin slippery from the moment she steps from the bed until her evening shower. It has been like living in purgatory—but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Tammy Snyder grew up out of doors. Most of their A-frame house was window, sliding door, sunroof, and wraparound deck. Everything outside was welcomed inside: cats, dogs, dragonflies, mosquitoes, bumblebees and gnats. At the dinner table they’d find red-backed ladybugs in the spinach salad; horses shuffled and nickered in the paddock beyond the mailbox; the creek was built for long distance ice skating. That crusty white mountain invigorated Tammy, made her human. Snow crunching beneath her galoshes, the sting of her nose-tip, a squall in late May, icy-white breath…

Because they land smack-dab in the middle of June, her birthdays make Tammy especially sleepless. Even 30 years after the crash, Tammy’s birthdays are long, hot days smelling of sweat- and tear-salt. She accepts no gifts, no phone calls, no visitors, no well-wishing. It was why she moved from the beloved ski mountain in the first place, as a sort of penitence for having survived her family. Humidity made foul her spirit. Especially on this, her significant day.

“But please tell me, Madam Chimera! Which days lack significance?” Tammy asks. “They died on a Tuesday, a plain old Tuesday, there was nothing significant about it. Why should birthdays matter? They shouldn’t. Especially not mine. Especially not this one.”

The beagle settles onto her haunches, jerks her pink tongue into panting.

“God, it’s hot. And no chance of rain tonight, old girl. We’ll get no reprieve.”

Tammy Snyder was in the car too. She was 10 years old when she survived her brothers and parents without so much as a bump or bruise. And how could that have happened anyway? It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

“Tonight,” Tammy Snyder declared, “We’ll will not sleep at all.”

 

At 10 o’clock, Tammy waters her hanging spider plant, taking care to dribble the droplets onto the soil-base in a mottled, random way, such as rain tends to fall. The soil expands slightly, darkens, and then recedes. Chimera looks straight up. A perfect globule of translucence splashes on the beagle’s wrinkled nose bridge, breaking into quartered droplets. Tammy giggles. Last night she would have wept.

There is a rustling in the bushes outside the cabin window.

Chimera says, ‘A-roo-roo.’

A red fox eats berries there nightly. Most nights he frightens Tammy. With his slender, berry-stained jowls and phosphorescent eyes. But tonight he poses no threat. There will be no attempts made to frighten him underground. Or drone out his high-pitched howling with radio broadcasts of far away, crackling baseball games.

“Gonna go get him, huh Chimera? Get us a foxy-loxy?”

The beagle whirls on its hind legs, into a spinning yelp. Gallops to the screened-porch door. She looks foxy herself, Tammy thinks; mostly russet-brown with a hint of white on the chest and tail-tip. Last night it would have irked her, the beagle’s busybody patrolling at such a bedtime hour.

“Gonna get us a foxy, huh old girl? Gonna get him?”

The beagle leaps upright and paws for the screen door handle, squealing with eagerness.

“Oh look.” Tammy opens the door a narrow width and the beagle scurries onto the shadow slats of the porch, then bullets into the shrubbery. “A moon is rising.”

The lake makes the heat worthwhile to Tammy. The lake steams and ripples like a hot cup of Colombian. A moon rising over the lake is a dollop of cream in her coffee mug. Chimera’s ecstatic yelping grows dimmer. There will be a hooting owl tonight, in the poorly insulated eaves of Tammy’s sequestered cabin. But that will not perturb Tammy, as it did last night and the night before.

“An acceptable night for an owl dance, I suppose.”

 

Owl-shaped lanterns once hung throughout the oak branches in the Snyder backyard. Same time of year, decades ago, at the northern end of the States. About the time school let out, early summertime evenings, when Dad packed the freezers with hot dogs and steaks, when mom decorated the oaks with blinking lights and lanterns. Their backyard, behind the hill upon which settled their A-frame home, cozy. Newly middle-class Americans in good cheer, truly believing in the goodness of the future, the profitability of hard work and cautious spending. Her parents, who thought they were giving their children something better, much better, than they’d had been given. The backyard. Where friends and neighbors gathered, as if to take precious sips of the delight that the Snyder home produced in seemingly endless supply. They’d danced beneath the moonlight, wearing puffy vests and double-wrapped scarves, cheerfully striped. The crisp, mountain air steamed out of smiling faces and into the moonlight—merriment abounded.

Only a child sees such things, Tammy muses, only a child commits such things to memory and then sucks them out on a hot sleepless night—even amidst the persisting heat of adulthood—like an ice-cream cone.

The plastic, sharp-beaked lanterns. The faces of the people glowing too, from the inside out, like fireflies. Her mother and father, dancing arm in arm. Heels in the air, knee slapping, like wine-fed drunkards. Big brother, Thomas, swinging her up onto his bulky-strong shoulders and prancing about the lawn grasses like a spry pony. Dancing, dancing, dancing! Little brother, Daniel, exhausted from a day of exuberant play, straining to keep his eyes open, so that he might further partake in the late evening reverie. All of Tammy’s lifeblood, linked together, dancing. Dancing out the brevity of their lives.

Who could have guessed they’d be taken so soon? And in such a stunning, indifferent fashion?

Perhaps Tammy Snyder was a sorceress of invention. Perhaps those dancing, steamy-breathed figures in her backyard dazzled to a lesser degree, but it was the way Tammy referenced, having no memory of the fateful crash, and their ending. She recalls the slip of tires on black ice, the spinning, the smack against the guardrail, the long drop sideways—yes, she almost certainly recalls that, can feel the flip-flopping in her stomach—and rolling into the ditch. But she does not remember impacting the tree. Or what she saw next…

 

“Owl dances should be danced in numbers.”

At midnight, the moon has risen and Tammy pours the tepid coffee from the carafe into the sink drain. She is humming a song her mother used to sing. It is a poignant melody lacking words, but she hasn’t thought of it in decades.

“Where in the world is the old girl?” Chimera is still gone missing. Tammy wraps her silvery-brown hair into a braided-bun, and sets her weight onto the creaking porch wood planks. She wonders if she’s been color-blinded by her hefty age. The yellows and reds of her marigolds are gray. The lake water is blackened, save for a quivering stripe of white moonlight. Small quips of beagle-taunts filter through the tight-weaved netting of orchestrated cricket symphony. “That foolish old hound.”

The lakeside grasses are spongy and sparkling. A hot breeze shuffles the hairs on Tammy’s neck, laps wetly at her thighs. “Come to me, Chimera!” she bellows. Swarms of winged insects hover above the mossy lake edge. Tammy whistles through her fingers and the beagle’s frantic yowling grows nearer. A bead of sweat meanders between her shoulder blades at the tantalizing pace of a lover’s fingertip touch. It surprises Tammy. How un-extraordinary it feels, disrobing herself in the moonlight.

“Let’s go, old girl!” Tammy wriggles her underwear around her hips with her thumbs. Shuffles it aside with a naked foot. “Hey there, moonshine!” Chimera bounds from the farthest reaches of lawn shadow. At once joyful, the beagle circles her mistress in chipper greeting. “You get that crafty foxy-loxy berry thief?”

Hands clasped high above her head, up on tippy-toes, Tammy stretches out the body that survived her all these 40 years. It still feels beautiful and vibrant. Inside moonlight. The first milky—

Tootle-hoot-hoot!

—from the cabin eaves. Tammy strokes her middle, palms down. Moves her hips in sinuous circles, moves her hips to the beat of tootle-hoot-hoot! Says,

“Together we are two, Chimera!”

The circling beagle says, “A-roo!”

“Let us dance!”

 

At 2 o’clock in the morning, Tammy dives into the surface of the lake.

It feels lukewarm, not an unpleasant surprise, like Chimera’s licking kisses. It flushes around her body made invisible in its yielding grasp. Last night she would have feared this. Last night it would have taken Chimera’s drowning to spur her dive. However, tonight the lake bottom pulls her inside its mystery without hesitation. Tammy’s breath quickens. Eyes-wide below, she sees the water mass that engulfs her. It glows like thousands of emeralds. The bump of fish-muscle against her calf arouses Tammy. The feel of lake grasses tickling her belly enlivens her. Had she submerged herself last night, the glowing lake would have held a thousand sets of nefarious eyes within its skull.

Bursting to the surface in a bubble of fresh-water displacement, Tammy says, “Oh!”

And then, “Happy birthday, baby.”

Pivoting at her midsection, Tammy darts below the surface of the lake. It’s like a recollection from a dream state. Or a life lived well. On the surface, a mirror—but below that mirror… thousands of emeralds.

Was this what Tammy’s life was lacking? And the owl dancers? Were they a mirror too? Or had Tammy spied their vast, deep-lake treasures?

 

At 4 o’clock in the morning, Tammy soaks in moonlight like a sunbather, splayed on a flat rock the size of her entire cabin. A large-voiced bullfrog announces his presence, and then makes the lakeside exceedingly silent again. Presence. Silence. Presence. Silence.

“Nice to meet you,” Tammy Snyder tells the bullfrog. “I am old too.”

There have been stars in the sky with which to fill Tammy’s eyes for countless summer nights. However, the bedroom ceiling obscured even the brightest, not to mention her anxiety. Tonight they appear, in their luminous glory, as nameless points of light.

“Hello. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

A hot breeze wafts the mirrored-flat lake into ripples. They bend the moonlight and tree shadows, quiver the cloud patches. A trillion tree-leaves whisper: live.

Tammy says, “I am not sleeping tonight. I am awake.”

Tammy wants to be bitter, but there is nothing hungry inside her cells. Chimera dances in small bounding strides that follow the lead of her blunt nose, in and out of the shadow-striped lawn. Tammy is not bitter. She has never felt jaded, forsaken or impoverished. She has never wept without gratitude for the weeping. The car crashing into the tree had set her beloved family free. Tammy’s suffering, barb-sharp for 3 decades, seems moderate, even tolerable now. All at once. The steam rises from the lake as if it were a hot cup of Columbian. Tammy’s pain seems relatively small within the context of a world teeming with weighty woes. Soon, she will go into the cabin and brew a fresh pot. There is nothing lacking. Nothing hungry inside her cells.

