Unqualified Praise Only, Please

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


Edited Version of First Book
Photo Credit: Joanna Penn

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” People love to malign teachers, talk about how easy they have it. Those people have obviously never stood in front of a classroom of ninth-graders.

What is most difficult about being a teacher is not teaching per se, but the many things that get in the way of teaching and learning. Perhaps the most disheartening of these is dealing with students who insist on framing the teacher as The Enemy, turning the classroom into a combative space rather than cooperative, collegial one. Inevitably, such a student thinks the teacher is out to get them because they think the teacher “gave” them a grade they didn’t deserve.

The conversation that transmogrifies a disgruntled student into one who thinks the teacher is The Enemy generally goes something like this:

  • Student (unhappy face): “Why did I get this grade?”
  • Teacher: *explains reasons*
  • Student: “But I did what the assignment asked!”
  • Teacher: “Yes, you did the minimum, and your grade reflects that. To get a higher grade, you would need to do more.” *explains how student could have improved grade*
  • Student: “But I’m an A student!”
  • Teacher: “Grades aren’t based on a student’s track record. When I grade an assignment, all I have to go on is the work you chose to hand in.”
  • Student: “This grade will destroy my chances of getting into [college / university / med school / law school / grad school]!”
  • Teacher: “This is one assignment worth only x% of your grade. If you earn an A on all your subsequent work in this course, as you have indicated you are capable of, it will have a negligible impact on your final grade.”
  • Student: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Teacher: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Student: “You gave me this grade because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Teacher: “I’d love to see you succeed. My office hours are from y to z on the days we have class. You don’t need to make an appointment; you’re welcome to drop in. I’m always happy to answer any questions students may have about course material or assignments.”
  • Student: “You’re out to get me!”

And so on in circular fashion until teacher cuts off student or student angrily stomps off, dissatisfied. The only satisfactory response, of course, would have been for the teacher to respond, “And what grade do you think you deserve? An A+? Oh, fine. Consider it changed! Have a nice day!”

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking this conversation is too absurd to be realistic. Or maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you this story… Ahh, yes. Let’s replay the preceding scene with two new characters.

  • Writer (unhappy face): “Why is there all this red pen on my novel?”
  • Editor: *explains suggested edits*
  • Writer: “But I used spellcheck!”
  • Editor: “Yes, and your manuscript has very few technical errors. However, a good story consists of more than just proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. To improve your novel, you need to do more than just clean up the typos.” *explains how writer could improve manuscript*
  • Writer: “But I’m very successful in my [non-novelist] career!”
  • Editor: “Your novel’s merit isn’t based your track record as a [butcher / baker / candlestick-maker], even if that’s also your protagonist’s occupation. When I edit a manuscript, my comments are based on the work you provided to me.”
  • Writer: “This edit has ruined my story!”
  • Editor: “Mine is just one opinion. If you’re not happy with my suggestions, you don’t have to incorporate them. You’re also welcome to seek out another editor for a second opinion. In fact, I encourage it.”
  • Writer: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Editor: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Writer: “You tore my manuscript apart because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Editor: “I’d love to see you succeed. I’d be happy to work with you to make your manuscript the best it can be. My rates for developmental editing can be found on my website. I’d also be happy to recommend another editor if you’d rather work with someone else.”
  • Writer: “You’re out to get me!”

Does the conversation seem so absurd now?

Editors aren’t the enemy of writers any more than teachers are the enemy of students. Just as teachers want to work with students to help them succeed, editors want to do the same with writers. Some writers seem to find this hard to believe. I think I know why.

I think there are writer-writers and there are editor-writers. You’re probably a writer-writer if you love, love, love writing first drafts and find editing and revising to be a painful chore. You’re probably an editor-writer if you want to stab an icepick in your skull while writing a first draft, but can barely contain your glee as you start tearing it apart for draft two (three, four, five… twenty-seven…).

There’s a riff on the saying I opened with that goes: “Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit.” I think this is what writer-writers believe, that editors are only editing because they’ve failed at writing, and that’s what leads to the belief that editors have it in for writers. I think writer-writers hate editing so much they find it hard to believe that there are people who love editing as much as they love writing, who, in fact, prefer editing to writing. But it’s true. Editor-writers aren’t gleeful about tearing apart a first draft because they love destroying things, they’re gleeful because they can see how to put it back together in a way that makes the story better.

Some of us edit because we love it and we’re good at it and we want to share our passion and skill with others instead of hoarding it all for ourselves. When an editor makes suggestions at a writer’s request, they’re not ambushing the writer with an unexpected punch. They’re extending an invitation to enter into a cooperative working relationship, one that in time can grow into a collegial partnership based on mutual respect—but only if the writer accepts the invitation.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullany

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming


Janet Mullany was one of our original forum hosts at Toasted Cheese, and the winner of the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest. In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in a variety of romance sub-genres.

The Rules of Gentility (William Morrow, 2007) is a gentle parody of Regency (Jane Austen era) romances. Philomena “Philly” Wellesley-Clegg, age 19, is a girl obsessed with bonnets (buying them, beribboning them…). Since she is very nearly an old maid, she is preoccupied with making lists of potential husbands (à la Bridget Jones), all of which she finds unsuitable for various reasons. Her love of bonnets exceeds that for any suitor. That is, until Inigo Linsley, youngest brother of her best friend’s husband, kisses her. After “The Kiss,” Philly loses all interest in bonnets. Hilarity—in the form of increasinging improbable situations—ensues when she enters into a fake engagement with Inigo to save herself from another suitor.

Janet’s writing always showed her sense of humor and that was readily apparent here. The Rules of Gentility is a light, funny story that mashes up modern chick-lit elements with Regency mainstays. She pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, but in a way that shows her genuine fondness for it. The humor makes this a story with appeal to an audience beyond those who regularly read Regency romances, though fans of the genre will likely appreciate the many insider references more than the casual reader.

An interview with Janet is forthcoming at Absolute Blank. In the meantime, you can get a taste of her fiction by delving into the archives, where you’ll find three stories: “Snow, the Seven, and the Moon,” “The Companions are Chosen,” and “A Perfect Evening.” Janet also wrote “Enter At Your Own Risk: The Strange, Twilight World of Writing Competitions” for Absolute Blank.

In addition to her website, you can find Janet on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, and at The Risky Regencies, a collaborative blog.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Dangers of Living Vicariously

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


Abandoned Distillery
Photo Credit: Christopher/BlackBirdCD

Kentucky hadn’t seen an ice storm this bad in over a decade. The governor had activated the entire National Guard twelve years ago to do door-to-door checks, clear debris, and transport supplies. Cell towers had gone down, old folks froze to death in their homes, and school was out for two weeks in some places. This was worse though. Sheets of freezing rain had fallen every other night for three weeks, melting to a slush during the day and freezing again into a thick layer of solid ice. Even in Louisville, the metro police had issued a notice that anyone caught driving on its icy streets until they were safer would get a ticket.

It was the perfect time, Katie thought, for urban exploring. No one was at work, the streets were ghost-town empty, and the continual fall of freezing rain meant their footprints would be erased just minutes after they passed.

Katie and Roger had talked about exploring the abandoned Fiddler’s Green Bourbon distillery since they were in middle school. It had that haunted look at night, with its wrought iron gates and the way the pointed roof of the water tower made the skyline seem just a bit more like a castle when the moon was out. Roger’s friend Tyler from the track team had come too, since he and Roger were playing video games when Katie called.

“I can’t even see the top of the water tower from all the ice coming down,” Roger said as they came to the wall.

“That means we’re harder to see too,” Katie said. “Give me a boost?”

The owners of Fiddler’s Green had apparently thought an inviting, aesthetic appeal was more important than security. As a result, the distillery grounds were surrounded not by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, but by an eight-foot brick wall. Roger leaned his back against the wall and cupped his hands on his knee. Katie stepped into his hands, lost her balance for a moment, and stuffed her crotch in Roger’s face.

“Sorry,” she said, glancing down.

“Don’t apologize,” Tyler said. “You just made his night.”

They were all over the wall in a few moments and in the urban explorers’ paradise—an abandoned complex of buildings that hadn’t been touched in over a decade.

“There’ll be an aging warehouse somewhere here where they would’ve kept the oak barrels to age the bourbon,” Roger said. “My vote is we try to find that first.”

“I second that motion,” Tyler said with a smile.

“Let’s see if they locked the doors first,” Katie said, trying a doorknob. Then, after rattling it to make sure it wasn’t just frozen, Katie pulled a double-ended lock pick and tension wrench from her coat pocket.

“Where did you get those?” Tyler asked.

“I made them, stupid,” Katie answered. “I do have Internet access, and better things to do with my time than play video games.”

“She’s been doing this since we were in seventh grade,” Roger whispered.

Katie raked the pins in the lock with one end of the pick, applying slight pressure to the lock core with the tension wrench. After several moments she used the diamond-shaped end of the pick on the back pin, and the lock slowly turned.

“Holy crap,” Tyler said, “I need to hang out with you guys more often. I’ve been missing out.”

“Real knowledge is never spoon-fed,” Katie replied. “That’s what Mr. Gyerson says, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Tyler said. “I sleep in his class.”

A skittering sound echoed in the shadows.

“Do you hear that?” Roger asked. “It sounds like they have rats.”

“I’m not surprised,” Katie said. “I just figured they’d be somewhere warmer right now.”

“Well, there’s nothing in here but empty rows of shelves anyway,” Roger said. “Let’s look for something more interesting, like the warehouse.”

“You know it’s probably empty, right?” Katie said. “Nobody in their right mind would leave gallons of high-end bourbon in a warehouse when they left.”

“Then what are those barrels in the window of that building?” Tyler asked, pointing.

“It’s worth a look,” Roger said, smiling.

Katie started to pull out her picks when she came to the warehouse door. Then, on a whim, she tried the knob.

“It’s open,” she said, pushing the door open. “Of all the buildings to leave unlocked…”

Tyler walked inside and tapped on a barrel. “There’s something in them. Now we just need to find a way to get them open,” he said.

Tiny feet skittered behind the shelves.

“There are rats in here too,” Roger said. “Watch your feet.”

“Something bit me!” Katie said, looking down.

A stabbing pain shot through Roger’s neck, and he instantly started to feel numb.

“Tyler, look—” Roger began, but his tongue stopped working before he could say “out.”

Over Tyler’s shoulder he’d seen something. He was sure it wasn’t a rat. Instead, it looked like a tiny man about the size of his hand, with what looked like a tiny spear.

As Roger crumbled to the floor, he did his best not to land on Katie, but he felt more like a sack of potatoes than someone who could control his own body.

 

Roger felt a terrible ache behind his right shoulder blade that ran all the way up to his right ear. It was the kind of ache he’d only gotten from sleeping on the couch for too long. “What the hell?” he said, looking around him. Katie and he lay in a cage about four feet high with what looked like steel bars. Someone had chained their hands to the bars on opposite sides of the cage. Katie remained motionless. Roger nudged her with his foot.

“Katie,” he whispered. “Katie, wake up.”

Her leg moved, and then she jerked as she tried to bring her chained hands to her face.

Roger looked outside the cage and saw a man working at a table, over what appeared to be Tyler’s restrained body. The man turned to look at Roger.

“Mr. Gyerson?”

“Hello, Roger,” the man said. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

“Can you get us out of here? What’s going on?”

“I’ll let you out in a moment, Roger,” he said, “after I’m done with your friend Tyler. I have to make sure my equipment is still calibrated. I haven’t made a transfer in months.”

“What?” Roger asked. “What are you talking about?”

“The homunculi that captured the three of you were my first experiments with this process. I filled them with the souls of homeless vagrants many months ago to do menial tasks for me. I haven’t made one recently so I’m going to animate one with your friend Tyler before I put you and Katie in the device.”

“What’s a homunculi?” Tyler asked. “I don’t think I want to be one of those.”

“A homunculus, Tyler,” Mr. Gyerson said, “is a small artificial person, and one of the many pet projects of alchemists. Many of them tried silly methods like using hippomene under the full moon, but I find the easiest method is to make a miniature human frame with mostly artificial organs, insert a mouse’s heart, and then transfer a living soul. That is what I’m going to do with you.”

“Why me?” Tyler asked.

“Because you sleep in my class,” Mr. Gyerson answered. “You’re rude. You should respect your elders, and you don’t. So I’m giving you a fitting station in the world, with the homeless men that wandered into my bourbon barrel trap before you.”

“Whatever dude,” Tyler said.

“Exactly my point,” Gyerson said. “‘Dude’ isn’t the way you should address your elders. If you tried ‘sir’ once in a while, you might not be spending the rest of your life in a seven-inch body.”

Roger caught the sound of snickering from another table, where he saw the tiny men gathered around a homunculus-sized table. Their black eyes gazed at Tyler, knowing he was about to join their ranks. A single beer can with a tiny tap in its side sat at the edge of the table.

“Miniature men are so much easier to satisfy,” Gyerson said. “All they wanted in life was free-flowing sedation and no responsibility. I give them all the beer they can drink and they ambush interlopers for me. I don’t even need food for them, since their new bodies run on nothing but beer. I think all of them are happier for the change.”

Katie pulled herself upright against the bars.

“What about Roger and me?” she asked. “Are we going to be homunculi as well?”

“Yes, of course, precious Katie. I wouldn’t leave your souls without a place to go once we vacate your bodies. That would be murder, and I’m just not that sort of man.”

“Vacate our bodies?” Katie said. “What do you mean?”

“Youth is wasted on the young, darling Katie,” Gyerson said, “and you more than deserve this. The three of you are common criminals with, I must say, bodies and youth you don’t deserve.”

“So… wait,” Roger interrupted. “You’re planning to take over my body and put my soul in a homunculus?”

“That’s pretty much the idea, yes,” Gyerson said. “You’ve maintained that physique quite well with all that running you do. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. I’m old, as you can see, and my wife no longer finds me attractive. I can’t blame her, of course, since she’s wrinkled and sagging as well and I’m repulsed by the thought of making love to her. Katie’s filled out so nicely in the last couple of years that my wife and I will be quite happy with her. I’ll be able to turn an old man’s lust into a healthy love for my wife again. I’d never even thought of taking a younger mistress, you know. I’m just not that sort of man.”

Katie made a sound that was a mix between choking and throwing up.

“Anyway, we’ve dithered long enough, haven’t we, Tyler?” Gyerson asked.

