Missing Sunrise in Charleston

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Christina Hallis


Sprawled across Tripp’s dirty dorm room floor at 2:15 a.m., we’ve thoroughly broken the rules. Had we left three hours ago, we would be blameless and probably ordering our third round of hash browns at Waffle House while digging around for another quarter to listen to “Raisins in My Toast” on the jukebox. Again. But we didn’t do that, so I’m lying on the cold tile with a Georgia Tech blanket on my lap saying I want to go to the beach. And I’m more surprised than anyone that these words make it past my faulty filter to escape my lips.

“Say I won’t do it,” Tripp drawls, as is his way.

“It’s the middle of the night,” I backpedal, internally amused, as timing is not even the issue. In Boiling Springs, North Carolina, where the springs don’t boil anymore, because some punk undergrad blew them up before we were born, we’re hours from the coast, and I can’t come up with the closest beach anyway. It seems, though, that I’m the only one semi-capable of conjuring logistics.

“Say I won’t do it,” he repeats.

Katie, down from Raleigh for the weekend, and Chris, from down the hall for the night, look like they are wordlessly watching a slow-motion tennis match.

I’m not sure what I plan to say as I open my mouth to speak. Slowly and lowly I mutter it. “You won’t do it.”

Tripp sighs and stands up. Defiantly, and with a hint of a smile, he glares at me.

“Let’s go,” he shrugs, pulling on a sweatshirt. Not remotely sure where we will go or how we will get there, all I know is that I can’t back out. Sneaking out the side stairwell, Katie and I stifle giggles then let them loose on the wet grass. My Nikes are soaked by the time we reach my dorm where the boys will pick us up in five minutes.

The roommate/soccer goalie is not amused when I flip on a desk lamp to search for my Chapstick. “Wanna go to the beach with us?” I ask, rhetorically.

“What the hell? No,” she grumbles emphatically, then, “Who’s us?” When she hears Tripp’s name she rolls her eyes and laughs, condescending even at this ungodly hour. I ignore the implication and tie a turquoise bandana around my greasy hair, looking in the mirror for the first time since what is, officially, yesterday. I decide that it wouldn’t be a terrible thing to reapply a little makeup, and Katie laughs as Tripp impatiently throws rocks at the window.

I’m the one laughing getting into the Italian Stallion, Tripp’s ancient, faded-rust Chevy Celebrity. I don’t think anyone knows why we chose his car.

“Five minutes?” He raises one eyebrow and I slide onto the passenger’s seat, pleased at the assumption that it would be mine. It’s nearly 3 o’clock now. “Think we can make it by sunrise?”

It’s not until we hit Spartanburg, South Carolina on 85 that we realize we haven’t discussed our destination. My first college friend, Tara, is visiting her parents in Charleston over the weekend, and I’ve been there a few times before. I think I can remember the way to the beach.

Chris flirts with Katie and I realize they could be the same person inside very different bodies. I think of the weekend before ninth grade when we camped out in Paul’s backyard farm. I sang “Run Around” with John Popper on the CD player and silently hated Katie for being so typical. She intentionally left her jacket at home so that some unsuspecting boy could lend her his. I was 13 and the passive damsel thing lit a rage that made me feel guilty—I didn’t understand why I hated her. I wanted to believe it was because her act was manipulative, but really I think it was because it worked. Boys always followed Katie around. At 13, I didn’t realize they weren’t the boys I wanted. That revelation didn’t come until years later, after those same boys learned those same skills from Katie and turned them on her. Regardless, I was annoyed. In the middle of the night, when we finally went to bed, Katie conveniently remembered she forgot her sleeping bag. I muttered sarcasm into my pillow as she snuggled up with a high school lacrosse captain and I sweated in my professional grade sleeping bag.

Now, five years later, I’m amused as the staggering southern twang I can never understand makes Katie twitter. Last semester, Chris aimed to win Joy, the junior who drove me home to Maryland for Christmas. Joy and her hair were blunt and no-nonsense, and I wasn’t sure yet if I admired her honesty or if the overtones of cattiness overpowered it. All I know is that I howled as Chris recounted the night he lay with Joy on her bed, talking for hours. He gained confidence through the night, and felt strong when he leaned in to kiss her. She sat straight up and blocked his face with her hand. “No,” was all she said. Embarrassment propelled Chris off the bed and out of the room and they haven’t spoken since. I laugh every time I think about it. But I’m fairly sure that’s not what he and Katie are talking about now.

Back on the front seat, Tripp and I talk about faith and baseball and dreams and marriage and goals. My stomach tingles as I listen to someone else voice thoughts I never say. He mocks my use of the phrase “you guys” and complains that I talk entirely too fast. I mention that in fourth grade, a much shyer version of me earned the name “Turbo Tongue.” We laugh at the more mature implications I hadn’t considered until now. I impatiently attempt to finish his sentences because he talks so much slower than I know he thinks. But I fail because we aren’t there yet.

We settle into periods of silence and listen to Caedmon’s Call and Pearl Jam and 7 Mary 3. My face reddens in the darkness with the line, “If I stay lucky then my tongue will stay tied, and I won’t betray the things that I hide.” I wonder if I’m the only one thinking it and I wonder if he notices I’ve stopped singing.

The sky lightens and we are delirious as we whiz by North Charleston. And, although feigning confidence, I can’t believe I’ve gotten us this far on fuzzy memory alone. Crossing the Cooper River Bridge, we snort and cackle our fatigue and pretend the sky isn’t entirely too grey for a proper sunrise.

We screech up to the sand on Folly Beach and pile out into the wind. It’s so much colder than May is supposed to be down here. We act like this is exactly what we expected. Until Tripp starts giggling. Tripp’s laugh is the most infectious I have ever heard. It almost always ends with a roomful of tears and coughing fits. He’s right, though. It’s early enough to be sunrise and, at 7:09, probably a bit too late, but the sky is a threatening grey. The water is tornado-sky-green and a disgusting brown foam coats the shore and the dock. Katie and I flank Tripp, dripping tears and choking back laughter as Chris tries to stand still enough to take our picture. I squeeze Tripp’s arm tightly, with the excuse that the wind might knock me off the post. He squeezes back, with no excuse. He never has an excuse.

Racing back to the car, we head for McDonald’s and can’t swallow our breakfast for giddiness. Nothing compares to a sleep deprivation-induced hangover. None of us can believe tomorrow is already today and we have to start the last week of this year tomorrow. And we know we can’t drive back yet.

We decide to bum showers off of Tara’s parents, under the guise of surprising her. Crowding around the front door of the house (please, she once begged me, never tell anyone, but it’s modular), we stun Tara who stands speechless in front of us in her nightshirt and retainers. “Mom!” She whines, “I can’t believe you didn’t warn me!” She runs up the stairs, two at a time, while we clutch our stomachs and try to catch our breath. Faith, her overwhelmed pseudo-Southern mother lets us in, and I imagine what my own mother would do under the same circumstances.

“I’m sorry,” she’d say, horrified, “But my house is a mess. There’s no way you’re coming in.” And still drunk with possibility and lack of sleep, I resolve to myself that I would rather be this type of mom. Even if her accent is fake. Katie and I shower and put our rumpled clothes back on and Tara tries her best to act like our coming here was a nice surprise instead of like she’s angry that the weekend went on without her. The monologue in my head continues and I muse that her perception of things is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

“You sure no one wants to ride with me?” She winces as she climbs into her ’89 Camry. It has a car alarm, built-in CD player and fuzz buster, but sometimes it doesn’t start. We all act like we don’t hear her and snicker our way back into the Stallion. Because no one wants to break this up. The seating chart doesn’t change and our philosophical ideology from the night before goes from incoherent to slurred to non-existent.

“You sure you’re awake?” Chris worries from the backseat where Katie snoozes on his lap.

“Naw,” Tripp chuckles, “Not really.”

We take a break to switch seats, and I don’t tell anyone my eyes are blurry. I drive the Stallion so fast it shakes while I sing softly and watch Tripp sleep, his arm flung out so his hand brushes my thigh. It’s ridiculous, I think, embarrassed, the little things that seem so exciting when there is nothing to go on. Tara flies ahead of me, and there’s no way I can catch her. The Stallion’s speedometer only goes to 85. Later I’m sure we’ll apologize for nothing.

We stumble slowly out of the car when we get to my dorm, the sky the same color of our sunrise this morning, and I feel like I’ve been gone for several really fast days. Chris and Tripp hug Katie, who will return to Raleigh tonight. Chris waves at me, stepping backwards, and Tripp shrugs and offers an awkward hug. “Thanks for the adventure,” he says softly and winks. I smile at him and wonder if it really is that lucky for my tongue to stay tied.

After Katie leaves my mom calls and asks what I did for the weekend. “You’re not going to like it,” I blurt out. Amused and knowing she’s imagining various atrocities, I preface the story with, “It really could be a lot worse.”

She calls my actions irresponsible, reckless, stupid and dangerous, and finally I respond with, “You know, I didn’t have to tell you.”

The tone on her end changes because I don’t realize yet that my statement is true. But she does. She also knows this conversation will be the last of its kind, as it begins to seem more important to appear responsible than actually to be.

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Christina Hallis is a technical writer and editor by day and strives to be a bit more exciting, in her writing and otherwise, at night. She earned a B.A. in English from Gardner-Webb University and will begin the M.A. in Professional Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University in the fall. This is her first entry to Toasted Cheese. Probably not coincidentally, however, toasted cheese day was her favorite in the cafeteria in elementary school. E-mail: cmhallis[at]hotmail.com.

Crossing the Mojave

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Melissa A. Bartell


It’s 10:30 AM, and we’re just arriving in Needles, California. We’ve only been driving for ninety minutes, but it already feels like time for a break. Behind us are Barstow, Bakersfield, and farther north, San Jose—our home for the last six years.

Looking through the dusty windshield of our green Subaru Forester, I see heat ripples over the road. I wonder if the dogs can see them, or if it’s a skill limited only to humans. I wonder if everyone sees faint pixellation in everything they look at, as if perceiving the individual particles that coalesce to form an object, or if it’s something only I can do, a useless talent, like tongue curling or ear wiggling.

On the speakers, Natalie Cole is urging us to “get your kicks on route sixty six.” I chose that CD early this morning, realizing that I-40—our path across the desert—loosely followed the historical highway. As the car slows, I realize that my windshield-gazing had been an hour ago, and that the CD had been playing continuously, while I had been asleep. I must’ve dozed off while counting cars on one of the impossibly long trains that passed us, heading West in opposition to our Eastward journey.

My husband, Fuzzy, notices that my eyes are open, and I’m sitting upright, instead of leaning against the window. “Good, you’re awake,” he says. “You were napping.”

I wipe dried saliva from the corners of my mouth and reach for my water bottle, kept pleasantly cool by the blasting air conditioner. I remember other car rides, in other cars, with other people—brief rides to and from the beach in my grandfather’s old Dodge with the grooved seats that seemed to attract sand the way human sweat attracts mosquitoes. “Sorry,” I tell him, when my mouth is wet enough for words. “There’s nothing to look at and you weren’t singing or talking.”

“If you had a driver’s license you could drive, and you wouldn’t be as bored,” my husband says.

I glare at him from behind my Maui Jim sunglasses, purchased two years before in celebration of my LASIK surgery. “If I was driving, we’d be dead,” I say. “Why can’t you understand that I don’t see the way everyone else does? I can’t track moving objects, they overwhelm me.”