 

At 6 o’clock in the morning, a red sun breaches the eastern horizon, fading the moon into a paper-thin yellow leaf.

Tammy Snyder rises from the rock: a woman. She pats her naked thigh, praises Chimera, and bursts forth into the rest of her life.

pencil

E-mail: SBJonassen[at]juno.com

Night In

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Swapna Kishore


With the temperature outside at 110 degrees even though it was late evening, I should have been glad that I was seated in the well air-conditioned lounge of Delhi’s top five-star hotel, but I was too busy trying to hide my face behind the potted ferns.

I was scared that someone I knew from my other life would see me as I was now—a newlywed groom dressed in a silk kurta and with a traditional vermilion line on my forehead, some petals of marigold still stuck on my hair and clothes. Next to me sat this anorexic girl, my new bride, wrapped in a red silk saree with gold embroidery and encrusted beads, loaded with jewelry. The thick layer of makeup on her face showed erosions where rivulets of sweat had made their way down.

The iconoclast Sam (Swamy Rao to his parents), software engineer par excellence from California, had just undergone an arranged marriage—that too, one conducted in a pucca traditional way.

Well, I had tried to wriggle out of it. But parents have many subtle and not-so-subtle ways to put pressure. The only thing in which I got my way was that I would not spend my wedding night at home surrounded by the gadzillion relatives with pesky kids trying to peek from the ventilator when I was trying to have my first real conversation with my wife.

I had met her only once-–as I had met a dozen of other females short-listed by my organized father in anticipation of my annual trip. That meeting was short, just half-hour, and of course, there was a chaperon present. While I boldly looked at the would-be’s face, her eyes remained lowered. My elder sister pulled me up later for acting shamelessly.

Now, having been properly married by encircling the fire in the presence of priests with my clothes tied to hers, I and this overdressed doll had been deposited at the hotel lounge where a plush “honeymoon” suite had been booked for us.

Fifteen minutes later, all the relatives had left after having fun at our expense, making snide comments and winking at me. We were finally alone.

I got up and went to the suite. She followed, carrying a small case.

The suite was quite good really, done up tastefully for the newlywed couple-–there was a welcome bouquet, a basket of sweets and savories, and a huge cake. A bottle of champagne with a pink ribbon rested in the ice bucket. I closed the door softly and looked at her.

She dumped her bag on the bed. Then she jerked back the edge of the saree that was covering her head, sat in front of a small dressing table and started taking off the jewelry, piece by piece. Without turning around, she said, “I’m going to change into something comfortable and wipe this muck off my face. Then we can go down for a drink.”

I looked at the bed where she had dumped the bag-–a pair of well-used jeans and a sphagetti top peered out of the half-open bag.

Wow! The coy bride was transforming into the modern miss. Maybe things were not that bad.

That reminded me that I had forgotten my change of clothes in the car, so I told her I’d get my bag in a jiffy.

It took just a few minutes to retrieve my clothes. I changed in the washroom off the lounge into my red T-shirt and jeans-–the silk kurta was pushed hurriedly to the back of the bag. Now I need not duck behind plants.

Back on the sixth floor, I knocked the door of the suite impatiently. “It’s me, open up.”

I could see something block the magic eye at the door-–she was peering. The door did not open. I knocked again.

“It’s me, Sam, I mean Swamy,” I repeated, feeling slightly foolish. “Open up”.

“How can I be sure?” she asked from inside. “If you are, tell me my full name.”

It was then that I realized that she did not really recognize me any more than I recognized her, and my changing clothes outside had not been that great an idea.

What’s worse, while I remembered that her name was Lakshmi Rao, I could not remember the middle name she had told me the one and only time I had met her. I had not been listening, busy as I was trying to see her face and peer down her blouse.

I leaned on the pillar, trying to figure out how to convince her to open the door. It was stuffy outside.

The lift had halted on the floor and out poured three men, dressed a bit gaudily. This floor had only two suites and no other rooms, and these coarse guys definitely did not look like honeymooners or senior executives.

I instinctively hid behind the pillar. They were speaking in hushed tones, and looking around as they opened the door of the other suite. One of them seemed familiar.

I turned back to more important matters. That middle name-– there had been some literary connection…

I thought I’d go down and call my sister to explain what had happened and ask her for help-–she would of course make fun of me, but I was sure I could persuade her not to tell anyone else. After all, I had smuggled her a Everything you always wanted to know before her wedding night.

I started walking toward the lift and was just outside the other suite when its door opened, the knob hitting me in the solar plexus and flattening me against the wall.

As I gasped for breath, my mind connected. I remembered where I had seen that big guy with the white shirt and blue scarf before-–it was in the papers. He was one of the dons from Dubai with a hefty price on his head.

I bit my tongue to make sure I did not cry out in pain. Tears stung my eyes.

I could hear one guy come out, walk around for some time, and then return. As he closed the door he told his friends that they must have been mistaken, there was no one outside.

I started pussyfooting toward the stairway-–the lift would be too noisy.

I had barely crossed their door and was just near the pillar when the door opened again. I ducked behind the pillar. I was getting quite good at this hiding business.

This time around, all the three had come out. Their loud voices made it clear that they did not believe the first guy and had decided to check again. The first place they checked was behind the door and then they fanned out. If I stayed where I was they would see me soon-–so I slipped into the only place that they were not likely to search—their wide-open suite.

The suite was a mirror image of ours. I just managed to hide in a closet in the main room when they returned, cursing each other. I could see their legs through the slats in the closet.

That was when the lights went off.

The closet was suddenly hot and very suffocating. I could hear the hotel’s generator cranking up-–all good Delhi hotels have full power backup.

The lights came on. Then there was a large explosion and it was dark again. The generating unit had conked off.

I cursed silently.

Here I was, the law-abiding Swamy Venkateswaram Rao, cramped along with clothes hangers in a closet on a hot summer night with no air or light, in a room full of hoods just because my new bride, Lakshmi Sucharita Rao did not recognize me.

That was it! Her middle name was Sucharita-–named after some character in a Rabindra Nath Tagore story. If only I had remembered it ten minutes ago.

The room was getting hotter by the minute and the language of the men outside was getting more and more colorful. They cursed each other, they cursed the hotel management, they cursed the power ministry, they cursed the PM. Sitting in a fetal position, jeans clinging to my legs wet with perspiration, I quite agreed.

I could feel something settle on the back of my neck and then start crawling down my spine. A cockroach in this plush hotel? I stifled a scream-–being explored by a roach was preferable to being tortured to death by those guys outside. The creature was going down my spine, vertebra by vertebra, down between my bums (how did it get under those tight jeans?) and then—drip-–a drop of sweat fell. Followed by another and yet another.

At this rate, my sweat would be flowing out in tributaries from the closet and I would be spotted.

One of the guys had managed to locate a candle or some such thing and with the click of the lighter there was a glimmer of light again. Another opened the door to a small balcony. Hot air rushed in, laden with dust. The others yelled at him to shut it. But the first guy had dragged out a bucket with water, which he poured on the curtains. Voila! the air that was coming in was somewhat cooler now.

One thing about these rough-and-ready hoods-–they can think on their feet.

The sounds of glasses being clinked told me that men outside had now taken out some bottles of whisky. The air became heady with the vapors. Talk varied between boasts and curses with an occasional mention of the big job they would be carrying out the next day. Their lives seemed more eventful than the most imaginative Bollywood film, but frankly, I was in no mood to enjoy it. Then conversation started flagging.

The radium dial of my watch showed that it was 9:00 pm, but I had flown to India just a week ago and had a very hectic time checking out girls and getting married. To my still jetlagged senses it was like I had not slept a whole night and it was only dawn. I knew that I must not sleep and started using my mental search engine to locate all tips for staying awake.

The next I registered anything was when the radium dial showed 4:00 am. Without intending to, I had caught up with some of my sleep backlog. Those who had seen me sleep in examination halls would not have been surprised.

In a way, having seen the not-so-coy side of Lakshmi, I felt I was lucky I was not with her-–if I had slept off on the honeymoon night she may not have been too happy with me. Right now she must be wondering where I had vanished, trying to decide between my getting kidnapped as a rich expatriate or going off with some other woman.

The generator was back in action now, but the air conditioning was still out of action. I could see a bit of what was happening in the room.

What had woken me up was an alarm clock. The men were getting up now, cursing as usual. In between the their rounds of abusing each other I figured that they had to leave for the kidnapping they had to do.

Shuffling of feet and a closed door. They had left. I waited till I heard their footsteps fade away on the stairway and then came out cautiously from the closet.

Just then, the main supply came on. How’s that for timing! I could hear the air conditioning kick in.

Bolder now, I looked around. I was hungry and the snacks on the table looked inviting. A refreshing shower followed.

I left the room wide awake, well fed and rested, and stood yet again in front of my own suite. It was 5 am now.

“Open up, Lakshmi Sucharita Rao, its me, Swamy Venkateswaram Rao,” I said, knocking boldly.

She opened the door sheepishly, rubbing her eyes.

“I have been knocking for a long time,” I claimed.

“I am so sorry,” she muttered. “I was so tired I just fell asleep soon after you left. There had been an imposter though, who tried to get in earlier.” Her hair were scattered and her top was askew.

I looked sternly at her, “I spent the night at the door and kept knocking. I could have gone back home, but then all the relatives would have mocked you.”

She looked suitably apologetic and helped me sit down while she fussed around me, pouring out champagne and feeding me cashewnuts with her own hands. Soon, she was fiddling with the collar of my T-shirt and nibbling my ear. We still had several hours before the relatives started arriving again, and I had every intention of making good use of it.

There is something okay about being married after all, I was thinking, as I sank back in the sofa after the rather exhausting session that followed.

pencil

Swapna Kishore lives in India and works in the field of software. She has been writing technical books and material for quite some time, and is now turning to writing short stories and humor pieces to retain her sanity. E-mail: swapna_kishore[at]vsnl.com

Peace and Love

Fiction
Pamela Mosher


I stay out too long with the horses.

