Daily Writing

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


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I’ve written 500,000 words this month.

While everyone else was off participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or the brand-new National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), I decided to challenge myself to post a photo taken that day every day in November.

My inspiration was a photo essay in Canadian Geographic nine or ten years ago where a photographer had taken a photo every day for a year. I remember that the article left me with the impression that he’d actually only taken one photo each day, and thinking how intimidating that was: one chance to get a decent shot. And this was before digital cameras were prevalent. It’s hard to imagine having the patience to wait 24 or 36 days to finish a roll of film just to find out if day one turned out. Still, since then, it has always been in the back of my mind to try it.

More recently, I’ve been inspired by Woolgathering, a blog where the artist has been posting a photo of her sketchbook every day for almost two years. A quick Google search of “photo a day for a year” finds that this is a semi-popular project to attempt (though hardly in the league of NaNoWriMo—though, hey, that started out small too). Dozens of people have it as a goal on 43 Things. And after I posted my first photo along with my plan, Eden told me about the Art Everyday project.

But I didn’t want to join an existing project. I wanted to do this on my own, see what it might evolve into. And I decided that whatever other people had done in the past, I couldn’t stick to just one photo a day; I wanted to take lots. I ended up taking 500. You can see the 30 I posted here.

Partly this project was about getting more comfortable with the manual settings my (relatively) new camera. I didn’t want to set too many rules for myself, but I knew I wanted to (a) avoid the automatic setting and (b) avoid the flash. I managed to do both. But more deeply, it was about the idea of dailiness, something I’ve been intrigued by for a long time. I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a very good journaler, in that, rather than writing a little each day, I’ve always been someone who writes in fits and starts. Yet I’m fascinated by people who can keep up journals or diaries or blogs over long periods of time.

So the photo-a-day project for me is intimately linked with the idea of daily writing, that is, recording something each day (which is not to be confused with the writer’s adage “write every day” meaning work on a story or an article or an essay or whatever). The 100 Words project, where participants make one-month commitments to write exactly 100 words a day, sums up the daily writing philosophy well:

You are expected to write ON THAT DAY and FOR THAT DAY. Please do not “write ahead” and do not “catch up” at the end of the month. 100 Words is about capturing life on a daily basis, and then examining those days across a period of time.

Looking back on my November photos, I remember how happy I was that I’d taken photos of the leaves on November 1 when it was still sunny and dry because it started monsooning the next day. And I see what a contrast that photo is to the snowy photos at the end of the month. I ponder whether I should become a food blogger (the photos you see are a just a sample of my cooking adventures—there are more food photos in the 470 photos that didn’t make the cut). And I already, having just finished classes yesterday, feel a slight nostalgia for the downtown campus where I spent all of this semester.

So will the project continue? At the moment it’s up in the air, but there are still several hours left in December 1…

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Beaver also wrote about 20,000 actual words this November. She congratulates everyone who achieved their November goals. E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Careful Wishes

Best of the Boards
Alan Walkington


Like all Monday mornings in my classroom, this one brought with it a small measure of insanity. It was the first week in October, and here in the mountains the mornings were starting to get chilly. I was standing at the cloakroom door answering “Good Morning, Miss Johnson” from twenty-three first-graders and trying to straighten out the noisy traffic jam as they crowded in to hang up jackets and put lunch sacks on the shelf.

Quiet little Martha Durbin rushed through, knocking Jimmy Reston flat on his bottom as she went past. Jimmy, face scrunched up, sat there on the floor trying to decide if he was hurt and how offended he should be. This kind of interaction with Martha was outside his experience. It was outside all of our experiences.

Breathing hard, her face red and tear-tracked, Martha threw her jacket at a hook and slammed her lunch box onto the shelf. She pushed her way out of the cloakroom, stomped over to her chair, and sat down, her little hands fisted and her jaw clenched tight.

Martha wasn’t what you would call pretty, but she was cute enough in a tomboyish way. Auburn braids tied off in red ribbons. Bangs cut short. Long dark lashes surrounding big shy hazel eyes. Front teeth missing. Freckles everywhere. She often had scabs on her knees and scratches on her arms and legs. Her clothes were old, clean, and carefully mended hand-me-downs, but there was nothing unusual about that around here. She was always quiet and reserved.

I threaded my way through the clots of noisy children over to Martha’s table. I looked around the classroom. Time to exert control. “Okay class! Good morning and let’s get started. Everyone to their seats!”

I ignored the scrambling and not very quiet whispering and got down on one knee at face level with Martha. “Are you all right?”

Martha knuckled her eyes, and wiped her nose on her arm. I searched the many pockets of my teacher’s smock until I found a tissue. Martha’s eyes, lashes still shining with tears, slowly left the table in front of her and lifted to meet mine. One at a time, she unfisted her hands. I reached over and wiped her face. “Here.”

She took the tissue from me.

“Blow!”

Martha blew and then finished cleaning her face. She began twisting the tissue between both hands. Sighing, I reached over and retrieved the damp wad.

“I’m sorry, Miss Johnson,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt Jimmy.”

“Oh, I don’t think you hurt anything but his dignity,” I replied. “But what do we do when we accidentally bump into someone?”

“Apologize,” she whispered. “Do I have to? Now?”

“If you think you should,” I said, “then it’s probably best to get it over with.”

Martha looked over at Jimmy, who was now standing and rubbing his bottom with both hands. “I’m sorry, Jimmy.”

Jimmy looked at me and frowned, his lower lip jutting out as he considered possible courses of action. I nodded encouragingly.

“All right,” he said, “but don’t do it again.”

“And you, sweetheart.” I turned my attention back to Martha. “What on earth happened to you?”

“Nothing, Miss Johnson. Anyway, it ain’t nothing you can fix.”

The ‘ain’t’ got ignored. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m pretty good at fixing things.”

Martha just shook her head. That would have to do for now, I thought. But I’d look into things later.

I didn’t want to continue the morning with anything that required much in the way of concentration, so I passed out the Shapes and Colors worksheets. My next twenty minutes were spent helping hot little hands keep their crayons mostly inside the lines. Martha only finished half the assignment and the colors she used were dark blue, brown, and black.

Calmed somewhat after the frenetic start, the class moved on to the arithmetic lesson. Arithmetic was still tedious and confusing for many, but things kept getting better. It thrilled me to see a face suddenly brighten as they realized for the first time ‘that’s what she meant!’

Martha chewed the point off her pencil, and had to use the sharpener on the back wall. I saw her peeking inside the cloakroom as she ground away at the pencil. When she finally came back to her seat, she sat there doodling and glancing over her shoulder occasionally.

The morning progressed from arithmetic to penmanship, through milk and graham crackers, and then morning recess. Finally story time came around and I finished the last chapter of our current, remarkably silly, book just before lunch.

I was considering ignoring the state-recommended list and introducing the children to The Little Prince next. There was certainly room for some taming here.

“And so Miranda, the good witch, waved her magic wand and turned the big, bad wolf into a little brown toad. Hoppy and Stinky and all their friends lived happily ever after. And they never had to worry about the big bad wolf ever again.”

“That’s not right, Teacher,” Jesse proclaimed. “Nobody could do that!”

“Could so,” Martha said in her soft little voice. “My Granny could. She says you can do anything you want, if you just wish hard enough.”

“It truly is make-believe, Martha,” I said. “There really aren’t any such things as witches.”

“Not witches, maybe,” Martha insisted, her voice more strident with each word. “But that other? About the toad? That could really happen!”

Her comment was punctuated by a tinny crash coming from the cloakroom. As heads turned towards the back of the room, Martha jumped to her feet, both hands at her mouth. A very large mouse ran through the cloakroom door. It sat on its haunches, nose and whiskers twitching and looked around.

It was too large, really, almost as big and fat as George the Hamster, but definitely a mouse. Short sleek gray fur, long naked tail, bright beady black eyes, twitching nose, sharp little teeth. Before more than the first ‘Look out’ could be shouted, or the first scream voiced, it scurried into the classroom.

Tables skidded across the floor. Chairs crashed over. Girls, and not a few boys, screamed. Someone shouted, “Stomp it!” over and over.

Martha paled and shrieked, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!”

I grabbed the wastebasket, upended the contents onto the floor, and trapped the skittering creature beneath it. “Okay, everybody, settle down,” I said. “The excitement’s over.”

Martha was on her knees with an ear pressed to the side of the wastebasket. “I can hear him,” she said. “I think he’s all right.”

I looked over at Our Animal Friends corner. George the Hamster was busy grooming herself. The snake cage was empty, however. Rosie the Boa had escaped his captivity over the summer and was still missing. His home, a dry aquarium with a wire top, was available for temporary use.

“I think this critter might bite,” I said.

Martha nodded vigorous agreement.

“You could throw something over it,” Patrick suggested.

“Good idea,” I replied. “You want to run and get your jacket?”

“Eeww!”

I guess not, I thought. Martha was to the cloakroom and back with hers before I could even ask. “Okay. Martha, when I say ‘now,’ you tip the wastebasket, and I’ll grab it with your jacket. Then we’ll put it in Rosie’s cage.”

Capture accomplished, I carried the wiggling mouse, shrouded in Martha’s jacket, back to the empty cage. I dropped it in and Patrick plopped the screen back on top. The mouse sat on its haunches and chittered angrily at us. I set the Campbell’s tomato soup can full of gravel on the screen to hold it down. I hoped it did a better job than it had with Rosie.