He sighs and turns away. “I want to top off the tank,” he says.

I peer through the steering wheel to the gas gauge, which is barely lower than F. “Here?” I ask. “In Needles?” I glance at the prices on the sign at the Union 76 station and point out, “This has got to be the most expensive gas in the known universe.” At nearly three bucks a gallon, this is no exaggeration.

“We’re going to be in the desert until we’re almost at Flagstaff,” he tells me, in that too-calm tone that means he’s locking down his own fear. “I don’t want another thing like yesterday.”

I nod. There’s no need to fight about something so trivial, and it’s not as if we don’t have the money. Last night had scared me. We had stopped for dinner at a Sonic in Bakersfield, each of us had observed that we needed gas. Somehow, in the confusion of finding the right highway to head toward Barstow, which was our targeted stop for the night, we missed the business loop, and wound up in the mountains with the fuel supply rapidly dwindling. When the needle on the gas gauge touched the top corner of the E, we pulled off at the first sign of civilization, only to find that the gas station advertised on the road sign had long since become derelict. We drove a bit further, before coming to a ranger station, where we were told that they usually had an emergency supply of gas on-hand, but had given away the last quarter-gallon to another traveller twenty minutes before. “But don’t worry too much,” they said. “Tehachapi’s only eight miles, and it’s all downhill from here. Just make sure you take the second exit.”

What followed was a panicked coast down the mountain, where Fuzzy took the first exit, forcing us to loop through town (which, it turned out, was also mostly downhill). We finally arrived at a gas station just as the car was beginning to suck air, and I yelled at him about it for the first twenty miles after that, not so much because I blamed him, but because I had been afraid of being stranded in the mountains, in the dark.

There are too many cars in line for gas, so we opt for an ice cream break, although neither of us buys ice cream at the Dairy Queen we go into. Instead, we have hot dogs and limeade, and watch an older couple with an equally geriatric chihuahua sitting on the bench while their grandchildren eat ice cream bars on the sidewalk. They are little girls, and are dressed in shorts and bathing suits. I find this incongruous; we’re in the middle of the Mojave Desert, after all, with no beaches nearby. Or… plenty of beach, actually, but no water at the end of it. I mention this to my husband, and he just shrugs. He never notices these things.

Our own dogs are restless. They are tired of being in the car, confused by their surroundings. I take them to a patch of half-dead grass behind the buildings, so they can relieve themselves. We all wince as they prance on the hot pavement: the dogs because they are spoiled, and unaccustomed to having to cross burning pavement to get to the grass, and me on their behalf—I can feel how hot the pavement is through my shoes. To them, it must feel even hotter. I feel like a bad dog-owner for subjecting them to this.

When Fuzzy returns from his visit to the restroom, and it’s my turn, I find that there are three polyester-clad old women in line ahead of me while the fourth member of their group, apparently called Ida, is inside the one-seat women’s room. They take turns calling out to her, to make sure she hasn’t dropped dead of heatstroke or something, and I realize that there isn’t time to wait. I glance at the men’s room, its door standing open, but I can’t bring myself to go in, and a line about men and bathrooms, from the comedian Rita Rudner, echoes through my brain: “If they hit anything, they think they’ve done a good job.”

I buy another hot dog, and drop the bun in the trash as I return to the car. The meat is divided between our dogs, and they bounce and wriggle and generally act as if I’ve given them gold. I guess in doggie terms, I have. We offer them water, and another trip to the grass, and then we drive to the other side of the freeway, where the gas station is now nearly empty. While Fuzzy fills the tank, I go in search of their restroom, expecting something foul, but an old man with greasy fingers and no teeth directs me to the back of the convenience store part of the gas station, and I gather my courage.

Instead of the expected dingy, grey, cubicle, I find a near-oasis: shiny green tiles on the floor, fresh flowers on the counter, and the soft scent of potpourri that actually manages not to be obnoxious. I linger in the stall, and the woman in the other stall begins the sort of inane conversation that happens in such situations. “This is pretty impressive for a gas station bathroom, don’t you think?”

We wind up exchanging stories, encapsulating our lives. “We’re on the way home to Florida,” she says, and without seeing her, I know she has the leathery tan skin of a woman who spends too much time in the sun, and blonde hair from a bottle. I tell her that we’ve sold our house in California and are moving to Texas, “Because my husband was relocated.” This isn’t entirely true, but it’s not really a lie, either, and I’ve almost made myself believe it.

She is done before me, and I hear her fussing with the soap dispenser, the water, the paper towels. “Have a safe trip, hon,” she calls to me in her reedy, twangy voice. “And remember, never ignore a clean bathroom.” This line will become my mantra for the rest of our trip.

“Have your man stop in front of the store before you leave, would ya?” the toothless mechanic calls to me, from his lawn chair just inside the air conditioned zone at the station’s front door. I stop, startled, and he laughs, then explains. “One of your tires looks low, and I don’t want ya going on the road ’til I look at it.” I nod and thank him, and relay his message to my husband. The tire turns out to be fine, but having it looked at does much to ease both of our minds, and we feel as if this leg of our journey has been somehow blessed. We pull out of the driveway with lighter hearts and continue down the road, noting that the digital thermometer on the service station’s signpost reads 112.

At 3:30 PM we are in Flagstaff. I can’t see heat ripples anymore when I look out the window, but I’m not certain if it’s because the temperature is cooler here, or if I’ve become so inured to them that they cease to attract my attention. We made a couple of stops at rest areas before pulling into this McDonald’s on the east side of town, once to let the dogs water trees, and once for a pit stop of our own.

Fuzzy has gone the entire trip guzzling root beer and orange soda, but I am being good and sticking to water as much as possible, partly because it’s cheaper but mostly because it isn’t quite so vile when it is no longer throat-numbingly cold. I open my mouth to urge him to drink water, but he has a closed expression, so instead I mutter something about how the word “Mojave” changed to “Mohave” when we crossed the state line. He has no response.

I keep seeing signs for the Grand Canyon, which I have not seen since a school field trip when I was a child living in Colorado, but my husband reminds me that the dogs cannot eat until we stop for the night, and that as much as I seem to want to pretend this is just a road trip, it is not a true vacation. Instead, it’s a one-way trek halfway across the United States, to an apartment we have never seen that will be filled with furniture we do not own. I don’t tell him that I have to keep pretending we’re just exploring so I don’t get overwhelmed at the journey we’re making—not the physical trip, though that is grueling enough—but the uprooting of our lives.

Intellectually we both understand that this decision is the right one, that we were caught in a never-ending loop of bills and emergencies, that my company was failing, and that the cost of living in the Bay Area was increasing. Our ultimate destination, Dallas, Texas, isn’t the first choice for either of us, but it is the best we could agree on, and sometimes that has to be enough. Nevertheless, the knowledge that there is nothing familiar waiting for us at the end of the road is more than a little daunting.

I pull myself out of my thoughts and feed French fries to the dogs while my husband stretches his legs a bit. Our larger dog, who seems a brute at twenty-two pounds when compared to our other dog, who weighs a mere eight, has noticed birds outside, and is desperate for a chance to chase them. Even the fries don’t capture her attention, so I scratch her ears and apologize in soft cooing tones. A few minutes later, we are back on the road.

The landscape around Flagstaff is not true desert, but more lush, like low foothills. There are stretches of land that appear to be forests on either side of the Interstate, and I notice signs warning about deer, but eventually the desert terrain replaces the mountains again, and the dull brown monotony of the landscape lulls me into sleep.

When I wake, three hours have elapsed and the dogs are restless. The sun is setting and twilight, deeply purple, is settling around us. We’ve just reached Gallup, New Mexico, and Fuzzy has switched the CD to some Christian rock band that I’ve never heard of, with lyrics that seem smarmy and insincere (though I think that of most Christian rock, so it’s nothing personal to this band).

I tell my husband that we’ve driven far enough for one day, and that while this may not be the meandering vacation I want to pretend we’re on, it’s not a race either. He is yawning, and I am road-weary, and we’ve already crossed the Mojave today—we don’t need to cross New Mexico as well. Reluctantly, he agrees, reminding me once more that if he were making this trek alone, he would drive straight through, then sleep for three days to recover.

We find a motel that allows dogs, and is offering free wireless Internet access. After we bring our things to the room, I feed the dogs and send Fuzzy in search of food. “I don’t care what you bring back,” I tell him. “As long as it’s hot, and doesn’t come in a wrapper.” I can’t stomach another meal of fast food eaten in the front seat of the car, while the dogs bark and scratch at the backs of the seats, begging for scraps.

Twenty minutes later, I look up from my laptop to find Fuzzy standing at the motel room door with two Styrofoam boxes, cold water, and a rose. I help him set out the food—cheese enchiladas. “I’ve always wanted to eat cheese enchiladas in New Mexico,” I tell him.

“I know,” he says. He hands me the rose, and tells me he loves me, and he knows I’m scared, but everything will be all right.

We eat quickly, and then we go to bed, not bothering to watch television, or check e-mail, or anything. In the cool darkness of the motel room, with the hum of the air conditioner and the contented breathing of our dogs serving as background music, we make love. Afterward, as he holds me close and strokes my hair, I listen to his heartbeat.

Today, we crossed the Mojave Desert, and left California. Tomorrow, we will cross New Mexico and enter Texas. Tonight, I lie in the dark, and watch the staticky pixels of light and dark dancing on the back of my eyelids, until I fall asleep.
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Melissa A. Bartell is a voracious reader. She likes strong coffee, red wine, dark chocolate, and thunderstorms. She collects hats, and spends far too much money on frou-frou stationery. She lives in Grand Prairie, TX with her husband and two dogs. Her blog, “Scritture” can be found at www.missmeliss.com. E-mail: melissa[at]missmeliss.com.

Cycle News

Creative Nonfiction
Valerie Shepherd


My dad’s eyes are wide. His coffee-stained teeth stretch around towards his ears and his whole upper body jets out of the driver’s side window as he uses his hitchhiker’s thumb to point to the back bed of his truck, where, all roped up and shining, is a brand new KTM 300 MXC dirt bike.

At first I’m angry at him. He’d promised he would never ride again. I wonder if his years of moping finally took their toll on my mother. Two hours away at college apparently meant I was out of the loop. No one had said a word to me and it was shocking to see my father so unabashedly happy about his purchase; he wasn’t one to usually break a promise.

It was a pickup truck that knocked him down, his last big spill before the vow to never ride again. I don’t remember the hospital, the ride home, or my mother’s initial reaction, but I do remember watching her help my dad into their king size bed, making sure to prop up the leg he almost lost, swelled to twice its normal size. His face was pale from pain and his 6 foot muscular frame seemed to disappear into the pillows and blankets around him.

His first bad crash was right before my little sister Ashley was born. There is a picture of my dad cradling Ashley at about a week old, her pink skin standing out against his white arm casts. Whenever my mom sees this picture, she goes into great detail about the thankless tasks she had to perform while eight months pregnant.

My dad waves me closer as he slowly slides out of his truck. He must be sore. He must’ve been riding. I give him a hug. He smells like Mojave Desert dirt mixed with sweat and Gatorade. The mixture is oddly comforting and I realize his riding is a part of my past too, one I left behind when he quit racing and we moved out of the desert.

“When did you get it?” I ask him.

“Last week. Isn’t she beautiful! Don O would’ve been mad that I didn’t get a Honda,” my dad says as he shakes his head and laughs.

