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


Frogged sock
Photo Credit: ghost of anja

“In knitting,” she said as she began to cast on again, “you can fix everything.”
… At last, here was something I couldn’t ruin.
Something I could do over, and over, and over.
Ann Hood

One Saturday, I found myself in Michael’s, the craft store, picking out a skein of yarn. It was during the period of my life when the losses were piling up, like logs being split and stacked for winter. What was done could not be undone. All I could do was stack the pieces off to the side, neatly so they wouldn’t tumble down and crush me, and wait for the next hewn log to be tossed my way.

I chose a variegated cotton, the type of yarn that makes a pattern on its own. If I’d been following the hipster script, I would then have picked out knitting needles to match. But I was writing my own script. A couple crochet hooks had been rattling around my sewing kit for decades, untouched since my mom taught me to crochet when I was a kid. I didn’t remember how, but perhaps it was like riding a bike. I thought I could figure it out. Besides, if I got stuck, there was always the internet.

Back home, I dug out one of those crochet hooks and sat myself down with the skein of yarn and a movie for company. And after a few false starts and, yes, with some help from the internet, I did. I made a scarf, of course. A skinny, crooked scarf. Not a masterpiece, just a practice sketch.

Several years ago, I remember saying I didn’t understand the knitting craze, by which I didn’t mean I didn’t understand the urge to make things—I’ve always been a maker—but rather, why knitting in particular? What was it about knitting that drew people, especially those taking their tentative first steps into making, to it rather than to, say, drawing or quilting or pottery or origami or woodworking?

But now I think I understand. Knitting doesn’t require a lot of equipment to get started. It’s portable; you can take it with you. It doesn’t require a dedicated space or make a mess that you have to clean up afterward. The repetition of the process is calming, meditative. You don’t have to worry about lopping a limb off if you zone out or drift off. And when you finish you have something functional. Anyone, given enough practice, can master it well enough to create something they wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear or give as a gift.

Mastery is easier to achieve with knitting and crocheting than with other crafts because no mistake is too big to fix. No matter how far you get into a project, you can always tear it up—rip, rip, rip—and undo your mistake or start over from the beginning. You don’t have to invest in new materials to try again; your equipment never wears out. You can keep tearing a project up and starting over until you’re happy with it. Even once a project is finished, it still holds the possibility of being reworked. If you tire of an item, you can undo it and remake it into something different. If you itch to redo some of your early projects, bring them up to your current skill level, you can do that, too.

Nothing is wasted. No, not even time. For each stitch, even if it is ephemeral, is practice. Everyone knows the more you practice, the more skilled you get. Ultimately, a finished product doesn’t consist only of the stitches you see, but also all the ones you don’t see, everything you did—and undid—along the way.

NaNoWriMo has just finished and some of you are basking in the glow of writing 50,000 words in month. Others are wishing you’d never heard the word NaNoWriMo. What’s the difference between succeeding and failing at NaNoWriMo? Beyond not making excuses about time or the lack thereof, I think it’s a willingness to make mistakes. Those who succeed are willing to write a steaming pile of words, knowing that they may have to rewrite every single one of them.

I recently read an anecdote about a writer who writes a complete first draft, sits down and reads it, then throws it away and starts over from scratch.

Did you gasp? I admit it took me a few minutes to work through my thoughts about that. I’m not sure I could be that brave. At the same time, I understand the impulse. The first draft is a discovery draft; it’s figuring out your story, what works, what doesn’t, taking chances, making mistakes. It’s practice. Even if you don’t literally throw it away, if you’re really rewriting with each subsequent draft (not just nitpicking the details), chances are very little of that first draft will be visibly left in the final one. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is. Every word you write, even if it’s ultimately deleted, contributes to the final draft. Backing up, starting over, rewriting are all integral parts of the writing process. They’re not a waste of time. If you’re not throwing away words you’ve labored over, you’re not reaching your writing potential.

Write. Throw it away. Start over. Don’t try to recreate the first draft. Take it in a new direction. Make it better. Repeat.

Like yarn, words are infinitely reusable. You’re not wasting them. You’re not going to run out of them. Write, tear it up, rewrite.

No mistake is too big to fix.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses

Caroline England’s collection Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses (ACHUKAbooks, 2012) brings the short story form to its zenith. A dozen stellar stories are filled with prose that surprises and hooks the reader, very often in the first line. The collection is inhabited by characters that are lovelorn, nostalgic, tragic, the keepers of secrets and much more. Many of the stories are family stories that traverse the dark side of human nature. They often begin one way and turn in a surprising direction. “The Bees Knees” borders on the grotesque, while the Alfred Hitchcock-like ending of “Heart” is a stunner.

England employs first, second, or third person narration with a point of view that is quite intriguing. One such story, “Words,” is told in third person with very little dialog. It is dramatic as we see the protagonist from the watchful narrator’s perspective, sometimes wide-lensed and distant and sometimes internal, as the narrator omnisciently reports the character’s thoughts and feelings.