Roger could just make out the tiny, stitched-together man lying motionless on the table adjacent to Tyler. Gyerson pressed a few buttons on a keypad and opened the valve on an intravenous drip that ran to Tyler’s forearm. Tyler twisted against the restraints.

“No!” he yelled. “Wait! I—”

Then his body went still. A few moments passed, and the homunculus body on the table began to twist in the same fashion. A high-pitched scream escaped its tiny lips. Gyerson poked Tyler’s tiny new body with a dissecting probe to test its reflexes. Homunculus-Tyler squirmed.

“Ha!” Gyerson said. “Another successful transfer! Another tiny minion for my tiny army! Looks like we’re good to go for you two. Margaret will be so happy.”

“What are you going to do as two high school kids anyway?” Katie asked, trying to think of a way to stall Gyerson’s plan. “People will wonder why you’re not in school. Our parents will come looking for us.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, dear Katie. We won’t even be in the United States much longer. My first bit of alchemical experimentation was transmuting metals. I’ve made more than enough gold to buy the island we’ll be flying to tomorrow morning. The two of you are just the last step in our retirement plan. Most folks retire when they’re too old to enjoy it. Margaret and I shall have a second life. I’ve even fashioned Philosopher’s Stones for us so we’ll never have to do this again.”

“You can’t… that’s horrible,” Katie said. “You’re a teacher. You should be helping people.”

“I’m a chemistry teacher teaching a lie,” Gyerson said. “Real knowledge is never spoon-fed but I’ve been forced to teach the state-sanctioned ‘curriculum’ for the last thirty years and I’m tired of it.”

“What do you mean ‘state-sanctioned’?” Roger asked.

“The drivel we feed kids in schools these days,” Gyerson said. “If the masses knew it was possible to turn lead into gold, would gold have any value? Of course not. Everyone would try to do it. Only by teaching impossibility in schools do the select few retain power. Have you ever picked up a chemistry textbook from the late 1800s? No, of course you wouldn’t. You’re too busy playing video games to care about lost knowledge and censorship. Our great-grandfathers’ chemistry textbooks had recipes for nitroglycerine, poisons, and the like. Those are things the state deems too dangerous for the masses now, and so they are no longer published. That knowledge is hoarded by those who ‘need’ it to serve the state and make its arsenal of death. If you go back further, you’ll notice a radical shift in thought and print when the secret masters of the world realized what alchemy would do to the Gold Standard. Did you know that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year those secret masters formed a new hegemonic dynasty with their alchemical secrets? That was when they started teaching this heavily-censored version of science.”

“Sounds like a great conspiracy theory,” Roger said. “It’s heavy on motive and light on facts.”

“Suit yourself,” Gyerson said. “You won’t believe the truth despite the evidence I’ve given you. I guess the homunculus really is a fitting station for you.”

Gyerson snatched up Tyler in one hand and dropped him in a small wire cage, which he placed on the table with the other homunculi.

“We’ll just let Tyler introduce himself to the others while I introduce you to your new body, Roger,” he said, and grabbed a pole with a cable loop at one end.

Roger had been twisting against his restraints throughout this conversation, but they were far too secure. Gyerson unlocked the cage with a small key and tightened the cable at the end of the pole around Roger’s throat.

“This is a bit like an animal control collar,” Gyerson explained, “with the addition of this button that will let me shock you if you try to fight me.”

Gyerson pressed the button and Roger’s jaw tensed with the current as fire shot through his brain.

“See,” Gyerson said, smiling. “Evidence.”

After some struggling and several more jolts, Gyerson managed to strap Roger to the table where Tyler’s lifeless former body had been.

“Now, I haven’t exactly done a transfusion before,” Gyerson said, as he tapped several keys on the keypad. “I’ll just set your apparatus to transfer to the homunculus and set mine to a split-second delay so our souls don’t cause a traffic jam of sorts. We wouldn’t want that. I should be able to jump into your body between beats and the heart will never know the difference. If you separate a heart from a soul for more than just a few minutes death is irreversible, you know. I found that out the hard way.”

Roger spit at Gyerson, but the old man ducked to one side.

“Very rude. Horrible manners,” he muttered as he started Roger’s intravenous drip. Then, still muttering to himself, Gyerson tapped several buttons on a separate keypad and inserted a needle into his own left arm.

“Now then…” he said, and lay down on the table. He waited a moment, and felt a strange pull at the core of his being. He smiled.

Gyerson opened his eyes and found that he was strapped to the other table.

Except…

It was the wrong other table. He moved his hands and found that they were much smaller than he’d expected. The mouse’s heart thumped faster than his human one had.

“There are three bits of real knowledge I was never spoon-fed,” Katie said, as she untied Roger. “Three things I’ve very much enjoyed learning on my own. The first, obviously, is picking locks. Even if you’d been smart enough to search me and take my picks, I could’ve had that lock open in five seconds with one of my hairpins. Seriously, if you have all this gold, why didn’t you invest in a decent lock for your prisoners?”

Gyerson looked around. Surely the other homunculi would help him. He kept them stocked in beer and facilitated their miniature lives of ease. What he saw on the table was one homunculus out of the wire cage and six homunculi inside it.

“The second thing,” Katie said, “was how to move silently, quickly. Don’t you think an urban explorer might have developed that skill set by now? Your little homeless-munculus army never saw me coming, and neither did you. You really could’ve invested in some better help too.”

“Put me back,” Gyerson said. “I’ll share my gold with you. I’m sorry. I do apologize for any misunderstanding. Just put me back in my original body before it dies and you’ll be filthy rich, I promise.”

“I know I’ll be rich,” Katie said with a smile, “but you’re interrupting me. That’s very rude. You should learn some manners, and I intend to teach them to you. The third thing I learned, through much study, was effective torture. I can’t be sure, of course, what methods would work on your makeshift homunculus body, but I’m pretty sure waterboarding and moderate voltage will get it done. You’re going to tell me where the gold is, where the island is, and most importantly, where your notebooks are. You don’t have to spoon-feed me, teacher. I’ll rip it out of you.”

“Such cruelty…” Gyerson said.

“You’ve taken advantage of virtue for too long,” she said. “Old folks like you demand respect of a younger generation while you rip our dreams apart for your pleasure. These homeless you enslaved exploited the compassion of better people to further their vices, and you’re no better for playing on my virtue to say I should respect you. You say we’re cruel, but you’ve abused our virtue to the point that we cannot practice it and survive at the same time.”

“Monster,” Gyerson whispered.

“Well, Dr. Frankenstein,” Katie said, “you made me.”

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Stephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. Email: slawson80[at]gmail.com

Inversion

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Steven Till


2008-05-25 Pittsburgh 094 PPG
Photo Credit: Allie_Caulfield

The snow came down in large, billowy flakes blanketing the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. Cars began clogging Liberty Avenue as rush hour quickly drew near. Jillian briskly walked along the street as people began pouring out of offices. Her thoughts were racing through the events of the past week as she pushed through the crowds of commuters. She couldn’t explain what was happening to her; the erratic behavior that she had exhibited was getting worse. Friends and family berated her to seek professional help and finally, she had given in to their pleas.

Her cell kept ringing. No doubt people were eager to hear how her appointment with the psychiatrist had gone. The calls continued to go unanswered as she walked on, consumed by her thoughts. The doctor that she spoke with didn’t offer a diagnosis, but was quick to list myriad possibilities of things it could be. Dissociative identity disorder, psychotic disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and a few others she couldn’t even remember. Thank God she didn’t divulge everything that was going on, otherwise she might be involuntarily committed to a psych ward.

The doctor wanted her to meet with him again in a week. She agreed and set up a time with the receptionist, although she had no intention of keeping the appointment. Whatever was wrong with her was escalating quickly, becoming more severe with every passing day. The missing time had got longer and longer, the worst being a period of six hours that she couldn’t account for.

That was the scariest for Jillian. Waking up in strange places, not knowing why she was there or what had happened. Looking around to see strangers staring back at her as if she were insane. But I am insane, aren’t I? she thought. What was even worse than waking up in weird places was the face. The first time she’d seen it was two weeks ago while she was getting ready for work. She had got out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror. Her reflection had stared back at her as it had done every time before, but this time, something was different. Her visage looked darker, more menacing. And then it did something unexpected. It winked at her.

Jillian paused as commuters shuffled in front of her towards their waiting bus. She glanced at the shop window to her left and stared at her reflection. The cute, blond, bright-eyed girl stared back. Other pedestrians walked past, blocking her view. Her visage reappeared, causing her to gasp. The dark persona with jet black hair and dark eyes replaced the innocent version of herself. Just as quickly as she appeared, her “negative,” as she had come to call her, pulled her black lips into a cruel sneer.

Trying to shake the creepy feeling from her spine, Jillian continued towards her loft in the Strip District. Twenty minutes later, she was standing in the vestibule of her building, fumbling for her keys. The fluorescent light above her flickered as she focused on the lock and not at her reflection in the door window. The key slid into the lock and just as she turned the tumblers, her eyes met the gaze staring back at her from the window glass. Her negative glared at her with malice. In an instant, its arm raised and pounded against the window. Glass shattered all around her as the window gave way to the invisible force behind it.

She pushed open the door and ran up the four flights of stairs in front of her. She rushed over to the kitchen sink and vomited. Panic was setting in. Wiping her mouth, she quickly packed a bowl and lit it, inhaling the THC-laden smoke. Not the best solution by far, but one that allowed her to calm down somewhat. Her cell phone rang from within her purse. Recognizing the ringtone, she pulled her phone out and answered the call.

“Cooper?” she asked, already knowing that it was her boyfriend.

“Hey, sweets, how ya doing? You having a better day today?” he asked, genuine concern in his voice.

“Yeah, it’s been okay,” she replied, hoping that the shaking in her voice wasn’t too obvious.

“Hmm… that doesn’t sound very convincing. I’m coming over, are you at home?”

“Yes, I’m home,” she said softly. Perhaps being in his arms was just what she needed.

“Great, I’m just getting off work now. I’ll be there in just a few, baby,” Cooper replied, the cheer in his voice doing a better job at masking his concern than hers did.

And with that, the conversation ended. Cooper worked as a dockhand at Wholey’s Fish Market, the only seafood wholesaler in town. Located in the Strip District a mere four blocks away from her apartment, he’d be there in a matter of minutes.

Jillian walked through the dark loft and sat on the windowsill. Cracking the oversized window, she lit a cigarette and stared out into the city as the cold December air whisked away the smoke as it passed over her lips. The long tube of ash hung precariously from her cigarette as minutes passed. A knock at her door startled Jillian out of her thoughts, causing the ash to fall. Cursing, she stood up and brushed herself off as she made her way to the front door. Normally, Cooper would have just let himself in, but tonight she wasn’t taking any chances. She quickly unlocked the two dead bolts and chain that secured the heavy steel door.

Cooper’s glowing smile filled the doorway as she pulled the door open. “‘ello love” he said, in his best British cockney. His horrible foreign accents always made her laugh. His cheeky grin slowly faded as he observed none of the usual reactions to his attempts at humor.

“Right, ok, what happened?” he asked as he entered the loft, throwing his snow-covered jacket on the nearby coat hook. The smell of fish hung heavily on his body, one of the unpleasant side-effects of working at the fish market.

“I don’t know. Nothing. Well, something, but…” she started, but then managed to redirect Cooper. “Say, how about you hit the shower and get that funk off yourself and I’ll tell you all about it when you’re done, okay?” she managed to say with a brief, halfhearted smile.

“All right, deal,” he said, as he walked towards the bathroom. “Hey, what happened to the door downstairs? The window was all smashed out.”

“Go get clean,” she responded as she turned towards the coffeemaker.

Cooper stood there a moment longer, watching Jillian make an unnecessary fuss over the coffeemaker. Whatever happened today and whatever happened to the door downstairs had her pretty spooked, that much he knew. Knowing better than to push the issue, he turned and made his way to the bathroom.

She stood there staring at the coffeemaker, wondering what she should say to him. He deserved to know, but he would never believe her. How could he? How could anyone, for that matter? Yes honey, I think that my reflection is trying to kill me. She almost laughed at how ridiculous that sounded in her head and could only imagine how it would seem if she actually said it aloud. The shower turned off. Jillian turned and slowly walked towards the bathroom.

The air was hot and thick, fogging up the mirror. Cooper was at the sink brushing his teeth. Jillian moved up behind him, reaching out, touching his back. She slid her hand over his ribcage and let it stop once it reached his toned abs. Her other hand caressed up over his shoulder and across his muscular chest, until she had successfully enveloped him in her embrace. Feeling him stand a little straighter, she began to kiss the nape of his neck, slowly making her way to the side and up to his ear, which she gently, playfully, tugged on with her teeth.

Cooper tilted his head, basking in the affection that she showered upon him. He thought it was strange that Jillian was being so affectionate towards him, especially now. With all the difficulties that she’d been having recently, intimacy had been the last thing on her mind. He wasn’t going to complain though. If this was what she needed, then he would gladly oblige.

“I’m sorry that I’ve been so crazy lately,” Jillian whispered, pressing against his back.

“Aw baby, it’s ok. I just want to make sure you’re all right. I’m here for you for whatever you need,” he said with a smile.

Cooper reached in front of him and wiped his hand across the steam-fogged mirror. He smiled at her in their reflection. Jillian felt her heart leap into her throat, as her negative stood behind her boyfriend, one arm wrapped around him. A maniacal grin slowly spread across her pale face.

“You’re too good to me sweetheart,” the negative whispered, leaning into Cooper’s ear.

Jillian couldn’t move. She couldn’t talk. She thought she had heard her own voice whisper something, but all she could focus on were those black, empty eyes of her negative taunting her as it caressed her boyfriend’s naked chest. Suddenly, in a blink of an eye, the negative raised a large knife to Cooper’s throat.

Before Jillian could react, the negative pulled the blade across his neck. The flesh parted as blood showered the bathroom. She stared into Cooper’s eyes, which were wide with disbelief. She could see life quickly escaping as his eyes lost focus. The negative released him from its macabre embrace and he crumpled to the floor with one last gurgle of breath.

Jillian stared at her now-dead boyfriend as the blood beneath him creeped further out across the tile. Slowly, she allowed her eyes to move to the mirror. Gazing back at her, the negative raised the large knife to its mouth and ran its tongue along the edge, licking Cooper’s blood off the cold blade.