Don Ogelvie was a legend in the motorcycle world, an expert who became a mentor to my dad. Don and his son Bruce were frequently on the cover of a magazine called “Cycle News” that my dad used to collect. The media would follow Don and his son as they held the plates in the top ten of whatever desert race was the largest at the time. They were always pictured together. I think my dad wished he was Bruce in a way. Wished that he too had a father who was not only involved in his son’s life, but a friend to him as well.

“When I first met Don O he was 61. I was in Baja on a trail ride. Did I tell you he had a washboard stomach, even at that age…”

My dad goes on, even though I interject to tell him that yes, I have heard this story before. He knows. He just wants to tell it again, so I let him. He tells me of Mike’s Sky Ranch, where cyclists from around the world would converge for bunk style sleeping and breakfast before they would ride the Baja 1,000.

“…People would be sleeping out on the pool deck, inside on every couch and even on top of the pool table…” He begins to untie his bike as he gets to the part in the story of his first ride with Don and how he was chosen to be the guy behind him on the trail, which apparently was an honor. After the ride, Don asked him what his name was, and after my dad told him, he said: “Shepherd. I’m going to remember that name, because you’re a really good rider.”

I know my dad was good. Some of my first memories are of crowded award banquets with their trophies lined up from tall to short on a brown foldout table. My dad never came home with a short one. It was during this time, his peak as a rider, that he would take me out with him whenever he rode the smooth hills just beyond our house.

My dad would wake me up at dawn and ask me if I wanted to look for Goldilocks with him. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” was apparently my favorite story at the time. Originally, my dad insinuated that I was Goldilocks and we were to look for the three bears, but this prospect scared me, so he left the bears out of it and we went looking for Goldilocks, which prompted me to roll out of bed for the prospect of a playmate. He would place me in between the handle grips and his chest, one hand would grip the throttle, while his other arm was wrapped around my waist. His forearm was dense and sturdy. I would hold on to it as if it was the protection bar on a ride at Disneyland.

We would look behind cacti and around sage bushes in our search, but within a few minutes I would forget about our mission and revel in the way my stomach would flip when the motorcycle rushed its way up and down the fields. When we would reach the top of a hill, I would look up at my dad and raise my eyebrows to warn him I was frightened. He would comb his shaggy blond hair out of his face with his hands, so I could see his sure blue eyes, then he would smile down at me, his white teeth standing out against his tan skin. I would give the “OK” nod and he would ease over the edge, back off of the throttle, and glide down the hill, all the while playfully echoing my excited scream.

I’m at the bottom of one of these hills when I hear my dad reach the end of his Don Ogelvie story.

“He has Alzheimer’s, you know?” he says as he adjusts the shocks on the bike. I tell him that I didn’t know this and say I’m sorry.

“Found out a couple weeks ago, should have known though. The last time we were down pitting in Baja, Don got lost, which was kinda weird because he knew that place like the back of his hand. He was getting up in years but he could still ride like the wind. When we filled up his empty tank, he said he had used up all of his gas riding around looking for a pit stop,” my dad says as he sits on top of his bike to test out his adjustments. He bounces up and down, side to side, and it reminds me of the way my sister used to ride Clip-Clop the Wonder Horse, a spring rocking horse that she would play on for hours at a time. As she grew older, the horse sank low to the ground and began to tilt to the side, so we had to retire it to the garage where it leaned against boxes of old baby clothes and suitcases filled with pictures of distant relatives.

“I need to keep riding,” my dad says as he nods his head, an affirmation of his own statement. “Wanna go around the block?” he asks me. I shake my head. “I’ll be back in a while then.”

He pushes his boot down violently on the kickstart a couple times before the motor starts buzzing and popping. His belly hangs over his riding pants just enough to make him look uncomfortable in them and his hair seems too short, his neck bare at the collar line, exposing the sun damage from the day’s ride.

I watch him accelerate down our paved street, and I wonder if there are any dirt hills nearby. I know I should be upset about the bike, but I’m not.

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Valerie graduated from Loyola Marymount University where she studied Creative Writing under Greg Sarris. She currently lives in Orange County, California with her dog Josie. E-mail: shepherd202[at]cox.net.

Rummage

Fiction
William Wilde


Every Saturday, it’s the same. Read the classifieds, mark the good ones, then scrounge every garage sale I can make it to. People who know me say I’m hooked on it, and maybe I am, because if I had to, I could give no sane reason for my behavior. It’s more than a cheap urge to steal a treasure in somebody’s throwaway junk and I can’t even say what exactly I’m hunting for. It’s not like I’m out there prowling for the tools and fishing lures the other men are after. But I keep coming back for something every week.

Today, the air had that bright yellow coolness that comes suddenly in the Oregon fall and I could tell the weekend sale season was almost over. I put on my old Pendleton plaid jacket and made a circuit of addresses on the west side of the Willamette. The first half-dozen places I hit were a waste of time and gas. The next one I stopped at was on one of those healthy lawn, minivan-salted suburban streets in Beaverton and it looked like more of the same. Nothing but the usual piles of outdated clothing, unneeded gadgets, and ugly Christmas gifts until I got to the back corner of the garage.

That skinny old man was sitting there in a shiny brown suit and starched shirt, his thin white hair greased down so you could see the pink scalp underneath. He sat board straight on a folding chair, bony jaw set, dry blue eyes fiercely ignoring the broken mess around him. The thing that caught my eye was the red price tag on the sleeve of the old man’s coat. I fumbled to look at it. Twenty bucks.

It was an obvious mistake, a tag that had come off something else and got stuck on his sleeve. I could have just let it go, but I didn’t. I was in a sour mood after wading through all those wastelands of castoff crap and I wanted to take it out on somebody.

I licked my lips and sized up the woman running the sale. In her forties, washed out blonde hair, soft dough settling at the corners of her mouth. She wore a faded sweatshirt that said, “Walk For Life,” on the front. The old man’s daughter, maybe.

I pointed to the tag on the old man. “I’ve been looking for one like him ever since the one I used to have went south on me. Take fifteen for him?”

She raised an arm to push back her hair and stared hard at me a moment. “For the price, I can throw in some of his old clothes off the table there.”

That stopped me short, the way she answered back deadpan, not giving an inch to my joke. I pushed it farther, starting to haggle.

“He looks like he’s got a lot of years on him. How do I know he’s got enough time left on his clock to be worth it?”

Her expression stayed sober. “He might look stringy, but he comes from tough stock. He’ll hang on forever, believe me.”

“I’d still have to feed him. That costs something.”

“He hardly eats much anymore,” she said. “Just some oatmeal and milk in the morning, soup and bread for supper.” She looked me straight in the face. “I won’t take less than eighteen, Mister. That’s final.”

My cheeks got warm behind my glasses’ lenses. The joke had gone bad, but I was locked into some stubborn contest with this woman to see who would give in first and admit they weren’t serious. It was one of those prickly standoffs that you get into with a complete stranger over some petty thing and then it just escalates out of proportion. We were haggling over more than a couple of lousy bucks now. What was she trying to prove? Maybe she was only looking for a target for her frustration too, but I was damned if I was going to let her make me be the one to back off.

“Seventeen bucks,” I said.

“Done,” she said, and I thought she would snort a laugh at last and it would be over then, but instead she moved immediately to haul the old man up off the chair. All the while the woman and I had been haggling in front of him, he had never shown he was aware of it. Now he walked with balky stiffness as she led him firmly across the yard.

I knew for sure by then that the woman had to be having her own tart joke back on me. I was the one who started this business, so I had no case to complain. But it was the matter-of-fact way that she continued to pursue it that galled me. No matter what, I couldn’t let her get the satisfaction out of it now.

I played along with it and we got the old man and a paper sack of his clothes loaded into my SUV. He never even looked at us when we put him in, like he already knew what the score was.

At the curb, I counted out the bills into the woman’s palm, sure that she would break at some point. “His name is Ed,” was the last thing she said at the car door. “But you can call him whatever you want to.”

My heart was pounding harder when I climbed in behind the wheel. I had to call her bluff once and for all. How much further was she willing to let this standoff between us go? I started the engine and we rolled slowly away with no last minute shout from behind. When I looked up to the rear-view mirror, she was already selling a homely wicker lampshade to somebody else.

I continued around the corner and out of sight, then a flash of anger made me speed up and keep on going. Because if that woman expected me to just circle the block and then pull up sheepishly a minute later back at the sale, she was in for a surprise. Let her wait and think when we didn’t come back right away, see how she liked that.

I drove vacantly around the placid, leaf spotted streets for awhile and somehow ended up parked in the lot of the Safeway store on Murray Road. We sat there as the minutes ticked by while I tried to think what to do.

I looked over at the old man in the passenger seat, his furious stare fixed through the windshield glass, still acknowledging nothing. His withdrawal made me think first of a stroke, then Alzheimer’s, or maybe it was something else that circumstances had forced him to do for himself.

We sat in a limbo of unreality in the parking lot and for the first time, I thought seriously about keeping the old man. Because, really, what was to stop me from doing that now? I paid for him, didn’t I, and my offer was taken by the seller, so how did that leave things to stand legally? It had all started as a careless joke, or maybe it really wasn’t, and I just didn’t see it until then. The old man had taken his stance of stubborn denial. Why couldn’t I do the same?

I reached my hand over to touch the sharp ridge of his shoulder. He showed no reaction to me. If I tried to speak to him, what was there that I could explain to him about why either one of us was sitting there where we were?

That woman had told me the old man’s name, but it stuck in my throat like a wrong sound when I started to say it.

His stony exile never altered a bit and I could tell then that it wasn’t going to. Whatever private thing was working inside him, I could never have a place in his situation, just like he could never belong in mine. I would have seen that before if I had stopped to think.

The mute silence was broken by the sudden bump of a shopping cart against the side of the Jeep. My head turned and I saw a woman with yelling little kids mouth a “Sorry!” at me through the side window.

Finally, I had to give in and take the old man back to where I had bought him. It was the only way now for me to get out of this thing I had started. It left a sour taste for me to give that woman the last round between us. I could imagine the crowing stories she would tell her friends later about how she had got the better of me. Now I had to go back with my tail tucked, but I had to bring an end to what had gotten so warped out of any normal sense.

I drove out of the store lot and followed the cardboard signs on the corners back to the same garage sale. When I pulled up, the woman was shifting around the clutter in the driveway. I didn’t want to have to talk to her or even look her in the eye. I only wanted to drop off the old man, then get away from there.

I got out and she recognized me as soon as I walked up. I was ready for a knowing horselaugh from her for finally making me be the first one to blink, then at least this would all be done with. But she showed none of that. The dough around her mouth set in hard lines as she saw that I had returned the old man.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is he broken?”

pencil

William Wilde is a native Oregonian who divides his thoughts between work in financial management and writing fiction. He likes to use Pacific Northwest settings in his stories. E-mail: billwil[at]pacifier.com.

Memoirs of a Trained Monkey

Fiction
Sarah Sheikh


A Behavioral Study of the Macaque

Adolescence

Babu is born in a rubbish dump near the small Indian village of Nasik. His name, however, will not become Babu for another month. During the formative first weeks of his life, he spends time clinging to his mother, grooming his brother and sucking on twigs. During the fourth week of his life, it rains. He immensely enjoys being wet.

Behold the small macaque (Macaca mulatta). Among the most common monkeys in India, they are revered as sacred and often co-exist with humans in urban habitats. In some areas, the macaque population has risen so high that they outnumber common rats. This, of course, is beginning to be a problem.