“Today is one of the many family stories. What makes this story so interesting, again, is the point of view. It begins innocently with first-person narration—“Today I wrote to Richard.”—but as the story reveals itself, it becomes complex and layered. England creates incredible depth through the clever use of several techniques. The narrator never changes yet there are shifting points of view that present other characters’ perceptions.

In his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays” David Jauss writes, “point of view is more a matter of where the language is coming from than it is of person.” And that is precisely what is happening in “Today.” The story unfolds in poignant increments and the reader may not see the entire story—not see “it” coming—until the last page even though there are subtle hints along the way, changes in tone or character voice. There is a sublime economy of words—masterful storytelling.

Likewise, in other stories the narrators are present, yet they reveal little of themselves. Less is so much more. A turn of a phrase, a short sentence of dialog or just a word or two carries double meaning. Such is the case in “Nothing Broken: the “blackout blinds” (being blind to the outside), “virgin” (innocence), and the evocative “cheeses, orange, white, yellow, blue, some waxy, some curdled with deep red tomatoes and onion to match.” The cheeses are ordered from fresh to not-so-fresh, implying a descent or passage of time. The ripe tomatoes followed by the onion hint of a fertile lushness chased with something sweet and bitter.

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses is one of the finest collections of short stories I have read—smart, provocative writing. It is a collection for readers and writers alike.

*

Caroline England prefers writing to dusting, ironing, vacuuming and washing-up. Born a Yorkshire lass, she studied law at Manchester University and stayed over the border. Caroline became a partner in a solicitors practice and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring up her three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, and her first novel, A Slight Diversion, Caroline has stories and poems published in Toasted Cheese and variety of literary magazines. Despite her best endeavors, Carolyn’s writing always veers to the dark side. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter: @CazEngland.
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Shelley Carpenter is Toasted Cheese‘s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Beautiful Land

Alan Averill’s debut novel The Beautiful Land (Ace Books/Penguin Group, 2013) was the winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2012.

The Beautiful Land grabbed me from the get-go with its very first line:

Tak can’t answer the phone because the noose is too tight.

Being the empathetic reader that I am, I was concerned for this character and beginning to like him as he stood there on a wooden chair in a shabby urban hotel about to exit the world in a “low-rent suicide.” I got to know Tak in his final moments. His character is revealed incrementally by an omniscient narrator and Tak’s edgy stream-of-consciousness point-of-view:

Okay, now you’re being a pussy.
Just jump off the chair and be done with it already.
… Fine. Goddammit, just… fine.

I was only a page or two involved, but I needed to know what had brought this bright and funny young character in the Donkey Kong T-shirt to such desperation. Who is Tak? Why does he have a noose around his neck? Even though his suicide was well thought out, I still wasn’t convinced that this character really wanted to die. It seemed there were a lot of leftover things that Tak wanted or needed to do. I was curious, seduced. So I read a little more and a little more after that and found myself completely absorbed in Tak and the meaning of the creepy black dripping feathers on the novel’s cover and, of course, the sinister “machine.” By then, there was no turning back. I could not close the book. I knew too much. I was a captive audience.

It turns out that Tak—short for Takahiro O’Leary—is an explorer. He is the younger, millennial version of the 1980s TV survivalist character MacGyver who could be dropped from a helicopter onto an ice shelf in the Arctic Circle in the dark with string and a package of gum in his pocket and not only survive but thrive—catching the bad guy, too. Tak, like MacGyver, has exceptional survival reflexes and can think on his feet; a plan is always forming or in execution. He is also part Harry Houdini.

Tak is a star in a TV reality adventure show when he is contacted by the Axon Corporation which hires him to do some specialized errand running—time jumping across parallel timelines. This is where the Houdini part comes in. Tak betrays his employers and escapes off a jet plane mid-flight with a very important briefcase in tow. Because of this, he is chased through time and the pages of The Beautiful Land while he rushes to save the one person who means the most to him and while he’s at it, the world.

There is some really cool science fiction writing as well as a percolating romance spiced with lots of character-driven black humor. Tak never loses his senses of humor and irony even in his darkest moments. The same can be said of the supporting characters. They are thoughtful and very human.

The writing itself is well-crafted. Tak’s story is written in third person shifting between the points of view of the main characters. Present tense accelerates the plot and creates added tension. Averill is adept at showing. Character backstory revealed by the time-traveling mechanics serves dual roles: we learn about Tak’s family and his sense of purpose from the memories that run like a movie reel each time he time jumps. The plot moves at an exhilarating clip, taking fast corners but no short cuts. It is easy to see why The Beautiful Land won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award—riveting storytelling, science fiction/fantasy in great form.

*

Alan Averill began writing at five years old when he penned an epic tome about Bigfoot killing him with a log. He is the author of the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner, The Beautiful Land, and has also done writing and localization work for dozens of video games. His short story “Things Difficult to Say” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Toasted Cheese—a fact he’s proud of to no end. You can keep up with Alan’s ramblings at his blog or follow him on Twitter: @frodomojo.

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Shelley Carpenter is Toasted Cheese‘s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Get Carter

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lorraine Nelson


Tunnel Sillhouettes
Photo Credit: Jonathan Sanderson

Carter ran until he thought his lungs would burst. His footsteps thudded against the packed earth, sounding like a muffled heartbeat. His nightspecs lit up the dank, cavernous tunnel with an eerie green glow. Far behind him, he could hear a soft, steady hum.