A chill ran down Jillian’s spine as she spun away from the mirror and darted out of the bathroom, slipping her way through the large pool of Cooper’s blood. She stopped when she got to her kitchen. Looking down, she saw the large knife clutched in her hand. Immediately, her stomach clenched and she doubled over and vomited. She had no recollection of picking up the knife. Tears streamed down her face, leaving clean paths across her blood-covered skin. Dropping the knife, Jillian ran out of her apartment as fast as her trembling legs could go.

She exploded from the building and out into the night, the icy air blasting her face. Pivoting on the snow-covered pavement, she began to sprint towards the heart of the city, the image of Cooper lying dead on her floor burned into her mind. The mirror-daemon licking the knife blade assaulted her psyche. She was that daemon, wasn’t she?

Jillian ran as fast as the snow would allow. Snow pelted her relentlessly as she continued to run away from the nightmare at her apartment. Safety and sanity were an illusion; there was no running from what had happened. Every window that she passed, glimpses of the negative could be seen blurring by.

Her thoughts were racing about as fast as she was running. She kept asking herself the same questions: What is it? What does it want? Am I going insane? Did I kill Cooper or was it the reflection?

We killed him.”

The voice startled Jillian. She realized that she had stopped running and was now standing along Liberty Avenue, in the heart of the city. Turning her head to the right, her eyes saw the familiar visage of the mirror-daemon in the store window before her. It dawned on her that this thing had actually answered the question that she was thinking. It was trying to communicate.

Swallowing her fear, she took a step closer to the reflection and forced herself to look at it. It seemed like the entire reflection was different from its real counterpart. Before it was just the daemon-thing that was all twisted and unnatural, but now, the entire cityscape in the window looked like a twisted, dark, and sinister place.

“My God…” Jillian whispered as she continued to study the surreal images before her.

“God has nothing to do with us,” the daemon replied.

What are you?” Jillian cried.

Bystanders slowly filtered by, giving the crazy woman who was yelling at the empty jewelry store a wide berth.

What do you want from me?” she screamed again.

Suddenly, the window glass liquified as the daemon’s arm lurched forward towards Jillian. The surface of the window warped and morphed into the arm and hand of the daemonic reflection. Before she could move, the glassy hand palmed the top of her head like a basketball. Its grip was like a vise. If the thing squeezed any harder, her skull would surely pop like a grape.

“I am you and you are me… now it’s my turn to travel free…” hissed the thing. “A soul that’s split is what we’ll be… you’re the love and hate is me. Destined to suffer eternally…”

“Why are you here?” Jillian asked, squirming to free herself.

The daemon grinned the same maniacal smile that it did as it ingested her boyfriend’s blood in the bathroom. It leaned closer towards Jillian, bulging the glass out as if it were cloth.

“You had your chance to feel alive. Now it’s time for you to die.”

With a piercing scream the daemon lunged, distorting the strange liquid-glass. Jillian twisted her body and somehow managed to escape the creature’s grip. The shrill scream grew in intensity as the daemon’s rage flared. The storefront window exploded in a shower of tiny shards; black smoke puffed around the window frame as the dark image of the city shattered. Immediately, Jillian spun and continued sprinting down Liberty Avenue.

As she ran, window after window burst: storefronts, car windows, everything. Trying to think logically, she darted across the street, nearly getting hit by several cars. Ducking into several alleyways, her heart sank as every alley she entered had windows in the adjacent buildings. Frantically, Jillian continued on, struggling to find refuge from the malevolent force that was in hot pursuit.

There was no escape. She cursed herself for living in a city. Rounding a corner, she stopped dead in her tracks, sliding on the packed snow below her feet. Somehow she had made her way into PPG Plaza, a series of office buildings which connected to the main skyscraper that served as headquarters to Pittsburgh Plate Glass—which, of course, consisted entirely of mirrored glass.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jillian gasped.

She was literally surrounded by mirrors. Buildings made of mirrors. As she scanned her surroundings, she could see it staring back at her—in every single pane of glass.

“I know what you want, you bitch!” she yelled. “You’re trying to switch places with me, aren’t you? You don’t want to kill me. You want to be me!”

Jillian headed towards the doors to the main tower. The guard at the security desk stood up and began to stop her from breaching the security check. In one fluid movement, she reached up with both hands and twisted. A loud crack echoed throughout the empty lobby as the dead guard hit the floor, his head facing the wrong way.

Realizing what had just happened, she looked around and saw the daemon glaring at her through a glass sculpture which hung on the wall behind the security desk. Not knowing what to do next, Jillian did the only thing she could think of. She ran to the elevators.

*

The elevator chimed and opened to the fortieth floor. The reflective doors slid open. She slowly stepped off into the hallway and headed for the stairwell. As she walked, she could hear muffled screams and frantic pounding as she passed by dark office windows. Entering the stairwell, she began to make her way up to the roof. The wind howled as it blew through the four glass spires that marked the corners of the building.

She walked towards the closest ledge. A grotesque, maniacal smile slowly twisted across her pale face. She stepped up on the ledge. Dark, jet-black eyes gazed out at the shimmering night skyline as she stopped. More pounding could be heard from the glass spire that stood just eight feet to her left.

Jillian watched in horror from inside the glass as the mirror-daemon stood precariously, yet unflinchingly, on the ledge. She pounded the glass in front of her, trying to break it, but to no avail.

As if on cue, it turned its head and glared at her through black, empty eyes. The terrifying grin was still plastered on its face.

“I am you and you are me…” it said, as it leaned forward, gracefully falling into the abyss.

Jillian desperately tried to break free from the reflection that she was now trapped in. Deep down, she knew what was going to happen. She released one last scream. The daemon slammed into the pavement below. At the precise moment of impact, every window in PPG Place erupted into a monstrous shower of glass. When the chaos had settled, the once majestic building was nothing more than a skeleton, which collapsed soon after.

*

First-responder Jamie Anderson closed the door to her emergency response vehicle, exhausted from the forty-eight-hour shift she just pulled at the disaster site. She adjusted her rearview mirror to see if she looked as bad as she felt, and gasped. Gazing back at her in the mirror were two jet-black eyes.

pencil

Steven has published two textbooks on 3D computer modeling and animation and is now attempting to break into fiction writing. “Inversion” is his first short story attempt. Currently, he is working on his first novel, titled Shuffle: Brains, Flesh, and Automatic Weapons, which is a zombie apocalypse story set in Pittsburgh, PA. Email: till.beast[at]gmail.com

The Perfect Gift

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Greg Osadec


Mini Heart Box
Photo Credit: Arturo Fonseca

Tyler Landon rushed into the shop to protect his tan suede jacket from the sudden freezing rain. It was coming down hard at a sharp angle, not falling so much as being hurled from the dark sky, smacking against the pavement hard enough to bounce. He tried to shake his jacket dry, not caring where the globs of semi-frozen slush landed. The shop was narrow but long; the tone of the electronic door chime just reached him from somewhere deep in the back of the shop. More importantly, it was warm and dry. While he waited out the weather, Tyler decided to look for a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife.

The door sighed shut behind him and silence settled into the shop like a dog beside a fire. There was no sign of anyone else in the shop. No music played through the sound system, assuming the store had one. Not even the hum of passing traffic made it inside. As Tyler glanced out through the large display window beside the door, he noticed the glass shaking slightly in its frame. He knew this was because it was being beaten by the icy wind and rain—he could see it slapping against the window—but he couldn’t hear it at all. He expected to see the name of the shop stenciled on the glass—some kind of emporium, maybe—but the only things obscuring his view of the street were the cluttered shelves of carefully arranged knickknacks and kitschy junk crammed into the narrow alcove that framed the window. He remembered seeing a sign flapping in the wind over the door, but he’d been hunched too far forward against the rain to read it.

Rubbing at some especially dark water spots with the inside of his jacket sleeve, he browsed the shelves with growing amusement. At first glance the shop seemed to lack any kind of organization, but after scanning a few of the shelves around the alcove near the window he thought he’d figured it out: he was in the gnome section. Scores of them smiled up at him from the shelves, their image plastered on everything from keychains and travel mugs to coasters and pillows. A full-size garden gnome at the base of one display case stared cheerily at Tyler’s knees. It was somehow different from others he’d seen. After a moment, Tyler realized its eyes gleamed in the light as if they were made of glass that had been set in to its ceramic head. They gave it an eerie lifelike quality. But even more disturbing were the personalized business cards perched on the brim of its pointy red hat. If anyone ever gave Tyler a business card featuring a gnome—even if their company manufactured and sold the damn things—he’d put them out of business and consider it a mercy killing.

Coming around the corner, Tyler noticed a shift in the motif. He was now in the fairy department. A swarm of the dainty, winged figures—in the form of statuettes, dolls, ornaments and paintings—covered a series of shelves. Scanning the length of the store, Tyler began to suspect that there were more than a few things in here that Stacey might actually enjoy—not, unfortunately, as a gag gift. After almost six years of marriage he still hadn’t managed to snuff out her love of baubles. The challenge would be finding something that he could give to her without laughing… and then bear to see mixed in with the tasteful décor of their condo. He might be able to find something for Anne—at least then he wouldn’t have to see it in his home every day—but so far nothing seemed to fit her style, a fact for which he was grateful.

Passing clusters of elves and leprechauns, Tyler moved deeper into the store. At the very least he wanted something he wouldn’t have to hide whenever they had company, and the odds of finding anything here that fit the bill were starting to look pretty slim. Ready to leave, Tyler turned to check the weather, hoping it had cleared up. He was surprised to see that the door was about twenty feet away. He hadn’t thought he’d come so far into the store, but with so much merchandise stacked to the ceiling in each aisle, it was easy to get disoriented. Tyler could make out a cluster of people lined up on the sidewalk outside. Those with umbrellas held them at an angle to keep the frozen rain from lashing at their faces. The rest had turned their backs to the wind or pulled their coat collars up to try to shield their cheeks. But except for a few who shifted from one foot to the other to keep warm, none of them moved. They seemed to be waiting for something—a bus, maybe. Tyler wondered why they didn’t wait inside the shop.

Probably they know they’d feel guilty and end up buying something they don’t need, he thought as he smiled. That was good. Consumer guilt had helped him get his start. Guilt made people easy to manipulate. Eliminating guilt gave you an edge. Case in point: here he was, warm and dry, while those suckers played by the rules and froze. Still, you’d think a few of them would at least stand in the recessed entrance to get out of the rain…

He tugged at the suede jacket. He’d only worn it because the day’s forecast had promised clear skies. It had been more trouble than it was worth since day one. An extravagant Christmas gift from Anne, he’d been forced to lie about it to Stacey, saying he’d bought it for himself on a whim at a Boxing Week sale. Now it had trapped him here, because he’d catch hell from both of them if he ruined it. He should have known better than to accept it in the first place. A gift like that was never a good sign. It meant that expectations were starting to build up, and they could cause some serious damage when they came crashing down. Still, as long as he kept them from getting too high, he’d be all right.

Sidestepping between two display cases, he found the cashier’s counter nestled between two round columns. A small stack of multicoloured paper, about three inches by three inches, sat neatly beside the cash register. There was no sign of any employees. They were probably so used to people coming in to browse and leaving without buying anything that they didn’t think it was worth interrupting their game of Dungeons and Dragons to check on him.

Past the counter stood a jumble of bookshelves and display cases. Rather than aisles, they formed a sort of hedge maze overgrown with merchandise. He entered it, moving deeper into the store, and realized that he wouldn’t find any of the enchanted creatures favoured by annoying but harmless people on this side of the store. Instead, Tyler found himself surrounded by things so disturbing that he’d want a restraining order imposed on anyone who bought one. He tried to imagine what kind of business proposal the owners had presented to the bank. Our strategy is to specialize in products that will appeal to a niche market with a high level of disposable income resulting from one or more of the following factors:

  • No dependants because nobody wants to share their sad, lonely little lives
  • Minimal housing expenses due to living in their parents’ basements
  • No long-term savings goals because their cult believes the Earth will be incinerated by a flock of intergalactic dragons next year

Still, if they were making enough to cover the payments on this kind of square-footage, he might have to look into this. Though the zigzag arrangement of bookshelves and display cases limited his line of sight, he still couldn’t see the back wall of the store. Not even when he looked over them. The store hadn’t seemed this big when he first walked in. Was there really so much of a market for this stuff? Ghouls with torn flesh hanging from their mouths—a molded plastic body with shreds of some kind of canvas material standing in for the bits of flesh so it would actually dangle. Admittedly, a nice touch. Pewter reapers cloaked in a coarse woven fibre—haircloth, maybe—beckoning with one hand, scythes poised in the other. Skeletons with toothy grins perched atop gravestones. The gravestones were some kind of cheap mineral, but Tyler wasn’t sure about the skeletons. For a second he thought they might actually be ivory, but the price tag stuck under the base of the statuette eliminated that possibility. It was heavy, though. Even considering the mineral gravestone, the bones couldn’t just be plastic. It sounded solid when he tapped his fingernail against it, and it was smooth to the touch. Like it had been polished. It almost felt like bone.

Rounding the corner, he found a single book with a shelf to itself. It was propped up on a thin metal book stand, its plain tan cover dully reflecting the overhead lights. Tyler’s first thought was leather, but that wasn’t right. Not quite. It didn’t have the same shine. Running his hand along the spine, it felt… different. Tyler felt the skin on his arm tighten then break out in sudden goose bumps.

Leave it to the freaks, he thought, as he rounded one corner, then another.

“Can I help you?”

Tyler turned. He’d somehow circled back to the cashier’s counter. A man in jeans and a grey shirt was leaning on the counter. Tyler guessed he was in his early seventies, and from his thick white moustache and the tuft of white hair protruding from the collar of his shirt, it seemed that he’d only gone bald on top.

“Oh, uh, I’m just looking around, thanks,” Tyler said. “It’s easy to get lost in this place.”

The old man smiled. “Many have, in my little shop.”

“I wouldn’t call it little,” Tyler said. “Where do you get this stuff? China?”

The man’s warm laugh relaxed Tyler. “Not as much as you’d think, actually. Much of it I make myself.” The shopkeeper barely looked up from the counter where he was working on something.

“Well, sorry to interrupt,” said Tyler, turning to leave.

“Not at all. Come, look.”

The old man’s hands were large and strong. Tyler didn’t doubt the man could build things with hands like that, but he was surprised to see them making the final delicate folds in a piece of red origami paper. It formed a three-dimensional rectangle. One end was rounded, the other open and hollow.

“What is it?”

The shopkeeper picked it up and slid it over the opening of a second, larger piece that sat beside it. Together, they formed a heart. “It’s a box,” said the shopkeeper.