 

Social Activities

He often plays with his brother among discarded plastic bags. He likes the way they make that distinct crinkly noise. Babu enjoys the simple things in life.

A thin man arrives one day and throws grapes for them. Excited, they quickly scamper about eating the grapes, tails curled high. The man stops and kneels. Babu is caught up in the moment and runs to the man, wanting more. His brother reluctantly follows.

They are instantly captured in a burlap bag. They claw at the inside, screeching and panicked. They claw at each other. Later, they are placed in a cage at the market. As they huddle together, shaking, Babu feels regret for the first time in his life.

He blames himself for his brother’s capture and vows to never be reckless again.

This is the last time he will see his brother.

Highly intelligent, macaques easily adapt to different habitats, including captive housing. They are not endangered in the wild and therefore make excellent subjects for research and experimentation. They have even been sent into space.

 

Occupation

Babu is bought for 230 rupees by a poor rickshaw driver named Sandeep. They live together in a small shack near Mangalore, where Babu is named and subsequently trained. He surrenders to his new life, seeing no other option and remembering his vow.

They visit various temples on the weekends, where Babu performs a very complicated dance involving spins and jumps. Sandeep trains based on punishment, not reward.

Babu thus finds life in the limelight stressful.

He also wears a red vest and cap. Both are itchy.

He learns to take rupees from people’s hands on command. He finds this unfulfilling, though it pleases Sandeep.

There is a void.

Observe how quickly the macaque learns its tasks. Macaques have been trained to do many things, from climbing coconut trees, to sitting still when giving blood samples. Perhaps the most famous trained macaque was the late Jiro, the famed Japanese comic monkey.

 

Habitat

During the monsoon season, the roof leaks. Babu enjoys this immensely and takes to splashing about. Sandeep immediately covers the roof with plastic sheets. Babu enjoys this, too, and takes to pulling them off and crumpling them up. Sandeep responds by putting him on a leash. This happens during every monsoon season for 4 years.

Sandeep has no friends and thus talks only to Babu, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on. It irritates Babu and he decides one night that he will no longer come when called. The shack is far too small, and he sinks into a deep depression. He misses things that make crinkly noises. He misses being wet.

Captive macaques are not naturally ill-tempered, but shoddy husbandry and handling practices can trigger their aggression. In the wild, females are more or less placid while males are typically rowdy.

 

Love

Babu takes a liking to a green cushion.

Females mature at 3 years of age, males at 4. Young macaques learn everything from others in their group, such as what to eat and parenting skills. A youngster raised alone cannot raise its young and will not know how to mate.

Friends

Babu quietly grooms himself to pass the time.

Macaques are social animals, living in large troops of 20 or 30.

 

Daily Routine

Babu is dancing at a small temple on another hot day. Every time he spins, children squeal with delight and throw nuts. Sandeep has him do it several times, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on.

Macaques have been used in a series of well-known experiments on maternal deprivation carried out in the 1950s by comparative psychologist Harry F. Harlow. The tests were the subject of controversy in the scientific world.

 

Temperament

Babu is dancing at a small temple in the sweltering heat. There is an unusually large number of tourists today. A school is visiting on a fieldtrip. Each time Babu spins, the children squeal and throw nuts. Sandeep has him do it several times, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on.

Babu is dizzy and thirsty. Sandeep continues to coo his name. The children continue their hyper cries of glee. Babu’s head is itchy under the cap.

Sandeep then commands Babu to collect rupees from the children. They wave the small bills furiously at Babu with their tiny hands. Babu wishes he were wet, at the rubbish dump. He remembers the brief, excited moments he spent collecting grapes. He remembers his vow. The ground spins before him. Babu begins to cry out repeatedly.

Note the way the young macaque bares his teeth at the enemy—an effective intimidation tactic.

The children step back. Sandeep calls Babu, but he does not come.

Here we see the small macaque expand its chest and raise its arms to appear larger. Observe its impressive arm span.

The children squeal in terror. Babu silently asks for his brother’s forgiveness.

He bites the hand of a little girl and scampers off into the crowd. Sandeep runs after him and fails to catch up. Babu hides in the temple for three days, before leaving in search of food.

 

Retirement

Babu is nameless again. He finds a group just like the one he left ten years ago. He learns how to mate. He gets wet often. He finds that aluminum cans make a better noise than plastic bags. He remembers his brother fondly, and wonders where he is. It is a quiet life, away from the limelight.

Behold the small macaque (Macaca mulatta). It is highly intelligent and can adapt to almost all habitats. Among the most common monkeys in India, they are revered as sacred and are generally left unmolested.

pencil

Sarah Sheikh studied English at UC Berkeley, and Film at UCLA. She currently works as a tape monkey in a rather dusty film vault. You can reach her at byckerment[at]aol.com.

Cravings

Fiction
Trish O’Brien-Edwards


Nola wiped the front of her shirt and chased the breadcrumbs down her pregnant belly. Licking the grape jelly off her fingers, she sighed; it wasn’t what she was looking for. She took a final sip from her Coke, and threw the can into the backseat of her Toyota Camry. It landed between a half-empty box of fried chicken and the garbage bag that held her life.

Her makeup was long gone, leaving behind only trails of what was once there. Her brown eyes were puffy and the dark circles worse than the day before. The day before, the worst of her life, unless you count the day before that, and the one even before. She ran her fingers through her dishwater blonde hair, and cried out from the jelly-clumped tangles. Giving up, she went back to concentrating on driving.

The cravings had begun almost the minute she ran away from her mother’s house. She’d begun to show that day, five months ago, one week before she’d left for college. For three months she wasn’t even sure the pregnancy test had been right, but when she put on her favorite jeans that morning and couldn’t button them up, she knew it was impossible to hide. Instead of telling her mother what had happened and face her disappointment, Nola packed her few possessions and headed on the road.

As soon as she hit the highway, she began to hunger for something she couldn’t place. The feelings grew stronger the farther away she got. She almost ate the whole menu off the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tama and gorged on pies at the Baker’s Square in Davenport where she’d worked for the past five months, until she was too pregnant to be on her feet all day.

If questioned, she would describe the feeling as something between the anticipation of the first day of school and finding your favorite goldfish was dead. It was part excitement, part dread, part emptiness she couldn’t fill. It was always there, clawing at her insides, wanting more than she was able to give.

The banana air-freshener she bought at the Amoco the day before made her stomach turn. It had smelled so wonderful at first, and it covered the odor of old food and the fact that she hadn’t bathed for a few days, but the thought of smelling it for the next one hundred miles made her nuts. She ripped it from the rearview mirror and tossed it out the half-open window, watching its progress in the mirror as it fluttered away. Every time it found a home, a car passed by, leaving it up in the air again. Nola looked away and kept driving.

She stopped at a truck stop on highway thirty to fill up on gas and to eat lunch. The car smelled hot and had been making a noise that sounded like someone was beating a squirrel. She knew she should have someone look at it, but her funds were dwindling. She’d just have to take the chance that the car would last until she got where she was going.

After putting three dollars worth of gas in the car and pulling off into a parking space, she went into the restaurant. It looked amazingly like the place where she’d stopped for breakfast. All the waitresses wore pink uniforms with starched white aprons. They even looked like the waitresses at the other restaurant, all big hair and butts. The tables were covered with white paper tablecloths that the waitresses ripped off and replaced when a patron was gone. Silk blue roses sat in vases on the counter.

She sat at the counter in the only empty seat of the crowded restaurant. The restaurant was full of truckers and families on vacations. Small children ran around tables of bleary-eyed men drinking coffee to keep awake on the road for a few more hours.

Reaching into her purse to grab a cigarette, Nola saw the no smoking sign. She needed to cut back anyway. She returned them to her purse then took a sugar cube and put it under her tongue. It melted as she waited for the waitress to come and take her order. Nola tried to catch the waitress’s eye, but saw she was being avoided. She’d looked that way herself before.

A booth opened up and she grabbed it ahead of an old couple out for Sunday breakfast. Nola didn’t even consider letting them have it. She’d been driving for days and her legs and hemorrhoids were bothering her. Her first attempt at entering the booth failed, her belly was too swollen to fit beside the table. She tried a second time, backing into the booth and letting her belly sit below. Once squashed in she pushed the dirty dishes to the side and deftly pocketed the two-dollar tip left behind.

“We usually save the booths for two or more people on Sundays, but I can see you brought your second with you.” The redheaded waitress laughed, pointing at Nola’s belly.

Nola shook her head and forced a smiled in response.

“What can I get you, hon?” she asked her, a pencil poised to take her order. “Do you want the buffet, or something off the menu?”

“What’s on the buffet?”

“Just about everything you could want. Fried chicken, bacon and eggs. Lots of desserts.

“Is there pie?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll take the buffet.”

“Right.” The waitress wrote something on her pad. “The plates are up there. Enjoy.”

Nola piled her plate high with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. Surely she would get full in this place. The dessert table was separate from the rest of the buffet. On it, Nola saw cakes and pies that made her mouth water. There was carrot cake and brownies, lemon meringue pie and apple. Nola grabbed a piece of French silk pie, the one kind she hadn’t tried, before returning to the table.

The waitress had been there while she was gone. She’d taken the old dishes away and put down a fresh piece of white paper, along with a vase of flowers. She’d also left a glass of water and one of milk. The bill was discreetly put off to the side.

Nola looked at the pie put in front of her with hopes of feeling better. When she took the first bite, the sweetness touched her tongue with promises, but halfway through, she realized that it wasn’t what she wanted. She pushed the half-eaten pie away and started on her plate. The fried chicken was fresh and crisp. Better than anything Nola had tasted in a while. She dipped it in her mashed potatoes and gravy.

She sighed, knowing that the feeling wasn’t going away. She could feel the burning behind her eyes. Tears dropped down her nose, onto the plate. She kept eating, only stopping to drink the water the waitress kept refilling.

The baby moved inside her and made her cry harder. What was she going to do? She hadn’t even been to see a doctor. She didn’t know when the baby was due. She’d tried to forget that she was pregnant at all, telling herself that the movement was only gas. But the knowledge that there would soon be a baby here to take care of scared her.

She was making noises that she’d never heard before. It came from deep inside her. She could see the faces of neighboring tables looking at her, but she couldn’t stop. The waitress ran to her side, holding a paper bag up to her mouth.

“Just take long, deep breaths, hon. Everything’s going to be OK.”

Nola breathed into the paper bag. It smelled of old fruit and wetness.

“Its just hormones,” the waitress told her, smoothing Nola’s sweat soaked hair from her face. “These things happen.”

Nola’s breathing slowed. She’d never felt like that before. Like she was going to die right there. Like she would suffocate in a room full of people.

“Now put your head between your legs.”

Nola did what she was told. The waitress rubbed her shoulders, calming her. She remembered her mother rubbing her back until she fell asleep at night when she was little. When did her mother stop rubbing her back? When did she stop being a little girl?

When Nola got her breathing under control, she was too embarrassed to look at the crowd that had surrounded her.

“Why don’t you run to the bathroom and clean up, hon?”

“Right.” Nola grabbed her purse and headed to the restroom across the room. When she saw that the waitress wasn’t watching her anymore, she slipped out the door and to her car, the tip money burning in her pocket.

She drove her car back on the highway and headed west. She’d decided at some point to visit her best friend, Heather, from high school. They’d been planning on going to school together in Omaha. That was before Nola left without telling anyone. She knew that once she got on campus, she’d be able to find her friend.

What she’d do after that, she didn’t know. She’d have to find a job sometime, and a place to stay, all after the baby was born. Until then, she’d play it by ear.