I ride Jasper all afternoon. The sky fills with dark clouds while he is pounding up the hill behind the McCord’s farmhouse. McCord’s horses follow us. When we reach the top, they paw the ground and whinny before turning back to their fields. I hang on to Jasper’s warm neck, his wiry mane against my cheek, and press on.

When the first streak of lightning slices through the sky, Jasper is splashing through the shallow creek that marks the border with the MacIntyre place. I count the seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. When the loud crack comes, I know the electrical storm is at least three miles away. Still, it’s loud enough to startle me, and Jasper’s head snaps up.

He whinnies softly when I urge him on. I want to ride through the grove of apple trees to the fence line at the far side of the Johnson Farm. I need to go. I haven’t been in weeks.

From Jasper’s back, I pick small green apples right off the trees. I’m growing, I realize. Two months ago, I couldn’t have reached them. Jasper drops his head and eats a few that have fallen on the ground. They give off a lemony, sharp scent. The apples are tart and wormy; I’m careful to look for the telltale brown holes in the skin. After I eat around the core and the worm trails, I send the apples flying over the fence and into the shallow pond. An old tire hangs over the pond from a rope tied to a tree branch. The apple cores hit the tire and land in the pond with a satisfying sploosh.

The first few drops splatter against my bare legs as we are stalking through long grasses in Johnson’s hayfield. The tops of the grasses tickle my bare feet and ankles. We reach the far fence, where I can see the old house. I slide off Jasper and hide in the bushes. Spy.

There’s a tricycle in the driveway. It’s bright blue plastic with orange wheels. Long plastic tassels hang from the handlebars. The new kid is running up and down the cracked pavement. His mother stands with her arms crossed, talking to one of the neighbors, watching out of the corner of her eye. My chest aches, and a strange hiccup of grief leaves my throat. The mother shields her eyes, looks right at me.

“Is someone there?” she asks.

I hold my breath and close my eyes, wanting to disappear. Praying to be invisible.

When I open my eyes again, the mother and kid are gone. They’ve left the tricycle in the driveway.

My face is wet. Drops splash against my cheeks, and rain is pouring off the top of the cap and down the back of my sweatshirt.

When I can’t stand it anymore, I climb the hill to Jasper. We slop back through the wet grasses and over the now muddy hill, my legs grappling to hold on to his slick, wet back.

WHEN I COME IN the house, Theresa shoos me out of the kitchen. “You’re dripping water everywhere,” she says, waiving a striped dishtowel. “I just cleaned this floor.”

I dance around a bit to keep the muddy water off the linoleum. Instead, it plops around in gray droplets. Theresa shakes her head and moves her heavy body to the closet for a rag.

I grab a bottle of Coke from the fridge, and hand it to her. She pops off the metal top and hands it back.

“Can we have Spaghetti O’s for dinner?”

“No. Your father is having company.” She flaps the dishtowel again, and I skip away.

“What company?” I hang onto the doorjamb and swing my head back into the kitchen. I balance on one foot; the other, splattered with mud, I stick straight out behind me. Well out of Theresa’s sight.

“Some lady. You should go change.”

I ignore that last comment. “What lady?”

“How should I know? They’ll be here any minute.”

“Some new girlfriend,” I say, taking a long pull on my Coke. The carbonation burns the back of my throat and makes my eyes water.

Theresa ignores me. She pretends not to get involved in our messy family life. But I know she watches everything with a disapproving eye.

I do not go change.

When James arrives, it is still raining. He and his friend dash from his Jeep into the house with newspapers tented over their heads. The woman stops laughing when she sees me, lurking behind the bookcase. She swipes a hand across her cheek, brushing back long strands of dark brown hair. Her wrist is a-jangle with beaded bracelets, and her shirt is crocheted and wide at the bottom. Her belt is woven from various strands of wool in a rainbow of colors.

“Hello,” she says, smiling. “James, you didn’t tell me you had a daughter.”

“He forgot.”

“This is Lucy,” James tells her. He flashes me a dirty look.

I think, Ah. James remembers my name.

She sticks out her hand. “Peace and love, Lucy. I’m Kathy.”

I don’t shake her hand until James comes around and gives me a little push. Her hand is warm and soft as it enfolds mine.

“Are you a student?”

“Yes.” She laughs. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” All of James’ girlfriends are students. I think he runs a regular ad in the University paper. Wanted: Sweet Young Thing With No Expectations To Worship Brilliant Mathematics Professor.

James bends down and kisses me on the top of my head. For show. “Luce, you’re all wet,” he says. “Why don’t you go put something else on?”

“I’m wearing this.”

He frowns and turns to Kathy. “I can’t get her out of that old sweatshirt,” he tells her with a laugh. “You know kids.”

She smiles vaguely, and looks up at him out of the corner of her eyes. She’s in love with him, I can tell already. Even though he’s probably old enough to be her father.

James pokes his head in the kitchen. “Is dinner ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Roth.”

“I’m not hungry,” I say, but James is talking over me to Kathy as he steers me by the shoulders into the dining room. He’s telling her how horse crazy I am. I hate it when he talks about me like I’m not there, but I keep my mouth shut. Most of our conversations take place as though I am not there. Show and Tell conversations, I call them.

“Behave,” he hisses as he pushes me into my seat. He pulls out a chair for Kathy. “You sit here. I’ll get us some wine.”

“Wine is on the table, Mr. Roth,” Theresa says.

“On second thought, I think I need a scotch.”

“Mr. Roth,” Kathy says, eyeing my father in that sideways way again. “That sounds so funny. I’m used to Professor Roth.”

I think, Yes, Professor Roth. Faster, Professor Roth. I laugh at my own silent joke.

James flashes me a warning look. Kathy looks down at her hands.

Theresa puts my plate in front of me. Baked potato and corn. I know she wants me to pray before I eat, but she would never say anything in front of James about it. She wants me to sit up straight, too. I start shoveling in corn niblets as fast as I can, bent like the letter “C”, and she walks away, shaking her head.

James catches my eye, and I slow down.

He’s having roast beef. When Theresa tries to put a plate in front of Kathy, she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t eat meat.”

This grabs my interest. “Why not?”

“I don’t believe in killing animals.”

I chew my nibblets, debating. Finally, I give in. “How come?”

“We want peace, right? Look at what is going on in the world today. Oh, thank you.” She shifts so Theresa can put a new, meatless plate before her. “I believe that to achieve peace, we must rid ourselves of all violence. Why should an animal suffer and die? This earth has provided all the food we need. Grains and fruits and vegetables are better for us, and do not violate our responsibilities as brothers and sisters to everything on this earth.”

“See?” James cocks an eyebrow at me. “You two have a lot in common.”

With new interest, I look over at Kathy. She’s pretty in a nervous sort of way. Big blue eyes and pale skin with no makeup. Her long hair hangs razor straight down her back, almost to her waist. I’m trying to grow my hair out, and hers is at least four inches longer. She’s wearing a silver peace sign on a chain around her neck.

“Mathematics is the key to peace, not vegetarianism. We’re made to eat meat. Look at our incisors.” James drains his scotch, pours himself a glass of wine. “Mathematics is the universal language. Math is truth. The only true religion.”

Kathy nods, not agreeing, I don’t think, but contemplating what he says. I hear Theresa slam a cupboard door, out in the kitchen. I roll my eyes. I think, if math’s the true religion, does that make you a god?

“Lucy, tell Kathy about Jasper,” James suggests, and she turns to me with an expectant smile.

“He’s a Bay,” I say, anticipating her blank look. “You know anything about horses?”

“A little,” she says. “I haven’t ridden in a long time. Not since I was your age. But I’d love to try it again.”

“Well, Jasper won’t let anyone else ride him.”

I wait to see if she’ll flash a knowing look at my father, but she doesn’t. She nods and waits for me to go on.

“He was injured before we got him.” I wonder why I’m bothering to tell her. “He broke through a barbed wire fence and was cut all over. The vet told James and he bought him for me.”

“Lucy’s done wonders with that horse. You’ve never seen two better friends.”

Kathy smiles at me, but I can guess what she’s thinking. I go back to my niblets.

They talk about math. I think, Can you believe these two? James is warm and open from the wine, tipping back in his chair, stroking his salt and pepper beard. He tells Kathy about the history of p. She has a dopey, aren’t-you-wonderful look as she listens. I’ve heard about Ptolemy and how Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth about a million times. But I can tell my father is really turning Kathy on because she keeps saying things like “fascinating,” and leaning over to touch his arm.

My body is itching beneath my damp sweatshirt. In the heat of the dining room, I can practically feel the steam rising from my chair. James gets warm and opens a window to let in some air. By the time I’m excused from the table, my body is one big wrinkled goose bump, and my nose is starting to run.

I AM AN INDIAN. I live off the land. I hunt with this spear I’ve fashioned from a long, thin tree branch. I eat clover flowers and wild asparagus and the rhubarb that grows all over our yard.

I stand in the irrigation ditch, brown water swirling around my knees, and peer along the pebbly riverbed for crawdads. My nose drips and my throat is sore, but that doesn’t stop me. Jasper munches tender grass by the bank, patiently waiting for me. His hide is scared from our many fights with hostile tribes.

Behind me is the fort of the white man, my sworn enemy. The white woman with the long hair has taken up residence. She padded around the kitchen this morning wearing nothing but the white man’s button down shirt and socks, making coffee. He complains that his head aches, but laughs when she pretends to tiptoe around him. When he thinks I’m not looking, the white man sneaks a hand beneath the tails and caresses her backside.

I stop, flawlessly still, the perfect hunter. Something moves. I plunge my hand in the murky water, and come up with my prize. A crawdad the size of a single canned green bean, its legs waving, its pinchers pinching.

KATHY COMES OUT WITH plates of sandwiches and lemonade. She places them on the patio table, and shields her eyes with one hand, looking for me.