It tapped against Tyler’s wedding ring when the shopkeeper placed it in his open hand. At its widest point it reached the edges of Tyler’s palm, with a depth of about an inch. Its weight, though not substantial, surprised him.

Tyler gripped the lid carefully. “May I?” he asked.

“Of course! It won’t hold anything big. Or heavy. But precious things rarely are.”

Tyler smiled. Peering in, he felt that it already held Stacey’s delighted laugh. He looked back at the old man. “A pair of earrings, for example?”

“That’s a good example,” the old man chuckled.

“Do you think I could…”

“By all means, take it!”

“I’d be happy to pay…”

The shopkeeper waved away the offer. “Please, just take it. Always happy to work in love’s employ.” He grinned knowingly. “She can be a demanding boss on us fellas, and sometimes it helps to have a union to back you up.”

Tyler played along. “Well, you’re a hell of a good rep!” he laughed.

“Now, will you be needing a pair of earrings to go in that box?”

Tyler held his grin steady. “Sure. What’ve you got?” He’d rather work out a price for the origami than be pushed into buying a piece of junk jewelry, but what the hell. The old man was friendly enough and Tyler had an image to maintain. He chose a pair of gold-coloured earrings the old man suggested. On the way home he’d get a good pair. From Swarovski, maybe. This pair would go to Stacey’s niece. Let ’em turn her ears green. The earrings clattered on the countertop as the shopkeeper set them down.

“Anything else I can help you with?”

“Maybe.” Tyler hesitated.

“Am I supposed to guess?” the old man laughed.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could make one more of those boxes?”

“Well, no, it’s no trouble, really,” said the old man. “But giving a woman two of these things sort of makes it half as special, don’t you think?”

“That’s true,” said Tyler, smiling. “But, giving them to two women makes it twice as special.”

“Oh,” said the old man. “Oh ho!” he said, catching on. “Well… I, yes, I suppose I could do that. Maybe you’d like to see how it’s done?”

“Sure, why not?”

The shopkeeper took two sheets of paper from the stack beside the cash register. Red on one side and white on the other, he took one sheet and started making careful, precise folds.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” asked Tyler.

“Oh, I spent some time in Japan when I was young.” He answered using the same deft care with which he made each crease. “Well, younger, at least. I’ve made all kinds of things over the years. At some point—I can’t remember when, really; maybe some rainy day like this, except not even one single soul walked in—I started to think about how much it’s like a strong marriage. I mean, you build it up from nothing.”

He folded the paper, now lined with a patchwork of creases, almost in half, then shaped it into a rectangular tunnel.

“Each part needs to fit together to make the whole thing strong.”

The long edges of the paper locked together.

“Whatever shape it takes is a result of your actions.”

A few folds sealed off one end of the tunnel, and another quick series rounded out the ridge. With the lid complete, he set it aside and started on the second sheet. He folded down one edge of the paper so it aligned with a crease he’d already made.

“And there are certain lines that you mustn’t cross.”

He firmly slid his thumb along the fold, making a solid crease.

“Uh huh,” said Tyler. “That’s interesting, really.”

Looking up from his work, the old man saw Tyler trying to get a signal on his cell phone. The old man sighed. He tried to make a narrow fold along the bottom of the paper but it slipped from his hand, once, twice. “Could you give me a hand here?” he asked. “Son?”

“Hmm?” Tyler slipped his phone into his jacket pocket.

“I need your help for a second.”

“Oh. All right.”

The shopkeeper spun the paper around to Tyler. “See this first crease along the bottom here?” he said, pointing. “I need you to fold up the bottom edge so it’s in line with that crease, then press down. It’s a narrow strip, and my hands get a little stiff when it rains.”

“Sure. I think I can handle that.”

Just as Tyler finished smoothing the crease, the old man snatched the paper out of his hands. Tyler hissed and put his thumb to his mouth. A hint of blood tinged the bottom corner of the paper.

“Oh!” said the old man. “Did you get nicked?”

He turned the paper back to him as Tyler examined the cut. The paper absorbed the blood into its ancient fibres, erasing any trace of a stain.

“It’s fine,” said Tyler. “It’s fine. Are you almost finished?”

“Almost,” said the shopkeeper, making the final folds. “Almost.”

“What kind of paper is that, anyway? It feels thick.”

“Oh, it’s stronger than it looks, certainly.” He hunched over the counter, mumbling something as he fit the lid onto the box.

“Sorry?” said Tyler. “I didn’t catch that.”

“Hmm?” said the old man, looking up. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself. It’s a bad habit, drives my wife crazy, but I think it’s okay as long as I don’t start answering.” Chuckling, he slid off the lid and held both pieces of the box. “That little fold you made? This is it here, right around the rim.” The old man leaned towards Tyler, tilting the open box towards him. “Take a look at your handiwork.”

Tyler leaned in. For an instant, a rapidly flowing stream of blue-white light illuminated the shopkeeper’s lined face. The old man was sliding the lid back on when the phone rang, riling the silence of the shop.

“Hello?” said the old man. The light touch of an old passion caressed his voice. “Hi hun! How was work?”

He lifted the phone’s extension cord as he walked out from behind the counter, careful not to let it catch on any of the displays, then let the coils slip from his hand as he walked to the door.

“Uh huh.”

He bolted the lock.

“Uh huh.”

Took down the Open sign.

“He did what?”

Closed the curtains.

“Hun, listen, I’ve got to put away a bunch of supplies that just came in, then I’m coming home.”

Stepped over the body.

“How about you tell me the rest then? Oh, and hun?”

Picked up the heart-shaped box.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Smiled.

“It’s your favourite.”

Watched its erratic beat.

pencil

Greg Osadec was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He received a B.A. in Cultural Studies from McGill University in Montreal, and it only took nine years! He also backpacked around Europe and the surrounding area (one year), and received his TESL certification from the University of Toronto (eight months). He’s currently living in Toronto, Ontario and working on an M.A. in Applied Linguistics at York University (hopefully for only a year). If only he were 15 years old, he’d be a genius! Email: gosadec[at]hotmail.com

Winds

Beaver’s Pick
Robert Herzog


sail away
Photo Credit: •• FedericoLukkini ••

He lies on the slightly damp lounge chair, on a towel, to insulate himself from the moisture. He is wearing a white linen shirt and tan linen pants, which are near phosphorescent under the three-quarter Caribbean moon. He is pleased by the contrast between his dark hands and the light linen, evocative of luxury and lust. His cigar, an overrated Cuban, is drafting poorly and the ash is uneven. He struggles with the steady twenty-knot easterly, pushing just-lit matches against the unburned edge and taking excessively deep puffs to compensate for the shoddy draw, which annoys him. He considers masturbating under the moonlight, spitting into the sand. He stares past his sneakers at the breaking surf. He looks up sharply.

“I don’t know,” he says. The words sneak between the sounds of the wind and the surf and linger around his head, even as the smoke dissipates.

*

They had left the house early that morning, propelled by the fine sheen of sweat that arose despite the light flow from the overhead fan. They were staying in the house of an acquaintance, Hank Tenance, someone he’d recently done a deal with. He’d paid Hank a lot of money for his business, perhaps more than was necessary. But he’d admired the unabashed way the older man pursued his interests, admired Hank’s collection of large bright abstract canvases of young artists whose names he didn’t know, and he wasn’t as sharp in the contract terms as he might have been.

He shrugged it off: at worst he’d made an indiscernible amount less for the institutions he invested for. A part of him wished he had been invited to use the house as an artist-in-residence, for writing or drawing, as others evidently were, but then he was neither artist nor writer, just had memories, shadows of aspirations, and he was intrigued by the idea of having a patron. Even a mentor would have been nice, but he was too articulate to proffer the seduction of doubt, to arouse in others the prospect of gratification through dispensing guidance under the guise of affection, and it was way past that day.

The island was small, a half-hour to its raw circumference. The house was on a point that separated the calm Caribbean Sea from the turbulent Atlantic. At all hours the ocean surf pounded against the seawall, an old cracked slab of concrete that reminded him of ancient buttresses, castle walls in Morocco, the days of grand undertakings with limited technology. He liked that the damp heat awakened them early, forcing a more natural rhythm with the sun and by association other elements. At home they had to leave the air conditioner fan on year-round to drown the street noises. He felt energized by the repeated crash of the surf, sounding much larger than it actually was.

So he got up unusually early, although even then Sarah was already awake, already another book half read, some obscure Spanish mystery about a missing Vermeer, which he might find interesting, or one of those horse mysteries, a thousand-and-one ways to slip them poison, which he would not. She was an intent and consistent reader, even more so down here. He was always amazed at the number of pages she consumed. He read as well—his suitcase weighed sixty-four pounds due largely to books—but not as early, not as faithfully. The heaviest was an oversized British tome about kitchen renovations, which he thought they could look at together, but hadn’t. He reverted to science fiction, once his favorite, but it was hard to find new themes.

“Ready?” said Sarah. She looked up from the couch.

Even at this hour she slathered on forty-five-plus sunblock. Her legs were still terrific, he thought, and in the dark evenings by the bar the wrinkles disappeared and he could see the structural beauty of her earlier days. He’d go without sunscreen for twenty or thirty minutes, then put on fifteen, working to take a tan back to New York. He liked the color on his face, thought it made him look better, lowered the contrast to the dark spots that had appeared, when he couldn’t remember, but he didn’t like them, used some kind of lotion his dermatologist recommended, acid and oil, but it seemed to just spread them out, less intense but still there, under his close mirror scrutiny. But even more he liked a tan belly, to see the leathery color rise above the line of his swimsuit, a color of warmth and affluence to bolster him through the dark winter months, a color he could inspect with pleasure in a morning shower or evening bath.

He searched for sunglasses, tied his sneakers, put on a linen shirt that let him feel the breezes, picked up and put down his watch, then put it on, filled a water bottle, found a bandana he stuffed in his pocket, went to the fridge, poured and drank half a glass of orange juice, jammed some dried apricots in his other pocket. Sarah had turned several pages.

“You bet,” he said.

He untied the rope that Monita, the housekeeper, used to keep the metal front doors together. He had struggled trying to shut them tightly their first evening, thinking about bugs, until Sarah had pointed out that the wonderful dark polished wooden window louvers that so effectively managed the breeze had no screens, and they’d both laughed.

Once out back, they headed in the direction of a great white house they’d spotted when they sailed in. They couldn’t get very close, the path was marked “private” in strong black hand-printed letters on a white cross at the bottom of the hill on which the house perched, but it looked grand, one of the enclaves of the rich and richer they occasionally glimpsed peeking above the hilltop shrubs.

“I love the breeze we get all the time where we’re staying,” he said.

“And the noise of the waves.” She took hold of his arm.

“It’s nice it’s so simple,” he said. Just the front deck, an open living area and two bedrooms. The one they were in had sliding glass doors that they tried closing to keep out the biting bugs, but then they lost the air currents blowing through and got too hot, so he regulated the opening through the night. He looked up the hill. “Would be great to have something like this.”

“I’d rather rent, not have the hassles,” Sarah said.

She tried to get him to pick up after himself more, clean some dishes, but the effort had become greater than the results. With renting, at least whatever mess accumulated in the week could be left behind.

She started walking, and said, “Monita told me Hank had to redo the whole terrace, raise it and the walls, because of water coming in over the seawall.”

As a child he had dreamed of owning homes all over the world, places he could come to that would be his, his things in them, always ready.

“Yeah, it’s great this way,” he said. He looked up at the high white house, imagined its views, whitewashed rooms with four-posters veiled in mosquito netting graceful in perfect shafts of afternoon sunlight. Of course, there was the maintenance.

He caught up to Sarah, and they walked briskly, taking advantage of the lesser heat of morning. He wanted to explore every set of battered stone steps that went up into a hill or promontory, and she went along. They stopped at a hammock set up on the Atlantic side, and he lay down across it, inviting her to tuck in next to him, which she did, although not fully comfortably. They swung for a while, looking out towards distant islands softened by haze, listening to the waves breaking beneath their vision. He closed his eyes, lulled by the rhythm of the waves and the hammock rocking, and, as he often did, watching the waves curl against the cracked concrete slab or lying on the beach feeling the sun on his face, he wandered in his mind, drifted among memories, engaged in an inner dialogue trying to understand, call up willful intent, implant suggestions to pursue greater purpose. He bought other people’s ideas, in the guise of companies, and resold them, piggybacking a margin on market inefficiencies. Making money for pension funds, striving for quarter points. Seeking to aggregate many small things into significance.

“Okay, I’m done, let’s go.” Sarah stood up, shaking him back. From wondering, again, how to get beyond the same deals the same way, other people’s ideas reaping huge rewards. He rose slowly, taking her hand.

When they returned, Monita had already arrived, cut up some papaya which she had put on the table under little net tents.

“We’re going for a swim, Monita, then we’ll have breakfast, okay?” he told her. Sarah and Monita had talked a lot the last few days, while he stared out at the sea, about Monita’s nine children and what they were up to, about being a mother and earning money and schools and her morning workers’ boat ride and how often she was at the house and when the Tenances were coming. He had asked if she could get some lobsters to cook for that night, but noted she had more of the small red fish they had eaten yesterday.

“Yes please. Them’s red hine,” she said. “Yesterday was red snapper.”

He asked about the lobster. Tonight, he reminded, was their last dinner before leaving.

“Yes, please, boats couldn’t go out yesterday, the storm,” she said. “I be lucky to get these, they sell mostly all to the hotel.”

“Well, it’s great we got these,” said Sarah. “That sauce you made yesterday was amazing. You’re an incredible cook.”

He thought Sarah was overdoing it, but Monita beamed, her broad face opening up, a lower front tooth gone, the rolls of her body, like so many island women, tumbling with her own laughter. This morning she wore a dress, a black-and-white print.

“Sure, something to look forward to when we come back,” he said, and Monita laughed some more.

They walked down to the hotel beach, postcard perfect, to go for a swim. Sarah was uncomfortable about taking a couple of the hotel lounge chairs, since they weren’t guests, but he reassured her, again, that the owner of the house had said it was fine, and they’d eaten dinner in the hotel restaurant their first night, and would set up a credit account, and it was fine.

The surf here was just a few inches high; it lapped briefly and quietly on the shore. The water seemed cool just for an instant, then was in equilibrium with their bodies. He didn’t like snorkeling, didn’t like his head underwater, and with just his goggles he had to keep moving, so he rarely saw any of the fabled fish people talked about. He said he didn’t care.