The trailbots were after him.

Carter picked up his pace. No way they were going to catch him. No way they were going to take him back to GenMed. No way. He’d rather die than go back there. His legs churned, eating up the ground under him. Despite his exhaustion, Carter permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction.

He had done it.

After two years of planning, he had finally escaped the GenMed Facility, also known as the Body Shop. The government scientists not only cloned humans for sale to whoever needed unpaid labor, they also used some of their clones for experiments. Horrendous experiments, where clones had their arms and legs removed, to be replaced by animal parts; where brain matter was sliced and diced in order to manipulate personality changes; where animal–human hybrids were implanted in female uteri. Carter had heard stories where sometimes these fetuses would grow enough to tear or bite their way out of the womb. Despite the sweat pouring down his face, soaking his shirt, he shuddered.

No. He was not going back.

The tunnel banked right, and Carter skidded into the turn, his nightspecs picking up the strange, phosphorescent glow emanating from the hard, mud-packed walls. It was through Malachi, a fellow inmate of GenMed, that Carter had heard about the Underground Railroad. It seems that hundreds of years ago, white people in New Cambria, which was then called America, went over the seas to enslave a whole race of people. The black race. Malachi called them his African forebears. They didn’t succeed in enslaving everyone, but it turns out they enslaved thousands over a period of years. They didn’t treat them none too well either. Malachi said his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had told him stories that his great-grandfather had told him, about how these enslaved humans were treated like property, were beaten and starved, the women raped and their resulting offspring sold off, never to be seen again.

Carter shook his head. Amazing that hundreds of years later, mankind still hadn’t changed. People were still being enslaved. Still subjected to all kinds of atrocities. Only now, it was the Cyborgs, those infernal half-human, half-machine tyrants, who ran the show. Humans were just cattle to be rounded up and used for cheap, disposable labor.

And, of course, experimentation.

But not him. Not Carter. Not anymore. He flexed his right arm where, just the previous day, one of the scientists had lasered his arm off just below the elbow because someone had noticed Carter’s hand shaking when he performed some delicate repairs on a gene splicer. Carter’s mouth tightened as he recalled the agony of the hot beam slicing through flesh and bone. The Cyborg hadn’t bothered to use a pain diffuser. There was no point wasting it on a full-blooded human.

Whatever it was he did to Carter’s arm, when he fused it back again, the shaking was gone. Ironically, he’d made it that much easier for Carter to manipulate the last few alarms before making his escape. Carter’s fists clenched. It was supposed to be their escape. His and Malachi’s. But something went wrong when they were working on the last set of alarms. Somehow, Carter didn’t know how, the guards were alerted. The alarms he was working on all went off at once, and around the facility, titanium doors and windows started sealing off all the entrances, one by one.

There had been no time to waste. They’d made a run for it. Except Malachi couldn’t keep up. He was just too old. They could hear the metal footfalls of the guards clanging off the sleek metal floors, getting closer and closer with each breath. Carter had grabbed the old man, practically hauling him off the ground as he ran. Just a few more paces, and they’d make it. He’d delayed the shutdown in this corridor for a few precious minutes, but time was rapidly running down. Beside him, he could hear Malachi’s ragged breathing.

Almost there. But the guards were almost upon them. Once they turned the corner, all was lost. They’d turn their light-pistols on them, and both him and Malachi would vaporize into nothing more than a pile of ashes.

He’d turned to Malachi, a remorseful grin on his face. “Guess we’re not going to get the chance to use that famous Underground Railroad your ancestors used, buddy. Sorry about that.”

Malachi turned his dark, soulful eyes on the younger man. “I won’t, but you sure will. Goodbye my friend. And as my great-granddaddy used to say, “Godspeed.”

Before Carter could react, Malachi wrenched his arm away from him, and ran back down the corridor, screaming maniacally, “Come and get me, you tin-plated freaks of nature.” He threw an impatient look over his shoulder, his dreadlocks bouncing. “What are you waiting for, you idiot? A goodbye kiss? Go. Go.”

And Carter went. He ran as if there were no tomorrow. He ran until night became day, and the North Star disappeared. And when that happened, miraculously, there was someone there, in the ruins of the Old City, to feed him and give him a place to sleep, and to guide him to the next safe house. That first day of freedom, Carter shut his eyes, curled up in a ball in a corner of a dilapidated factory, and tried to erase the memory of leaving his old friend behind. It’s here, Malachi, he said silently. It does exist. The old route under the night sky. I followed the North Star just as you said. Met my first good Samaritan, who assures me there are others along the way who will help me, just as you said. The Underground Railroad still stands, silent and strong and ready to help anyone seeking asylum.

A sharp pain in his side brought Carter up short. He had been traveling for more than a week now, using the North Star as his guide. And always, along the way, there were people to help. He was underground now, in a series of tunnels that his last Samaritan had said were built as a physical extension to the Railroad, when the Cyborgs gained control. This portion of the route became too dangerous to follow above ground. People who served the Underground Railroad were being caught and killed, so these passages were built in secret. They still followed the North Star, he said, but below ground.