“Lunch time,” I said, quite unnecessarily, as the bell rang. “Grab your lunches and everybody go on outside to eat. Martha, stay and help me clean up, please.”

It took a while to clear everyone out, but eventually I could shut the door of the suddenly quiet classroom. Martha gathered the trash I’d dumped and put it back into the wastebasket while I straightened tables and righted tipped chairs.

“Get your lunch,” I said, “and sit up here at my desk with me. We’ll eat together and have a nice talk.”

Martha put her battered yellow lunch-box on my desk and opened it. Kool-Aid was leaking from the thermos and holes were chewed through the waxed paper of her sandwich. Tiny black pellets covered everything. Martha looked down at the floor, face tight, arms crossed and hands beginning to turn into fists once more.

“My goodness,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to be eating that. Let’s get it cleaned up.”

Off we went to the sink. Sandwich into the garbage, Kool-Aid drained from the broken thermos. Everything rinsed and dried. Back to my desk.

“I hope you like PB and J,” I said, “cause that’s what we’re having for lunch.” I gave Martha half my sandwich. We ate quietly, washing the peanut butter and jelly down with water.

I ruffled Martha’s hair with my hand and turned her face towards mine. “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I didn’t mean to!” Martha’s face crumpled into tears. “He was taking my cookies, and I got mad!”

“Who was?”

“Joe,” she said. “He’s so mean! But I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t. And now I don’t know what to do! Granny’s going to be so mad at me!”

Joe, a fat bully of a fourth-grader, was Martha’s brother. They lived with their maternal grandmother on a small farm up one of the creeks. Among other bits of nastiness, Joe raided the lunchboxes of younger children for their deserts. I suspected it wouldn’t be long before he graduated to more adult misdemeanors.

“Just what is it you didn’t mean to do?”

“I wished he was little, like a mouse,” she whispered, “and then he was!”

This would be a good time not to laugh, I thought. I tried to keep my face neutral.

“Granny says to be careful what I wish for. But I didn’t think this wish would come true. Really, I didn’t! Most of them don’t!”

I opened my mouth to say something and then realized I had no idea what to say. So I just smiled and nodded my head encouragingly.

“And I don’t know how to unwish it! That’s why I put him in my lunch box. I have to take him home and maybe Granny knows how to unwish it for me.”

Martha looked at her hand. “And he bit me,” she said. “Hard!”

I encourage imagination in children, but this was pushing the limits.

“So I have to take him home after school, Miss Johnson. Please!”

“Let me think about it, Martha,” I said. I wasn’t sure about sending a mouse home with anyone without some warning. Although, from the sound of things, Granny would be able to handle most anything that came her way.

I checked with the attendance office. Joe was absent that day. Probably playing hooky, I thought.

The afternoon went much more smoothly then the morning, although during nap time, the mouse kept squeaking and chittering and trying to climb the glass walls of the cage. After that, Martha spent her free time back in Our Animal Friends corner, whispering to it.

After the final bell, as the kids were trooping out the door, I took Martha aside. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t let you take that mouse home without your grandmother’s permission. If you could bring a note tomorrow?”

Martha’s expression became even more worried. “But he’ll get hungry! And he’ll be all alone here!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll give him some of George the Hamster’s food. I’m sure she won’t object. And I doubt if he’ll mind being alone for a while.”

Martha shrugged into her coat and started out the door. “Tell him not to worry, all right? Tell him Grandma’ll fix it.” She turned her face towards me. “Please?”

“All right sweetheart.” I supposed I could do that. “Don’t you worry either.”

If someone saw me crouched down in front of an old aquarium, telling a mouse not to worry about being alone at night, it would just confirm what they already figured. Five years of teaching first grade had turned my mind to mush. By myself, finally, I barely suppressed a giggling fit.

Before I went home, though, I made sure that the mouse had water and some hamster food. And as directed, I told him not to worry, that Grandma would take care of everything tomorrow. He made a valiant effort to take a piece of my finger off at every opportunity. I mentioned something about mousetraps and he actually stood on his hind legs and hissed at me.

The next morning Martha was her usual quiet self, although she kept smiling as she worked. When I had the opportunity, I asked her how Granny liked the idea of having a mouse come home in Martha’s lunchbox. She looked at me seriously, and told me again that Granny would fix everything. “She’s coming in at lunchtime,” Martha explained. “She’ll take Joe home then.”

I don’t know how I expected ‘Granny’ to look. A bit witch-like, I suppose. In fact, she was a slender attractive women in her early fifties dressed in faded jeans and a grey sweatshirt decorated with the cartoon characters Sylvester and Tweety Bird. Her short gray hair was caught up in a blue bandanna.

She carried a small wire cage with her into which she loaded the mouse. Joe? Naw. Although it made no attempt to sever any of her fingers. In fact, it seemed quite subdued.

“Uh… what are you going to do with that creature?” I asked.

“Oh, I think I’ll keep it around in the cage a couple of more days then turn it loose,” Granny replied.

I told her how much I admired her granddaughter’s… creative?… imagination.

She just laughed. “Yes,” she replied. “She does get carried away at times.”

And that was that.

Don’t ask me to explain any of this. I’m as certain as I can be that it was all just silliness in a little girl’s head. But Joe missed three days of school, and when he came back he was a very different boy. Better, I guess. He was certainly less of a bully. And he was very, very cautious around his little sister.

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“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org.

Reflections from a Former Life

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Behr Valentine


“I disagree, your corpulence!” said the elaborately-dressed count. He bowed mockingly to the king while smugly winking to the hall full of courtiers over his shoulder.

The king had done quite well learning his new country’s language, but there were still unfamiliar words. Knuckles to mouth, he leaned toward his advisor. “Corpulence?” he asked quietly, as the advisor bent.

“Lard ass, sire.” The advisor smirked.

The king sighed heavily. The realm had been in the hands of inept and befuddled rulers for a century. The monarchy was now a neutered and collared anachronism to be laughed at even by its servants. He had been reared in secret in another country and brought to the crown when a series of nasty “accidents,” purported to be sorcery, had decimated the royal family. He was the family dynasty’s secret weapon. Their prince-in-hiding, who had been spirited away to grow up unaware he was a prince, safe because it was impossible for enemies to find him and poison his food or mind. No one had worried how hard it might be on him to be yanked from his happy life, told he was not who he thought he was, and placed on a foreign throne.

He had looked into the sorcery allegations out of fear for his own life and found only bored courtiers exaggerating odd coincidences into monstrous conspiracies. Raised among common working-class people who had neither the inclination, desire, nor time to invent such idiocy, he saw it for what it was: a random string of accidents caused by unwise or out-right stupid behavior. These courtiers were fools, yet they laughed at him! His every fault or mistake, once revealed, spread like ripples in a pond that grew to be waves with the re-tellings. They expected the king to be a fool and, the worst part of it was, he looked the part. If he had been a tall, dashing swordsman, things might have been different. He was a hosier, though, not a swordsman. A simple shopkeeper, but a damned clever merchant, who had carved out a large part of his competitor’s market share with shrewd trading. He missed his shop and its small duties and joys terribly, missed the feeling of winning.

The king noticed, as he perused his miserable situation, two young pages sneaking into the alcove where his personal snack tray was kept. Just yesterday, the larcenous little scamps had denied him the only pleasure left from his former life: afternoon tea and scones. “Stop them,” he said, turning and pointing.

The boys ran, giggling.

When the king turned back, he saw the courtiers were dismayed. How did I know they were sneaking back there? he wondered. Ah, he had seen their blurred reflection in the burnished breast plate of one of his royal guards. To others the distorted images meant nothing, but to a shopkeeper every reflective surface was an ally against thievery. He glanced around again. For the first time since his coronation, he saw something other than laughter in their eyes. He realized their bored minds were primed to make more of it than it was. The throne room was nothing but polished sliver and gold on every available surface and person. He cast about for an idea and saw the young cookie thieves now sitting on a bench, playing a hand game.

“I wonder, your grace,” asked the king. “Do you play the game Cloth, Shears, Stone, in this, my kingdom?”

“We call it Paper, Scissors, Rock, your immensity,” replied the count.

“We are at an impasse on the subject before us. Why not settle it with a game?”

“A child’s game, your enormity?”

“Simple, quick, easy! Why not?”

“I suppose it’s as good as any way, my large liege.”

“Very well.” The king placed his hand behind his back. In the multiple reflections from behind the count, the king saw scissors and quickly made a fist.

“Stone… excuse me, rock crushes scissors! I win.” The king grinned.

“It was but a small matter, your rotundity,” sneered the count.

“Yes, but I won! Next!”

Six petitioners presented their claims and all fell to him in quick succession. He used the shrewdness of any good shopkeeper to read them, knew a scissors or rock man by his look, confirmed it in the multiple reflections, and trounced him. With each win, the worry lines deepened in the faces before him.

“Stop those thieving pages,” he yelled, not looking around. When the boys ran again, the courtiers’ worry moved toward fright. It smacked of sorcery! The hawker in him realized it was time to strike. “Don’t fret,” he smiled. “My royal cousins all lost to me as well!”

“But your majesty,” stammered the count, truly alarmed. “You did not know them! They died before you were made aware of your peerage!”