I peer at her through long grasses, close to the ground like a snake. I can track deer by broken stems of grass, clues the white man cannot see. I will hunt my own lunch.

But my blue sweatshirt gives me away.

“Lucy, I made us lunch,” she says, spotting me. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Caught. I stand reluctantly and brush the dirt off my knees. “Thank you,” I say, all politeness to the enemy. I carry my can of murky brown water and crawdads to the patio table. She peers in and frowns, and I feel funny. Itchy. I’ll let them go after lunch.

Today, she’s wearing a pale yellow skirt with tiny blue flowers. Her long hair is loosely braided with a ribbon, and the sight of it makes me reach up and touch my own tangled mess. A twig is stuck in it, and I pull it out.

I sit down at the patio table and she moves a plate in front of me. She notices my curved-in posture, but doesn’t comment.

“Where’s James?” I ask between bites of super chunky and grape jelly. White man food.

“Writing.” She smiles indulgently. Still in the throes of adoration. I call it Stage One. I’ve seen five of my father’s girlfriends pass through Stage One since my mother died.

In Stage One, the girlfriend doesn’t resent that she’s stuck alone with the surly daughter all day. In Stage One, she tries to reach out to the poor, motherless girl. By Stage Two, she’ll realize that I am not the key to obtaining my father’s attention.

“I was thinking,” Kathy says. “After lunch, maybe I could meet Jasper.”

I shrug. My throat hurts. “You can’t ride him. I mean, he won’t let you.”

“Oh,” she says, “I won’t try to ride him.”

I chew silently.

“What grade are you in, Lucy?” Kathy asks after more silent bites.

I finish my sandwich. “Seventh.”

“In the fall?” she asks.

I nod.

“The middle of middle school,” she says. She plays with a chip. “The longest century of my life was middle school.”

This interests me. She’s so pretty, and her face is so open and wide-eyed, I would have guessed she sailed through school with a million friends.

“How come?” I ask.

“Oh, I guess because we moved a lot. I was always the new kid.”

“Me too. I mean, I was the new kid last fall. When we moved, we changed school boundaries.”

“That must have been tough.” Kathy leans forward. “Did you make any friends at your new school?”

I shake my head and I drink my lemonade. I think about how everyone whispered about me. I was the girl whose mother had died. The one they were supposed to be nice to. I didn’t know how to act. That’s when Theresa began noticing my posture. “Sit up, Lucy,” she would say, but I couldn’t. I only felt comfortable, safe, when my back was curved, my hands covering my belly.

She’s waiting for an answer, I realize, watching me curiously. Wanting to know if I’m Normal, probably. “Well, one kid. He’s got double jointed thumbs and elbows.”

“No kidding?”

I hold out my arm. “His arm bends way down like this.” I pull my wrist down so my arm bends at an unnatural angle. “By itself though.”

“I’d like to see that.”

I wipe my sleeve along my nose. “You can meet Jasper now. If you bring a carrot, you’ll probably make a friend.”

I LIE ON THE COUCH in front of the TV, while Kathy and James eat in the dining room. I can hear the clinking of metal against plates, the sound of ice dropping into a highball glass. Theresa brings me chicken and stars in a big University of Colorado mug. And a plate of wiggly jello. I watch The Partridge Family and sip my hot soup.

Kathy walks softly into the room, carrying a blanket, which she drapes around me. “How are you doing, Lucy?”

“Stubbed up.”

She hands me a Kleenex and I blow.

“I thought I could keep you company,” she says. “Your dad is working on his paper.”

“He always is.” I bend my legs so she can sit down at the other end of the couch. “You’ll get used to it.” Or not, I think.

“I don’t think it’s going very well. He seems upset.”

I think, it never goes well.

We sit for a moment, watching the TV. Then she turns to me.

“You like to play cards?” she asks.

I shrug. “I guess.”

She walks over to the armoire and opens the top drawer, pulling out a deck of cards. I get the feeling she planned this out before, and asked James where the cards were. “I can teach you this game called Go Jump in a Lake,” she says with a sly grin. “But it’s really fast.”

I sit up, interested. She teaches me the rules. You have to look for certain suits and pile cards one on top of another in this crazy way. When you see a card you want you slap the table. If the other person wants the same card and slaps the table first, you can ask them to trade. If they don’t trade, they tell you to Go Jump in a Lake.

She snaps off the TV and puts on a record. Joan Baez. Her favorite singer, she tells me.

I’ve never heard of her, but I nod. “Yeah, she’s pretty good.”

We start playing. Kathy slaps the cards down so fast they almost blur. Pretty soon we’re smacking the table and yelling “Go Jump in a Lake!” so loud James comes out to scold us, a glass of amber liquid in his hand.

“Keep it down, will you?” he asks, smiling, but I can tell he’s annoyed.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Kathy says, and my eyes just about pop out of my head. James turns around and walks out. We burst out laughing, fists pressed to our mouths.

KATHY AND JAMES ARE fighting. I can hear them even though I’ve turned the TV up loud and shut my bedroom door. From the sound of it, it’s mostly him mad at her. These past few months, it usually is.

This is Stage Two. Fighting. Girlfriend gets resentful of being stuck with the kid. She’s worried that he drinks so much. He can’t do his important work with her interrupting all the time.

I wait to hear her car roar out of the driveway, spewing gravel. Stage Three. Instead, the house gets silent. I turn off my TV and listen. Outside, the mid-morning sun is warm for fall; everything is yellow and orange and red. Cars drive by, slowly. Light, Saturday traffic. Finally, I get up and press my ear to the door. Then I open it slowly. Kathy stands there, her arm raised to knock.

“Oh, hi.”

“The three of us are going on a picnic.” Her tone is determined.

I back up until I feel the bed behind my knees, and then sink down. “We are?”

“Yes. We’re going to do something together for a change.”

I sit while she rifles through my closet.

“Where’s your blue sweatshirt?”

“On my chair.”

“Well, you want to wear it, right?”

I stand up and take the sweatshirt from her outstretched hand. Tears are streaming down her cheeks.

“Are you okay?”

“No. But I will be. We’re going to have a good time today.”

“You don’t have to take me. It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t.” She sinks down next to me, and swipes a hand across her cheeks. “I want us to be together today. Like a family.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Wow.” I pull my head through the sweatshirt, and it sits bunched around my neck. I’m too stunned to put my arms through the sleeves. “You like me.”

A strangled, choking laugh erupts from her throat. “Of course I like you, Luce. What did you think?”

“You don’t have to. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. To James, I mean.”

She opens her mouth to argue, but what’s the point? She knows I know.

“Your father…” her voice trails off, and she’s looking across the room. I’m not sure if she’s looking at my drawings of Jasper, or at the leaves I’ve tacked all over the wall, or my map of the world with red pushpins everywhere I want to travel. “He’s been through a lot, with your Mom dying…”

I think, he was exactly like this before she died.

“He’s a brilliant man, and his mind is on so many things…”

“He’s a bastard.”

“Lucy!”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Don’t cry, Lucy.” She pulls me to her, and the sweatshirt is still bunched around my neck, except now it’s wet. “You’re a great kid, you know that? It isn’t you.”

I think, of course it’s me.

THERE IS NO PICNIC. By the time I stop crying and pull my arms through the sleeves, James is gone. He told Theresa he would be at the computer lab until late, and not to hold dinner for him.

Kathy and I go riding. Jasper is strong, and he holds us both fine. I take her through the apple grove, but there are hardly any apples left on the trees, except some wrinkled ones with mush spots all over them. We throw them in the pond anyway.

Finally I show her the old house. We slide off Jasper and lean against the Johnson’s split rail fence, and I point.

“That’s it.”

“The red brick?”

“Yeah.”

“Nice.” She swings up to sit on the fence. “You miss it.”

“Yeah.”

“You miss her.”

I nod, and swallow.

“The sweatshirt was hers?”

My mouth pops open, and then I snap it shut. “How did you know?”

“I just figured.”

“Don’t tell Dad. I mean, James. He thinks he threw everything away. This was in the hamper, and I told him it was mine.”

“I won’t tell him.”

“Kathy, are you going back to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why did you drop out?”

“Students and professors can’t date. It’s against the rules.”

“Oh. You didn’t want to get in trouble?”

“Not me. Him.” She leans her elbows on her knees and puts her chin in her cupped hands. “I never thought I’d be a college dropout, but look at me.”

“Maybe you two could get married. Then you could go back.”

She snorts. “Your dad doesn’t want to get married.”

“You don’t know. Look how pretty you are. And you’re smart too, and lots nicer than his last girlfriend.”

“He doesn’t even see me anymore. I’m becoming just another stick of furniture around the house. One he keeps banging his knee on and wants to get rid of.”

“I just try not to stick out,” I say.

THERE’S A LAYER OF ICE over the water in the trough, and Kathy and I go out every couple of hours and break it with long thick tree limbs so Jasper can drink. It’s cold and steel gray outside, like gunmetal. When we talk our breath freezes against our upper lip, and the trees creak and groan in the wind.

When we come back into the kitchen, Theresa has gone home. There is a band of light streaming from under the door of the den, but no sound. Hours ago, James disappeared in there with a glass of whiskey and strict orders that he not be disturbed.

Kathy and I slink through the kitchen, pulling off knit hats and shrugging out of our down coats. We clump into the living room.

“The tree looks dry.” She fingers it, and needles fall all over the red and green quilted skirt and brown carpet. “We need to take it outside or it’s going to die.”

It’s the first Christmas tree we’ve had since Mom died, and I love it. We used a live tree, and decorated with strung cranberries and popcorn and construction paper links. Our Christmas dinner was a meal like the Indians (or as Kathy calls them, “Native Americans”), would eat: squash and beans and corn. Kathy told me the Native Americans believe all living creatures are their brothers and sisters. We cooked the meal together so Theresa could be home with her own family. We gave thanks to Mother Earth and, so Theresa wouldn’t have a stroke when she heard, the “Christian God.” When James saw the menu, he didn’t join us.

“I go back to school tomorrow. New semester.”