Carter leaned against the tunnel wall, welcoming the cool, damp feel against his over-heated skin. He listened for the sounds of the trailbots, but couldn’t hear anything. Either they had given up, which was highly unlikely, or they were recharging, which didn’t seem possible either. He couldn’t think of any other reason why they wouldn’t be following him. Well, he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d run, only that he couldn’t go much farther. His entire body was screaming out for rest, for water, for food. Hell, he’d even take that synthesized crap the Cyborgs ate.

Carter pushed away from the wall, setting out at a steady jog this time, instead of a full-on run. His legs felt as if they were on fire. His feet felt slippery and hot inside of his work boots, each step a plunge into red-hot coals. He didn’t want to see what the soles of his feet looked like. He kept going until he keeled over, unable to move another step. He lay there on the cool, packed earth, relishing the feel of it beneath his cheek. This is fine, he thought. I’ll just stay here. All I need is to close my eyes for a few minutes. Five minutes. That’s all. Then I’ll be able to go again. Just five minutes. That’s all. Carter’s eyelids fluttered.

Then snapped open.

Someone was there. And whoever it was, was looking right at him.

Carter sprang to his feet, his heartbeat accelerating. What the hell—? He stared at the creature in front of him. It was a relgat. It had to be, with its ghostly-white skin, a smooth small head, huge bat-like ears standing straight up, and large yellow eyes that took up almost its whole pointed face. There was no room for a nose on that face, so it had three small pinpricks in the shape of a triangle, where its nose ought to be. Its mouth was the only thing that looked almost normal, by human standards. The whole creature, from the tips of its ears to its paddle-shaped feet, if you could call them that, stood maybe five feet high, tops. Carter felt like a giant next to it.

“Hel-lo,” it said, raising a right hand, all four long digits extended in greeting.

Carter stared at the pads of its fingers. They were disc-shaped and looked like suction pads.

“Can you speak?” the relgat asked. “Are you simple? Too much cutting in your brain by the Cyborgs?”

“What?” Carter blinked. The thing spoke perfect English. He shook his head. What was he expecting? Broken English in a foreign-sounding voice? Malachi would be disappointed in him. “I’m… I’m Carter,” he said. “Who—?”

“Ahhhh, Carter. Yes. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“We?” How many of these things were there, for shit’s sake?

In answer, a young man, a boy, black like Malachi, stepped out from the shadows. He touched a hand to his cap, and soft light flooded the area. Carter winced and removed his nightspecs, squinting at the light.

“Hey,” the boy said, by way of greeting. “We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Padraig. And this,” he gestured at the alien, “is Sycamore.”

“Hel-lo again.” Sycamore’s hand went up again, his face splitting in what Carter assumed was a grin. Inside his mouth, short, sharp teeth gleamed against his pearly-white skin. Carter suppressed a shudder. Whatever those teeth ate, it sure wasn’t fruit.

Padraig and Sycamore? Terrific. “How old are you?” he asked the boy. In his opinion, the kid was way too young to be involved in something this dangerous.

Padraig lifted his chin. “I’m twelve,” he said. “And if you want to get out of here without being caught or vaporized, you’ll follow me. I know these tunnels blindfolded.”

Carter held up his hands, stifling a grin. “Hey, no problem. I believe you.”

Padraig stared up at him for a second, then nodded. He and Sycamore exchanged a look, then turned back to Carter. They appeared to be waiting for something. A sign of some sort? A secret password? Carter rubbed the back of his neck and smiled at them, thinking that if this wasn’t a dream, it had to be one of the goofiest encounters he’d ever had.

“So? What now?” he finally said, acutely aware that at any minute he would hear the hum of the trailbots behind him.

“Where’s Malachi?” Padraig said.

Carter felt the blush to the roots of his hair. How could he have forgotten to tell them about Malachi? The old man was his only friend at GenMed for the past three years, and already he was getting used to being without him. What was wrong with him?

“He… he didn’t make it,” Carter said thickly. “He used himself as a diversion so I could get away.” His throat closed up, and he snapped his jaw shut, afraid he was going to start bawling like the incubated babies on the third floor at GenMed.

Padraig said nothing, just stared at him with those young-old eyes that looked as if they’d seen everything life had to offer. Finally he nodded, turned away. “We’d better get going. We still have a long way to go and it won’t be long before the trailbots are fixed.”

Sycamore turned, his long loose robe swishing behind him as he trotted after the boy.

Guess that explains why I haven’t heard them behind me for awhile, Carter thought, watching the twosome glide silently down the tunnel. Taking a deep breath, Carter started after them, thinking this must be the oddest trio that ever walked the earth.

For a long, long time, they walked in silence. Carter considered whistling, but dismissed the idea instantly. In these tunnels the sound would reverberate like a sonic drill. But, speaking of tunnels—

“So, can I ask you something?” Carter said, catching up to Padraig.

The boy nodded, casting him a sideways look.

“What do you know about these tunnels? I mean, the Underground Railroad was just a name for the people and safe houses along the route who helped the escaped slaves back in the old days, right?