Like any crafty salesman, the king had practiced the art of looking caught in a lie and trying to hide it. “Oh, ah, right, right! Ha ha! I’m joking, of course!” Looking about, he saw the idea take root. This king had risen to his throne because those in line above him had died… of sorcery!

He spotted a reflection of movement from around the corner in the hallway to the kitchen. “Ah, my tea!”

The courtiers looked back at the empty doorway. A second later, the maid stepped in and nearly dropped the tray when she saw so many horrified faces looking at her.

“Next!” the king announced to the line of petitioners.

“My Lord Majesty,” the man went to his knee. “I bow to your wisdom, dread sovereign, and withdraw my petition!”

“As do I,” said several others.

“Good!” remarked the King silkily. Pointing to the scones, he snapped his fingers, and his advisor nearly ran for them. “Much better for your health, I should think,” he remarked to the kneeling petitioner as he examined his fingernails.

Every courtier in the room gulped and stepped back from the fearsome wizard-king.

He sipped his tea delicately. This might turn out to be fun after all, he reflected.

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Behr is a former Electrical Engineer who is now the wine master at a Midwest winery. He is currently working on a novel on the meth-amphetamine problems in the local farm community. E-mail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com.

Senseless

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Cynthia Wilfert


“Let’s go.” Brandon held out his fist expectantly.

Billy stared at it, his nose crinkling with uncertainty. “This seems scientifically unsound.”

Brandon heaved the long-suffering sigh of a preteen saddled with a too-smart little brother. He quirked an eyebrow. “Do I hear you volunteering?”

Billy snapped his mouth shut with an audible click. After another moment of silent consternation he held out his own fist.

“One, two…” They both shook their fists. “…three.” Brandon held two fingers out. Billy groaned, staring helplessly at his own flat hand.

Brandon grinned and mimed a snipping motion. “Scissors cut paper. Have fun, baby brother.”

Billy sighed and turned with great trepidation to face the house. “Best two out of three?” he asked hopefully.

Brandon shook his head and pointed down the path.

“Fine.” Not about to be called a sissy, Billy squared his shoulders and started across the yard.

The house was a wretched sight. No one had shown any interest in rebuilding, so it still stood as it had since the fire. Most of the second story was burnt away, rubble having tumbled into the ground floor. The haunting rumors had started almost immediately. When an entire family lost their lives, perhaps it was natural for a little town to seek a coping mechanism. Since schoolmates had died in the blaze, the children especially had taken to tales of ghosts still hanging about.

The full moon completed the eerie setting as Billy crept towards the door. He was careful as he made his way inside, avoiding long-broken furniture and trinkets. What little wallpaper that was left in the long hallway was peeling away. Billy tiptoed onward, trying not to think about the horror those walls had seen.

There was a sudden, sharp sound in a room to his right. He jumped, trembling as he forced himself to peek. A rock rolled to a lazy stop on the floor beneath a mirror, a fresh crack now added to the scars.

Billy cautiously moved forward, half-dreading to find the hand that had thrown it.

The dark figure stood in the middle of the living room. It gingerly avoided the remains of the couch as it turned and its features caught the light. The face was pale beneath the baseball cap, eyes darting about to all the dark corners.

Billy stared. He knew this boy. Granted, it had been a couple of years. But then, the dead don’t age. “Jake Carlson,” he whispered reverently.

The figure spun towards him. “Who’s there?”

Part of him wanted to turn and run. Instead he summoned his courage and stepped forward slowly, into the moonlight.

Jake’s eyes were wide, frightened as well.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

Jake stared at him for a long, breathless moment, then shifted his gaze beyond Billy.

Billy turned to find that he was standing between the boy and the long, broken picture mirror that had once graced the wall. He watched as fear played across Jake’s features in the glass. He turned back, reached out. His hand went straight through Jake’s shoulder.

A shiver tore through the lean form and Jake jerked away, stumbling into the desk behind him. “Stay away,” he croaked, grasping for something to defend himself. He came up with a rusted pair of pinking shears and fumbled to open them, holding them out like knife blades.

Billy winced and drew back. But when the blades came at him, he felt nothing.

Jake had put his weight into the thrust and he tumbled straight through after the scissors. He went to the floor, accidentally slicing his hand open in the process. Billy stared at the blood, mesmerized, as Jake climbed unsteadily to his feet.

“Wait, you don’t have to go! I won’t hurt you!”

But Jake was already gone, stumbling around broken furniture and rubble as he hastened away.

Billy sighed and turned back to the broken mirror. It was always so strange to be reminded. He wondered if he really looked so frightening. He tried not to be bothered by the fact that he would never know. Eyes downcast, Billy made his way back out of the house and down the path to the little shed set just inside the woods.

Brandon was waiting. “Did you scare them off?”

“Yes,” he whispered. “Why won’t they leave us alone?”

“Because they’re stupid.”

That hadn’t been an acceptable answer for anything since he was five, but… maybe it was true.

Brandon went on. “And if we just tried to ignore them…”

“They might come find us back here. I know.”

Brandon, for all his annoying qualities, also had his valiant big brother moments. He gave Billy a sympathetic look and actually reached towards him to comfort. He aborted the gesture at the last moment. It was so easy to forget.

Some perverse urge made Billy complete the movement. He brought his hand up, watched as it went straight through his brother’s, leaving no sensation at all. Of all the things he’d lost, from his friends to his reflection, it was this he missed the most. He couldn’t feel. He couldn’t even have contact with his brother, and Brandon was just like him.

He turned back to look at the house. He’d almost forgotten what the pain felt like. But he remembered the screaming; remembered his mother down the hall, through the flames; remembered Brandon at his side, trying to cover him; remembered his father downstairs, mesmerized by the match. Physical sense had been severed when his life ended. Why couldn’t it be the same for emotion? “It isn’t fair.”

Brandon set his jaw and looked away. “Death isn’t known for its fairness.”

Billy stared at the house, and he wished they could leave it all behind. He stared at their home and he knew they never would.

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Cynthia Wilfert is a recent graduate from the University of Tennessee. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics and is just getting her feet wet in the writing world. Science fiction, fantasy, and mystery are her favorite genres for dabbling. She hopes to have many more stories in her future! E-mail: cwilfert[at]charter.net.

The Ships Come Tomorrow

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Liz Mierzejewski


“We can only choose one.” He said it like they had too much fruit.

“What? No no no no that can’t be. Certainly they know we have three—”

“Raena, the rules are very clear…” Thomas turned to hide the fact that he was wiping his face. He coughed a shaky cough.

Raena smoothed her skirt with her sweaty palms.

Thomas paced, careful to keep his faced turned, stopping just once to punch the neutral wall. He hissed and licked the knuckles for relief. A shadow at the door made them both turn.

Noah’s slight frame belied his fifteen years, but the look on his face betrayed them. “I— I just wanted to say…” He looked for clues in their faces. “…I think Skye is up.” They hadn’t moved. Noah turned after waiting, like he was leaving a watercolor.

Raena began crying again. Thomas slipped around her to follow Noah to the baby’s room. He could hear Noah and Zoe entertaining little Skye and his stomach fell to his shoes. Zoe’s puppets were deep in conversation and Skye was delirious with laughter.

“The ships are coming and we’re taking you all! Ha ha!” chirped Puppet Bird.

“Come with us! To a beautiful sky far away!” sang Puppet Kitty.

“Skye!” squealed Skye. She clapped and bounced in her crib.

Zoe saw her father in the door and ran to him, grabbing him about the knees. “Daddy! When do the ships come? We want to go.”

“Daddy, up! Peeeeeze!” Skye had her arms stretched out to him.

Thomas swept up Zoe and gathered Noah into his arms, over the crib, with Skye bouncing and hugging. He pinched back his eyes hard and tight.

“Up! Up!” demanded the baby.

“Soon, Zoe. Tomorrow. The ships come tomorrow.”

The Loading Zone was a riot of noise and families. Many more people were denied entrance, forcing their fingers and pleas through the chain link fence. Barbed wired along the top sported trophies of those who tried and lost in climbing over. Raena was carrying Skye, who was speechless in the chaos and nearly choked her mother about the neck, so tightly did she hang on. Raena spotted a neighbor, one she hardly knew, but he had no children. He had a beautiful woman at his arm, one Raena did not recognize.

“Thomas, over there. There’s Albert Diehl. No, with the blonde. Go ask him, please. Oh, God, please let him say yes.” She pulled Zoe over to her and gestured to Noah to hang close. She watched her husband go over to Albert, but the noise and crush made it impossible to hear a thing. The men’s heads were close.

“Mom?”

“Yes, Noah.”

“Why aren’t they letting everybody go? I thought we could all go.”

“We will. Don’t worry, hon, we’ll go.” She pulled him over and kissed the top of his head. Raena did not want to think of what would happen to those left behind. She saw Thomas making his way back, eyes narrow. “What did he say?”

“No deal. There’s no deal, the bastard.” He paused. Looking at the girls, he handed Zoe over to Noah for a brief second and with them occupied, leaned in to speak more plainly. “He wants you. And Zoe. I told him to—”

“Tell him yes. We cannot leave them here, Thomas. We simply can’t. He can have me and he’ll change his mind about Zoe soon enough. She’s only five, for God’s sake. Tell him yes, and help me find another.” He walked back, broken, but Zoe was now safe.

The crowd was forcing its way toward the platform and they were going to have to board soon. All other families were a solid three, with children being passed around for favors or bondslaves. No one was left to take another, none they could find. It was their turn.