They talked, standing in the water, mostly variations on “Nice, really nice.” They walked back to where they had put their towels under one of the palms that sprung from the sand. Nobody was near them.

“Boy, people are weird,” he said. “On the other side of the jetty, there’s no breeze, all they’d have to do is walk fifty yards this direction and they wouldn’t bake in the still air, and they just sit there. I don’t get it.”

“They settle in, that’s all,” she said.

“Just get up, a few feet, a little effort.”

“Not everybody looks for the best angle all the time, Martin.” If she started talking about finding contentment and peace, she was afraid she wouldn’t stop.

“Acceptance isn’t a virtue if you— it’s just taking a few steps, for the whole afternoon.” He grabbed his towel.

They read, then walked over to the hotel reception to give them a credit card imprint. His broker had joked that the markets went up every time he went away, so this time he bought some S&P indexed securities. He tried to avoid the New York Times fax the resorts now provided with breakfast, but Sarah had no such aversion, and over her shoulder he saw that the market had barely moved. The phone line for the credit card was down, as it had been the day before. He made an effort to smile and say no problem, he’d come back later.

They returned to the house, ate the papaya and scrambled eggs Monita prepared at his request. She had changed into a faded T-shirt and green shorts that swaddled her large body like the Michelin tire logo.

He looked around the house, at the large paintings and open terrace and window louvers polished to a high sheen and bookshelves filled with hardbacks, and it occurred to him that the older man had gotten the better of him in the deal.

“Let’s go back to the hotel beach,” he said. Living on the edge, raking it in, not as an institution, but as a person. Big bright abstruse canvases on all his walls—how could you tell what they were worth? Martin had had ideas, understood big markets.

 

Sarah remembered the enthusiasm of their early days, talking all the time about creative projects, new services, inventions, it helped her overcome her dismay learning that he worked in finance. Somewhere, Sarah often thought, they’d left that energy behind, and hadn’t found its replacement. She wasn’t unhappy, indeed was more than content, with children now grown and off, the apartment bigger with that absence, her only pang was his, when he emphasized his sense of failure, his longing, and worse, when he did nothing about it. She could feel the hurt, but bounded by his inertia could find no place for action. And her contentment disturbed him, but she couldn’t find a salve for his self-inflicted wound. It was just a matter of timing, he’d said, starting something new. But days become years when you’re not counting them, and the years left can seem like days when you do.

 

“Do you think it’s okay?” Sarah said. “I mean the credit card hasn’t cleared yet, they might not like it.”

“These are the islands, it’s no big deal.”

“Still, it’s so nice here, I don’t mind staying.”

“We can’t swim here, we’ll have to walk over anyway.”

“I’m just not so sure. It is marked private.”

“You weren’t always like this, you know.” He tried to laugh, to stop before roaming through the dangers of shared history. “I swear, if we were on the Titanic, and one of those lifeboats went by half-filled, I’d say, ‘Let’s jump in!’ and you’d say, ‘I’m not so sure, they must know what they’re doing.’ Let’s just go.”

Forty-five minutes later, after he had stuffed his backpack with a second bathing suit—no chafing later from a wet suit—and books and lotions and water bottle and goggles and T-shirt and a little chocolate and some of the fresh coconut pieces Monita had cut from one he found lying near the house, though she had thought it would be too dry—he drank all the milk inside the coconut, past when he had lost the taste for it—they walked to the beach. At the last minute Sarah put down one book and packed another.

They swam; he lay in the sun. He noticed that further out and to the right of where they swam the surf broke early and hard. His head tickled; he scratched it and felt bumps where his receded hairline had let in too much sun; he put lotion on everywhere, but still forgot that spot. He brushed the sand off his back, picked up the towel and shook it, then carefully lay on it. Sarah sat under the palm tree shade and read. The reflections of the sun and the pink flecks of coral in the sand swirled like a glossy seashell in the fine porcelain of her skin.

 

The pages turned, so quickly they barely got scuffed. She skipped what didn’t interest her, read to her own standards, had no patience for clutter and fill. She looked over at Martin and smiled under her broad straw hat. She wanted to massage away his fussing, tell him it was all right, but she hesitated and lost the moment.

 

He thought he felt sand bugs in his itches, and after a while he went to get a lime daiquiri at the bar, the drink recommended by Lennox, the bartender. He’d be happy with an early afternoon buzz, to eat lunch at the bar, but Monita prepared lunch and Sarah would insist they eat that. He asked about the break he had noticed earlier.

“That’s over the reef, you want to be careful, swimming there,” Lennox said, cutting the limes. “Get stuck in that, it cut you bad.”

“It’s got a nice break on it, though,” he flicked his wrist. “Think you could ride over it, in a Hobie Cat?”

“That be a tricky ride, man, you don’t want to spill. But be a fun trip.” With a flourish he put the daiquiri on the counter.

Martin held the cool moisture of the glass against his palm, downed his drink, brought back a pair to where Sarah was lying. She read, and he looked out over the water, but the slight curl of the low breaking waves wasn’t interesting, none of the enveloping sound and dashing spray of the oceanside surf.

They ate a lunch of small red fish, took a nap, thought about making love but felt constrained, Monita didn’t leave till four to take the workers’ boat back to her island. They walked back to the beach, waded into the water, then lay down, Sarah in a chaise under the palm tree, Martin on his towel, putting thirty on his face and fifteen on his body. At least there weren’t too many people on the beach. He was a bit fried—it had not been an easy year—and they were here because he couldn’t afford the thousand-dollar-a-night freight on Mustique. When he felt the sun’s heat push past the sunblock, he got up.

“I think I’ll go over, see if I can rent a Hobie Cat from the hotel, okay? he said.

She nodded.

“Want to come? Two can fit, like we used to.” He slapped his stomach.

“No, I’m happy right here. Have fun, pooch. Be careful, it’s a while since we’ve done any sailing.”

“Sailing is easy, thanks.”

 

She remembered their first sail together. He said he’d crewed with friends, and she’d done the same and more on her father’s twelve meter. They discovered love in close quarters, the kind that would last. They nearly capsized in a sudden squall that came up on their backs sailing out of St. John, when he hadn’t attached the jib stay and it ballooned over their heads bigger than the sky. He ran forward along the main boom, getting knocked, but lowering the jib into the water so that they could laugh about it. She got ill reading the maps, so she steered while he set courses, pondering over compass readings and sightings, which got them around just fine. She was ready to sail out to the Baths on Virgin Gorda, but he said they’d been there before and he would rather see new places.

 

He walked to reception, where they finally had gotten through with his credit card, and arranged for a boat. He started to rig it himself, but got caught up with the sheets, and the beach staff guy helped him.

He luffed close to the shore, but once past the lee line of the point the steady wind carried him along. His first turns were rough, his small boat sailing had been in centerboard monohulls. But the way the boat whipped on top of the water, its quick turns and easy jibes, was joyous, and he soon ventured further out into the channel, taking long tacks and quick downwind runs. Remembering how quickly it got dark, he decided to head back to the hotel beach while the sun was still high. He rode a broad reach with the sun in his face, eyes closed, feeling the wind. He realized he was steering towards the outer reef.

“Be a fun trip, man.”

He made out the whitecaps breaking, could see the dark below the surface in the troughs between the waves.

I could make it over, he thought. Be close, but I could do it.

He imagined catching one of the waves in the cat, rising up, surfing over the reef and riding the break, high and fast. The timing would be key, quick turns, keep up enough speed to set in just in front of a crest and just behind the reef. He tacked back and forth, looking at the break, at the slim surface over the reef in between the waves, rock and coral jutting through. The wind picked up, the height of the waves grew larger as he approached the reef line.

 

Sarah cribbed page four-twenty-seven and looked past the beach, searching for the tiny white triangle whose shape she had noted earlier. For an instant it felt as if her heart divided and a portion fled over the water, searching. For an instant she wanted only to ride with him, with her will and all her heart. But she grew weary now, and her heart reunited back on the beach lying under the shade of the palm that jutted sharply out of the sand. She picked up the book, but felt no compulsion to finish; endings rarely satisfied her.

 

He tacked, tacked again. He remembered trying to row a raft in whitewater a couple of years ago, when the boatman said, “Want to give it a try?” He broke an oar. Sarah quickly unstrapped the spare before they got to the next rapids. He zigzagged, hard right and left, trying to judge the frequency of the waves, not easy because they ran across each other coming off the channel as well as over the shallow reef. The boat fluttered under his hand, pummeled sideways by the conflicting intersection of the wave fronts. He came off, lost the breeze, the sail flapped searching for traction, he pushed the sail with his hand to catch some wind and make way, went up and turned around. He just had to find the measure, the technique, it was only a matter of timing. His thoughts raced past ascents not made, chances not taken. Cut across diagonally, ride one crest, drop into the trough just in front of the reef, get picked up by the next crest, surf across. The exhilaration of surging over. The danger was turning too soon or too close, he could shoot into the reef in a trough.

“Get stuck in that, it cut you bad, man.”

He imagined the raking sound against the hulls, falling into it, the explanations, the hotel beach staff having to bail him out, listening to his explanations without smirking, his legs cut, sitting while someone bandaged them, discussing infection, Sarah’s questions. Her understanding. On vacation.

He rode over a crest, fast, faster than he’d gone all day, dropped in, watched the wave break high over the reef, and loud, louder than the roll of stones tossed at the ocean’s edge, rumbling through the hulls, he stared at the sharp points of the reef as they emerged behind the wave, the rumbling louder, cascade of stonesound and breaking white water, higher than his head, too loud, too high, too sharp, too close, he cut out, rode sideways back into the wind and across the wave front, away from the reef and towards the hotel shore. He turned to look, thinking, knowing, if he’d kept his speed up he could have made it. Fuck it, he thought, it’s just an afternoon sail on a vacation.

 

“How was the sailing?” Sarah asked. Fun, he told her. They were cradling cool daiquiris in the hotel bar.

“From the way you were heading, I almost thought you were going to surf over the reef,” she said. “That would have been neat.”

“Over the reef? No, they said, the bartender, not a good idea. And not my boat. You know.”

 

In the evening, after dinner, more of the red fish, in the fine familiar broth of saffron and spices, and after picking through bones while swatting at bugs had driven them into the bedroom and Sarah had read and fallen asleep, he went out onto the deck. He lay down on a chaise longue, but quickly felt the damp through the linen shirt, its long sleeves slightly short from too many washings, and pants he had put on to keep the bugs off. He got up, went to get a cigar, matches, a snipper, and a towel, and put on his sneakers, so as not to endure the damp sand curdling under his feet. He draped the towel on the chaise, lay on top of it. He remembered that the last Hoya robusto he had smoked hadn’t burned well, too much effort to pull and an uneven edge, so much for the magic of real Cubans, but he didn’t feel like getting up to find something different.

He heard the crashing waves and thought of their first trip to the Caribbean, just a few months after he and Sarah had met, in the pre-children state of love and poverty that allowed for taxis, restaurants and vacation. They flew to Virgin Gorda to camp out at the Baths. Camping, he realized, almost as if it were a new idea. Sleeping in bags open to the stars. When it drizzled, from clouds they could see approaching under the bright moon, they simply tucked away the bags, sat it out, poking the fire, listening to the drops sizzle, laughing. When they’d told the coal-black customs officer at the airport they were sleeping out, he looked at them oddly, especially blonde good-looking American Sarah, as if debating if he should let them on the island. They hitched a ride and set up an easy camp, putting it away each morning after swimming to walk up a sandy windswept road lined with shrubs feeling like he was in a Conrad novel, to a thatched roof bar where they drank gin and tonics and he read Portnoy’s Complaint and laughed so loudly he must have sold a dozen copies, until the big boats left the beach and they walked back.

The Baths were a collection of house-sized rocks tossed on top of each other, forming pools and stone hallways over the sand. They wandered through the maze with no determination to get out, sank into the soft sand bottoms of quiet calm ponds shrouded by the great boulders. They started climbing, barefooted, just in their bathing suits. Sarah scrambled to the top of one of the rocks, over the ocean, shaking her long blonde hair off her face. He followed her halfway up until he slid on the slight moss nurtured by the spray. He would have stopped there, but Sarah was waving to him, shouting, barely discernible over the wind and breaking water, “C’mon up, the view’s fantastic.” I see plenty from here, he thought, then inched his way, thinking again if only he did more pull-ups he’d be better at this, scraping his knees by hugging the rock too close.

Near the top, he heard her yell and turned to see her long lithe body in its one-piece black bathing suit knife by him into the water straight and true. He pulled himself over, and looked around. It was beautiful, different, seeing the expanse of great rocks tumbled with a force beyond imagining, the beach melding into the tropical greens, the pure shades of water indicating and belying depth. He tried to enjoy it but the thought of getting down dominated. Only one way, thanks to Sarah. He stood at the edge, trying to will his sight to the level of his feet, six feet lower in reality, and jumped feet first splashing his arms hard as he could to prevent his head from going under, failing for a moment, hearing different sounds, closed in, and then he was up and gulping air and Sarah was next to him, hugging him, her laughter blending with the sounds of the waves and the wind.

They swam ashore and he played in the sand, jumped around dunes and rocks until she was too tired to follow and they lay feeling the sun and sand, the tingle of last night’s lovemaking parading with the anticipation of the night to come. Swimming, no shower afterward, sleeping on the beach and laughing and rolling up their bags when it rained. Sitting by the fire, stoned, the warm breeze all around him, he’d felt wise, like he understood things.

*

Was I ever really like that? he wonders, as he cups his hands to light a match, trying to get his cigar to burn evenly in the wind.
pencil

Robert M. Herzog is a writer and entrepreneur in New York City, living, not fully understanding how he got there, at the intersection of creativity and business. You can read more of his fiction and poems, see his short film, and encounter his raves and rants at thezog.com. Email: herzog212[at]gmail.com

Suitcases

Creative Nonfiction
Matthew Zanoni Müller


old suitcases, old clothes
Photo Credit: Deb Collins

My father had a few shirts he wore all the time. I remember one in particular. It was black, and showed some form of wooden gate in the graphic on the front. It was the kind of gate you might see entering the driveway of horse breeders, only it was rustic, built out of rough-hewn logs, and said the name of a national park across the top. He always wore it under his collared shirts and in the summer would unbutton them, and leaning back in the sun on one of our weekend trips to Dorina Lake in Oregon, the shirt would be there, its yellow gate emblazoned on a black field. This shirt, as with the others, was worn until the collar frayed and split, the sleeves began coming apart, and the shoulders turned threadbare and grew holes. My mother always tried to get him to throw his shirts away but he never did. He wore all of the new shirts she bought him once and then the old ones would be back, their holes getting bigger and their fabric thinner. My father kept the things he liked, the things he felt good in, the things he felt connected to.