“Right.” The boy looked straight ahead, his stride never faltering. Carter had to hand it to him. This was one tough little kid.

“So, whose idea was it to build these tunnels?”

“Padraig shrugged. “Who knows? They’re here and they’re handy, so why question it?” He glanced up at Carter, frowning. “Why do grownups have to question everything good?”

Carter laughed. “I suppose that is a fault in grownups, kid.”

“Don’t call me ‘kid.’ My name’s Padraig.”

“Right. Padraig. Sorry.” He heard a sound like water gurgling down a pipe and glanced back. The alien had his mouth open and the gurgling sound was coming from deep within him. “What’s with your friend?” he asked Padraig.

The boy shrugged, but a tiny smile flitted across his face. “He’s laughing at you.”

Carter raised a brow, but refrained from comment. It seemed both the boy and the alien had a sense of humor. Who knew? “One more question,” he said.

Padraig nodded, his dark, solemn eyes watching Carter carefully.

“How come the walls in this tunnel glow? It’s a little… unsettling.”

“My dad told me there are microscopic creatures that live in the walls. He says they emit their own light. They live and die in the darkness, so nature compensates by imbuing them with their own light source.” He smiled at the surprised expression on Carter’s face then, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “Those are my dad’s exact words,” he said. “He always used big words when he spoke. He… he was the smartest man in the world.”

“Sure sounds like it,” Carter said, then lapsed into silence.

A long while later, when Carter’s stomach started growling, Padraig called a halt. “We’ll stop here for a bit,” he said. “Have something to eat.”

At the mention of food, Carter’s interest piqued. He glanced at the small bag slung over the boy’s shoulder. Didn’t look like it held much. Well, whatever he was offered, he would take it and be grateful for it. He watched as Padraig took out three small bowls, a packet of some sharp-smelling pellets, and four long water tubes. He handed one to Carter and Sycamore, put one aside for himself, and emptied one into equal portions in the three bowls. Then he split open the bag, dropped a handful of the pellets into each of the bowls, and stirred them into the water. Right before his eyes, Carter watched as the mixture thickened and grew. A cold dread began in his stomach, and he raised his eyes to Padraig, willing the boy to tell him it wasn’t what he thought it was.

It was.

Padraig passed him a bowl, a wide grin splitting his face. “Symplon,” he said, his serious tone belying the delight on his face as he watched Carter grimace. “The food of the Cyborgs.”

Carter accepted the bowl with a muttered “thank you.” His eyes slid to Sycamore, who was already dipping his elongated fingers into the greenish-grey mush and shoveling it into his mouth with a resounding smacking sound. If Carter had had any food at all in his belly, he’d have hurled.

“Eat up,” Padraig said, sitting cross-legged, as he dipped his fingers into the swill. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we’re back above ground. We can pick up the original Railroad trail again without any problem, once the stars come out.”

Carter grunted as he bent to his meal.

For a while, the only sounds were the soft slurping of fingers, interspersed with the smacking sounds coming from Sycamore.

“Gooood,” the alien said, setting his bowl down and beaming at the others, his enormous yellow orbs shining in the darkness.

Carter wanted to offer him his own food, but the thought of walking for hours on end without the possibility of more food kept him from doing that. As repulsive as it was, at least it was nourishment that kept him alive. And for that, he was immensely grateful.

“So,” he said, glancing up at Padraig and Sycamore. “How did you both come to this pretty important job? A boy and an alien? There’s got be a story there.”

Padraig’s chest swelled noticeably. “You’re right,” he said, licking his fingers. “It is an important job. My father was the contact, the Samaritan. I used to go out with him when it got dark, on nights we knew to expect someone. Sometimes we’d wait in the tunnels all night and no one would come, and we’d know they’d run into trouble, got captured or killed.” He sighed. “On those nights, my father was always so sad.”

He looked at Carter, his eyes shining. “I could actually feel him wearing it, you know? His sadness. He always felt so sorry for the ones who didn’t make it this far north.”

Padraig set his bowl down, licked his fingers one last time, and sat back against the tunnel wall. “Then he got sick. Remember when so many humans got sick and died? My dad said the Cyborgs had a cure, that they had a cure for just about everything, but they didn’t care about us. He said they thought we were inferior beings, because we weren’t as strong as them, or as smart as them, and that we had such short life spans anyway, so what difference did it make to them if we all died?” Padraig sniffed, dragging the back of his hand across his nose. “Then my dad got sick, too. He… he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and he’d send me out there when we knew we were getting runners. He told me it was dangerous work and he didn’t want me out there by myself with those trailbots around, but that people were counting on us, and we couldn’t let them down.” He sniffed again, and Carter held his arms rigid at his side to keep from giving the boy a hug.

“Then he died,” Padraig said softly, staring at a point over Sycamore’s shoulder. “My dad died and it was only me. I was the only one there to help those runners. So, whenever a message came through that someone was on the run, I went out by myself and met them.” His eyes met Carter’s, wet with tears. “And that’s how come I met you.”