She saw the water tower to her hometown before she saw the sign. She’d have to go past State Center on her way to Nebraska, though she’d never thought about the moment when she would drive by.

She thought about driving through town late at night when no one could see her. She wanted to see if things were as she remembered. Not a perfect small town, but a nice place to grow up. People were a little nosy at times, that’s one of the reasons she left. She couldn’t stand for people to talk about her and her mother. It would have been easier if she’d lived someplace like Des Moines, where their movements wouldn’t have been monitored.

The car jerked under her hand and made a growling noise. She struggled with the steering wheel to get to the side of the road. She turned off the car, not knowing what else to do, when she saw the car smoking. This was one of the times in her life that she wished her dad were around. She missed him most at milestone events, dance recitals, graduation. Even though she’d never known him, he was always there, a shadow in her life. Her own child would face the same predicament.

She rolled the window down to let the slight breeze cool her. She noticed the wetness on her face again, not knowing if they were new tears or if she’d never stopped crying.

“Need some help?” A man asked through her opened window. He was dressed in a dark uniform with a nametag that said Steve on his chest. He was in his mid-forties and had graying hair around his temples. He had a kind broad face, and Nola felt comfortable with him immediately.

“I’m not sure what the problem is.” She wiped the tears on the back of her hand.

“Don’t worry. I’ve seen plenty of tears in this business. No one’s ever prepared for their car to stall. I could tow you in.”

“I don’t have the money,” she said, getting out of the car. He looked at her belly, then back to her face.

“I could at least take you to a phone.”

“I don’t really have anyone to call.”

“Not from around her?” He had reached into her car to pop the hood.

“Well, really I’m from State Center, I just haven’t been back for awhile.”

“How long’s awhile?”

“About five months.”

She could see he was trying not to laugh at her. To other people five months was nothing, to her it felt like a lifetime. She’d run away from home in the past five months, had a job and lost it, lived in a rent by the week efficiency where she didn’t have room to get away from herself and grown so big that she didn’t recognize herself.

“I know it doesn’t seem that long.”

“Not really. Do you still know anyone here?”

“My mom.” The words caught in her throat.

“Do you want to call her? Or I could take you to her place. What’s her name?”

When she told him, recognition dawned on his face.

“You’re Natalie’s girl? She’s been wondering where you are.”

Nola didn’t answer.

“Jump in. I’ll take you to her, and the car to the garage. I’m sure she’ll cover it for you.”

Nola had never been in a tow truck, but she was sure they weren’t normally so clean. The cab had a faint smell of oil covered up by Steve’s cologne. Other than a clipboard on the seat, the truck was free of debris. Not one leaf on the floor, not one streak on the windshield. A CB radio squawked something that made her jump.

“All ready,” Steve said, climbing in next to her. He wiped his hands on a clean cloth he pulled from him pocket, concentrating his efforts on his nails. “I’ll have you home in no time.”

Main Street was deserted when they drove by. She counted three businesses boarded up: Burt’s Pharmacy, Carmon’s Woman’s Wear, and Kitchen Korner.

“Things have changed since you left,” Steve said, inclining his head to the town.

“Yeah,” Nola said. She sat with her arms across her chest, not looking at him.

“You look hungry.” He offered her a Snicker from his glove compartment.

“Thanks.” The candy was warm and melted in her mouth. She longed for it to sooth her stomach, to make the aching go away, but it left her wanting more.

“How do you know my mom?” she asked, between bites.

“I towed that old wreck of hers a few months ago. Had to junk the thing. I couldn’t believe she was still driving it.”

“She’s been driving that car for years.”

“Not anymore.”

“Did she talk about me?” Nola asked.

“Not then.”

Nola turned to look at him and noticed his face turning red.

“When then?”

“We’ve been out a couple of times.”

“Oh.” Nola had never known her mother to date. All through school, Nola wished that she’d find someone to be with and leave her alone. But her mother concentrated on raising her and giving her a good life. Nola felt a twinge of jealousy thinking about this man spending so much time with her mother.

“It’s not serious, not yet at least. She’s a good woman. You hurt her a lot.”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“You’re right, I don’t,” Steve admitted. “I’ve only heard her side. Do you want to tell me yours?”

Nola wanted nothing more than to tell her story to this man. She wanted to tell him about her fears of disappointing her mother, of losing her mother’s love.

“Just between you and me,” he promised. She turned to look at his profile as he drove.

“Isn’t it obvious why I left?” she said, pointing to her belly.

He didn’t say anything, just waited for her to go on.

“I was afraid. I didn’t know how my mother would take it.”

“How do you think she’ll react now?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I do,” Steve said. “She’ll just be happy that you’re safe. Here’s your stop.”

He pulled up in front of her mother’s house.

“Tell your mother I’ll call her later. And don’t forget she loves you.”

Nola only nodded in response. She watched as he drove away before looking at the house that she’d left five months ago.

The lawn was cut too short and the grass was burned in spots, but the yard was free of weeds and leaves. Bulbs her mother and her planted the previous fall were sprouting and a fresh layer of yellow paint covered the once gray house.

Nola climbed the porch and knocked on the screen door. She waited, hoping to hear the sound of her mother coming, the scrape of a chair, the sound of her bare feet on the linoleum. But her mother didn’t come. She picked up the gnome that always held the house key. She turned the statue over, shaking it to try and hear the key rattle inside, but found nothing. She collapsed on the step head in hand. Everything was wrong. No one was at home, and everything was different.

Nola stood as a car pulled into the driveway. Her mother jumped out of her new VW bug to give her daughter an awkward hug before the car even stopped.

“So that’s why you left,” her mother said, pulling away to look at Nola’s stomach. Nola blushed and put her hand protectively on her belly.

“Well come on in. No need to give the neighbors a show.” Nola’s mother led the way into the house. She was skinnier than Nola remembered. Her hair was shorter and blonder too.

“You changed your hair.”

“Yes.” Her mother’s hand went up to fluff it. “Do you like it?”

“It’s different.”

Nola followed her mother into the kitchen. Nola noticed that the cat’s bowl wasn’t there.

“Where’s Whiskers?” she said.

“Oh, honey, he died. I’m sorry.” Her mother opened the refrigerator, making room for the new groceries.

“How?” Nola asked.

“He was just old.” Her mother kept putting the food away from the paper bags. Nola watched her smooth movements. She noticed she was getting spaghetti sauce with mushrooms instead of plain.

“Oh.” Nola wanted to ask more. Wanted to know about his death and whether or not she could have prevented it. Instead she looked out the window into her mother’s backyard where her old swing set still stood. Her mother used to push her on that swing for hours, always pushing higher when Nola called out. Her mother had never got rid of it. Nola wondered if her mother had wanted more children at some point.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Her mother asked, bringing Nola’s focus back to the present.

“Maybe later.” She’d been too ashamed five months ago to admit to her mother that she’d ignored all the sex talks. She’d imagined her mother getting that look of disappointment in her eye that was way worse than anger or sadness, when her eighteen-year old daughter told her she was pregnant. But her mother wasn’t looking at her with anything but concern and love.

“It happens,” she said, putting the peanut butter in the cupboard. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll fix us some dinner. You hungry? I think I have fish sticks and tater tots. They were always your favorite.”

“Sure.”

Nola watched her mother prepare dinner. She didn’t just throw the food in the oven. She sprinkled the fish with Parmesan and the tater tots with cayenne pepper to spice them up. Then she grabbed a lemon off the counter and began squeezing it to make lemonade.

“You weren’t here,” Nola blurted.

“Nola, I was at the store. You know that,” Nola’s mother sat at the Formica table across from her daughter. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse, but looked down at her daughter’s belly before putting them away.

“It’s OK,” Nola said.

“No it’s not. I won’t smoke in front of my grandchild.”

“The key wasn’t in the gnome.”

Her mother laughed. “I moved it. What’s this about?”

“I came home thinking it would be the same. I thought you’d be the same, but your hair is different, and you have a new car, and the damn key isn’t where it’s supposed to be. And your dating some guy named Steve. And my cat’s dead.”

Her mother got up and grabbed a dishtowel and handed it to Nola who’d begun crying. She wrapped her arms around her daughter, setting her chin on her head.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Nola whipped her eyes on the towel. “This baby is due any day, I don’t have a job, I don’t have a place to stay. I don’t even know if I want to keep the baby. I’m scared to death.” Her words followed each other so fast that she lost her breath and feared that she’d have a relapse of the incident at the restaurant.

“We’ll work it out,” her mother said.

“No, we won’t. This is something I have to do on my own.”

“But not by yourself.” Her mother sat down across from her, taking her Nola’s hands in hers. “I know what you’re going through, and you have to take responsibility for it, but I’m here to help you anyway I can.

“Listen,” her mother went on. “Having you was the best thing that ever happened to me. But it wasn’t always that way. Raising you by myself wasn’t easy all the time, but it was worth it. You’re lucky; you have me to help you. I know the ropes of single motherhood.” She smiled at her daughter.

“Thanks, Mama.” Nola threw herself into her mother’s arms.

“Let’s eat,” her mother said, when the timer from the oven rang.

Nola’s mother put dinner in front of her. Nola piled the fish and potatoes on her plate, hoping there was enough to keep the growls down. Nola ate the first stick in three bites. She didn’t even take the time to put the tater sauce that came with it on. She slowed after the second one, which was dispersed with tots. She stopped after the first bite of her third piece, not knowing what was the matter.

“What’s wrong?” her mother asked, looking up from her own dinner.

“I’m full,” she answered, pushing herself away from the table.

pencil

Trish O’Brien-Edwards is a graduate of Iowa State University. She lives in Ames, Iowa with her husband. Her work has recently appeared in Outsider Ink. E-mail: trishieo[at]yahoo.com.

Loki and Erda

Fiction
H.H. Morris


I pulled the unrented rental car into a parking area beside the convenience store, backing into a space across the lot from the building. Erda and I moved several paces to get a better angle on the gas pumps and to escape the air-conditioned vehicle. Any form of temperature control disqualifies our tricks, which was why all this morning’s action had to occur on the apron instead of inside the cool store.

“Loki,” Erda said, “if we weren’t temporarily not mortal, your driving would terrify me.”

I ignored her griping. Those sentenced to terms as earth goddesses hate being cooped up. When we fly, Erda’s air rage begins the moment she receives her boarding pass.

“Four cars with seven adults and two children pumping gas or doing something else outside the vehicles,” I said. “Let’s start simply and build up to the finale. If you see anyone smoking, warn me at once.”

Erda’s answer was a barrel of empty oil cans lurching sideways to strike a woman on the hip before overturning on the apron. I yanked down the absurdly long, low-riding shorts on a teen boy, who scraped his knees and the palms of his outstretched hands when he tripped. Erda hurled four oil cans through a maze of pumps and hoses to dent a Lexus’s hood. The man filling its tank screamed and jumped, yanking the hose out to spray gas on the car and his shoes.

A woman stepped out of the convenience store with a cardboard tray containing two large drinks and a wrapped ham and Swiss sandwich. I levitated the drinks and poured them on her head. She tossed tray and sandwich in the air. Buttons popped as Erda ripped open her blouse to expose her torso. I took control of the sandwich before it came down and redirected it to smack a man’s nose hard enough to make him bleed. The bread must have been stale. Erda scooped up a bucket of dirty, greasy water and drenched the woman she’d hit with the barrel.