“Me too.”

“What?”

She shrugs. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to tell you. I wanted to wait until after Christmas. Your dad and I, we don’t even talk anymore. And I need to get my degree.”

“No! Stay here. He hasn’t kicked you out or anything, has he?”

“He ignores me.”

“He ignores me too. You get used to it.”

“No. I can’t live like this. But I’m going to miss you, Lucy. You’re a great kid.” She reaches behind her neck and unhooks her necklace, presses it into my hand. “Here. I want you to have this.”

I stare at the silver peace sign. I think, you’re my best friend, and you’re leaving me. But I’m used to being left, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I run away.

WHEN THE WOMAN COMES to the door, I’m crying so hard I can’t get anything out. She pulls me in and shuts the door behind me.

“Are you hurt?” She tries to pull my arms gently from my stomach, but I’m curled in too tightly. With her fingertips, she turns me back and forth, probably looking for gushing blood or bones sticking through skin. “Harold! There’s a little girl who’s been hurt!”

I want to tell her that I’m not a little girl, I’m just short, but I’m crying too hard.

“Call an ambulance!”

A man appears, holding a newspaper, looking confused.

“Not hurt!” I manage between sobs.

The man and woman kneel in front of me, looking into my face. A kid, about five, wanders into the room. The owner of the tricycle. It makes me cry harder.

After a while I stop sobbing, and the man ambles off. I can hear him on the phone with the police. “She’s about ten years old. Skinny. Brown hair… What’s that? Reported missing? That’s a relief… No. She just came up and started banging on the door.”

Waiting for James to arrive, I’m calm, drinking hot chocolate in my old kitchen. “My mom makes great hot chocolate,” I’m telling the woman. “She’s a good cook, all vegetarian. And we play all kinds of games together.”

She nods. When the doorbell rings, she shuts her eyes for a second and exhales violently. Glad to be rid of me.

The adults shake hands, talk. James explains that we used to live in this red brick house. “I think Lucy really misses it,” he tells them. “But we have more land at our new house, and I got her a horse.”

Show and Tell conversation. The man and woman nod rapidly, glad to see everything is Fine. Normal.

The family stands together in the doorway and waves. “Goodbye, Lucy.”

James is silent as we bump along in his Jeep. We pull into the driveway and he makes to get out.

“Is she gone?”

He nods. “Yes.”

“I loved her.”

“It’s for the best, Luce. It wasn’t working out.”

“Are you home for dinner?”

He shakes his head. “I have to go the computer lab. Theresa will make you dinner. She’ll stay with you until I get home.”

The tree is sitting in the trash as we walk up to the front door. We go inside. Dry brown needles litter the carpet. I pinch a few, put them in my pocket. My finger touches the silver chain, and I pull out the necklace, put it around my neck, stroke the tiny silver medallion.

Peace and Love, sister.pencil

Pam Mosher lives in Colorado, and loves to write about her childhood which was spent wading in irrigation ditches and lying in her back on hot summer days, dreaming of fresh peaches and corn and summer squash and ripe tomatoes. Her work has also appeared in Romance Ever After. Contact her at pam_mosher[at]msn.com.

Almost Perfect

Fiction
Holly Monacelli


I see it and I think Pella. A tiny gold chain with a blob of topaz every quarter inch or so. It sparkles like hell and really the only problem, as far as I can see, is the one of the links near the latch is busted. I try and put the clasp on a different link and it works fine. People are so quick to trash everything.

I hop on the bus because I have a date. I need time to get ready; otherwise I’d just walk like I usually do. Pella seems like pretty high maintenance. She’s one of those women that you can’t tell her age. Either she looks real good for sixty-five or she’s lived a hard forty years. Her eyeshadow gets stuck in the folds above her eyes and her lipstick, some bright tomato color, is a lot darker on her bottom lip than the top. But, Pella, well, she’s all right. You get to be my age and you start thinking a lot of people look all right. I’m not the man I was when Miriam married me.

So I come home and start scrubbing the kitchen floor because, just from the little I’ve seen of Pella at the diner, I can tell she’d be a neatnik. When I’d picked up her plate to pass through the window to the washer guys, there wasn’t any toast crumbs in the leftover egg yolk and no evidence that she’d mixed the home fries with the eggs. You see a lot of that. No, Pella’s plate was all compartmentalized, just like it had been the past three times she’d been in.

That smell of pinecones and lemons just about kills me. Whoever decided that’d be the universal smell of clean? The Arizona ice tea bottle in the center of the kitchen table looks empty and I remember right away that it needs the flowers I picked up the day before yesterday. They’re not in the best condition anymore, but they sure were pretty when I got them. Probably thrown angrily in the trash by some spoiled girl whose boyfriend tried to buy them for her to make up for kissing someone else. Pretty nice roses, red ones and only a little shriveled. That’s the only
flower guys ever think to buy. I used to buy Miriam rhododendrons.

Only part of the stuff I’ve got in my apartment is the thrown away stuff. A lot of it I got myself, from flea markets or my mom before she passed or occasionally even a big department store. I don’t like those kind of stores too much, though. They don’t really want you to test out merchandise before you buy it. But, how else do they expect you to know what you want?

Pella knocks and I freeze. I haven’t gotten everything in order yet. The candles aren’t lit, the record’s not on, and I didn’t splash on the aftershave. When you work in a diner the size of a rich person’s bathroom, you gotta have aftershave. Otherwise, you smell like a fried egg with a side of bacon, no matter what you do. “You smell like a greasy pig,” Miriam used to tell me. “But you’re my pig.”

She pounds a little harder as I stand there, straightening my shirt and making a final glance around the place.

“Hello, Fred,” she says in her low voice. It’s kind of sexy, really, and if I closed my eyes I could think she was some young sex kitten in her 20s.

“Why, hello, Pella.” I move in to kiss her on the cheek because it seems all right when your girl is over your place for the first time.

“You smell very nice,” she says and crinkles her nose. “May I come in?” she asks, though she doesn’t wait for me to say it’s okay.

“Of course,” I say to her back. Strike two.

I see my place through her eyes. Shabby. Worn. Too many trinkets. Stains on the carpet. What can I do? I thought the tapestry I had picked up a couple months back drew attention from the other stuff. It’s bright red with just a splash of navy and the only thing wrong with it was the bottom was torn. Just like if a cat had gotten his way with it.

After a few glasses of wine, one that I’d especially splurged on, we sit down for dinner. I’d tried to make chicken, the kind the diner wouldn’t serve, though most everything in my kitchen I’ve taken from there. So, there it is, chicken cordon bleu. And Pella, she eats it like it’s filet mignon. “It’s very moist, for chicken, Fred. Very moist,” she says and smiles. I feel like kissing her, but decide to wait until she wipes off the grease from her lipstick-smudged lips.

We look at each other from across the table. I reach my hand over to take hers across the table, but about halfway, I stop. Pella asks what I’m doing, so I say, “Can you gimme the potatoes, please?” which we both know is pretty silly since they’re closer to my side in the first place.

I don’t know if I imagine her foot rubbing up against my calf or if that is actually what she’s doing. After my cat Rogie died, I felt like one of them amputees that still feel their limb, the “phantom limb” they call it. Sometimes I still feel Rogie, even though it’s been awhile.

I get up to put on some music because I really can’t stand the way people’s mouths sound when they’re eating. It drives me crazy when I’m at work. Especially the ones that bite on their forks. That makes my teeth hurt. I throw on one of my old Sinatra albums, about the only one without a scratch. Sometimes over at those used record stores, you can pick up classics real cheap. This one, though, this one I had bought myself back in the day.

Striding across the room, I grab another bottle of wine. The cheap kind, like I normally drink. Miriam taught me that trick: serve them the good stuff first and by the time you roll out the junk, they won’t care. We have a couple glasses and Frank’s still singing and I feel like dancing, so I take Pella’s hand.

“Oh, Fred,” she says, swaying against me, her head on my shoulder. “This is nice.” And it is. We dance, but it’s almost like we’re standing still. Probably only me and her could tell we’re dancing.

I wonder for just a second if Pella has been married before. We’ve never talked about it. I saw pictures of her kids, or at least they looked like they could be, in her wallet when she went to the bathroom the last time she was in the diner. And I wonder if Miriam’s dancing with someone upstairs right now. I hope she is, and then at that exact moment, I know she’s not.

Pella tells me about her day and how it’s hard to be retired and she worries she’s getting less sharp because she doesn’t talk to many people during the day. “I like the sound of your voice calling out ‘two eggs, over medium, with a side of moo juice’. I didn’t know people talked like that,” she says, sitting beside me on the couch, both our weights making it sink even more in the middle.

“I didn’t know you were paying attention,” I say. “Maybe I would’ve said ‘two eggs, over medium, with a side of moo juice for the cutie in the front stool.” I lean over and kiss her, figuring now’s as good a time as any.

We neck like a couple of high school kids for a long time. She kisses pretty good. Better than her lips look like she’d do. I don’t whisper anything corny in her ear, because I can’t think of anything to say. I stick my tongue in there instead.

She pulls away suddenly.

“Sorry,” I say, moving away.

“Can I ask you something, Fred?” she says.

“Shoot.” I say, cool as a cucumber, but I feel the sweat starting. Good thing I didn’t wear the light blue shirt.

“My sister, she lives over by the university. And she says she sees you sometimes.” She settles back on the couch cushion and her hair sort of fans out over it, like a wild peacock.

“Sees me? How does she even know me?” I ask.

“We’ve been in the diner together before, Fred,” she says, her cheeks flushed now. “But she says, she says that, uh, that she sees you going through things. You know, other people’s things. Or at least she thought someone like you was, you know, shuffling through things.” She looks down.

I don’t answer right away. “Now, why would anyone do a thing like that, Pella? Unless they’re homeless or something.”

“Well, my sister’s a little off, so…” Her voice gets quiet.

We finish the bottle of wine and Pella says she better get going. “You are a wonderful host, Fred,” she says and kisses my cheek on her way out.