Carter swallowed back the lump in his throat. He wanted to swoop the kid up in his arms, hold him tight and tell him he’d take care of him, that he’d be his surrogate father, but somehow he knew the kid wouldn’t agree to that. He glanced at Sycamore, who was watching Padraig with wide, mournful eyes. That’s his surrogate dad, Carter thought. The alien takes care of him. I’ll be damned.

“And you?” Carter asked, clearing his throat. “What’s your story?”

Sycamore turned those huge, unnerving eyes on him. He smiled. “When we arrived here all those years ago, humans were so suspicious of us. Even when we proved that all we wanted to do was trade, they still hated us. The Cyborgs were the ones treating the humans badly, but because they were still partly human, they were not as feared as we were.” He looked at Padraig. “I was working for a gen farm, splicing pig and cow DNA together to create a new breed of meat, when one day there was an accident. The genetic modifier I was working on was unstable, and it exploded. It destroyed half the building. Some humans died, and I barely made it out of there with my life. The only reason I survived was because my skin is so tough. If I were human, I would be dead.”

Carter watched as Padraig reached over and squeezed his hand. The gesture was so simple, yet so endearing, Carter’s heart twisted.

“The farmer went for his light-pistol,” Sycamore continued. “So I ran. I ran for days without stopping. Then I found these tunnels. Quite by accident, since they are so well hidden. I hid out in them for days, and when I finally wove my way around, there was Padraig, waiting.”

“Well, I certainly did not expect to see a young human pup in these tunnels—” Sycamore paused, and cocked his head at Padraig. “Come to think of it, I did not expect to see a human pup at all, so it was very much a surprise when I came upon him.” He smiled at the boy. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Waiting for you.’ Then he turned and led the way out of the tunnels to the home he shared with his father.”

He smiled at Carter. “And I have been there ever since.”

Carter stared back in wonder. “How long have you been with him?” he asked.

Sycamore cocked his head again as he contemplated Carter’s question. “Two years, he said. “I have watched him grow centimeter by centimeter.”

There was a short silence as Carter digested this information.

Then Padraig stirred, yawned and got to his feet. “Time to get you on your way, Mr. Carter.”

“Just Carter,” he said, rising and stretching.

They walked again, for so long that Carter wondered what year it was. He didn’t want to ask how much longer it was before they’d emerge into open air again, but he was starting to get seriously claustrophobic. He’d gotten used to following the North Star. There was something comforting in that. It was always there. Constant. Eternal. It would always be there to guide people to freedom and safety, and he wanted to see it again, to reassure himself it would be there to guide him the rest of the way, however long it took for him to reach safety.

These thoughts were chasing themselves around his overtaxed brain, when Padraig spoke.

“We’re here.”

And the next thing Carter knew, he was back outside again, back in the fresh air. Back to the sound of insects humming, to the cool night air kissing his damp skin, to the soft breeze ruffling his hair. He wanted to spread his arms wide and laugh out loud. But of course he didn’t, since both Padraig and Sycamore were looking at him curiously.

“We’ll accompany you for a few more miles,” Padraig said, “until we meet your next contact in the Railroad chain. Then we’ll say goodbye.”

Carter nodded, his eyes on the young boy who was older and wiser beyond his years. He would miss him. Both of them actually. Without a word, he turned and followed them through the woods, the North Star pointing the way in the clear night sky.

Carter could not believe the beauty of this vast wilderness. Where he came from, there was nothing but sterile white buildings, and once he ran for his life, nothing but cities in ruins. He had not known a place like this existed. He took a deep breath. Even the air smelled sweeter here.

When their contact stepped out from behind a tree, smiling at them, Carter sent a silent prayer of thanks to his old friend, Malachi.

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Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature; Master’s degree in Mass Communications. Grew up in many different countries. Publishing history: Public Relations newsletter editor. Articles for local newspapers. Newsletter editor for regional writing organization for three years. Wife. Mother of two. Volunteer. Reader. Sci-fi geek. Email: lloneriter[at]yahoo.com

Save What We Can

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Kate Lansky


night-orchard
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

Tiba let out a gusty sigh and leaned back against the rough skin of an orchard tree. She could taste weather in the air, sweet and pungent. Gran had always said it was the voices of leaves singing up to the sky in anticipation. Most nights that heady scent would make her smile, the way it reminded her of Gran. Tonight, it just made her antsy, made her skin itch with worry. She wanted to get going before the rain hit, get back into the tunnels outside of town and on her way to safety.

She eyed the village, its dark buildings silhouetted by pooling light from streetlamps. Her Source should’ve been here by now, and in her experience these things had to move fast. Too long standing in some farmer’s orchard—even in the middle of the night—only resulted in you getting caught and some poor child getting dead.

Maybe I should just go. She tried to rub the night chill from her arms, gave up, resisted the urge to pace and settled for fiddling with the strap of her pack. It was special made, heavy leather lined with silk and spells all meant to keep her safe from the cargo she’d pick up tonight. She didn’t bother glancing at it. She knew how stained it had become over the years, blackened by a hundred and more such journeys. It was getting so she couldn’t hide the stains anymore, and she knew the spells laid into it were beginning to fade. She could feel them, a rustle and buzz in the back of her head. That scared her more than anything—she hadn’t always been able to hear them. A few more runs like tonight and a contact would report her, get her safely retired across the border. It wasn’t safe, carrying too much for too long. It got to you, eventually. And when it did, it was best not to be on this side of things. So you saved who you could any way you could, then got yourself out before the border guards could read you full. Tiba was pretty sure it was starting to get to her.