Reaching his boiling point, the Lexus owner grabbed his trusty cell phone to call 911. I quickly programmed it to play Charles Ives’s entire Fourth Symphony at high volume.

“Time to become a victim,” I told Erda.

“I’m ready. It’s too hot for clothes.”

Her internal thermostat had two settings—too hot for clothes and too cold for nudity. She wore only a loose sundress. As I slid it up her body, she screamed, twisted, danced, and raised her arms so that it came off easily. Exposing her ample charms gave us no points, but it made people less likely to suspect us as sources of the telekinetic confusion we sowed.

“Let’s serve the main course,” I said when her dress hit the concrete.

There were eight double pumps—two rows, each containing two sets of two. We yanked the hoses out and started the gasoline flowing. About 50 gallons hit the apron, cars, and people before someone inside had the bright idea of killing the power. Erda picked up her dress and got in the car. I briefly surveyed the damage before getting behind the wheel.

“Approximately an hour to Rehoboth Beach,” I told her.

“I’ll dress when we get in heavy traffic. Wow! Those tricks left me high, Loki.”

She got higher when we received our initial point total followed by two adjustments upward as the judges discovered how much hell a gasoline spill causes. The immortals have mental blocks when it comes to technology.

“Let’s steal big steaks,” Erda said. “I’ll cook.”

“While you cook, I’ll mix potent martinis for so long as one of us can stand up.”

Most people think a faux earth goddess should be lusty and cheerful. Erda measures up in the lust department, but her mood swings are radical, frequent, and unpredictable. She was altogether too high for me to bother her with my worries about why our tricks at the convenience store might still go astray. Instead, I helped with the grocery and liquor shopping. We didn’t pay for anything, no more than we’d paid for the car or than Erda had paid when she conned a man in Philadelphia into giving us his beachfront condo for a week. Such self-serving tricks earned us no points.

That was one of the few absolute rules: If Erda or I in any way profited from a trick, we got zero points. That was why we hadn’t slaked our thirst by swiping a couple of sodas at the convenience store. One sip would have made all our labors futile. So would have filling our car with gas, unless, of course, we’d paid for it.

Now we let the supermarket and liquor store ring up our purchases and pay us for them, a trick that took all our limited ability to control human minds. We’re much better at manipulating objects. We also transferred cash from fourteen wallets and purses to our pockets. That gave us a bankroll that should let us pretend to be real people spending real money at the beach.

As I pulled out of the shopping center, Erda said, “I can’t believe we didn’t flatten a single tire. There must be 200 cars sitting there.”

“We wouldn’t have earned points,” I reminded her. “With our luck, we’d have probably selected the one guy ready to have a heart attack the next time he touches a jack or a lug wrench.”

“Both those rules are too tight, Loki.”

I wished she wouldn’t risk upsetting the immortal judges. They have delicate egos and dislike criticism. Our sentence was to wander Earth until we amassed sufficient points to escape the planet. Only the judges knew the total required and our current standing. We might well be in the hole.

We paid points as rent each day. Again, we had no idea how many. Erda’s distrust of the immortals’ fair play was irrelevant. They set and interpreted the rules. We’d been told when sentenced that the judges would notify, admonish, and even punish us if we went too far in the hole.

The immortals were especially solicitous of human well-being. Kill, maim, or make seriously ill any man or woman, boy or girl, and the penalty wiped out months of work. Minor injuries, such as the bloody nose from the flying sandwich or rashes caused by gasoline on tender skin, added to the point value. The boy whose shorts I’d yanked down was an example. His skinned knees were in our favor. A cracked patella that left him limping for the remainder of his life would draw a penalty.

Once we reached the condominium, we drank, drank some more, ate, and settled our digestive systems with a couple of fresh drinks. The judges’ final report arrived. Any future risk factors stemming from our caper at the convenience store weren’t our responsibility. The immortals congratulated us for a daring trick.

“What risk factors?” Erda asked me.

“Gasoline is flammable. That’s why you helped look for anyone smoking. And the guy with the Lexus and cell phone is an incipient cardiac meltdown.”

“You planned ahead, Loki. I never do. Want to hit the boardwalk and pick up some more points?”

“Sure. Dress properly, Erda. The town fathers consider this a family resort.”

A woman sentenced to a term as earth goddess must shelve modesty. Or perhaps the immortals choose faux earth goddesses from the ranks of the immodest. However cause leads to effect, Erda’s notion of proper dress made us conspicuous. She had no lingerie with her. A skirt any shorter would have been a technicality. Her top, held up by two skinny straps, was styled to stop well short of the skirt’s waistband. If she raised her arms, more than Erda’s convex belly would show.

Earth goddesses revel in dirt. She walked barefoot. That meant we couldn’t legally go into shops, bars, arcades, or restaurants. It was no loss. Since America currently is on a pace to air condition the entire galaxy by 2055, most buildings are useless venues.

“Remember,” I said as we left the condo, “if you get hungry or thirsty or develop a sudden desire for a souvenir, I’m carrying cash.”

“Poor Loki. My impulses drive you crazy.”

“Most of the time, Erda, your impulses make you the most fascinating creature I’ve ever known.”

“My fire melts your ice?” she asked, chuckling softly. “I promise to be a good bad goddess.”

Our building had boardwalk in front of it, and we needed only walk a short distance north to reach the busiest, tackiest strip of tourist traps. As we moved, we overturned barrels of trash from a sufficient distance not to be suspected and tipped over the tall lifeguard chairs on the beach. We also yanked down a dozen boys’ shorts or slacks, causing most to trip and curse loudly. When we saw a woman or girl in a skirt or dress, we lifted it. Erda wasn’t the only female who eschewed lingerie in hot weather.

We popped balloons held by adults or teens, but were careful not to spoil the fun of any children. The immortals would have penalized us for that. When we reached the spot where two girls’ sundresses had got lifted, I raised Erda’s skirt without warning. She shrieked as loudly as they had, swatted at it to get it down, and danced her bosom to below her top. Eventually, she got herself back in place.

“What the hell was that?” she asked loudly, causing some teens to giggle.

“An interesting show.”

“Get out of here, you rat.”

She punched my shoulder playfully, almost knocking me onto the beach.

These were minor tricks worth only a few points. If the embarrassment they caused was totally faked to fit mores, they’d bring us no score. We hadn’t planned this expedition, and it seemed unlikely that we’d serendipitously discover any big point makers. Then we reached a street and saw two police cars. The officers were investigating what was upsetting tourists on the boardwalk. Stamping out horseplay was more important than stopping speeders. I took one car, Erda the other.

Both of us got the lights flashing and sirens wailing. The cops ran back to the vehicles and tried to stop the noise, all the while looking for the criminal who’d tampered with them. When one started to use the radio, I set it to play the overture for Carmen. Erda cranked up her police radio to blare out hot Dixieland.

We drifted on north to a miniature golf course. As the sirens and music blared in the background, probably waking up every bird within blocks as well as any tourists who’d gone to bed early, we sat on a boardwalk bench that let us observe the players. They consisted primarily of dating teens, teens in groups trying to create a dating situation, and family parties.

“It’s cute when little kids win,” Erda said.

“While adults get frustrated? Let’s do it.”

We stayed on the bench at first, working on those holes we could see. When a crowd gathered and blocked our view, we got up and joined them, as if curious to learn what the fuss was about. That brought more holes within visual range. One limitation was that we must see the object being manipulated in order to violate natural laws or create unexpected effects. It’s a less restrictive condition than it sounds. For example, we’d needed see only the police cars, not the switches activating lights, sirens, and radios. Once the Lexus driver had pulled out his cell phone, I could program it without reading the buttons clearly.

Erda concentrated on the children, especially the tykes barely old enough to hold a putter and swat at a ball. They made some amazing holes in one. That left me free to help teens’ and adults’ balls hop over the boards, get caught in traps, and circle holes like a dog that can’t decide where and when to lie down and finally walks away. Then we discovered that loosely held putters could jump up and goose nearby players. We left as two fights broke out.

A pair of cops running toward trouble passed us. I looked back and jerked one’s trousers down, sending him sprawling. That was a good camouflage move. In her impulsiveness, Erda rarely looks back. One of the quickest ways to draw suspicion is to keep everything in front of us.

Two more cruisers were parked besides the ones we’d fixed as officers tried to kill lights, sirens, and radios. Erda and I exchanged smiles. Once we’d activated more lights and sirens, she programmed a radio to play steel band numbers. I countered with Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

“Lots of bare women?” Erda asked.

“Including you.”

“That’s nice. Let’s shred their clothes so they can’t use them for cover.”

I said, “That could help the point value.”

We exert sufficient psychic force to move automobiles, although not at high speed. That makes shredding clothes as we strip a man or woman easy. Of course, it isn’t easy on the victims. It tends to leave them sore and occasionally bruised, conditions for which the judges award additional points.

Between us, we bared around 15 women standing on the street near the cop cars before people started running in panic. Some ran our way. I quickly turned and shredded Erda’s two garments. Even as she screamed and danced, she stripped two teens who wore as little as she did. I looked back to the way we’d come and saw the cops charging toward us.

This time I tore off their shirts before yanking their pants down.

Two other officers tried herding nudes. Those men not with a bare lady, as well as a few escorts as ungentlemanly as I was, stared, analyzed female attributes, and cheered. Acting solicitous toward Erda, I got an angle to strip three teens. Their giggly response suggested a low point total, if any. Erda faced the ocean and undressed four women who’d run to the beach. I looked south and got two matrons. They stood there boldly as I undressed them and the shreds of their clothing blew away. We’d hit a barrier. Most of the women who hadn’t fled were hanging around in hopes of exhibiting their goodies without guilt.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

A woman and a cop. Erda and I combined to strip her down to her gun belt within seconds.

The judges’ dislike of law officers doubles the value of whatever we do to a cop.

“I’d say I’m as all right as you are, officer,” Erda told her. “Kind of bounces you around, doesn’t it?”

“What the hell is causing it?” the cop asked.

“Finding out is your department. Loki, walk me home before men start grabbing. This has been a great start to a vacation. I wish I had a souvenir picture of a nude cop and a nude me talking.”

The cop ran back to the cars, no doubt looking for a blanket. Erda and I walked briskly south. We got to an area with only a few naked women and finally to a spot where Erda was the only one. She slowed down and put her arm around me. A night like this left her thirsty and passionate.

*

We spent about four hours on the beach the next morning and early afternoon, but except for spilling drinks, getting sand in hot dogs, and occasionally yanking off all or part of a swimsuit, we laid off tricks. We were conspicuous. There aren’t too many blonde, faux earth goddesses who overload a bikini the way Erda does. Part of our condition is that we neither burn nor tan, making our pale flesh stand out in the bronze crowd of sun worshipers.

There was another reason for minimizing the tricks. The place to get the most points was in the surf. That area was filled with children darting in and out of the ocean.

Once we’d showered away the sand and sweat and eaten a late lunch, I drove to Lewes. I turned on a road that led by a fancy inn and paralleled the canal. The head boats had begun coming in. All sizes and styles of private vessels were tied up on both sides. Erda looked at me and smiled.

“Now?” she asked.

“Tonight. We’ll try the other side. That’s where I see most of the fancy boats. We undo the lines and move them. It’s easier to get a boat drifting than to push a car.”

“I’m glad they paired me with you, Loki. You plan ahead. Sometimes I think I could do this forever.”

I bit back my agreement. I liked being paired with Erda, and the nomadic existence and trick playing suited my personality. I doubted that the judges wanted us happy. The personalities of Erda and Loki were, after all, a sentence for misbehavior elsewhere.