“Only three,” stated the guard. His artificial voice matched the lack of warmth in his frame.

“This man, Diehl—he’s on your list—is taking one of them. The baby is very small. She takes up no space at all,” said Raena, smiling at the face she wasn’t sure could even see her.

“Only three. We will choose one for disposal. The small one is undeveloped and disposable.” His arms began to reach for Skye.

“No!” screamed Thomas and Raena together and they backed down the ramp, against the press of those frantic to board. The children gripped onto Thomas and he pulled them out of the current.

Raena clenched her teeth against her fear. “I will not leave my children for the Arrival. Listen, Thomas, I will stay. Diehl will take Zoe, or he thinks he will, but you do what you can to keep her. You take the other two. I am staying.”

Noah grabbed onto her sweater, eyes so wide he seemed cut. “No! Mom, you can’t do that!”

“Mom? Where are you going? Who is Diehl?” Zoe was frantic.

“Raena, that’s ridiculous. I will stay.” The platform was loading the last few. Diehl was impatient and would soon board with or without them.

“Rock, paper, scissors.”

“Wha— what? Are you crazy?”

“Now, Thomas. Rock, paper, scissors.” She began the game, pounding her fist into her palm.

Thomas fought back the tears as he followed suit. He threw paper. She threw scissors. Thomas smiled grimly. She always threw scissors.

“I win. Take the children,” said Raena. She was walking backwards, pulling Skye off of her, passing her to Noah.

“You won, Raena! Get on that ship now. Oh God, Raena, please go now!”

She shook her head, tears falling to her shoulders, never taking her eyes from the little ones.

“I won, so I choose. I love you, babies. Be good, listen to Daddy.” Her words were nearly unintelligible. The ramp was all but empty and a guard pulled Raena to the fence as her family fled.

pencil

Liz Mierzejewski is a middle school science teacher in Connecticut. She splits her time between crying uncontrollably and drinking tequila, which she makes in her basement. Being too old for American Idol, she channels her talents into writing whenever she has the time. An avid reader, she sees all the mistakes of other more successful authors, and refuses to sacrifice her gift just to become famous. Her husband and three teenage children work hard to gaslight Liz every waking moment, so she is not even sure of her own name, and generally refers to herself in the third person. E-mail: mizem55[at]yahoo.com.

Birthday

Creative Nonfiction
Angela Marie Graziano


It was her eighteenth birthday, and earlier in the night friends had given her a small party of cheap beer and cupcakes. She liked the cupcakes, liked to dip her finger into the frosting and lick it off. They were strawberry with small, colored confections mixed into the batter. But she was sad, although she tried not to show it. She knew the passing of another year did not promise the change she hoped for.

Jim had given her a gold ankle bracelet earlier in the evening. He had pulled her aside, away from the cupcakes, into a dark bedroom of the apartment. He handed her the small box and she unwrapped it carefully. She tried to appear excited when she glimpsed the gift, but she was not. A few days earlier, one of his friends told her that Jim did not pick it out, that it was secondhand, something Jim’s mother had once worn and was planning on throwing away. But she allowed him to hook it around her ankle and admire for a moment how it looked against her skin.

She did not like gold. She had made a point to tell this to Jim. She told him that it reminded her of cheap women, of whores. But Jim had not been listening and so he presented the gift to her with pride.

When Jim had asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday, she said that she thought it might be romantic to drive to the beach. She had always loved to sit on the sand in the evenings and listen to the tide. She had told him that an artist she admired was speaking at a gallery and that maybe the two of them could dress nicely and go listen. She said that she would be satisfied if they stayed in and ordered take-out, that they could eat it right from the box. But none of those things happened. Instead, Jim took her into the city, to one of his friend’s apartments, where everyone was high on drugs, a few already passed out when they arrived.

Once Jim clasped the bracelet on her, she stepped into the living room, dipped her cigarette into one of the many tiny glass jars, and sucked the formaldehyde mixture into her lungs. After a few drags, she passed out on a sofa, a loud buzz resonating in both ears.

When she woke, she noticed that someone had stolen the bracelet from her ankle. She didn’t like the thing to begin with, but felt violated that someone had slipped it off while her eyes had been closed.

She stood and began to flip the worn couch cushions over, hoping to find the gift, but it was not there. “Did somebody take my bracelet?” she asked, turning to face the few bodies that were in the room. Nobody answered. Two men walked into the kitchen. A young girl, about her age, continued to inhale drugs. Jim laughed out loud.

In the kitchen, she took another cupcake from the counter, peeled the paper cup from its sides. She looked down and noticed how much weight she’d lost, her pants hanging low, hipbones protruding. Her body was not healthy and she felt bad about it. Mostly, she was happy her parents could not see her. Even in the wake of their family falling apart, they would have been disappointed that she hadn’t been able to hold it together.

Jim walked into the kitchen, still laughing, while his eyes shifted this way and that. He wrapped his lanky arms around her, and rested his hands on top of her behind. Weight had also been melting off him and she could feel their hip bones touch as he pulled himself closer to her.

“Did you like my cupcakes?” Jim asked. She knew that he had not baked them nor had he picked out the mix and she wondered why he referred to them as his own.

“Yes,” she said shortly. “Doesn’t it bother you that my bracelet is gone?” she said, half hoping Jim would admit he didn’t even pay for the thing.

“You’re just freaking out,” he said. “It’ll show up, baby.”

She hated when he called her baby. Even though they were roughly the same age, it made her feel as though he were a pedophile using that word. It would echo in her ears long after he said it. Baby. Baby. She wanted to tell him. Wanted to scream that she could not stand the sound of the word, but never did. She thought she should be satisfied that someone wanted to call her baby at all.

In the other room, her phone rang. She pulled away from Jim’s grip, fumbled through candy wrappers and tampons inside her purse, and flipped the phone open against her ear.

“Are you enjoying your night?” her mother asked, before even saying hello.

“Hi Mommy. Yes, yes, I’m enjoying my night.”

“Did Jimmy do anything special for your big day?”

She knew she could not admit the truth. It killed her, lying to her mother, though she knew it would hurt far less than the knowledge of what had really been going on.

“Yeah. Jimmy took me to a great Asian restaurant downtown.”

“Oh, you love Asian,” her mother said, pleased someone was making her daughter happy.

“And then we walked for a while and got ice cream. Chocolate-dipped cones. I think tomorrow we’ll try to make it to the beach for a swim.”

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying your day. I miss you, sweetie. And so does Dad. You know that all of this is going to blow over real soon, don’t you?”

“Yes Mommy, don’t worry about it. I’m fine, really I am, okay?” she tried to reassure her. “Listen, I’ve got to run. I think Jimmy has another surprise up his sleeve. I promise to call you in the morning though. Goodnight. I love you both,” she said and quickly shut her phone.

Neither of her parents had ever met Jim and she had no real intention of ever letting them. She knew they would be disappointed when they saw him. Jim was the sort of boy who just looked like he had a whole lot of issues, even before he opened his mouth. Instead, it seemed best to create an image of him. The sort of image that would make her parents smile, allow them both to rest easy at night. The sort of image that she, herself, had hoped for.

Outside the window sirens flashed blue and red, their sound slicing through the night air. She thought of her parents, about how she missed them, how she missed home. There was a time when things seemed easier. A time when her parents loved one another. But that seemed like only a memory, more like somebody else’s memory, from a time she hardly recalled.

“Does anyone have a smoke?” she asked, crumpling her empty pack. An unfamiliar girl handed one to her without saying a word. “Thanks, I’ll be back,” she said, and headed for the door, but no one responded. They wouldn’t notice if I left and never returned, she thought.

The air was still warm, laced with sulfur as it rose from the subway grates. Her home was in the suburbs and she was still not accustomed to the scent so common in the city. Across the street, a group of men stood on a corner. Their voices carried, and she could hear them shouting obscenities at each other. One of them, who had a hood draped over his head, looked up and noticed her staring.

“What the fuck you looking at girl?” he shouted.

Her shoulders clenched. She hadn’t meant to stare. She lit her cigarette, positioned her back against a railing so it was facing them, and imagined home. The quiet, tree-lined street. The porch, with its lemonade memories. The collages of framed photographs. The familiar voices echoing throughout its nooks. She ground her cigarette out on the concrete. Just a year ago, she and her family sat in their dining room, everyone singing as she blew out the candles on her cake.

Footsteps sounded, a young man walking towards her. His face was skeletal, his clothes too big for his body. He stopped and asked if she had an extra cigarette.

“No, sorry man,” she said and turned for the door. The stranger moved closer, his body heat warm on her back.

“You ain’t from round here, are you?” he asked.

She turned, her face so close to his now that she could smell his breath. “Why?”

The man grabbed the inside of her thigh. “Cause if you were, you’d know it ain’t safe for pretty girls to hang out here alone.” His hand began to creep further up her leg.

She stepped back quickly and pushed him; his fragile body smacked the pavement at the bottom of the steps.

“You better watch yourself girl,” he shouted, trying to pull himself from the ground. “I got my eye on you.”

Her heart pounded as she raced back into to the apartment. The scene inside was the same as when she left. The air was stale with the scent of drugs. Bodies drifted aimlessly from room to room. Jim still sat on the couch, laughing out loud. She thought of telling him what happened outside and sat beside him. Jim turned, kissed her cheek, caressed her leg.