She forced her thoughts away from that eventuality, bringing herself back to the dark night, the cold wind, and the approaching storm. Much as she burned to leave, she kept thinking of that child and how they’d die if she did—cut up to bits on a surgeon’s table while they tried to figure out what made the poor thing tick. So she stayed, eyes steady on the village even while her mind raced ahead. An hour or so walk east of town to the old, unused section of mines, hopefully beating the moonrise. Then it was four days walk through winding tunnels, traveling through the places where man-made and natural caves kissed, passing beneath town after town until she was just a day from the border. She’d wait for a contact there, and they’d take the package on to safety.

She missed her tunnels, though she figured most folks wouldn’t understand that. But she’d been walking them for almost fifteen years now, and she knew them better than her own skin. Those tunnels were the one thing that let her be the most successful runner on record.

For just an instant, the lamps caught two figures in their yellow light: a tall, lean man, his face lost in the shadows of a brimmed hat, and a young woman in a full blue dress, pale hair loose like a child’s. Then just as quick they were transformed into dark silhouettes, lost against the darkness of the buildings. Tiba narrowed her eyes, watching as the two shadows angled toward the edge of town and the road leading to the orchard. Her Source had finally arrived.

They weren’t quiet, though they were trying to be. Even at a distance, Tiba could soon hear the heavy whispering of skirts and underskirts and the sharp clipping sound of shoes on the cobblestone road. The low murmur of a man’s voice hovered low in the night air. If the girl spoke, it was too soft for Tiba to hear.

By the time they reached the orchard fence, they’d resolved into more than shadows. Tiba could make out the man’s face, etched with the first lines of age. He came at a hurry now, half dragging his daughter down the road. Her skirts kept tangling around her legs as she tried to keep up, turning her run into a series of trips and stumbles. They paused, the girl straightening up and smoothing the fabric down, the man glancing around before unlatching the gate and swinging it open. Weathered metal screamed in protest and the two froze like startled deer before the man once again grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, leaving the gate standing open behind them.

Tiba watched them come, the way his head swung about as he glanced warily back toward the village and peered between trees. When he was near enough, Tiba stepped forward. The man jumped, briefly shoving his daughter behind him and making the poor girl squeak in surprise. Tiba’s irritation flared, then just as quickly faded. The man must be terrified.

“It’s all right,” she said, pitching her voice low. “Leth told you about me.” She didn’t offer a name, only stood there with her hands out and empty, waiting for him to react.

A few heartbeats later, his shoulders finally dropped, all the tension fleeing on one heavy sigh. “Oh, thank god.” He tugged his daughter out from behind his back, took her by both shoulders, and held her before him.

She was young, Tiba realized. Maybe only nine. Younger than most Sources she’d pulled empty. But it came on people different ways and different days, Gran had always said. Showing her surprise would only make these folk worry, so she smiled a little down at the girl, taking in the way her white-knuckled fists gripped at her blue skirts, the way her lips pressed thin, the way that even trembling and scared, she met Tiba’s eyes straight on.

“This is my daughter. Please, fix her.”

Tiba kept that smile firmly in place, though it felt a bit more strained now. He’s scared, she repeated to herself. Just wants her safe. “Of course,” she said between her teeth. Then she turned away before the smile could crack and fall away, leading them back into the orchard until the lights of town were little more than stars shining in at odd angles between dancing leaves. The storm was coming up fast.

There was a small tool shed here, and a chopping stump beside. Tiba leaned over, quickly dusting the little curls and chips of wood away, then motioned the girl over. “Sit her down for me please.”

Neither moved.

Tiba was about to step forward and push the girl down herself when the child spoke.

“Father says they’ll want to kill me. The Law.” Her eyes were fixed on the bare dirt in front of her, though Tiba knew that wasn’t what she was seeing. “Is that true?”

Tiba knelt down in front of her, plucking the girl’s small fists away from worried skirts and holding them in her own hands. “Your pa tells you right. They’d kill you if they knew what you’ve got in you—and they’ll kill you after, if they ever learn what I took. You can’t ever say a word.” She felt the girl begin to shiver, her fists trembling in the curl of Tiba’s palms. “I know that’s scary as anything you’ve ever known, child, I do. But I can promise you, as long as you and your pa never speak a word, nobody will ever know. There’ll be no sign on you, nothing to give it away. It’ll be the worst, most dangerous secret, but it’ll be a secret.”

“If we don’t… do this? What if I hide it?”

Tiba saw the man twitch at this, felt his distaste at the idea. After all, they were here to fix his daughter. He didn’t like thinking of this thing as a part of the girl, as something that’d leave scar inside once it got pulled out. She wondered if he’d let the Law take his daughter if there were no fix, if the only other choice were running for the border. Not for the first time, Tiba was glad she wouldn’t have to find out. It was just about impossible, getting a person across the border illegally.