We stopped in an outdoor bar for drinks. Service was nonexistent, so we undressed three waitresses and headed for our condo. There we made plans. Or, to be accurate, I made plans and Erda agreed.

“Dark clothing,” I told her. “We’ll find a convenient place to park the car for a fast getaway, then walk toward the mouth of the canal. When we reach the last boat, we start untying while we work our way back. First we eat a leisurely dinner at a nice restaurant. I’ll pay. No tricks there, no matter how tempting.”

Erda chose a slip-dress. The dress, what there was of it, was black.

After a seafood dinner, we drove to Lewes. I found a parking space used during the day by those who went out on head boats. It was in a dark area and well back from the docks. Erda removed her shoes and walked barefoot as we headed toward the ocean end of the canal. A lot of boats were tucked closely together. I chuckled softly. Erda giggled and hugged me so tightly I gasped for breath.

“Most have two lines over,” I pointed out. “The really big ones have more hooked around bollards.”

We undid lines and gave boats shoves toward the middle of the canal.

Gangways began dropping into the water. Once we got the rhythm going, Erda and I worked rapidly. Maybe we could make it back to where we’d parked and drive around to the other side of the canal to untie more boats. When boats bang together, paint jobs get damaged and hulls dented. The greater the monetary damage, the higher our point total.

Making it to the other side of the canal seemed unlikely, though. We heard a chorus of yells and curses behind us. Just as we started on our first head boat, a woman screamed. The timbre was different. Recognizing terror, Erda and I reversed course and ran toward the noise’s source.

“My baby! We’re drifting out to sea! My baby!”

It was neither the smallest nor largest boat we’d untied. The young woman on the deck held an infant. She screamed again and jumped into the canal, the child clutched to her chest. Erda swore and dived into the dirty water.

Faux earth goddesses swim like buxom otters. A few powerful strokes took her to the floundering woman. Treading water, Erda talked to the mother. I joined my mind to hers in convincing the woman to surrender her baby. Once Erda had the little one, she held it aloft in one hand, rolled onto her left side, and shot toward the dock.

I knelt to meet her. She handed me the tiny boy.

“Don’t drop him, Loki,” she said.

Erda swam back out and helped our adult victim to the dock. She lifted the almost hysterical woman halfway onto it before two men reached down to haul our victim the rest of the way up. Erda gracefully pulled herself out of the water, knelt for a minute, then stood. The woman finished coughing, fought off the men holding her up, and wildly looked around.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the infant into her arms. “Any kid who yells this lustily isn’t hurt.”

The woman said, “Where’s that angel who saved us? What a night for my husband to go get drunk with his buddies.”

A hot domestic spat should give us a whopping bonus.

Erda patted her shoulder and said, “Honey, we’re no angels.”

Two cop cars skidded to a halt. Both officers jumped out and ran toward us. Apparently one entry criterion for all forces in Delaware is running 100 meters in less than fifteen seconds at every opportunity. Erda and I didn’t need to consult. As they started to slow, we yanked down their trousers. One did a painful dive on the dock. The other had too much momentum to stop and went into the canal, knocking a woman overboard with him. In the confusion we walked briskly to our car.

“Is there any pleasure that matches depantsing a cop?” Erda asked as I drove out of Lewes.

“There’s no pleasure that matches you,” I said. “Let’s get you in a hot shower, Erda.”

“We don’t catch colds, Loki. If we hit the boardwalk…”

“You smell like a decaying refinery. Besides, we’re in trouble.”

She showered while I mixed a shaker of martinis over ice. Wet and nude, her golden hair tangled, her aroma considerably sweeter, Erda came into the kitchen and poured herself one.

“My fault,” she said. “We aren’t on this planet to do good deeds.”

“Shut up. The rescue has my full approval. I’m glad you’re impulsive. By the time I reasoned it out, they’d have drowned. Any error is entirely mine.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

I said, “I didn’t want to sink boats or hurt anyone. I figured dents and scratches, gangways in the water, lost sleep, lots of recriminations and law suits. I never dreamed someone could panic the way that woman did. I honestly thought this trick carried less risk than yesterday’s gasoline spill.”

“IT DID,” they said.

Three immortals, shimmering irises overcrowding the kitchen, joined us and split the rest of the shaker of martinis among themselves. When one spoke, all spoke, yet all spoke as one.

“HURT NO BABIES. KILL NO HUMANS.”

The reminder of the rules made Erda and me shiver.

“YOUR POINT TOTAL IS ZERO. YOUR QUOTA IS ZERO. YOU’RE HAPPY HERE AS TRICKSTERS.”

They stated an obvious truth.

“YOUR NEW SENTENCE IS TO BECOME LOKI AND ERDA INDEFINITELY. ATTACK POMPOSITY WHEREVER YOU FIND IT. AFFLICT THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL. WHEN YOU SEE THE HELPLESS IN NEED OF AID, REMEMBER TONIGHT AND DO LIKEWISE.”

They shimmered and shimmied out of the condo. Erda picked up the empty shaker and stared at it.

“Do I mix more?” she asked. “Or do we hit the boardwalk?”

I looked at the wall clock and said, “There’ll still be a few stragglers around.”

“And employees. Don’t forget the employees, Loki. Bad things can happen to them when they come out of their air-conditioned sanctuaries.”

She ran to the bedroom to dress.

pencil

E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com.

A Windmill for Mother

Fiction
K.M. Kimmel


My blossom-printed pillow does little to muffle my mother’s screams.

“You son of a bitch!”

Her shrill voice echoes in my ears. My father yells something inaudible before I hear our pickup sputter out of the driveway. From the kitchen, the unmistakable sound of hurled dishes reverberates through the razor-like walls of our house.

Tippy whines from the floor, her hind legs concealed by my comforter. I scratch her head gently. “It’s okay, girl,” I whisper.

The crashing ceases and Tippy looks up at me. We share a hopeful glance, our eyes misted with fear and distress.

Thud, thud, thud.

My mother’s footsteps alternate among rooms. She ensures the doors slam on both enter and exit. Thankfully, she passes and ignores my room. I can hear her muttering under her breath.

Tippy hops into bed with me and I bury my face into her warm, chocolate body. Outside, snow crests on my window.

*

It was all over a calendar.

My father, mother, and I had gone to our local hardware store to purchase an artificial Christmas tree. In years past, we’d used real trees, until my mother’s allergies forbade it. We chose a six-foot spruce that resembled one we’d cut from our own backyard two Christmases ago.

I stayed with my father while he paid for the tree. My mother had hung back in the store, scanning for last-minute items, discounted lights and decorations. At the end of the checkout counter, I noticed a stack of calendars. A small note was scribbled next to them—Free! Take one. Happy Holidays! I thumbed through the calendar, taking special note of the pictures that marked our birthday months. May’s photo, of a windmill, particularly caught my eyes, as I knew that my mother’s heritage was Dutch. How fitting for her birthday.

I returned the calendar to its stack and noticed the cashier girl watching me and smiling. She was young—no older than nineteen—with sunny streaks in her mousy, brown hair. Her lips formed a perfect, red bow.

My mother, who had now joined us at the register with some clearance indoor/outdoor lights, loaded our cart and began to steer it toward the exit. I led the way, excited about our newfound Christmas treasures.

“Just a second,” the cashier girl said. My mother and father both turned.

“Would you like a free calendar?” Her bow mouth turned upward in a grin.

“Uh, sure,” my father said, taking the calendar from the girl. Her pert breasts peeked out from her smock. She winked at my father, then glanced to me and smiled, as we filed out of the store.

“Give me that.” My mother snatched away the calendar and tossed it on the ground. She stomped on it a few times before chucking it across the parking lot.

“What’s wrong?” my father asked.

“You were flirting with that tramp in there.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

Dad salvaged the calendar from under the bumper of a blue minivan. “Oh, come on, Barbara. She was giving us a calendar.”

“Bullshit. You were watching her from the moment we arrived.”

Dad loaded the tree in the bed of our pickup. I climbed in the cab, bracing myself for the impending apocalypse.

“You’re not listening. You never listen!” Her indictment of my father continued. “You were flirting with that slutty bitch!”

I was sandwiched between them, tears squirting out of the corners of my eyes.

“Oh, stop it, Molly. You’re such a baby. Rather than crying, you should be furious at your father for humiliating me.”

“Lay off, Barbara.”

“It’s true. Every time we fight, she bawls like a newborn.”

I hiccuped and gasped for air and listened to my mother scream about the slutty cashier girl, while our Christmas tree bobbed happily behind us.

*

By Christmas Day, my mother’s anger subsides. I think my father still harbors some resentment over her scene in the parking lot, but he hides it well.

I open my presents: dolls, an Easy-Bake oven, an art kit, some DVDs. My parents exchange watches, and I proudly present my father with a picture I colored. It is of the two of us, fishing.

My mother eyes the picture, but says nothing. I can see disappointment in her face.

“Mom?”

“You’re punishing me, Molly, because I’m harder on you than your father is.”

I tremble. “No, Mom, that’s not it.”

She sinks further into the couch. “Then what is ‘it’, Molly?” She smoothes the creases on her skirt.

I retrieve the calendar from a paper bag that I’d hidden behind the tree. I show her May’s picture. “See? It’s a windmill. I was going to give it to you…” I promise myself I will not cry. I won’t be a baby this time.

My father moves from his recliner and perches on the arm of the couch. He protectively, instinctively, wraps his arm around my mother.

“Come here,” she says to me.

I sit beside her as we leaf through the calendar together. We pause at the shoe stamp that soils the windmill photo. My father and I catch her as she sobs into my shoulder, smudging mascara onto my winter-white sweater.

pencil

K.M. Kimmel resides in Kentucky. Her work has appeared in various online journals. She is currently at work on a screenplay. E-mail: happiekarma7[at]yahoo.com.

Refuge

Fiction
Anna Evans


You lolled in the doorway, Zasie, finger raised as if to push the buzzer, as I opened the door. I’d heard you were home and I’d been waiting for you. I was sitting at my dressing table in my bedroom, staring out the window toward the woods, when I saw your familiar denim-clad figure strolling up our path. I flew down the stairs and was waiting for your shadow to gray the frosted glass of the front door.

The truth is I didn’t want my parents to know you were here.

“Mandy,” you said, leaning forwards an inch, as though contemplating how awkward it would be to embrace.

I gripped the door handle. “I go by Amanda now,” I said.

“Can I come in?”

I peered back down the hall. It was six o’clock on a June Friday, and I could dimly make out the host’s patronizing voice on the game show my parents liked, or was it a quiz show?

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.

Without a word you turned and set back off down the path, shoulders slightly hunched, hands thrust in the pockets of your jeans. You were wearing grubby tennis shoes. I looked down at my own feet in alarm; I still had on the sensible black loafers I wore to work in the bank. A light drizzle had been falling all day and the ground was damp. If we were going where I thought we were, the shoes would be ruined.

It was too late to change them. I called back in the house “Mum! I’m going for a walk.” Then I followed you down the crazy paving.

You turned left at the gate, as I’d known you would. I hurried to keep up with you, but there wasn’t room for two people to walk abreast on the narrow stretch of paving that lined my road. I had to be content with following you, a step behind, as always.

Of course you marched diagonally across the road and veered right onto the narrow track that formed the entrance to the woods. This is where we always used to walk.