“Happy Birthday,” he whispered, soft and seductive.

For a moment, she thought he sounded sincere. She was touched, and began to stroke her hand across his back. Before she had the chance to say, “Thank you,” Jim stood and left the room.

Happy Birthday, she thought, making her way into the kitchen. The tray of cupcakes still rest on the countertop. She took one and sat at a small breakfast table. Outside, sirens sounded again. She stuck her finger into the frosting and licked it off, slowly, enjoying the taste.

When finished, she moved back into the living room, leaving the paper cup and sprinkled crumbs on the table. For a moment, she paused, leaned back against a wall and watched everyone. They all looked so sickly to her. It made her sad to think that she had become one of them. She wished she were home again, safe inside the walls of that house, inside all those memories.

Jim stood beside her, touched her head and fingered her hair. She knew she did not love him, but found comfort in his touch. She knew no one in that room cared for her in the way she longed to be.

But she stayed anyway and was grateful not to be celebrating alone.

pencil

“I am currently pursuing my MFA through Fairleigh Dickinson University. This will be my first published work.” E-mail: agraziano2777[at]yahoo.com.

Roller Coaster

Fiction
Terri Moran


“Do you remember that mousetrap you and your father used to ride?”

Since I can’t make sense of your question, I pretend I didn’t hear it. I hum along with the radio under my breath, scrub harder at the potato we will share, along with a small spinach salad and a broiled breast of chicken each, for dinner. I wonder if this is another sign. Another symptom.

“Wasn’t that the name of it? The Mousetrap? That roller coaster.”

I put down the vegetable brush and the potato and turn to lean against the sink and smile at you. Grateful because it is true.

“Jeez, Ma, I can’t believe you remember the name of that thing! You never, ever would ride it.”

You smile back and put down your cup of coffee. “No, I did not, but I remember sitting across from it watching you and your dad. The two of you just loved that roller coaster. Lord knows I never understood why.”

I turn back to the sink, pick up my potato and brush and of course I can’t help but remember.

*

How each summer, during the week Ellen went to band camp, you and Jerry and I made the four-hour trek south to Lakeland. We would check in at the Lakeland Motel, just off the freeway. Jerry would take a walk-through to make sure everything was satisfactory, a habit he developed after we came back from dinner our first time there to find a Hershey Bar I had left on the bed covered with ants. Our stay at the Lakeland was free that summer, so we returned year after year. Jerry said he was impressed with the way they dealt with customer dissatisfaction.

When he was sure everything was okay, Jerry and I would carry in the two suitcases, one that you and he shared and one for me, and set them on the side-by-side luggage racks. While you unpacked, I would lounge on the stiff, shiny orange, beige and brown bedspreads, pull back the matching flowered curtains and look at the shimmery heat rising from the hood of our Cutlass parked in the spot right outside the room. I liked that the car was so close, as if it were in a driveway, our small, homey space together.

Later, we would walk across the parking lot to the Lamplighter Café for dinner. I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich because they served them with French fries and as many sweet pickles as I asked for. For dessert Jerry and I ordered apple pie with cheddar cheese on top—the house specialty. Then I would wait while you and he drank coffee and smoked after-dinner cigarettes.

Finally, Jerry would turn to me and say, “Well, kiddo, are you about done?” He would pick up the green receipt, and while you went to the restroom, we would walk hand-in-hand to the cash register, which sat on a glass display case filled with gum and candy and mints. Jerry would smile at me and roll his eyes. “Your mom skipped dessert again. Do you think we at least ought to get her a pack of Beeman’s? ” And I would roll my eyes too and nod, and we would buy it, because we knew it was your favorite and you could never find it at home.

At night I would lie in my bed and watch TV and wonder if things could be any better. I thought about Ellen at band camp, but it wasn’t until I got older that I wondered why our trips were timed so oddly, why she didn’t go with us. Of course, by the time I was old enough to wonder, I was old enough to understand that I, being younger, viewed Jerry as my father. He went to work, cut the grass on Saturday, helped me with math. Ellen, though, still remembered the man who had once done the things Jerry now did, and even though he never made any attempt to contact us, or maybe because of that, she could never forgive any of you. Or me for loving you.

The next morning we would get up and after French toast at the Lamplighter, we were off to Lakeland Amusement Park. We arrived early and got a parking spot close to the gate. You wore a big sun hat and carried a tote with Coppertone and a long-sleeve shirt for me to wear as the day went on and little red boxes of Sun-Maid raisins.

I remember you hardly went on any of the rides. It was always Jerry and I. First the spinning rides, the saucers that went in circles, the metal caterpillar that whipped up and around its track. Those rides made you queasy you said, but you joined us in the Haunted House where we rode all three close together in the little car. You liked that kind of scary ride.

Then came the roller coaster. That was the reason we came to Lakeland the first year. Although the park was known for its roller coasters, that summer they had introduced a ride called the Mousetrap. Jerry had seen a commercial on television about it—Like no other roller coaster in the USA!—and he had been talking about Lakeland ever since. When I laughed at a grown up being so excited about an amusement park, you told me the story of Jerry’s childhood, how his parents had died when he was small, how he had bounced from relative to relative. That was one of the things that made you love him, you said, when that childlike part of him came out, when he got excited about silly things. You liked to see that.

You didn’t, however, like to go on roller coasters. I remember the first time we saw the Mousetrap you stood looking at it in horror.

Jerry said, “Well, c’mon, let’s get in line.”

You didn’t move. “No, I don’t think I can go on this one.”

Jerry protested that that was the reason we were here, but still you refused. He seemed bewildered, as if he hadn’t anticipated this, had no Plan B.

And even though I was afraid, I said, “I’ll go!”

He said, “There’s a height restriction for this one, Emily, I don’t know if you can.”

But I ran to the cardboard boy by the entrance to the line, and as I stood with my back to him, feeling for the top of his head just beneath mine, said, “See, I make it!”

And Jerry came close and said, “Well, I’ll be, Emily, I guess you do. She’s growing up faster than we thought, El.”

So you went over to the bench across the way, and Jerry and I waited in line for the Mousetrap. I remember you sitting there, your tote on the ground by your feet, your sandals with a daisy on the thong, your white pedal pushers and matching shell top. Your red sun hat. Every now and then as we waited, I would catch your eye, and you would wave and I would wave back, and I would feel the comfort knowing someone in a strange place, in a crowd.

Then we were climbing into our car, the seatbelts clicking, the shoulder bar coming down. At first we proceeded slowly along at ground level, but then we began to climb. I could hear the steady, rhythmic thump as the car went higher. I looked out, fascinated, at all of Lakeland. At the top of the hill, I caught my breath at the sight of Lake Erie in the distance. And then our car plunged. I came up out of my seat, my body rising up, my shoulders hitting the bar, Jerry’s arm coming across to restrain me. My eyes watered from the force of the wind in my face. Half way down we whipped around a corner, throwing me sideways into Jerry. Then we began to climb an even higher hill. We plunged again, snapped around another bend, and then, in what was the big attraction of the ride, actually curved around and rode upside down for several feet.

When it ended Jerry saw I was shaking. “That sure was a scary one, Emily! But damn, wasn’t it fun? I haven’t been on a ride like that in my life!”

And so I swallowed hard, smiled at him and laughed and said, “Let’s do it again!”

He laughed too and said, “Your mom’s been real patient. Let’s go ride the carousel with her. We’ll try to talk her in to letting us ride again later.”

And we did, one weekend each summer until I turned 18 and left for college.

*

“Do you think it’s still around?”

I am taken aback, because we have been quiet for a while, and the thread of our conversations doesn’t stay with you. “I don’t know, Ma. I don’t even know if Lakeland’s still around. If the Mousetrap’s still there, it’s gotta be close to 40 years old. Why?

“I was just sitting here thinking I might like to take me a ride on it.”

*

I know you will forget, that it was just a light that went on that afternoon, but the next morning you ask me about Lakeland again. I nod crisply, promise that I will check to see if it is still open, and then do no such thing. Just when I have decided that you have forgotten, when I have breathed a sign of relief, you ask me once again as I set your oatmeal in front of you on Friday morning.

“Did you ever find out if that Mousetrap is still there?”

So I know that this is not one of those things that flits through your head only to be forgotten by the time you speak the next sentence. This is one your mind seizes, like a terrier on prey, shakes, doesn’t let go. Same as the story you have told for the past year, every time someone visits, about Ellen sticking Jerry during a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at her tenth birthday party. Like the trip you and Jerry never took to Washington State, but which you nonetheless remember well enough to tell anyone who mentions Seattle that you hate that town. This amusement park ride is one of those things that, in spite of everything, has taken up residence in your brain.

“I didn’t, Ma. Let me get on line right now and I’ll see what I can find out for you.” I go to my computer, open Google, type in “Lakeland Amusement” and just like that, there it is. There’s a home page with smiling families having fun on the beach of Lake Erie, the park in the background, Ferris wheels, roller coaster tracks. I see a list of the rides, click on it, scroll down and find it, the Mousetrap. God, how can that thing still be around? I think about lying and feel guilty. I close out and walk back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, it’s still there, Ma.”

“What day is today?”

“It’s Friday, Ma.”

“So tomorrow is…”

“Saturday, Ma.”

“You don’t work then?”