My mother, on the other hand, loved throwing things out. She loved clearing brush, weeding, taking things to the dump. At our house in Upstate New York she would always make brush fires and then carry anything she could burn out from the basement, any boxes or old furniture, anything that was taking up unnecessary space. My father was the opposite. Even though he had always been a nomad, he hated throwing anything out. His study was filled with little business cards from cafés and music stores, ticket stubs from concerts, every kind of imaginable instrument and rows and rows of books, many of them lugged across continents. It was common for my mother to come into his study and point to a dodgy old object found in the basement asking to throw it out and he’d rush to take it quickly from her hands and find a special place for it on his shelf.

Sometimes my mother would get incredibly inspired. She’d come in from clearing brush and throw her gloves on the counter. She’d say, “I feel so good today, everything is going so well, it just feels so good to clean!” Then she’d take a big drink of water and go back outside to throw more things on the fire, to sweep away the old. “You have to make space for new things to grow,” she’d say, her cheeks flushed with excitement. When my mother got like this my father would disappear into his study and bend his face down over his keyboard or stacks of corrections. He’d run his fingers through his hair until it formed a long horn hanging down over his forehead, and like an old skinny elephant he’d sit in the middle of all his treasures, surrounded by memories, stubborn to the dust being kicked up around him.

My mother knew my father well, she knew how he thought, what he cared about. But even for her it was difficult to understand why anyone would want to keep the two black moldy suitcases that had lived in our basement now for the past eleven years. Maybe she figured it wasn’t that important that they had lived in an old closet in Oregon for nine years before that. Maybe she even thought it was disgusting that they had survived long enough to live in a closet in the apartment in Germany where I spent my first few years, or the apartment in England where they had first met, or how they were the suitcases that had accompanied him from there to Switzerland where he had worked in a chocolate factory, and from the factory to his years in the band in Schwenningen, Germany, and from there back to Switzerland, and then back to Johannesburg where they had fled the draft with him after he had finished university; back to Stuttgart, Germany where he went to high school for a year; back to Empangeni, South Africa, to Cape Town; and finally back to Davos, Switzerland where his father had saddled him with the responsibility, at age seven, to go buy suitcases for himself, because they might be traveling quite a bit in the years to come. But my mother must have only seen the battered outsides, the infestation of mold, the old brass buckles, as she, full of delight, threw them into the fire.

She probably didn’t count on him coming outside just then, coffee cup in hand, only to see his two suitcases going up in flame, their flimsy ribcages pointed up to the sun, his twin companions cremated, gone forever, their memories sucked into the deep red and orange of the flames, a part of him lost. She knew what she had done, though, when he even rushed a few steps forward, tried to save them from the fire. All of her inspiration fell away when she saw the devastation spread across his face, all of the trains and mountains he had seen, the villages, the people, all somehow betrayed by this act, like their memory was no longer worth saving. A silence built between them for the next week as she watched him sifting through the coals after the fire had gone out, pulling the brass buckles from the feathery ashes and rubbing them gently off like sacred stones. She watched as he sat them on a shelf in his study, part memory, and part reminder of its importance.

pencil

Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local Community College. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, DecomP MagazinE, The Boiler Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian and numerous other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit matthewzanonimuller.com Email: matthewzanonimuller[at]gmail.com

Exchanges

Fiction
Alex Shishin


My adult English classroom
Photo Credit: Mark Mrwizard

Philip delivers the lesson without thinking and still charms the Japanese students, who have paid good money to study English with a real native speaker at this better-than-average language school in Osaka. There are only three in this advanced class. The businessman takes notes and occasionally glances at the mini-skirted university student. Legs splayed, she looks up at her teacher with innocent familiarity: she lived in Connecticut as a child. The coffee shop owner, somewhere in her forties, keeps her mouth in a perfectly straight line, a key that she is getting her money’s worth.

None know that their teacher has been delivering the same lesson, nearly word for word, for the last fifteen years and that he created the lesson when he was the youngest employee in the language school.

Today he is the oldest employee and the highest paid because of a favor he did his boss, Mr. Tsurukawa, years ago when they were young men and wild.

In those days, when Bill Clinton was the American president, Philip’s nickname was “Charisma Man” and women adored him, too often to their disappointment.

These days, slightly paunchy and a little puffy in the face, he is known for his devotion to teaching, his affability and his kindness. On occasion he alludes to his commitment to a distant woman but never elaborates. The university student told the coffee shop owner (who later told him) that she wants to marry a man like Philip-sensei.

His boss remembers the favor when they drink together and when Philip has an occasional special request.

The boss, then the Osaka language school’s sub-manager, asked him the favor on the jetliner to Hawaii when they were on a business trip to recruit new teachers. It was to set him up with a native Hawaiian prostitute. That night Philip had a confidential chat with a bartender at their hotel and gave him a fifty-dollar tip. At the Waikiki bawdyhouse Mr. Tsurukawa, who liked to be called “Harry” then, got his Hawaiian girl and bought Philip a girl, a redhead from Nebraska.

Shortly thereafter Philip fell in love.

They were attracted to each other the moment she walked into his advanced English class. Chiharu, tall, long-haired, long-legged and intelligent, was the only student at the language school he ever slept with, in violation of the rules that would have seen him instantly dismissed.

Chiharu has not been a student for years but the rules extend indefinitely in forbidding intercourse between instructors and former students. If he and Chiharu are ever exposed, after over ten years of courtship, not even Mr. Tsurukawa can save him, though he is now the Osaka branch manager and a senior vice president of the language school chain.

The formal lesson over, free conversation begins.

“Christmas is soon,” the businessman says. “What will you do, sensei?”

“Will you go back to America?” the university student chimes in.

“Just for a few days,” he says.

“What will you do?” asks the coffee shop owner.

“See my sister,” he says. He adds, “Both my parents are dead.”

Unlike the other employees, he does not have to work on Christmas Day, thanks to his boss, who has given him two weeks off. He hopes these three will not tell his colleagues about his trip.

On the Midosuji subway line, jammed between his fellow commuters, holding a strap and barely able to move, he clutches the little bag with Chiharu’s present. In New York he will get her something better. The exchange rate is especially favorable to him at this time.

He remembers that when they last saw each other a month ago the usually ebullient Chiharu, in a moment of despair, spoke of some author’s story where two lovers, meant for each, are forced to live apart like migratory birds locked in separate cages.

Chiharu’s mother needs her and her sister’s almost constant care because of a tumor that was treated too late. She is lucid enough to refuse moving to a nursing home but so irresolute in her habits that she cannot be left alone. The sisters work at home in Ashiya. Chiharu is a computer graphic designer and her sister translates technical manuals online. This make caring for their mother less burdensome than it would be otherwise. Their brother in Tokyo does nothing to help the sisters. Over the years Philip has told Chiharu that if he married her he would help with her mother and Chiharu has always shaken her head, telling him he can never imagine what it’s like in this house.

He gets off in Umeda and penguin-walks with the tight crowd through narrow underground passageways and up a long flight of stairs to the Japan Rail wickets. She is there waiting for him in a brown overcoat, her hair tucked into a white knit cap. They only acknowledge each other with a glance. He follows her tall presence through the crowd after passing the wicket, his commuter pass in hand. She ascends the stairs leading to the Sannomiya- and Himeiji-bound trains. He assumes they will be going to a hotel in Himeiji as usual on the Shinkaisoku super express train. But she gestures to the incoming Kaisoku rapid express. They get on and stand together in the crammed train car, not speaking and letting their bodies touch as the car sways.

She looks about at the surrounding blank faces and then whispers, “Okubo.” Seeing his questioning face, she says, “Two stops past Akashi.”

At Okubo Station they look about before entering a taxi. Chiharu shows the driver her hand-drawn map and explains the directions. Heading toward the Inland Sea, Philip and Chiharu hold hands. “I’m renting a studio apartment for the weekend from a couple who have left early for the holidays,” she says.

In the apartment they embrace, pressing their bodies together.

“I missed you, darling!” he says.

“I missed you, darling, darling! Let me start the heater so we can be naked together.”

In bed he falls in love with her body all over again.

“Marry me,” he says after they make love.

“When I’m free of mother, darling. Forgive me for saying that. Meanwhile, let’s think about dinner. You must be hungry.”

“Yes.”

“I must confess, thanks to my dear sister, I could come here earlier. I bought some food over at Vivre. I thought we could make a salad and spaghetti bolognese together.”

“Wow! The last time we cooked together was six years ago!”

“At the cabin in Nagano.”

While making the salad, Chiharu takes the radishes out of the sieve and covers her face with them.

“Darling?”

When she uncovers face she is smiling and there is a tear on her cheek. “I’ve never seen such beautiful radishes,” she says.

He leans over and kisses her cheek.

After dinner they exchange Christmas presents. Chiharu claps her hands at the sight of the tiny pearl earrings and he tells her he’ll get her a better New Year’s present in New York. She gives him an iPad.

“I bought one for myself,” she said. “We can communicate with them when you are away.”

“Come with me!”

“You know I can’t,” she says. “When you go, make sure you also take your laptop, camera and your American cell phone. You forgot the cell phone last time. And please take the album to show your sister.”

“That’s nearly all of my worldly goods,” he laughs.

“Take them. Here is a list in case you forget. I’ve made sure all your bills are paid and I called the post office to hold your mail. Now let me set up your iPad.”

Philip wakes up at dawn while Chiharu is yet asleep. He looks about the studio apartment. There are two desks next to each other and two bicycles on a rack. Photographs of the apartment’s couple look down on him from the walls. Tears come to his eyes. He wipes them away with the back of his hand. Long ago they had agreed to show each other only happy faces when they could be together and not lament over what could be. Presently Chiharu wakes up. She opens the window and cries, “Look at the sunrise!”

On Sunday night they exchange their farewell embraces in the studio apartment. They are barely dressed when the taxi arrives.

At Okubo station they exit the taxi quickly and then take separate train cars back to Osaka.

A few days later he is on a jetliner bound for John F. Kennedy International Airport. He resets his Rolex GMT watch for Eastern Standard Time. The watch, a present from Chiharu, had belonged to her late father. He checks the exchange rate in the Herald Tribune. With the dollar sliding, he thinks he will have no trouble paying the entire property tax on his inherited Port Washington home, where his divorced sister, coincidentally a computer graphic designer, now lives.

At a Port Washington French restaurant on the evening of his arrival, his blonde and short-haired sister sips her Pinot Noir and says, “Philip, I can’t thank you enough. And I truly wish you and Chiharu could settle down. I’m surprised you’ve lasted so long.”

“We try to see each other at least once a month. Thank goodness for email.”

“Love means to bet the farm,” his sister says. “I’ve already bet mine. I can’t offer you any advice, I’m afraid. I wish I could meet her.”

“With my new iPad you can!” he says. “I can show her the house and the bay!”

But before contacting Chiharu, he is determined to buy her a proper New Year’s present. So, jet-lagged as he is, he goes into Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad. He shops at Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. He buys Chiharu a ruby necklace and matching earrings, discounted, and a black pearl necklace, also discounted, for his sister. On direct orders from Chiharu, he buys a new suit, ten shirts, and five ties. In the taxi to Penn Station, upon passing the fast food place where he worked after dropping out of university, he figures he has spent around two-thousand dollars.

Returning home, giddy from jet lag and hubris, he goes upstairs to his room and without undressing falls flat on the bed his sister has made for him. “I am Exchange Rate Man,” he says to the pillow. “I’m able to leap tall department stores in a single bound…” Before falling asleep, he remembers to contact Chiharu.

At dawn he dresses in a heavy overcoat and goes outside with his iPad. He connects with Chiharu and shows her Manhasset Bay caught in the first morning light. Switching the camera back he beholds her face against the brightening sky.

“It is almost as if you’re here, my daring,” he says.

“Don’t start crying now, darling,” Chiharu says, smiling. “Show me your house!”

He switches the camera toward the house.

“Oh, it’s so big, so white!”

“It’s two stories, plus an attic and a huge basement my folks converted into a den.”

“How lucky!”

His sister comes out in a thick woolen bathrobe.

“Sophie,” he calls. “Say hello to my girl.”

“Okay, but come in the house. It’s freezing out here.”

His sister and Chiharu talk for two hours before she returns his iPad. He gives Chiharu a walking tour of the house.

“I like her!” his sister says over breakfast. “I like her so much.”

In the afternoon his old friend Mel, a high school teacher, calls, figuring Philip would be in town. They meet a few hours later in an all-but-deserted bar in Queens, close to Mel’s home.

As they sit on barstools and hunch over their beers, Mel, a roundish man Philip’s age who wears a frozen half-smile on his face, asks about Japan.

“Not much new,” Philip says. “The shower and toilet in my hole-in-wall need maintenance. I told you that last time I was here.”

“But, jeez, you’re making out, Phil! That’s a new Rolex on your wrist.”

“Not new,” he says.

“You got a Rolex?” a blonde with long hair in her face calls across the bar. “Cool, baby!”

He smiles at her. Then he turns to his friend, who is drinking quickly. “How are you making out?”

“Everything is totally swell. Really swell,” Mel says and orders another beer. “Everything is hunky-dory. They may lay off a bunch of us teachers. I’ve got nothing in savings and I won’t even have health insurance.”

Mel downs his beer and orders another.

“You’re fortunate to get out, Phil,” Mel says. “This country is a shit hole that makes trouble all over the world and can’t take care of its own people.”

“I get homesick around Thanksgiving time,” Philip says.

“Worst time of year for me. Thanks for what? The hoodlums in my classes? Their bellicose parents? The Gestapo administration? An obese wife? Fuck! Get me a job in Japan, Phil. I’ll take anything. I’ll dump my fucking family and find a nice, obedient Japanese girl.”

“No such thing, Mel. And Japan’s not so great. There are times at work when I feel like a zombie.”

“Yeah? Look at you, Phil. Nice clothes. Rolex watch. Sexy girlfriend. Ass in gravy, man.”

“I’ve got my own troubles over there,” Philip says.

“Excuse me,” Mel says. “Men’s room.”

“Hey, Rolex! Come here!” the woman at the other end of the bar calls.

He goes over to her. Up close, he judges her to be in her late thirties and attractive, though her makeup is smeared. Some of it is on the lapels of her otherwise neat business suit.