The track squelched underfoot; I watched the orange mud creep up the shiny sides of my loafers. Gobbets of mud started to cling to the hem of my smart black slacks. I was alongside you now and you looked down at my legs and grimaced sympathetically.

“You should have changed,” you said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

At the top of the dirt track we turned right as one body and began the steeper climb up the bracken-covered hill. Here the trail was merely a lightly-beaten indentation in the undergrowth, which could have been made by a deer. Our feet were originally responsible. Since you left, I’d kept it marked out on my own.

At the top of the hill the trees on either side seemed to come together, forming a low roof over the trail. I drew an overhanging branch aside like a curtain.

“Here we are,” I said.

You walked up to the tree, our tree, and traced the bark with one finger.

“Still here, then.”

The tree was an old English oak, thick-trunked, its bottom-most branches so low and broad each one constituted a kind of bench seat. When we were twelve we would ride them like horses. We sat down on the lowest one. Your long slender legs grazed the ground, my own chunky and anchorless alongside. I examined the muddy loafers.

“How is London?” I asked.

You enthused about London. You went on for fifteen minutes about the clubs, the bars, the theaters, your professors, the other students, your dorm, your life. Your voice rolled on and on, relentless as rain, leaving no space for the things you didn’t want to talk about: why you hadn’t called, why your letters petered out to the odd postcard.

You stopped. I think you wanted me to speak then, wanted me to say something forgiving, something that would allow us to begin again.

I hopped off the branch, bent down to look at the carvings on the lower half of the tree. Our initials were still there, faint now, for you had only had your tiny child’s penknife to work with: SG 4 AC, in a wonky heart with a terribly executed arrow.

“I got engaged to David,” I said.

You drew your breath in sharply, and looked at me with those beautiful green eyes.

“Why?”

“Little Wychwood isn’t London,” I said. “There aren’t any other interesting people here.” I didn’t add, “Now you’re gone.”

“Does he think you’re straight?”

“I don’t know what I am any more.”

“Do you have sex with him?”

I looked away from you. It was beginning to rain more heavily now—typical British summer weather. I couldn’t explain David to you, didn’t want to.

“We should go back; we’re getting soaked.”

 

You let me go at the front gate without a word, but the next day, when I walked into the kitchen to make myself some lunch after my shift at the bank, my mother confronted me, her lips set in a thin line.

“Susannah called,” she said. A little tic flexed the corner of her mouth. Mum had always refused to call you Zasie, and not a week went by without her telling me in some form of words how pleased she was that I had got over “that little strangeness with Susannah.” Mum and Dad loved David.

I feigned indifference and assembled a sandwich while Mum hovered about the kitchen, wiping counters and fiddling with bits of paper. I remember when I told her about us on my sixteenth birthday; she went into shock and knocked a cup of scalding black coffee over my left hand. The burned patch, a raised pink swathe about the width of two fingers, still itched when I felt guilty or embarrassed. I scratched at it absentmindedly as I nibbled. Mum stared at it; she seemed about to say something, but instead she bustled out of the room.

I called you back. You said that you wanted to speak to me, urgently, so we arranged to meet at the tree.

I changed into my jeans and sneakers before heading out and up the dirt track. The day was fine and breezy. Little clouds coasted merrily across the blue sky; the ground was soft and springy underfoot.

You were lounging against the main bole of the tree when I got there, and you were beautiful. Tendrils of your red hair kept blowing across your high cheekbones, forcing you to tuck them back behind your delicate ears. When you saw me you sprang forward, put your white hands on my upper arms.

“Mandy… Amanda, I’m sorry,” you said. “And I know I should have said that yesterday, before everything else. I broke all sorts of promises to you, stopped calling, never invited you up to stay. It was all so new, so exciting. I just got caught up in it.”

I allowed myself to look at you, to hold your green-eyed gaze, and I believed you, or at least I believed that you thought you were telling the truth.

“Can’t we be like before?” you said. “I promise when I go back to college things will be different. You can come and stay. We’ll have the best times.”

I looked up at the tree. The wind had picked up and was tossing the branches like an old woman shaking a mop. The leaves rustled and sighed with low whispers.

“Did you see anyone in London?” I asked you.

You were silent a moment. “A couple of girls, once or twice,” you said. “No one serious. No one like you.”

I removed your hands and went to sit down on our branch.

You tried again. Your eyes widened as if struck by a sudden thought. “I know! You can get a job in London. Your bank has places everywhere, doesn’t it? You can get a transfer. We’ll get an apartment together. It will be perfect!”

You sat down next to me so that our thighs touched. I could feel the pressure of your hip bone pushing against my softer flesh. You began to talk with childish excitement about the things we would do, the fun we would have all summer. You spoke of June picnics and July trips to the beach. You promised to go apple-picking with me in August. I visualized the summer stretched out before you, a road you had to travel down to get back to London in September, a road you didn’t want to travel alone.

“Promise me you’ll think about it,” you said.

 

That evening David came over for our regular Saturday date. We got fish and chips, and ate them on the wall outside the shop, then we went to The King’s Head for a couple of drinks: Guinness for David, rum and Coke for me.

“I saw Zasie,” I said, eventually.

He nodded, squeezed my fingers, and put his listening face on.

“She’s just the same,” I said and laid my head on his comfortable shoulder. “Part of me still loves her; you know how it is.”

He slid his big paw of a hand around my waist, hugged me tight.

“I know,” he said.

As we walked back from the pub, arm in arm, it started to rain heavily, and when I unfurled my umbrella the wind seized it and blew it inside out.

“Let’s get home before the storm,” said David; he hoisted me piggyback and ran down the center of the street in his great galumphing strides.

I was laughing so hard I thought I might fall off him, but we made it safely to my front door just as the first fork of lightning tore the sky open, along with a discordant percussion of thunder.

“Going to be a wild night,” said David.

 

When we were young, Zasie, before anyone knew what we felt for each other—before we even knew, really—you used to sleep over at my house and if it stormed, we would sit on my dressing table and press our noses against the cold glass, watch the rain bucketing down and admire the gold darts of lightning against the dense blackness of the woods.

I did that on Saturday night, after David had accepted a cup of tea and a scone, made small talk with my parents, and then kissed me good night. I imagined you were with me. You used to make up such stories about the storms; you said the fates were angry, that the lightning was a way of evening things up, putting the world back in balance.

The fates must have been very angry that night. The lightning played over the woods for hours. A couple of times the thunder cracked so loudly I could have sworn the roof of the house was going to cleave into two.

 

On Sunday morning I waited until my parents left for church and then I called you. As I closed the front gate I saw you ahead of me as usual, already marching up the dirt track toward the woods. I ran a little to try to catch you, but you moved too fast.

I broke through the curtain of branches into the clearing, and I heard you crying. The clearing was too bright; my eyes ached under a dome of white sky. Our tree, broken in half, lay across the grassy floor like a giant’s discarded broom.

You were kneeling by the tree, arms wrapped round what remained of the trunk as though it were a dying lover.

I went up to you, gingerly put my arm around you. You sobbed and sobbed, kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I sat down next to you. After a few minutes you raised your tear-stained face to mine and kissed me.

I remember the day you first did that. We were fourteen, and neither of us got invitations to Sharon Miles’s birthday party. I was upset; you just laughed and called it a stupid party, right to her face. I practiced that nonchalance in the mirror afterwards; it took me months to get it right.

After we left Sharon and her friends spluttering, we went to the tree, and you looked at me earnestly, told me you loved me, and kissed me. I had always worshipped you—so smart, and pretty, and carefree—but that was when I knew I loved you.

Oh Zasie, I have never stopped loving you. For a minute I wanted it all, and for a second, I thought I might even get it: not just picnics, beaches and apple-picking, but the apartment in London, clubs, theaters, restaurants, you, Zasie, you, you, you.

Still, I cupped your chin in my hands and gently moved it away.

“You wouldn’t want me in London,” I said. “I wouldn’t fit in.”

You looked at me, opened your mouth as if about to protest. I put my finger on your lips. “No more pretending, Zasie.”

“I do love you Mandy,” you said. “You were my first girlfriend. That’s not something anyone else can ever be.”

I hugged you. “I know,” I said. “And now we’re going to be friends, good friends, okay?”

 

You’ve gone back to London now. We saw each other a few times over the summer, although it was always a little awkward. You promised to call and write. You haven’t; I didn’t expect you to. London sounds like such a wild and magical place. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting people there—people like you. I’m not like that. I’m too short and stocky to be pretty; I live in a village, work in a bank, and am engaged to solid, dependable David.

I am in the woods, Zasie, and of course, it is raining, but I am quite dry. I’m sitting on my jacket, knees scrunched against my chest. The tree has lost its greenery and is rotting from within. Yet, the way it has fallen, this split half lies supported by one of the branches we used to sit on, and forms a kind of canopy overhead. The tree may be here for another century, offering comfort even though it is a dead thing—the comfort always necessary for people like me.

pencil

I am a British citizen but permanent US resident. My stories have been published by Outsider Ink and The Stockpot, and have won prizes in the 2003 Byline Short Short Story Contest, the Fiction “Words on the Wall” contest at the 2004 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and the Great Blue Beacon Short-Short Story Contest. I have also had over 50 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Edge City Review, Light Quarterly and Exit 13. E-mail: evnsanna[at]comcast.net.

Hazards of Light

Flash
C.A. Cole


As soon as I get out of my car, I hear that Dane and his roommates are watching a football game. I do not want to sit on a matted rug and talk only during commercials. I do not want to pet mongrel dogs and drink warm soda. But I have no choice; this is the only day he agreed to see me. Tomorrow I return to Denver. I have only this melancholy fall afternoon.

He answers the door and smiles before I say anything. He has a short punkish hairstyle, but his eyes are silver mountain lakes. He slips out the door, pulls it shut, muffling the game that blares into every corner of the house. “Sit.” He searches my face, pulling me apart at the seams.

I sit on the top step. A solitary red leaf from the maple overhead lands on my foot.

He picks the leaf off my shoe and twirls it in front of his face. “You like your job?”

“I love it.” Architecture is everything I had hoped, and there is a man, a co-worker, whose black eyes bore into mine, trying to dislodge Dane. “Are you taking pictures?” I have heard he is a stocker in a supermarket.

“Don’t have time.”

The tricks sunlight can play, the hazards of light. Our shadows entwine, our heads lock as if kissing. I imagine frost forming, leaving a permanent record on the brown lawn. He follows my line of sight and slides back on the rough step. Our heads part. Our bodies separate. The Dane I knew would have ripped the silhouette out of the ground and hung it on the wall.

I stand, my hands jammed deep in my jeans. When I am near him, Dane fills every chamber of my heart, suffocating me.

“Wait.” He slips into the house, letting out the smell of baloney, mustard, and beer.

He re-emerges holding a Polaroid camera, balances it on the top step, pushes the automatic timer, saunters over, and puts his arm loosely around my waist. We freeze. He walks back to the camera and removes the white square. We each hold one edge, watching ourselves emerge.

“We’re grown up,” I say, expecting to see two teenagers.

He brushes my lips like the now-cold breeze, but his eyes have evaporated into dull gray puddles. He rushes back into the house, not even watching me to my car.

The evening air has the depth of cold before a snow. I wish the photo had shown the two of us dancing cheek-to-cheek under the fingers of the maple, Dane warming his hands under the ruffle on my dress.

I wish it captured a picture of the way it never was.

pencil

C.A. Cole lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has recently completed the first draft of a fourth novel. E-mail: janonis[at]comcast.net.