“Nope.” I don’t remind you that I don’t work at all anymore, that I stay here, that I take care of you. That is one of the things you do not remember. Or maybe you choose not to.

“Well, then we could leave tomorrow morning. If we did that, when would we get there?”

“We’d get there around noon if we left early. But Christ, Ma, you’re talking about a four-hour drive in the car to take a ride on a forty-year-old roller coaster. There’s so many things wrong with that I can’t begin to tell you.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with me wanting to do something fun.”

“Play bingo, Ma. Rent a movie. You’re eighty years old, you have arthritis and high blood pressure. You can’t sit for very long. And you have been afraid of that ride ever since they built it.” I don’t mention your other illness, because we don’t talk about that. I don’t tell you that your ability to make a decision is impaired, that the possibility exists that on the way to the car tomorrow you will look at me in vague bewilderment and ask why in the world you are outside.

“Emily Elizabeth Monroe! You know very well that I was never afraid of any carnival ride!”

*

I wake up the following morning and prepare your oatmeal, sit down in my pajamas to read the paper and drink my coffee. You come out of your room in your yellow and brown plaid shirt and your pink and white checked cropped pants. Then you laugh at me and ask if I’m going to ride the roller coaster in my pajamas. Clearly I won’t be spared. I get ready to go, throw on my jeans and a T-shirt, a Red Wings hat. I pack a tote with some SPF 45, throw in a sweater for you because you often get chilled, some bottled water, some fruit. I think about suggesting that you change, but you are so happy, so excited that I settle for toning down your makeup and putting your straw visor on your bed head.

We get to Lakeland Amusement Park right before noon, so we can’t park close. I think about dropping you off at the gate while I park, but immediately dismiss that thought. You have to stay with me. We’ll just have to walk slowly, take rest breaks. I find a spot in Lot T, and we bundle out of the car. Just as I finish rubbing the sunblock on your arms, face and calves, the Lakeland Shuttle pulls up, and the driver asks us if we need a ride. You protest that you can walk just fine, but I tell you that I am 45 years old and although you may be spry, the less walking I have to do, the better. So we climb into the shuttle and we are on our way.

I am flooded with memories once we enter the park. Nothing has changed. There just beyond the entrance are all the kiddie rides, off to the left is the petting zoo. I have the sense that no time has passed, that when I turn I will see Jerry by my side laughing, holding out the Lakeland map that the petting zoo goat took a piece out of, even though it was in his pocket. I expect that when I turn back to look at you, you will be young, younger than I am now, lithe in your white outfit with your lovely black hair flowing to your shoulders in stark contrast. But then I do see you, in your plaid and checks. I see my own large denim-clad legs in front of me as I walk. I feel that empty space where Jerry would be. I know that this is something different.

We go past the spinning rides, and you encourage me to go on them. I don’t, because I don’t know what to do with you. The stimulation of the rides will be too much for you if you go on them with me, and I can’t leave you sitting on a bench. Instead, we wander through the gift shops, watch the children at the petting zoo but do so from the other side of the fence because I don’t want you to be bewildered by the animals. I wonder what I was thinking, bringing you here, and I wait for you to be overwhelmed by the activity around you. But at worst you seem a bit out of your element. Still, I wonder if I should have brought you, why I didn’t lay down the law.

As we walk past the cotton candy stand, you stop and rummage through your purse for your wallet. You have never wanted cotton candy in your life, have always shunned sweets. Now you watch as the young girl spins the candy around the cardboard stick. This must be a Lakeland throwback, because all the cotton candy I’ve seen in recent years comes in plastic bags. But she spins, twirls, watches you, smiles.

You smile back and say, “My daughter brought me here to ride the Mousetrap. We always came here when she was a little girl and we had such fun. Now we’ve come back, and we’re going to have such a good time!” You actually wrap your arms around you and hug yourself, twisting from side to side.

In your mismatched outfit, with your gray hair and your little hunched back, the girlish gesture is so incongruous that the cotton candy girl and I look at each other and smile. She gives you your candy, holds out her other hand to you and says her name is Estrella Martinez. And from that place in your brain that still amazes me, you say, “Star.”

She smiles and asks your name, and you say, “Eleanor Monroe.”

Bless Estrella, she holds your hand in both of hers and she says, “Mrs. Monroe, I hope you have a wonderful time today at Lakeland.” Then she hugs you, in all your plaid and checks.

After we have been at Lakeland for about an hour, walking some, taking rest breaks, I begin to think I may be off the hook, that you have forgotten about the Mousetrap. And just as I have this thought, we round the corner and you point and shout “There it is!” I can only marvel at your brain and how it decides to kick in when least I want it to.

“Yep, that’s the Mousetrap. You ready, Mom?”

“Oh, no, honey, you know I just hate that thing. I’ll have a seat over here.” You head slowly to the bench on which you sat once a year for nine years and sit there again.

“Ma, I thought you wanted to ride?” I can’t believe I’ve asked you this question, but even now I am astonished by these quirks of behavior.

“No, honey, I’m just here for you to have some fun. You go on and have a good time, and when you’re done maybe we can go on the carousel.”

Of course I can’t leave you. And then, how magical, your friend Estrella from the cotton candy stand comes up. And even more magically, you recognize her. You smile and wave as she approaches. She says she is on her break. You tell her that I really want to ride the Mousetrap, and she says that of course I do, it is the feature attraction of Lakeland. She catches my eye briefly and then she looks at you and says, “Mrs. Monroe, you must tell me how you get your makeup to look so smooth. I try and try and I just cannot blend mine like that.” She sits by you, takes your hand. Then she points with her chin at the Mousetrap, nods and mouths, “Go ahead.”

And I hand her my tote and go to the line, past the cardboard boy who is now a good three heads shorter than I, and I begin waiting. As I take my slow steps forward, I look at you and Estrella. You don’t look back at me now. You only look at her as she holds your hand, the two of you turned toward each other, talking, laughing. It does cross my mind that I am waiting to ride a roller coaster that always scared me, one that is now decades older. But I will ride for you. Because I know that Estrella will be watching. She will see my car as it crests the highest hill, and she will point it out to you. You both will gasp as my car begins its descent, you will laugh to see my hair fly behind me and my mouth open wide in a scream. When I am done, I will hug Estrella, be teary-eyed at her kindness. You and I will drive home, and at some point on the way, as the sun sets, you will become unsettled, demand to know where the hell you are. If I try to explain, you will tell me that you know better than that, I shouldn’t try to pull your leg. No one rides a mousetrap.

pencil

“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. My story “The Way Things Are Now” was published in the March 2006 Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.” E-mail: tmoran[at]cox.net.

Between the Tides

Fiction
Robert Ewing


We colour our faces in black, using charcoal from a fire gone cold. The rain comes down and we stand and wait for the lead of the holy men, the men who will bear my brother to his final resting place.

My mother is crying. She has her eyes hidden, under her cowl, but still I can see her cheeks. Her tears cut lines through the black, and I put an arm over her shoulder. The sea beside us is calm, just a small cresting wave here and there. The tide tugs at the shingle and the rain spikes the surface of the water, making a sound like the rain on the skin walls of out tents.

I look up, close my eyes. The rain runs on my face, and I let it drop down into my mouth. I cannot listen to the eulogies. If I listen I will be broken by grief, broken as my mother is there.

I cannot listen.

Instead I look away from this sadness: to the ocean, to the sky, where the griefmakers, the childbringers, the moon and the gods lie.

We stand around a wooden platform, crossbeams supporting a raft at head height. My brother is up there, lying on a bed of grass and fireflowers pulled up from the machair. His eyes are open on the sky. Rain runs on his cheeks like the tears and rain on ours. We have him dressed in his fine clothes, his new leather cape, his feather-cap, and his tunic with its double brocade lines of cowrie shells. His hair has been plaited and tied, by my aunt and cousins, in the ceremonial way. But only half of his face is tattooed. My uncle cannot bring himself to complete the work, begun before my brother’s death, on the eve of his first hunt year. Unfinished, his forehead and cheeks on one side are that of a youth.

He will appear before the gods in this way, unready. His eyes sunken, skin grey. There is no hair on his face. He is too young to fall into the pantheon of local gods, and must live out his next life as an animal instead.

This poignancy makes me cry.

We hang garlands of flowers on the uprights of the platform, with small offerings, new shell necklaces.

Later, I watch from a viewpoint on the high dunes as the old women sing the song of the redshank. Their lean voices mimic the keening sound of the bird.

The wind ghosts up fragments of their lament to me.

Further along the beach are the real redshanks, picking around with the oystercatchers, blown along by wind-whips, feeding on the wet sand between the tides. They call back to the old women.

On the following days scavenging birds come to circle: gulls, bonxies, then the crows and buzzards. A sea eagle scans from high up, but is harried and chased off by the gulls. Their high turning calls wake us early.

We avoid the far end of the beach, staying in camp. I tend to my mother. She has taken to bed, refusing to eat her meals. I lie beside her on our mat, running my fingers through her hair, giving her hot drinks and whispering songs in her ear to help her forget, songs of the summer forage.

The birds carry my brother to the heavens. His flesh takes one cycle of the moon to disappear; then it is safe to go and see the shell of him.

Each day I collect a posy of blue and yellow flowers to leave by his head. There is a growing petal-heap there, a garland of fading colours.