“I was in Japan once with my ex,” she says. “Saw Mount Fujiyama.”

“Mount Fuji or Fujiyama,” he says.

“Whatever. Buy me a first-class dinner and I might bestow my favors upon you. I’ve been on TV dinners all week.”

“Waldorf-Astoria good enough for you?” he banters.

“Hey, for that I’ll throw in my roommate.”

“Don’t listen to her,” the bartender calls out. “She’s crazy.”

“You’re no one to talk, Joseph,” she calls back. Then she says to Philip, “Your friend needs help.”

Mel is leaning against the wall by the men’s room.

“I’ll take him home and come back,” he says to the woman.

When the taxi delivers them to the parking lot of Mel’s apartment complex, Philip pays the driver and tells him to wait. He calls Mel’s wife on his cell phone. Minutes later Mel’s wife, globular, baggy-eyed, determined, is in the parking lot helping Phil take Mel up to the seventh floor. They put him on the couch near the Christmas tree in the tidy living room. Philip hears the children mumbling in another room.

“I’m sorry, Phil. He’s usually not this bad,” Mel’s wife says. “Can I make you some coffee?”

“I have a taxi waiting,” he says.

“Sure. Okay.”

Back at the bar, Joseph the bartender tells him, “She left five minutes after you did.”

Just as well, he thinks. He was unfaithful to Chiharu once and bitterly regretted it.

“Beer?” Joseph asks.

“Sure.”

Joseph takes his time. The bar is filling up and he is busier. When he brings the beer he says, “Your friend ought to watch it. Can get into major trouble these days.”

Philip nods.

“They’ve got drones now, you know.”

Not sure if Joseph is joking or not, he says nothing.

“When I have time I want to talk to you about Japan,” Joseph says. “I’ve got student loans to pay off.”

Philip leaves a generous tip on the counter and departs without finishing his beer.

Snowflakes are falling when the taxi from the Port Washington train station brings him home.

“It’s Christmas Eve!” his sister says.

“Yeah. I wish I’d done more for Mel.”

“Don’t worry about Mel. He calls a lot to bend my ear. He’ll be all right. Have some of my grog. How about your favorite Szechwan takeout for Christmas Eve dinner? I’ll order our usual.”

“God, yes! I’ve missed that!” he says. “But I wish Chiharu was here. She’s a brilliant cook.”

“Call her on your iPad. Wish her a Merry Christmas.”

“That’s right, it’s Christmas over there.”

A worried face comes on the screen. “I can’t talk right now, darling,” Chiharu says. “I’ll contact you. Merry Christmas.”

Philip has a troubled sleep. In the early morning he and his sister exchange presents.

“You shouldn’t have!” his sister exclaims as she cradles the black pearl necklace. “It’s the prettiest gift I’ve ever had! I feel bad.”

“I love the wallet,” he says. “I needed one. It’s beautiful.”

After breakfast he looks out the window. “It stopped snowing,” he says. “I want Chiharu to see the bay.” He goes outside with the iPad.

When her image comes on the iPad, he says, “Darling, you have got to see this!”

“I can’t right now, darling. I’ll contact you soon. I love you.”

Her image disappears before he can answer.

Christmas day is tense. His sister works in her study. He tries to contact Chiharu several times but her iPad remains switched off.

Toward evening, he says, “I want to go out. I’ll reserve the French restaurant.”

“Please don’t,” his sister says. “Sweetheart, I can’t afford that place and I don’t want you to throw your money around any more.”

“It’s only money.”

“I know how you’re feeling. But look after yourself, Philip. Anyway, we’ve got tons of Chinese food we haven’t touched.”

Long after dinner the iPad rings.

“Chiharu, darling!” he says to her image.

“I am so sorry to worry you, darling!” Chiharu says. “I’m at Hong Kong International Airport in a business class lounge. I’ll be in New York tomorrow.” She tells him her arrival time at Kennedy International.

“Hot damn! I can’t believe it! She’s coming to New York, sis!”

“I heard it,” she says.

“How did you manage it, Chiharu darling?”

“When I am there I’ll explain everything in detail. I have to be brief. Please listen and have faith in me.”

“Chiharu, what’s this about?”

“Listen, darling. My sister and I took our mother to Tokyo. We left her with my brother and his wife. Then we went to Haneda and flew to Hong Kong. My sister is on her way to London right now. I’m boarding soon.”

“That was nice of them to look after your mom for a while.”

“Philip, listen. It was a surprise. We said we were just visiting so Mother could attend her Tokyo University alumni special after-Christmas banquet.”

“She’s a Todai graduate?”

“Please listen. I have no time. We said we’d go out shopping for an hour and grabbed a taxi for Haneda.”

“What happens when you come back?”

“Philip, darling. Please, please listen. We’re not coming back.”

“Jesus! Have you lost your mind?”

“Philip, listen. We planned everything. I got a Green Card and a job in Manhattan. My sister got a job in London.”

“Damn it! Thanks for not tell me! What about us?”

“Don’t shout, Philip. We’ll be perfect fine. I promise. And Mother will be fine, too. Our brother was always her favorite.”

“Chiharu!”

“Please be calm and listen.”

“All right.”

“Stay in New York. Don’t go back to Japan. We’ll get married as soon as we can.”

“This is crazy! My whole life is in Japan! I’m nothing here. I’ll be eaten alive. You don’t know this place.”

“Darling, trust me. I’ll take care of you. I promise I will! Can I stay with you in your house?”

Philip looks at his sister.

“Absolutely,” she says and sighs. “Absolutely.”

“It’s fine,” he says. “But I just can’t drop everything in Japan. My job. My health insurance. My bank account.”

“Don’t worry about any of that, darling. I’ve talked to Tsurukawa-san. He likes you so much. He and I will handle everything for you.”

“Oh, no, no, Chiharu! You didn’t get me fired, did you? Darling, please let’s go back together and straighten things out!”

“Darling, have faith in me. Meet me tomorrow at the airport. We’ll talk some more. Everything will be fine. I have to go. I love you.”

The iPad goes off.

He and his sister look at each other.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“Love means to bet the farm,” she answers.

“I’m going out for a walk,” he says.

“Philip, it’s dark and icy. You’ll break your neck.”

“So?”

“Philip, for Pete’s sake, you’re all I’ve got.”

His sister is with him at the airport when he and Chiharu rush into each other’s arms.

Philip kisses her on the mouth and about the neck.

“Darling, darling!” Chiharu giggles. “People are watching us!”

“Let them,” he says. “This is America.”

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Alex Shishin is an American living in Japan. His fiction and non-fiction has been published widely in print and on the Internet. His short story “Mr. Eggplant Goes Home” received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards and was anthologized in Student Body (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2001). The short story “Shade” was anthologized in Broken Bridge (Stone Bridge Press, 1996). “Bulldozer” was named an outstanding short story for 2004 by storySouth‘s Million Writers award. Shishin’s experiments with ebook publishing are available for free on Smashwords. Email: sats_3100[at]yahoo.co.jp

Always Another Straw

Fiction
Tony Press


Chef's Special
Photo Credit: Scott Oakley

I’ve known my brother all my life but I never saw it coming. I didn’t know he was going until he flat-out told me across the kitchen table, the late August sun rising just a bit later than the day before. I was pouring coffee and he could have been saying, “Pass the cream,” like he’d done a million times before, but instead he said:

“Rob Berryhill’s giving me a ride to the station at eleven-thirty.”

“What’s he doing that for?”

“I’m going off to Denton.”

“Denton? What do you need in Denton?”

“I believe I’m going to the college there.”

And that’s how I learned Kenny had taken it upon himself to be a student. He was thirty-four, a full dozen years older than me. I did a computation and figured he’d been out of school as long as he’d been in school, then realized that no, that wasn’t quite right. But it had been a long time.

“When’s he doing that?”

“Who?” Kenny could play dumb when he wanted to. “Berryhill?”

“Yeah. Berryhill.”

“Eleven-thirty.”

My mind latched onto the only logical response. “Well, we still have time to fish. Let’s get moving.”

When we parked at the lake there was just one other vehicle, Charlie Boyd’s rusted camper-shell Chevy.

As we grabbed our gear, I asked Kenny, “What do you think of Charlie’s bumper sticker now?”

“What’s he got this time, I missed it.”

“It says: ‘My kid fought in Iraq so yours can party in college.’

“Does it? Is that what I’m going to do? I’m not even sure ‘party’ is a verb.”

“Don’t look to me. That’s for your professors.”

“‘My kid fought in Iraq, blah, blah?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Beats me. I didn’t even know Charlie had a kid.”

“I don’t believe he does,” Kenny concluded, and we dropped our lines.

We fished but it was desultory. That’s not a word I often use, but that’s exactly what it was. Or maybe it wasn’t, because it wasn’t negative at all. It is a delicious thing to greet the day with your brother beside you as the water laps at your feet. All things are possible in the morning sun, especially on a lakeshore. As I tended to do at that spot, I recalled Kenny reading The Wind in the Willows to me during my otherwise lonely childhood. That image from the “Gates of Dawn” chapter always sparkles to the surface:

“…in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event.”

I don’t know why teachers never assigned that book in school. I understand more things each year but some things refuse explanation.

On the way back to town we stopped at the pancake place. They don’t make pancakes anymore, haven’t changed the sign, but Della can still fry eggs, despite losing her best waitress, her husband, and three fingers off her right hand on Fourth of July weekend.

Kenny paid his respects at the counter and ordered for both of us. When he joined me in the corner booth I asked how Della was doing.

“Don’t know. I asked if the highway deciding not to come this way after all was maybe the last straw for her, but she didn’t say anything.”

“You’re sure she heard you?”

“Oh, yeah, it wasn’t true about her hearing,” Kenny replied. “She’s just tired of listening to people ‘half-commiserate, half-gloat’ about her old man and Irene, so she let on that she’d lost a bit in her left ear. Except for her hand, she’s fine.”

“You think her husband knew about the highway?”

“That’s another professor question.”

Della arrived with a pot of coffee and not one word. We followed her lead until she came back with our eggs, mine scrambled, his over-easy, home fries, and extra toast. Kenny tried again:

“Della, are you at peace so soon?”

“Do I look like I am at peace? If I do, you both need glasses. Or in your case, Kenny, a new prescription. The damn thing is she was such a good worker. She’s the one I miss. Piper, if this place ever gets busy again, you’ve got a job if you want it.”

“Thanks, Della, but I’m done with restaurant work—or any indoor stuff. I’m getting enough work with the tree service. But I appreciate it.”

Kenny asked her, “What about Clark?”

“What about him? He was pretty much a zero the last few years anyway. I don’t get what she sees that I didn’t, but I don’t guess I need to.”

She left us, leaving Kenny to confess what each of us remembered:

“We were sitting right here, the first day Irene came in, wearing that T-shirt that said Not Everything in Nebraska is Flat. I finally understood the term ‘visual aid.'”

“Maybe you are ready for college.”

We ate, nothing more to say. Kenny grabbed the check so I got the tip. Della called out as the screen door thwacked shut behind us, “There’s always another straw.”

“She’s developing a case of pessimism. You may be fortunate to be leaving town.”

“Fortunate or not,” he said, “it is time to go.”

Dust chased our tires as I eased out onto the two-lane. I wondered how long Kenny had known he was leaving today. I decided I didn’t need to know the answer. He interrupted just as I was concluding that thought.

“I have to admit, it is hard to imagine Irene running off with Clark. She’s the most gorgeous thing to ever hit this town, and Clark? Really? Irene and Clark? Hard to see.”

“Didn’t you always say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ stuff like that?”

“You did listen! Mother would have been proud. I mean, I tried but I knew Irene was never going to see me as anything but a big buddy. She sure did light up a room.”

“She does, she does. So what are you going to study over there anyway?”

“Does? I believe that’s a present-tense verb. I was thinking engineering, but maybe I’m a natural for English. ‘Does?‘ Do you know something I don’t know? I mean, something in particular, aside from the multitude of things you know that I haven’t a clue about.”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“I’m your big brother and I can toss you across a room if I want to, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell me.”

“Kenny, can you keep a secret?”

“Okay, yes, I can keep a secret.”

“Clark and Irene did leave together, but he just gave her a ride to the old Jefferson cabin on his own way out of town. Where he is nobody knows, and if Della doesn’t care, I don’t think anyone else needs to either.”

“You mean she’s been across the lake from us all this time? What’s she doing out there?”

“She’s painting. And meditating. And making room for me almost every night.”

“You rascal! You red-faced little punk! Damn! You and Irene. Damn!”

We walked back into the house. Kenny lugged his already-packed duffel bag to the porch to be ready for Rob Berryhill and I sat down on the steps with him. We sat a minute before he laughed, repeated his “Damn! Irene! Damn!” then jumped up and ran back into his room.

He came back and plopped a book next to me. “Give her this, will you. She told me she’d never read it.” It was The Wind in the Willows, the faded red paperback edition. “Now I know she’ll love it.”

“She’ll get it tonight. I was going to tell you, we were going to have you out to the cabin, have a barbecue, but here you are leaving town on us.”

We heard Rob’s VW before we saw it. It coughed and barked but it always got people where they needed to go. Kenny hugged me and whispered:

“Piper, I have to admit I’m jealous as hell, but I’ll get over that. Mostly I’m thrilled for you. My baby sib is growing up.”

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Tony Press lives near San Francisco and strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses, Boston Literary, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, Qarrtsiluni, Rio Grande Review, riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Naugatuck River Review, Postcard Press, Right Hand Pointing, Spitball, Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature, Toasted Cheese. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

Chicken Feathers

Fiction
Ron Arnold


Golden neck feathers
Photo Credit: Magda Wojtyra

were suspended in midair, drifting as gracefully as butterflies, floating toward the ground, then being whisked back up again in a gentle breeze and parachuting back down, circling the little brown girl from all directions as she watched in wonderment, thrilled with a fantasy game of dodging the spritely fairies. Her mother poked her head out of the back door and screamed, “Mr. Guthrie… Mr. Guthrie…”

From the coop next door came a rotund white man outfitted in green overalls, with gray hair and mutton-chop sideburns. “Sorry about that, Mabel,” he chuckled, “but as you know they are show chickens. Best in this here county and maybe Virginia.”

Behind him roosters strutted their stuff and clucked in melodic tones—a lemony one with a black comb drooping forward Elvis Presley-style over his brow, a snow-white one with a crimson comb reminiscent of a sunrise or sunset, and others of different blends of color. About a dozen in all.