People thought it was kind of strange that I was retired and Miriam wasn’t. But she loved her job and I didn’t. I guess that’s the difference between working on the line and saving lives. “Oh, I don’t save lives,” Miriam would tell me, “I change bedpans.” But I knew better. So we came to the decision mutually. I would retire and be the homemaker and she would continue to bring home the money until she could retire with a good pension. I thought I’d hate staying at home, thought it’d make me feel useless. But I got into it. I really did. Sounds corny, but it made me love her even more.

When Miriam first started over at the big hospital, she was so nervous. I snuck over there right after work—it was when I was on first shift and I got off at 3:30. Took me a bus ride and a transfer to get over there. The people at the desk gave me a hard time because I don’t think they knew who Miriam was yet. Finally, we got it straightened out. She was on the cardiac floor. Where people recover after having heart attacks, this nice candystriper kid told me.

So I went up the elevator to seven and just started walking those scary halls. Scary with quiet, scary with clean, scary with nothingness. And in room 706 (which I played many a time in the lottery even though Miriam said it was a waste of a perfectly good dollar) there was my honey. She’d had her left hand on her hip, her head leaned in towards this poor old guy who looked liked he weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet. She was delicately sponging off his forehead and talking in low tones. I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I didn’t need to. It was the first time I saw with my own two eyes; I knew she was saving his life. Just like she’d saved mine all those years ago.

The diner’s dead. It’ll be like that for a couple more hours, until after midnight when the kids start strolling in, hungry after hours of drinking at one of the bars nearby. What a life, drinking all night and going to college all day. Parents probably paying for their brains to get bigger. Before my old man left, he said to me, “All’s you got is what’s in your head, kid. And that ain’t real much.”

That’s when I see this woman come in with a much younger-looking guy. They sit at a big booth in the back. Usually a couple coming in and hogging a whole big table pisses me off, but since no one’s here, I let it slide. But I do take my time heading over with their waters and menus.

The woman smiles at me and says, “Hello, again, Fred.”

“Uh, hello,” I say, setting down the drinks a little louder than necessary.

“You remember me?” she asks, taking a long sip from her water.

“No, can’t say that I do,” I say, looking from her face to her man’s.

“Pella’s sister. Bonnie,” she says and sticks out her hand for me to take.

“Oh, of course! I’m sorry, Bonnie,” I say and grip her hand tight. It’s hard to say if I really see Pella in her face or if I imagine it because now I know they’re related. She’s just so much younger than Pella. But, this lady definitely wears her lipstick like Pella, that’s for sure.

She introduces me to her ‘colleague’ and I know straight out she’s having an affair. He seems a little loopy and apologizes as they were just at a ‘faculty event’. “Looks pretty dead in here,” he says, his beady eyes darting around the diner.

“Yeah. Off-peak right now,” I say. “Pretty soon the kids will stumble in.”

“Off-peak, huh? When’s on-peak?” he asks, then starts laughing too loud into his corduroy sports coat.

“Jack,” Bonnie says and I see her hand disappear under the table. Probably to give his leg a good squeeze. Miriam and I used to do that to each other. One squeeze was ‘stop talking, you’re embarrassing me.’ Two was ‘let’s get out of here.’

“Maybe that’s when he picks through the garbage, Bon, during off-peak hours.” He starts flipping through the menu. “You serve beer here?”

“You don’t need anything else to drink anyway,” Bonnie says, rolling her eyes at me.

I tell them I’ll give them a few minutes to decide.

“What are the specials today, Ted?” the guy asks, even though there’s a colored sheet of paper right in front of his damn menu that lists them all. We don’t change them too much. Today’s specials will be Tuesday’s, too.

“They’re right–”

“Can I be sure that everything’s fresh?” he says.

“Yeah, pal. It’s all fresh here. Pick everything myself,” I say.

“From the trash?” he asks.

“Jack!” Bonnie says and squeezes his arm hard.

“I don’t know what your beef is, pal. But I don’t like it.” I look at Bonnie and say, “What is his problem?”

“Bonnie is worried about her sister, is what my problem is.” His voice is gravelly and slurred. “The family is a little concerned about the likes of you. Going through trash, talking to dead wives,” he snorts. “Get over it!” he says, ignoring Bonnie’s commands for him to shut up. “I have to piss,” he says and scoots out of the booth.

He passes me and I want to punch him. Hard. Right in the face. So he’ll fall and hit his head against the floor, like a pumpkin falling off a slow-moving truck. I imagine blood all over one side of his face, dripping on the floor. Wonder if there’s blood coming from the back of his head, too.

“Please don’t mind him,” Bonnie says to me. “He gets like this when he’s had too much.”

I just stand there and watch Bonnie walk to the bathroom in back and then lead Jack outside to the parking lot. I try to make my heart stop pounding so goddam fast. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I’m sorry, Miriam, I say, over and over again as I smash one plate after another on the speckled linoleum floor. Some pieces are under the big refrigerator, others in the middle of the kitchen. I stand there for a long time, waiting for Miriam to answer.

Pella wants to treat me to dinner at her favorite restaurant. We had sex last night and I think that’s why. I try not to think of her sister and Jack and the mess in the diner because it makes me feel a little kooky. Sort of like when Miriam first passed.

I don’t know what to wear and feel strange that Pella has to come and pick me up. I knew I should have bought that used pick-up when I had the chance. “Don’t worry, Fred,” she tells me on the phone before coming over, “it’s not a dressy place. Nice, but not dressy.”

She shows up and looks dressy. She’s wearing an aquamarine-colored dress, I think that’s the color. It was light blue and had a mess of sparkles all over it. Then her shoes, jeez, I don’t know how she crammed all those corns into those bitty straps. I worry when I see her that my gray slacks and peach button-down aren’t enough for this nice, but not dressy, restaurant she has in mind.

“Fred,” she says, breezing past me in the door, the smell of some flowery perfume blowing after, “you look smashing.” She smiles her real big smile and I try not to be repulsed by the chunk of lipstick on her left canine. She had the perfume on last night, too. Even more of it. We were making out on her bed and I kept thinking of high school. Maxine Rosenberg’s house, her parents’ bed. Me a scrawny 15-year-old trying to look like I knew exactly what I was doing, her a scared virgin just waiting to get it over with. As I was thrusting into her, I kept thinking this should be the best moment of my life. But I couldn’t get past Maxine’s face. Twisted up in pain, asking, “Do…you…love…me, Fred?”

“Thanks, Pella. You look rather smashing yourself,” I say. “Do you want a drink before we go, or should we just head out?”

“I just have to tell you, Fred, because I know you’re not the kind of guy who likes to discuss such things, that last night was absolutely wonderful. And I hope that you aren’t scared off,” she says and chuckles, looking at another stain on my carpet. “What with the way you ran out this morning, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So I was quite happy you called this afternoon, Fred.”

“Had to catch the bus.”

“What?” she says, her eyes squinting behind the big glasses she wears sometimes. They’re tinted the same kind of blue like her dress.

“Had to catch the bus this morning. They don’t run very regular on weekends. You miss one, and you never really know when the next one will come around.” I felt a little strange, too. Pella is the first woman I been with since Miriam got called. Never really thought about my performance too much with Miriam, think we just got used to each other. She loved when I would rub the tips of my fingers against the side of her face, though. That was the thing she loved the most.

On the way to the restaurant Pella holds her left hand on the wheel and her right hand on my hand. We are whizzing out of my neighborhood so quickly and suddenly nothing looks familiar.

“Where are we going, Pella?” I ask and take my hand from hers, so I can run it through my hair. It needs to be cut because when it’s long, it’s just plain unruly.

“You’ll see,” she says in this little-girl whisper that turns me on. I wink and nod. It’s not the best time to remember the feel of her thighs wrapped around mine and the way her hands kept tracing my shoulder blades. In my head, I’d talked to Miriam. There was a jumble of thoughts turning over and over, like my socks in the dryer. I love you, I hope you’re doing this, too, you better not be doing this, too. But all that came out was, oh no, oh no, oh yes.

The place is definitely worth the wait. And, just as Pella promised, it’s nice but not dressy. It’s cozy. The walls are like logs and I feel like we’re on the inside of a cabin or a ski lodge. There’s a big fire burning and it smells like autumn. Pella’s not sure what she thinks of the bearskin rug, but it’s a gem.

After a bite of her venison, Pella asks, “What is going on in that head of yours, Fred? I never knew anyone so pensive, like you.” She smiles in a way that makes me think pensive must be a good thing.

“I have something for you,” I say and dig into my pants pocket for the necklace. It’s a little warm when I hand it to her.

“Oh, Fred! I absolutely adore it! I never knew you were such a romantic. And my birthstone and everything! This is just too much!” She smiles and I think she, at that exact moment, is beautiful. “Can you help me?” she says and turns around in her chair so her back is facing me.

I hook the clasp on a link and it falls on her neck just fine. No one will ever know it was once broken and headed for the trash.
pencil

“I’m originally from Detroit and currently reside in Boston, where I work as a copywriter for an educational travel company. My most recent story can be found in the Berkeley Fiction Review (Spring 2003), and I’ve also written for Time Out Boston.” E-mail: hollymonacelli[at]hotmail.com

Freedom

Fiction
Andrew Griffard


Pound, pound, pound—splash! His rag-bundled feet slapped into the puddle, shooting water shards crashing down on the pockmarked asphalt. Gill glanced down at his hardened, bleeding toes as they quickly submerged into another small pool of dirty rainwater. Behind him he could hear the shouts and taunts, each one hurled between ragged breaths, coming closer. He hadn’t even heard the call. He was far from home today.

His small eyes darted around the gray and decaying buildings lining the barren street. Windows long ago gutted stared in open-mouthed screams at the insignificants scurrying below. Any names or markers had long ago been washed away from the buildings by the eternal rain.