With the next moon and with the first cold rains of winter, the platform collapses. In two more days it is taken by the wind and high tides. My brother’s bones and clothing and his gifts are washed along our shore, then scattered by the tide and pulled out to sea.

That which is left, stranded high on the beach, we take out in our boats to be thrown into the deep.

In the autumn we move our camp to the main midden on other side of the island. My mother has a little more of her appetite. I take her for walks, take her fishing in the west of the island, try to bring her back to the way she was. We walk on the dunes and I talk at her without stopping, telling her who is in hand with who, which man is in command on the hunt, who is with child. All of my gossip is a surprise to her. She follows behind me, nodding but saying nothing, her steps short, eyes down on the sand or machair.

The men go out in their canoes fishing. The old women and children collect shellfish and crabs in the tide pools by the headland. And on fine days we women take our skin boats out to forest island to forage for hazelnuts, which we bring back and roast in large fire-pits dug into the earth. This roasting keeps the hazels from tainting over the winter.

Last night the moon was long in the sky; each new day is colder and shorter than the last. I take my skin boat out, alone, to forest island.

I pass seadogs upturned on rocks. They see me and crash into the water, reappearing around me at their own safe distance. In the sand-shallows there are fish which I could easily catch with my gaff—the waters here are easy to spike from—but I stay my hand. There is enough to eat on the island.

I have spent many nights alone on forest island. Alone, I can think and wonder at things, without the arms-jabs and keen looks of the young men.

The sun has already dropped below the horizon by the time I pull my boat onto the shore. I land it high above the tide line.

Under a cloudless sky I roll out my blankets, then wait for the stars.

My grandfather taught me what he knew about the sky. He said that the stars follow the sun around, rising over the mountains of the white land to the east, settling down again in the ocean, west. Higher up the stars shine with a steady light, but nearer the horizon they flicker like hilltop fires. The stars are in groups, and the patterns they form in the sky are unchanging. Around the dark wheel of the sky, circling in its whirlpool and visible all year, are the creatures of the sea: the salmon, the seadog, the whale and dolphin. Further out are lesser creatures: gulls, shags, puffins, smaller fish. Some of these creatures are visible all year, but others, to the south, appear only in certain seasons. Spring: the dog and oystercatcher. The swallow and eagle in summer. In autumn, the otter. And in winter the god of night appears with his bow and arrow, turning high.

The night-god is a shaman. Sometimes, on very dark nights in winter, his breath-trails and the smoke of his fire appear in the sky. The smoke is very beautiful: it can turn the sky completely to colour: to red, green, blue, so bright that it seems day will flare up like a dry-grass fire.

I wonder about the stars. Why should some wander the heavens while others remain fixed? My grandfather said that the free stars are the torches of great travelling sky-peoples, who move unhindered among the steady fires of the ordinary folk. These travelling people are eternal, he said. They can never die, and so they move on forever. The steady stars are mortals, like us. And when one of these mortals die they fly with a torch in their hand across the black. On any clear night, if you watch, you can see a hand or two of these people dying.

I see one such star and think of my brother.

Later, when the moon comes up, I overturn my skin boat, burying one side of it in the sand then propping up the other with forked sticks.

I lie on my blankets under the boat.

The sound of wolves, their noise carrying far on the sea-calm, from the white land in the east. They call to waken the dead, pleading with the newly-gone to reawaken while the moon is high.

I watch for my brother; when I watch for a long time I think I can see him standing at the far end of the beach, looking in my direction. He doesn’t move. I think he’s smiling, but I’m not sure. His face is half in shadow.

He might have smiled once.

I waken, cold. Morning kindling in the east.

The wind whines around the trees. My blanket is damp, my clothes are sodden. The clouds scud low in the sky. Sheets of rain fall like grey nets cast on the sea. I crawl out from under the boat and stand on the beach.

The turn of weather has taken me by surprise. The sea is white-capped, my home island lost behind roiling mist.

I will not be able to push out my boat.

I huddle under my blanket, feeling dejected, cold. I had hoped to return to the island early, to share in the spoils of the hunt moon.

Hunger sharpens my wits. I make a fire in a shelter of stones, then collect shellfish, which I cook wrapped in docken leaves. I find hazelnuts, which I roast in the fire, and feel better after this.

In the afternoon I make a stronger shelter of leaning sticks, woven together and covered with ferns and hazel suckers. It is dry and warm inside this shelter. Lying on a bed of tindered autumn bracken I enjoy the woodburn smell of the fire. I think of my mother, my brother, my tribe. I think of the food they’ll be eating and their warm tents. I think of the stories they’ll be telling and the children’s games of stone-and-beaker. Watching my brother receive the first of his tattoos last summer, I remember how relaxed he looked during the ceremony: my uncle much more the concerned one, sitting astride him with his adze, tap hammer and charcoal pot. I remember the Spring festival last: the men leaping over the fire-pit to the drums, then kicking at the embers with their bare feet, sparks twisting up. All of us wearing our deerskins and god masks, the faces of the wild boar, the seadog, the wolf.

The wind grows through the afternoon, raking at the sea and scattering leaves from the hazel forest.

During a storm there are no birds or animals for me to take with my bow, nor are fish eager to stray from their crannies. I forage instead, but there is little for me to take, besides more shell meat and mushrooms.

I nest down under my blankets and skins, knees against my chest for warmth, and wait for morning. I keep the fire going for as long as I can, mesmerised by the flames and by the simple task of drying out kindling.

In the night I hear my brother calling me. His words come with the wind. I look up from my shelter and he’s there at the far end of the beach. He sits, not waving. He shimmers like a fish, then stands, falls, rolls forward.

He takes on the mantle of an old woman, back bowed, cowl up.

Then he disappears.

The dawn sky is scoured-shell blue.

I eat mussels cooked in the cinders of last night’s fire. The sea-fog has gone, and I can see my island home. I am eager to be off early, to return to my mother and tribe. I forage briefly before leaving and find a giant mushroom in a mossy dell in the wood, which I pull up gently to take back home to my mother. Also, I collect smaller mushrooms and fallen hazels missed after our last forage, and a garland of white heather for our tent.

I rush my boat away from the shore, plaids gathered up under my arm as I climb inside the wobbling frame.

I have to paddle hard to get past the first breaking waves.

There is a sharp breeze on the sea, and it chills my face, my bare arms. The sun crackles like firelight on the water; I keep a steady rhythm going, concentrating on my movements, trying to plunge in the paddle with as little splash as possible. The wind turns as I leave the shore, blowing more or less at my back.

Forest island falls away behind me.

Slowly, towards noon, I pull closer to my home. I see many rising palls of smoke pushed south by the wind. Gulls skim over the water ahead, then dive close, close enough for me to see the red spots on their bills and their poisonous eyes. A sea-dog ducks close, then disappears.

From a distance I see two people standing on the Spring beach. I wave to them but they don’t wave back, not even when I whistle and call.

I pull eagerly with my paddle.

The people are standing in the direction of the crackling sun, and it is hard for me to see them. The beach ahead is brilliant white, and I feel my boat begin to rise and fall, see a line of surf folding just ahead.

I call again, but they don’t reply. Nor do they come into the surf to greet me.

This is odd.

Then I see their faces.

Their faces are untattooed. Their bodies, dark with dirt. Their beards are brown, and they wear unusual leathers, tied as tunics at their waists.

They wear the silver hides of wolves on their heads.

Not my people.

My heart beats fast. I look up and down the beach for my tribe, but nothing. The surf begins to push me to the shore, and the two men laugh and beckon for me to keep coming, shouting words I cannot understand. I am close enough to see their eyes, which are coloured black around.

Their faces look like skulls.

I call for my people, my mother. No one answers. The men hold up their spears. They taunt me, gesturing that I should come to them.

Confused, frightened, I paddle frantically back for the sea. The men whoop and whistle and run into the water up to their waists, coming so close that I fear they might pull me from my boat, but then they stop.

It is too deep for them.

They hold on to their spears, not wanting to lose them over the water.

I pull hard with my paddle, ignoring the burning of my arms and back, until I’m lost from the island’s tide rolls and back out into the windcrests of sea.

Looking back, I see other men standing beside them on the beach. They huddle together in conference. One points in my direction.

Their voices come with the wind, then nothing.

The sun drops. I lie under my skins, bone cold. The sea laps at the side of my boat. The boat is made for short journeys between the islands, not for long stays on the water, and the bottom of it is slowly filling up. I have to empty it frequently; my feet are numbed by the cold water.

Feeling hungry, I eat the wet flesh of the giant mushroom, but it tastes of little more than earth. I lapse into a broken sleep, wakening often, the pitching movement of the boat bringing dreams of falling.

I think of my mother, my brother, and feel a terrible emptiness.

I waken, look out from under my skins. The chill of early morning on my face.

I have drifted overnight, the sea currents taking me east. My island has dropped to the horizon, but the white land, Alba, is closer than I have ever seen it before. It looms amazingly large ahead of me. There are mountains, vast in the sky, with white tops leading down to valleys of rubble, gorges, forests.

The boat is heavy with water. I waken to the danger of this and begin to bail. My hands are bloodless, clumsy at first, but as I bowl their strength returns.

I eat the scraps of mushroom meat remaining. The sun comes out and I lie in its warmth. Birds circle, way up, nearly too high for me to see.

I sit inert, hands rubbed raw by the salt-water.

The day warms. The ice-mountains of Alba gathers shawls of cloud as the day goes, reminding me of the old women of our tribe.