“Please clean up these feathers?”

“My boy, Luke, will be over straight away. Good day.”

“Thank you, Mr. Guthrie. Bye.”

That’s how it went day after day on this small farm next to the bigger one. Back in the day they divided up the property. The large estate with room for a pond and a pasture for horses and a dozen fields for different crops to Mr. Guthrie’s family. And the smaller plot, one-tenth the size of Guthrie’s Farm, for the family just freed from their plantation. Her great-grandfather thanked the union army every morning right after he thanked the Lord. The plot was big enough to grow vegetables for the dinner table, but not large enough to support a modern farming operation with the cost of tractors and fertilizer increasing every year. So Mabel’s husband, Josh, traveled to other places to work because he was too proud to work next door. Josh would drive down to Fayetteville, North Carolina to toil in the tobacco fields or go to a coastal town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to shuck oysters or pick crabs. He might not be home for weeks at a time. That meant Mabel was stuck with the child rearing duty, which was not easy though Raineyl was an only child.

“Mama,” asked Raineyl, “why can’t we have chickens?”

“Child, you got a rabbit and a cat to take care of. That should be enough for a six-year-old.”

“Mama, Ms. Tubbs says we’re going to hatch a batch in our class. She told me I can have a half-dozen since I live on a farm.”

“Child, you don’t have time for that with all the studying you must do. Plus, Josh won’t be wanting them around if they’re not for the dinner pot.”

“Just one, please Mama.”

Mabel saw the pout on her daughter’s cherub face and couldn’t resist. “Only one, Child.”

Raineyl spread her arms as wide as she could and spun in a circle, listening to the tinkling of beads braided in her stringy hair and watching the feathers curl round her and float up into the air again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a stocky figure coming out of the mansion next door.

The figure moved along a cobblestone path, underneath a trellis covered with honeysuckle, and through a flower garden more lavish than a hotel’s, becoming bigger and bigger the closer it got. Luke was twice her size, ten years older, and spoke with a cocky attitude derived from a sense of privilege and entitlement. “What do you want now?”

“Luke, could you be a darling and sweep up these feathers?” asked Mabel.

“I’m on it,” he whined. “My father already told me.”

He went to the coop, got a leaf blower, and blasted the feathers out of his neighbor’s yard, undeterred by the high-pitched whining of the machine.

Raineyl watched him packing up his gear. She asked, “Is it hard to raise chickens?”

“When you got show chickens,” he boasted, “it takes a little extra effort. You got to make sure their cages are clean and they get plenty of good food and water. You also got to clip their beaks to make sure they don’t go poking each other and hurting themselves, but it’s a small price to pay when you win prizes at the county fair.”

“Can anyone enter?”

“I suppose they could, but nobody is going to beat my father. He’s been doing it for as long as I can remember.”

“How about someone like me?”

He looked down at her and sneered, “Don’t even think about it.”

But it was too late. Raineyl’s heart was smitten with the roosters. The way they heralded the dawn of each new day with a cock-a-doodle-doo, claiming dominion over their little corner of the world, performed little dances and ruffled their feathers to impress the hens, and cackled songs reminiscent of lovesick troubadours.

Her second-grade class hatched twenty-two chicks from thirty-six fertile eggs. They selected four roosters of different breeds and raised them in a pen until the last day of the school year in June.

“I want everyone to look them over,” announced her teacher, Ms. Tubbs. “Then we will select the best one for Raineyl to enter in the County Fair.”

Scratcher was all-white, but stopped every two steps to scratch himself. That was a habit Raineyl would have to break before she entered him in any contest. Pearl’s crimson comb was as large as a crown above his magnificent white feathers and his eyes glistened brighter than jewels. He must have been descended from a royal line of chickens. The yellow one was named Sunflower because of his bright feathers and outgoing personality that included a cackle as soothing as a cat’s purr. And the tan rooster was called Peanut Butter because he always flopped to the ground and stayed there like a glob of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.

They paraded each one back and forth in front of the class. The teacher called out, “Scratcher.”

Two students raised their hands.

“Sunflower.”

A lot of girls swooned for him—five votes. Raineyl was sure that meant the rest of her class would vote for Pearl.

Ms. Tubbs yelled, “Pearl.”

Only seven students raised their hands.

Raineyl was confused. She added up the number of votes cast and began to perform a head count of students.

The white boys were hanging out in the back of the classroom snickering to each other, “A brown bird has never won the contest before. Let’s stick Raineyl with him.”

The teacher called out, “Peanut Butter.”

They all put up their hands and hooted and hollered. Eight votes. He edged out Pearl by one vote.

Raineyl stomped her foot in disgust and raised her hand to ask for a recount.

“Why, that is as good a choice as any,” proclaimed Ms. Tubbs.

Are you kidding me, thought Raineyl. Where the other chickens had been active, this one sat in the back of the pen picking at his feathers. She would have to work hard just to get him up to grade to enter the contest.

With the help of her mother, Raineyl built a tiny chicken coop with several two-by-fours and a roll of chicken wire. The shelter was more of a lean-to than a skyscraper, but it served dandy for a space to keep her rooster. She grew fond of the bird, letting him roam free in the backyard and sometimes the house.

“Child,” her mother would yell, “that chicken better not shed any more feathers in here.”

To which Raineyl replied, “I’m watching him.” Then she would follow him around with a broom and dustpan, saying, “No… no… no… stop shedding… stop.”

After several weeks, the bird looked more scraggly than before. Her mother asked, “Child, do you still want to do this? There must be a better way for you to spend your time.”

Raineyl decided not to give up. She went to the local library and got how-to books about raising and grooming chickens: Dummies Guide to Chicken Farming, Raising Chickens from the Egg to the Broiler, Poultry Health 101, and Fowl Fan Book—Lineage and Breed. She fed Peanut Butter premium feed with marigolds sprinkled in to rejuvenate his skin. When those flowers weren’t available, she cut up roses into delicious, nutritious morsels.

She heard her mother screaming, “Raineyl, have you been in my garden again?” and hid several roses underneath a seat cushion.

Her mother found the stash and steamed, “Are these mine?” and peered into Raineyl’s eyes. Then her mother’s flabby cheeks became soft as she said, “Child, if you’re going to use all these, you should at least plant some new ones.”

One day Mabel heard some cackling coming from the living room. She hollered, “That chicken better not be losing feathers all over the furniture and rug.” When she stepped inside, she saw Raineyl prodding the rooster to step higher to reach a ruler held parallel to the floor. “What on earth are you doing, Child?”

“I’m trying to break his bad habit of pecking the ground all the time. So I’m teaching him to do the cakewalk.”

“The cakewalk?”

“Yes, Mama. I read about it in my bibliography about Johnson and Dean. They were famous dancers at the turn of the last century.”

“Is that so?” chuckled Mabel. “What did your book say about them?”

“It said that Charles Johnson and Dora Dean were known as the King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy and performed on Broadway and for royalty in Europe.”

“Did it describe the cakewalk?”

“It goes something like this.” Raineyl leaned backwards as far as she could and high-stepped across the room—lifting her knee up to her chest, kicking out, and moving forward by planting each foot in turn. When she got to the wall, she pirouetted as smoothly as a ballerina and pranced back.

“You know how to do the dance, but do you know what it means?”

“I’m not sure, Mama?”

“Back in the day the cakewalk was performed on plantations by folks like us. Sometimes we would be celebrating someone’s wedding and at other times we would be glad just to be alive. The couple that performed the best dance received a giant cake as a prize, but that wasn’t all. You see, white folks were always telling us to do this and do that. The dance means we bend in the wind like a willow tree, but never break. Remember that, Child, when people go bothering you.”

Raineyl kept putting flowers in Peanut Butter’s food and giving him dance lessons. By the end of the summer the rooster’s feathers glowed like caramel and his comb looked as luscious as dark chocolate. He could have been put on an advertising poster for a candy maker.

One afternoon Mr. Taylor stopped by from a neighboring farm. The skin on his hands and face had been wrinkled with age and his Afro was tinged with gray. He placed his muddy boots on the back porch and straddled a chair in the kitchen. Mabel served him angel food cake and coffee. He spoke carefully as though his words were ingredients measured out for a recipe, “I’ve come to give Raineyl this brush for grooming her rooster’s feathers.”

“For me?”

“Yes, for you.”

Raineyl hopped up from the floor where she was playing and took it. She examined the gift while he sipped his coffee.

“According to Ecclesiastes,” he explained, “a person can obtain things in two ways. One is by being wealthy. The other is by being wise. Your daughter has chosen to be wise.”

“Amen, ain’t that the truth,” replied her mother. “She’s making all of us wiser.”

That Saturday Josh came home reeking of fish. He settled into his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room, stretched out his sore arms and legs, and clicked on the TV. While he flipped the channels to a baseball game, he breathed a sigh of relief. All he wanted to do was lounge there until dinner time. The announcers were chatting about a hitter leaning over home plate with a corkscrew stance.

Mabel sashayed in from the kitchen and turned down the sound.

“Why you be foolin’ with that?” snapped her husband.

“I need to talk to you about Raineyl.”

“Raineyl? Is she sick or in trouble?”

“I wouldn’t say trouble,” drawled Mabel. “She needs twenty-five dollars to enter Peanut Butter in a contest at the County Fair.”

“Peanut Butter?’

“You know, her bird.”

“I’ve been workin’ for three weeks straight at a stinkin’ wharf in Wachapreague, and all you want to do is pick my wallet. Woman, don’t you know we got bills to pay?”

“Josh, this is important to her. She has her heart set on entering that contest and competing with Mr. Guthrie.”

“A six-year-old girl competin’ with a sixty-year-old man? He’s got dirt under his fingernails that is six years old. What kind of competition is that?”

“Please let her try.”

He pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty-five dollars. “You women like to bend the world.”

Mabel snatched the wad of cash and replied, “It seems like you men bend it a lot more than we do.”

“Umph!”

 

The aroma of caramel popcorn and cotton candy filled the air and the clacking of a roller coaster and screams of passengers could be heard all over the fairgrounds. Crowds gathered around the midway which featured exhibits such as trained tigers, packs of acrobatic monkeys, a strong man capable of lifting a motorcycle or overturning a car, and a fire-eating gypsy woman. A Ferris wheel spun to a serenade of string music, sailboats glided across a pond, and go-carts zoomed around an oval track. Tents were set up for farm exhibits ranging from dairy cows to horses to hogs to chickens. The tent Raineyl stood in had a partition separating the pens from the judges and grandstands.

Several white boys gathered at the entrance and begged, “Please let us in.”

“I can’t do it,” she said. “We only got fifteen minutes before the contest starts.”

“That’s why we need to come in. We want to see if Peanut Butter can win before we place our bets.”

“Oh, okay, just for a minute.”

The boys rushed in and gathered around the pen, but were holding their hands behind their backs. Raineyl thought they were afraid of getting pecked. “Don’t worry. He won’t poke you.”

They snickered and shoveled handfuls of dirt at the bird who flapped his wings to try to get away.

“No… no… no… What are you doing?” screamed Raineyl.

“We want to see if he can dance.”

Raineyl stomped on the boys’ boots.

They did a jig and cried out, “What’s wrong with you?” “Hey, that hurts.”

“Get out of here!”

“We were just having a little fun.” They skedaddled toward the exit. One quipped, “Nah, stinky isn’t going to win.” And they all chuckled.

Raineyl heard her mother’s dress rustling behind her. She turned around, “I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to cause a ruckus.”

“Ain’t no need to be sorry. You should have broken every bone in their feet.”

Raineyl went over to the pen and saw the sorry condition of her bird and sobbed, “What am I going to do?”

“Child, you go get a bucket of warm water.”

Raineyl ran outside and filled a plastic bucket from a pump. “This was the best I could do.”

“It’ll be good enough.” Her mother squirted Dawn dishwashing detergent into the water and stirred it up until it became sudsy.

“Will this work?”

“It was good enough for you when you was a baby.”

They set about scrubbing the bird from beak to toe with a dishrag. Mabel patted him dry with a towel and Raineyl brushed his feathers with the comb that Farmer Taylor had given her. When they were done, Peanut Butter looked shinier than a new mint penny coming off the printing press.

The roosters disappeared one after another into the exhibition hall and returned. Now a man in a suit came over and motioned toward a tent flap, “Miss Raineyl, be ready in thirty seconds.”

“Oh, Lord,” cried her mother. “Look at your blouse.”

Chicken feathers covered Raineyl’s blouse from her waist to her neck as though she had lost a pillow fight at a slumber party. “Mama,” she pleaded, “please help me.”

“You get that rooster ready. I’ll take care of your clothes.”

As Raineyl prompted the bird out of his cage and encouraged him to move toward the runway in the exhibition hall, Mabel picked feathers off of her daughter’s blouse. The last few floated to the ground as she lifted the partition flap.

Straw covered the floor of the exhibition area and the pungent odor of chicken droppings lingered everywhere. Even so, at least a hundred people sat in the wood stands or stood near the runway. Mr. Guthrie was already accepting congratulations from a bunch of good old boys. He had won the contest two years running and now only one rooster remained. An announcement came over the intercom, “Next we have the contestant from Raineyl Farm… Peanut Butter.”

“Come on, Peanut Butter,” said Raineyl. “Let’s show them how we do it. Hold your head high and lift up those feet. Be proud of yourself.”

Peanut Butter cackled and lifted his head straight up and paraded forward with each foot being held in the air for an extra second or two. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before. A bird strutting down the runway like the President walking down the red carpet from Air Force One or barging through the doors of the Oval Office. The woman judge’s mouth dropped open in wonderment. Another judge compared his checklist for this bird to the one from Guthrie Farms, shaking his head in disbelief.

After the rooster finished, he held his head in a dignified way, basking in the looks of astonished fans and making a fantastic portrait for those snapping photos. The lead judge came forward and gushed, “We have a new champion… Peanut Butter from Raineyl Farm. Here is a trophy from the County Commissioners and a check for five hundred dollars.”

Mabel clapped with joy and Josh hollered to several spectators seated near him, “That’s my girl. I knew she could beat that old man.”

Raineyl smiled brighter than a sunbeam. She finally realized you don’t have to be snow white to be a winner. No… no… no…

pencil

Ron Arnold is a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. His short stories have been published in The Binnacle, Creative With Words Publications, The Funny Paper, Joyful!, Northwoods Journal, Penny-A-Liner, The Pink Chameleon, Tale Spinners, and Toasted Cheese. He is also a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: Rraflw[at]aol.com