Day had started the same as any other. Wake up, rub the mud off your face, crawl out of the hole and start looking for something to eat. Something to make the pain and tummy grumblings go away. They never did though. Not for long, anyway. Yesterday he’d found a nice big hunk of bread, only the outside crust had mold on it. The inside was mostly soft and white. He crammed it between his cheeks as fast as he could. One of the older ones had cuffed him once for eating so fast. Now, he always waited to eat his spoils until he was alone. But, he hadn’t found anything yet today. He and a few others had been scouring the ruins in the northern part of the city for anything, when suddenly they came.

His pace quickened as Gill spotted an open doorway ahead that a few of the other children were rushing towards. It was in the side of a large building that was decorated with faded pictures of coats and scarves. He pumped his legs harder, heart pounding in his chest as it sent hot spurts of blood through his clenched fists and temples.

A thin girl about his same age, with stringy, wet blonde hair stood at the small doorway, bouncing up and down on bony ankles, waiting for her turn to duck under the metal sheet that blocked the opening’s upper half. Annie, he thought her name was—one of only a few girls. Strange that she had a regular name—not a nickname like him. Strange, too, that she was out here at all. The women sometimes took pity on girls and let them sleep in their homes as long as they worked for their food and spot on the floor. That saved them. Only the homeless street brats like Gill and his friends were eligible for Freshmet.

The older, stronger boys had made their way into the building first and the smaller, weaker ones naturally had to settle for escape route leftovers. Annie, last at the door, paused for a second to watch him dodging his way through the puddles and potholes. Her pale eyes rested on him briefly before raising to something above his head, behind him. She turned back quickly and ducked into the darkness.

He could almost feel their panting on his neck now, could hear the pounding of their feet in his ears. Too many feet to ever outrun. He dared not look back even for a second for fear of not making it to the doorway in time. Gill barely slowed to duck down as he sprinted for the door. He scraped the top of his head on his way in and immediately disappeared into the darkness.

He shouldn’t have been as scared as he was. It was just that he’d never been last before, never been this close to them as they came with their sticks and clubs. Usually, there were the others right alongside him, running, almost having a little fun. Gill told himself not to worry, he’d gotten out of plenty of worse situations, he’d find a way this time, he was good at it. Once he’d even jumped into the river when it still had some ice on top and swam to the other side to get away from one of them. That’s why they gave him his name—because he must be able to breathe like a fish. His real name was Lars, but no one had called him that for a long time. And he didn’t tell anyone anymore—he was just Gill now.

Ignoring the fact that his eyes had not yet adjusted to the almost total darkness from the gray, cloud covered day outside, he shuffled quickly ahead and to the left towards the sounds of the other children’s feet. He stubbed his little toe on the corner of something heavy and quickly tucked it back into his makeshift foot rags. The rags didn’t protect very well against bruises, but sometimes they kept out a little of the cold.

Gill held his hands in front of him, running them along the edges of the doorway that he was walking through. A large shaft of light lit the wall beside him, enabling him to make out the room he was entering behind the rest of the ragged bunch.

Gill had never been this way before, usually keeping to the southern part of the city that he knew better. There were few people that lived in this part, but rumors abounded that some of the barons kept large hoards of food in basements. Unfortunately, Gill and his friends probably wouldn’t have any more time today to see if the rumors were true. Freshmet only happened a couple times a month, and only three kids at a time. Just to keep the brats from running rampant and stealing all the food, the older ones said. Gill thought the hunters just liked to do it. That’s why they always came running and hooting like they did.

Annie was following behind some of the older boys, holding to the edges of their wasted coats, trying to keep their larger bodies between her and the doorway through which Gill had just entered. And through which the sounds of pounding feet and shouts could be heard growing louder.

The group was splitting up, children breaking off in every direction. The main bunch of three older boys and Annie found a concrete staircase at the end of a hallway and quickly started climbing. A few other boys were making their way to the other side of the building, whispering desperately about a basement of some kind. Mole, with his moppish brown hair and big, red cheeks, was stuffing himself into a large drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe closet. He always found the best spots.

Gill glanced towards the younger boys making their way towards the other side of the building, then turned to see big shadows coming from the doorway where they had entered from the street.

He heard something around the corner and quickly ducked down behind a large wood desk with the legs missing. Two large feet shuffled into the room, kicking up dust. A sharp squeal echoed off the concrete walls from one of the other rooms and was immediately followed by a deep grunt and a thud. The big feet jumped towards the sound and ran.

Gill deftly moved around the desk and, still in a crouch, scrambled into the hall. He peered through the doorways into the room where he’d seen Mole hiding. Two sticks were moving up and down, in time with the soft thuds. Their beards were matted with sweat and grime and they grunted as each blow fell. Gill didn’t recognize the boy at their feet, he hoped it wasn’t Mole—he always hid out, always tucked himself safely away. Even if he could have seen the face, by this point it would have been useless. Some of the others were already starting to pull at the boy’s clothes and cut at his legs with their dull knives.

Gill took advantage of their preoccupation with the kill to run for the stairs. His foot slipped in the dust as he took off running. A surprised cry told him that they’d heard, but hopefully they’d be slow in responding. They had that crazed look—their eyes shifted fast and almost shone. They always looked you up and down, sizing you up, practically licking their lips, even when it wasn’t Freshmet. They said that once you’d had it a few times you acquired a taste for it and wanted it more, more than anything else. Gill hoped he never wanted it. Told himself he would never want it.

Gill flew up the stairs, concentrating only on placing one foot in front of another. He leapt to the top stair on the second floor and paused to get his bearings. His heart was beating so powerfully against his chest that he thought he would be sick. His adrenaline had been pumping for a few minutes now and he was beginning to come down from the rush. His legs were weak and trembling and he kept turning his head from side to side looking down each hallway, unsure of which way to go.

He saw Annie’s hair flip around as she darted through a doorway at the end of the hall to his left. He immediately rushed after her, ignoring the heavy sounds of large feet on the concrete stairs.

Gill rounded the corner just as he caught sight of the first one bounding up the stairs. He’d had blood on his hands. There was a door slowly swinging shut, then more stairs leading up. Annie was being dragged up the stairs, her knees bouncing as her other hand reached out for balance. Gill was right behind her. He slammed the door. Not that it would do much good.

The stairs twisted to the left. Hesitation flashed in his mind—they seemed to just keep going up and up, where were the stairs leading? They’d always been told to find someplace deep and dark, to burrow down and hide, wait for the sounds above to stop, “once they get three, then you’re free.” There weren’t that many tall buildings in the city anymore, how much higher could this one go?

Finally, the stairs ended in what appeared to have been some kind of storage room. There were piles of strange looking shoes—with thin straps and long pointed heels. None of them looked very warm.

There were many doors in the room, at least three or four on each wall. Two hallways led out to the right and left. In one of the corners a small step ladder hung from the ceiling with a pull-cord that came about to Gill’s chest.

The tall boy dragging Annie pushed the other two towards the hall leading to the left. Then, with a hand still tight around Annie’s wrist, he yanked open one of the doors. It was a small room filled with old cardboard boxes and more of the strange shoes.

He shoved Annie in first and started pulling the door closed behind him. Gill shot forward and grabbed the edge of the door, trying to keep it open. The older boy raised his fist up and brought it down into the middle of Gill’s chest, knocking him to the floor. The boy pointed angrily toward one of the other doors on the far side of the room, then pulled his closed.

Heavy footsteps were on the stairs. Gill ran across the room, almost tripping on the piles of shoes. He could almost imagine seeing the face of the first man as he came up the stairs into the room, club in hand, nasty smile on his face.

Gill dove inside one of the small rooms, pulling the door to with a soft whimper. He thought for just a second of a game that he and the others had often played when they were younger. All of them would hide and then one boy would try to find the others. With excitement and glee they would always run to their pre-selected hiding places and wait in fevered nervousness as the seeker looked around. This time, Gill thought, becoming the next seeker wasn’t the worst thing that could happen if he was found.

He could feel hot tears drifting out the corners of his eyes as he tried to bury himself in the boxes and mounds of shoes lying around in the darkness. The first few steps of the men in the room were plainly audible now. He froze and listened to them as they paused and kicked around at the hundreds of thin-strapped shoes.

Footsteps pounded down the hallways as the men set off in pursuit of the other boys. Gill’s head slowly dropped and his muscles eased as he relaxed on the dusty pile. It had been so close, they’d almost come right up the stairs and seen him before he could—

A small crash bounced off the walls as a body hit the floor with a deep thud. A few curses, then the man stood back up and stomped his feet, exhaling sharply through his nose. His footfalls were more definite now and slow: one right after the other, carefully pacing among the piles of unneeded shoes and overstocks of the last season.

Gill heard one of the doors quickly pulled open, the hinges yelping in fear. They whined again softly as they door swung closed and the footsteps continued. He couldn’t tell how far away they were—was he on this side of the room? Was he moving towards Gill’s door or away?

He tried to quietly bury himself deeper beneath the cardboard. A soft moan reached his ears and he wondered if Annie was crying, she was going to get caught if she didn’t— but then he realized it was his own voice, shaking and whining uncontrollably. He clamped his hands over his mouth and blinked through his tears in the darkness, holding his breath to try and hear any changes in the footsteps that seemed to be right outside his door.

Another door was yanked open and then the smashing of a stick against it as the man yelled and cursed again. Gill heard violent movement as the man scrambled for the next door, ripping it open and swinging his club against the wall and the shoes to get them out of the way. He was working his way down the wall, right towards Gill’s door.

Even if the hunter hadn’t heard his whimper, he must be able to hear the pounding of Gill’s heart in his chest, he thought. His hands shook with every beat and he felt like his head was going to explode. His breathing quickened and he wanted to squeeze his fingers around his own throat to stop the hollow rasping.

The man was only two doors away now, Gill was sure of it. In another few seconds, he’d rip open the door and see him laying there, half-buried under a heap of old shoes, unable to cover the rest of his scrawny, rag-wrapped body.