I lie down in the boat, no strength to take up my oar again.

The currents push me on.

I cry and wish that I were dead with my brother, curse the gods for their spite: then think again and send up solemn prayers instead.

I pray for my mother, finally submit to sleep.

I drift toward a narrow tree-lined beach. No sign of any other tribe; no rising smoke. My boat lurches forward, then stalls. Looking over the edge I see water and sand. The feeling of stillness is very unusual and it makes me retch. Frightened, I huddle down inside the boat until the strangeness passes.

In a while I jump out into the shallow water and stand, for the first time in my life, on the shore of Alba. A beach of shell, sand, kelp, just like the beaches of my island home. I pull the boat up beyond the strand line and sit inside, wrapped up in my blankets for comfort, looking back on the islands I have passed.

I sleep and regain my warmth. Then hunger wakens me and I climb out of the boat, pulling it under dense prickling bushes.

With my knife, bow and sling primed, I set off.

pencil

“I’m a family doctor living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Since completing my first novel last year I’ve had a number of short stories published in UK magazines, and one competition-winner performed on BBC radio.” E-mail: robewinguk[at]yahoo.co.uk.

Last Mother on the Playground

Fiction
D.R. Bertholdt


People abandon babies all the time. You know that. It’s on the news, it’s in magazines, it’s in a toilet in the girls’ locker room. Before you’re a mother, it shocks you. After you’re a mother, it makes you sick. You feel sick because the love you feel overwhelms you, because you don’t know how to live without what some people can throw away. You feel sick because you know damn well it’s the hardest thing in the world and that just because you can get pregnant doesn’t mean you can be a mother. You didn’t really understand this until you were a mother. You feel sick because now you make allowances. Now you say things like “maybe she knew it was for the best.” Always she, always the mother. It’s never the father who is blamed for tossing a baby out with the trash. That’s his biological right.

There are things you can do if you’re really desperate. You can leave it at a church, leave it at a hospital. This is still wrong but not as wrong. This is how you can be compassionate. This is leaving your baby where you know somebody is going to come along and take care of it. There is no penalty for this anymore, because that is the only way to stop people from leaving babies in dumpsters and alleys and basements of abandoned buildings. But it doesn’t really stop it.

There’s probably no law to protect someone who leaves a baby on a playground, even though it’s the same thing, maybe even better. The last person on the playground at the end of the day is not a nun or a doctor who doesn’t know. The last person on the playground is a mother, and the last mother on the playground isn’t going to leave a baby there alone. That just isn’t going to happen.

*

I’ve seen you here with your little girl. You call her Liss. Not Liz, but Liss, which makes me think her name is Allyssa or maybe Melissa. You’re patient with her and funny. You’ve got nice clothes but it doesn’t stop you from chasing her around, from going down the slide even when it’s dirty. You’ve got your rules, but you know when to make exceptions. I heard you tell her the other day that when daddy goes out of town on Tuesday (that’s today) that you would have a special day, that you could stay late, that you could be the last ones to leave.

I cried here one time, right here in front of all these mothers, and everyone except you acted like they didn’t see me. Or maybe they looked away because I was breastfeeding, I don’t know. I’ve been feeling kind of paranoid lately, so I don’t want to jump to conclusions. All I know is that you came over. I appreciated the way you put your hand on my shoulder, touched me like we lived in the same world. I felt real hopeful after you told me about your “post partum depression.” I started to think it was this way for everyone but no one tells you the truth because they can’t find the words. I mean, that’s how it was with labor, with colic, with everything about being a mother. They don’t tell you the truth because they can’t, because you can’t explain it to someone who hasn’t lived it. You made me feel better. I was singing a happy song, dancing in my kitchen after I put my son to bed. But when I went in to check on him later, I found a cockroach in his ear.

*

I sat him in his carrier inside the little house where the kids pretend to be all grown up. There’s a window in there, in case they need to see their parents. I thought I’d be able to see him through that window, but I couldn’t. When I left him I started to run a little, started to feel a little bit like myself and that made me feel weird, like I didn’t know if I was doing it for him or if I was doing it for me. Then I realized that’s the same thing. If I feel good about it, he’s sure as hell better off without me.

You remembered his name, I saw you say it. I was up here on the hill watching you with binoculars like a pervert. I’m not much of a lip reader or anything, but I sort of knew what to expect you to say. “Oh, my God,” you said. “Trey.” I mean, oh my god was something anyone would say, and you definitely said Trey. That means a lot to me, it really does. It tells me you weren’t full of shit, you were really listening to me. You picked him up and looked all around for me, calling out my name, too, looking scared like you thought something might have happened to me. I hope some day I get the chance to thank you.

You’d think I’d be jealous of you, but I’m not. How could I be? I mean, I’ve been jealous of women like you for as long as I can remember. You sound educated when you talk. You’ve got good manners, good sense. You don’t let your hair grow for 16 months because you can’t afford a haircut. You didn’t get pregnant by mistake, you didn’t get pregnant at 16, people don’t call you trailer trash. You didn’t ever find a cockroach in your kid’s ear. You’ve got money and a husband who loves you and loves your daughter. My son’s father smacked the shit out of me when I told him I was pregnant, didn’t stop until I “admitted” the baby wasn’t his, that’s the only way he could let it live. But there’s no point in being jealous of you. Right this minute, you’re saving my son’s life.

Ten minutes ago, there was a second when I thought you weren’t going to see him and I held my breath. Liss came down the slide “one last time,” her curls bouncing as she ran into your arms. You picked her up and swung her around, the look on your face like this was all you cared about in life. I thought, this is gonna be a sign to me. If you had walked away, I would have known God was telling me that Trey was supposed to be mine. I didn’t know what I hoped for. Part of me was begging you to pick up little Liss and walk away and never look back, part of me was begging you to see him. He settled it all himself. He made the choice. He cried out. That’s a sign, too.

pencil

“This story was inspired by a young mother who had the courage to ask me if I’d been depressed after my daughter was born. I had the strange feeling that a lot of mothers are keeping a secret from the rest of the world, in spite of our best efforts to reveal it.” E-mail: pythagoras333[at]comcast.net.

By Heart

Flash
H. Lovelyn Bettison


Sometimes she puts her hand over her heart to make sure it’s still there. She feels the gentle thumping in her chest. She is constantly aware.

*

When she woke from a drug-induced sleep, he was the first person she saw. She didn’t remember him. His white shirt was stained. Tired circles marked the spaces beneath his eyes.

“You’re back,” he said and pulled up the corners of his mouth to resemble a smile.

She didn’t speak. He leaned over and kissed her forehead. He smelled of fall leaves.

The doctors sent her home before she was ready. He pushed her wheelchair out to the car. The sun seemed so large. She closed her eyes and breathed in the heavy air.

While he was at work, she sat on the floor of his closet and tried to remember loving him. She closed her eyes, raised her hands and grazed the edges of shirts, jackets, and trousers. She tried to imagine what love would be like.

She sifted through boxes of pictures. She examined them and placed them in order on the living room floor. Wedding pictures. Honeymoon pictures. Vacation pictures. Is this the order of love?

She lay awake at night and listened to him snore. She studied the width of his shoulders and the way his shoulder blades poked out slightly as if pointing at her. She watched his deep-sleeping body. She counted the seconds between each breath. She waited for morning.

She sat on the edge of the bed in her yellow cotton nightgown hugging her pillow so tightly her chest ached. “I’m sleeping in the guest room tonight,” she said. She stared at her reflection in the window.

He stood in the bathroom brushing his teeth. He spit out a blob of white foam. “Why?” he asked. He stepped into the bedroom. A concerned crease already formed between his eyebrows.

She closed her eyes and when she opened them he was still standing there holding his toothbrush, waiting for an answer. She could see his reflection just behind hers in the window. She didn’t turn to face him. “You snore,” she said, but that wasn’t what she meant to say. She meant to say that she couldn’t stand being near him. She meant to say that she knew that he took care of her for so long but… She meant to say that she couldn’t feel anything anymore. She meant to say that she was sorry.

“I’ve always snored,” he said.

“I know.”

“I didn’t know it bothered you.”

“I just never said anything before. I’m so tired.” She stood up and walked over to him. Before she kissed him, she inhaled deeply and held it. Prepared to dive into a river of lost feeling, she slipped her hand around his waist and kissed him. Her heart banged against the wall of her chest. “Just for tonight,” she said as she pulled away.

“Okay,” he said, but he already felt tonight slipping into tomorrow night, slipping into the next, and the next, and finally slipping away. He watched her walk down the hall, away from him. She waved, a timid, childish wave, before closing the door of the guest bedroom, no longer for guests.

*

She takes off her shirt and looks at herself in the mirror. There is a scar that runs from the bottom of her neck to the bottom of her ribcage. She traces it with her fingers. This is where the doctors took out her heart and replaced it with a stranger’s.

pencil

H. Lovelyn Bettison was born into a creative family with a strong storytelling background. Some call it lying. Lovelyn took to this tradition when she was quite young. She, especially, took to it when she had spilled grape juice on the carpet. Now that she is an adult, Lovelyn makes up stories in her head while driving. The accident she was in a few months ago proves that this can be a dangerous distraction. Occasionally, she gets around to writing these stories down. Sometimes she even allows others to read them. E-mail: lovelynb[at]gmail.com.