But, the footsteps stopped; the hunter seemed to pause, maybe listening for more sounds, trying to pinpoint the exact door so he wouldn’t have to waste any more time. Gill stopped breathing again. He was tired of hiding. Tired of the sick pain of fear in his throat and chest. He realized that he wanted the man to keep going. To quickly move along the wall and open his door and discover him there. Keep moving, keep going, open the door! He almost screamed it out at him, open the next door! Open this door! Open my door, I’m right here! Here I am! Find me, here I am!

He wanted it to be over, wanted to end the hunt. Yes, they’d catch him, kill him, tear him to pieces, but then it would be over. At least it would be over and he wouldn’t have to still be there, lying in the darkness waiting to see which door the stupid man would open next. Wondering if the next one was his, if those flesh-starved eyes would spot him and rain the heavy club blows down on his head and tear the skin off his face.

Gill was about to jump up and scream and burst out of his hiding spot into the man’s arms, when he heard a door from the other side of the room pop open and a body tumble into the mess of shoes. The man jumped across the piles to the other side of the room. Gill heard a small cry and pushed his door open just a crack to look through.

The bestial hunter pulled Annie from the floor by her hair and leered at her with his gleaming eyes. He threw her back down and yanked open the door she’d come out of—where the older boy was still trying to hide. The man swung into the darkness and a hollow crack sounded as the club bounced off the boy’s head. Gill could see the boy’s arm swing out in a weak attempt to fight off the man, but the hunter lunged forward and began raining more blows down.

Gill jumped out of his hiding place. Annie, tears streaming down her white cheeks, looked up at him in surprise from the floor. Gill heard the voices of some of the other men from down one of the halls and he raced for the small ladder sticking out of the ceiling in the corner.

His small hand grabbed the cord and yanked just as the first man poked his head out of the closet where he was just getting to work on the older boy. The ladder folded down and Gill scrambled his way up, feet and hands flying up the steps. A couple of men from the hallway rushed into the room. Both saw the prey escaping and lunged towards him as he flew up into the ceiling.

The step ladder led to another overhead hatch. Gill smashed his forearm into it and managed to bounce the lid off. Cold, dull daylight beat down on him. He could feel the other men on the ladder just as his feet were leaving the last rung.

Gill leapt out onto the roof and paused, temporarily dazed by the bright light. He turned every way around. Every direction looked the same. Old, pebble covered rooftop, broken machine boxes here and there and a small wall lining each of the four sides. The roof hatch lay open beside him. He ran towards the wall.

It came to about his waist and he knew he could easily make it over. But, just as he was about to swing his leg over the edge, he looked down. Four stories down. The street he’d run up to get to the building was below him. Piles of rubble and the occasional bed of weeds were strewn about over the damaged asphalt and concrete.

Gill turned around to see the first man emerging from the roof hatch, his wicked eyes blinking in the cold, afternoon light. That hatch was the only way back down. Well, not the only way. Gill’s gaze swung back again over the edge, to the street below, his cold, sweating hands still gripping the top of the wall tightly.

The first man smiled, his blackened teeth visible underneath his scraggly beard. He smacked his club in his palm threateningly and began advancing towards the wall. The other hunter crawled onto the roof and drew out a long knife.

Gill pushed himself up onto the wall and carefully stood as he eyed the two approaching men. He faced the street, but watched them as they slowly walked towards him, smiling and chuckling. The wind blew through his hair and he calmly looked back at the street and slowly raised his eyes towards the sky.

The first man rushed forward, a vicious cry tearing out of his face as his club arm swung around trying to reach Gill. Figures began to emerge from the half-covered doorway on the first floor.

In the briefest moment as Gill began to lean forward, his eyes rested on a fluffy, triangular cloud in the sky. It looked kind of like a pastry that he’d taken once from a small family home. The smell of smoke and baking had drawn him from the street, and he had taken one when they weren’t looking. He’d never had anything like it. The outside was soft and buttery and made his fingers sticky. Even after he’d finished it, he tried to keep the taste in his mouth for hours, running his tongue back over his teeth and lips, remembering the light sweetness that had been there. He kept his eyes focused on the triangular cloud, tasting that buttery sweetness again as he leaned forward and pushed with his legs away from the building. His arms were out as he fell, the blood-stained rags wrapped around his feet fluttering in the cold air.

The ground rushed at him and he heard a terrible crack. His mouth felt wet and hot and all he could see was the building, looming above him, the cold, gray sky behind. He couldn’t see any part of his body, couldn’t even really feel anything.

Gill heard footsteps from the building and soon felt a tugging at somewhere below his line of vision. His breathing was slowing now and he could smell something sweet and warm in the air. His mouth began to water and suddenly he could taste the carefully folded flakes again, just as real as they’d been the first time and the hundred times that he’d remembered and savored them since. He was vaguely aware of his body being carefully jerked from side to side, causing the lone building to move and quake before his eyes.

A strand of blonde hair swung in front of the building. Annie’s face hung over his, looking down at him. The tears had dried on her cheeks. He tried to move his mouth to warn her, the remembered taste of pastry now fast fading in his fear and alarm for her. All he managed to whisper was “run.”

She looked down at his body. Looked somewhere he couldn’t see. There wasn’t any fear in her eyes, nor sadness. She just looked, observing, taking everything in coldly. All Gill could hear were sounds of men grunting and tearing and pulling. Finally, she looked back into his eyes and shook her head.

“Now, we’re free,” she said. “They got their three.”

She moved out of his line of sight as the building and the sky and the gray and the clouds slowly faded from view.

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Andrew is currently pursuing an MBA at Pepperdine University. In his bounteous spare time, he works on completing a short film, a historical novel and perfecting his racquetball backhand. E-mail: andrewgriffard[at]yahoo.com

The Fisher Wife

Flash
Barbara J. Weekley


Hard notes play loud in the purple sky over the bay, from horns of sun-beaten ships. Fishermen, brown and salt-washed, move their boats to the edge of land, and gulls cry overhead, mocking them as if to say, “I will swoop near your rudder and still find my dinner!” The dock has always welcomed me a seat in all seasons, whether to swim near it in summer morning or whisper my secrets to the wind in the shudder of fall.

Tonight, I hear the festival down in Ribbon Bay. The carousel organ chants loud, redundant tunes, like a large mechanical Pied Piper, beckoning children to straddle red giraffes and orange sea horses. The voices of barkers whistle through the wind and saturate the stillness that I long for. Fireworks bang above me, placing the dark in terror and imposing sparks of raspberry and blues into the din. But soon, my ears close themselves to the outside distractions, and I think on you.

This was our place to come, when all of Ribbon Bay slept. Back then, I felt like warm ashes in your arms. We spent hours making love here, hands intertwined and entangled in the hot, hasty toss of panty and shoes. With you wrapped around me, I never felt the cold curl of wind, even in early winter. You smelled like the sea and tasted sweet in my mouth. Skin, rough and charred from the day of fishing—at night, you loved me with a relentless hunger, only satisfied when I was filled with you.

I come here nearly every night because there is no other choice for me. I crave the way you held the small of my back and stroked my thigh. People tell me its time to move on, and I know they all are well-meaning, but how can anyone understand? I cannot think of other men when I still hear you say how I move my hips like dolphins glide the foam. You told me my mouth warmed the chill of the sea from your bones and that my hair was spun from seashells. If I close my eyes, I know the texture of you; soft coral mixed with sand, your lips curling my ear, coaxing my nipple to rise. I taste your body still.

So I wait as any good fisher wife and listen to the water and the wind emulate your voice in my ear—praying for a word. Perhaps a naked swim will open the tide and call your hand to me again.

pencil

Barbara J. Weekley has been writing poetry and short stories for 45 years—for fun. Her poetry can be seen at Utmost Christian Writer’s Online. She is married and from Ohio. E-mail: wickenspoet[at]adelphia.net

Sibs

Flash
Laurah Norton


When you ignore her in the halls, you don’t let yourself feel guilty. You look at the people passing you in the hall, smell their school-time odor of baloney and chalk and hormonal sweat and imagine they notice the snub, imagine they whisper of your treachery.

Fuckers, you think. You look away when she’s coming, too.

And all the pretty girls who never talk to you, who shift their bodies left and right when you sit next to them in Biology, look back. They are accusatory. Their eyes say: But she is not our sister. She is not our responsibility. They don’t understand why you do what you do. They couldn’t.

You see her coming and have time to prepare how you will pass. It is hard not to look at her; she draws the eyes like a car wreck, enticing passersby into unabashed gawk-fests. She tries to detract from the grim reality of her face and her body with her bright clothes and wild clumps of hair. It just makes everything worse. She is a great, garish smear of color lumbering through the halls. People don’t even whisper, it’s that bad. They don’t understand that you have to live with it, with the hulking shape that glides up and down, up and down, endless and horrific.

You stay in your room, most of the time. You smoke cigarettes. You wait until you hear the front door the slam, wait until the heavy footsteps go clunking past your window, before you even think about going to school. Walking together would be horrific. You’d have to talk.

When the guidance counselor approached you to ask about your behavior, to insinuate, you got so angry you wanted to scream it out loud: But she’s not your sister! Of course you didn’t say anything. You never do. You smile and nod and look regretful and promise to do better, knowing all the while that you will never “feel compassion for your sibling’s situation.” You have your own situation to think about, don’t you? You’re not exactly riding on the Homecoming float yourself. You have wet, sweaty armpits and an angry red flush of acne. Your hair never does what you want it to. It stands up in greasy orange cowlicks, defying both prayer and comb. You wash your hair every night, but each morning there it is: dandruff. High school is hard and it is painful and you have enough troubles without walking to school with your big, ugly sister. You don’t want to be included in the pitying glances that the teachers cast over her like fishing nets. There still may be some hope for you.

So when you pass her in the hall you can’t feel guilty, not even when you look into those big dull eyes, hurt and smudged with purple shadow. You have your own shit to deal with. She may be your sister but you are not her keeper. You keep yourself to yourself and don’t plan for anything.

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Laurah Norton is a 24-year-old MFA student presently enrolled in Georgia State University’s Creative Writing program. She likes writing stories about North Carolina, collecting pin-up girl art and listening to punk rock. E-mail: vivalrevolution[at]aol.com