“You and your pa won’t be able to hide what’s in you much longer. That’s just not the way it works.”

“And… will it hurt?”

“Like the devil,” Tiba answered, not even flinching. She wouldn’t lie, not to a Source.

The girl watched her for a long minute until her hands went still in Tiba’s grasp. Finally she pulled her hands away and sat, nervously smoothing her skirts again. “I guess I’m ready.”

Tiba swung her pack down beside her and opened one of the outer pockets. She pulled out a red stone, hardly more than a large pebble, oblong and pierced at one end. A red string looped through it, matching the stone’s color perfectly in the dark. She let it drop, swinging for a moment at the end of its string, rocking back and forth between them. Then its swing changed, tugging toward the girl like gravity had somehow just shifted.

“I need you to swallow this.” Tiba held the stone out, edging closer to the girl so it seemed to float above her lap. She lifted her hands, caught up the stone, closed her eyes and shoved it into her mouth. Tiba let out a little slack on the string, but kept a grip on the end as the girl swallowed it down.

When the girl nodded, Tiba tied the string to a little loop necklace she wore and turned to her pack one more time, this time digging out eight gold rings. She slipped them on one by one, whispering the words she’d been taught so long ago. The words, like her bag, seemed to carry extra weight these days, strengthening the low hum in the back of her head. Then, with one last deep breath, Tiba leaned in and hit the girl’s hand as hard as she could. The child jerked away, coughing around the string in surprise. Her father stepped forward, but Tiba glared him back.

“This is where it starts hurting.” She turned back to the child and began to beat her in earnest. She moved up the girl’s arms, one by one, all the way to her shoulders. Then up her legs, from toes to hips. Then top of the head down, slowly pulling all the currents of her hands together over the girl’s stomach and the place where the little red stone would sit. Alternating palm and back of hand, she worked at the girl’s belly like a ball of dough, beating it down. When the girl’s soft whimpering started, she ignored it and began again.

The girl’s father turned away, pulling the hat from his head and worrying at the brim.

By the third time through, the girl was going pale under the red of her beaten skin and the whimpers turned to crying. When Tiba slapped her face, her hands came away wet. On the fifth pass, the girl began to shake. Tiba didn’t pause as she called the girl’s father over, didn’t break concentration as she ordered him to hold her down.

“Tighter,” she said on the sixth pass, as the girl’s shakes strengthened, making it harder for Tiba’s blows to land right.

On the eighth pass, the child’s shaking became violent. Her head cracked back into her father’s chin, and they both tumbled down from the log. Tiba followed, not even waiting for the father to crawl out from under the girl. She kept beating her, starting a ninth pass and finally concentrating entirely on the girl’s torso until the child went suddenly still.

“You’ve killed her.” The man’s voice was soft and dangerous as he pulled himself free.

“No. You asked me to pull a part of her out, and that’s not an easy thing, but it’s all I’ve done.” Tiba stood up, untied the string from her necklace, and began to pull. The girl coughed and choked as the string came up, thick with black tar down its whole length. Her mouth gaped wide and all sound stopped as the stone came free at last. It hung like a dark moon at the end of it all, looking too large to have come out of the poor child.

Tiba held her breath and stepped back, watching the pendant swing a bit, watching for a hint that it might still be pulling toward the girl. But it hung straight, and Tiba let out her breath. “She’s safe now. Take her home.”

The man eyed the awful tar hanging from Tiba’s hand and didn’t say a word. He just nodded, turned away, and scooped his daughter up into his arms. The child groaned and shied away from his touch.

“Don’t let her go out until the bruising goes down. Just tell folks she’s sick, if they ask.”

He didn’t look back at her, though Tiba caught his slow nod. Then he walked back through the trees without so much as a thank you.

Tiba held the string and stone as far from her as she could and leaned over to fish a pair of heavy leather gloves—metalworker’s gloves—from her pack. She slid them on one by one, flexing her fingers inside. She slowly peeled the tar away, pulling it from the string and rolling it up into a ball bigger than both her fists together. Finally she dumped the whole thing into the leather sack and peeled off her gloves, tucking them in another pocket along with the pendant. Then she leaned back and took a long, shaking breath. The girl had been strong. She didn’t think she’d ever had to do nine passes before. Eight once, a few years back, and she’d heard more and more runners having to do seven, but never more. More than anything, Tiba wanted to lean back against the stump behind her and rest. Just close her eyes and rest her aching hands. The girl was safe.

But the magic isn’t, Tiba reminded herself, glancing at the pack and remembering what it held. The magic won’t be safe until it’s across the border. Tiba forced herself up, shouldered her pack, and started walking just as the first drops of rain began to fall. Time to get back to the tunnels. A contact would be waiting for her on the far end soon, wondering why she was late. Unlike Tiba, they might not wait. So she sped up her steps, trying to ignore the warm weight of her pack and the musty smell of it, the way the magic inside curled around her spine and slowly nibbled at the buzzing spells.

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Kate Lansky has done a lot of things in her life, but writing is the only one that seems to stick. She currently lives in Chicago, IL with a small menagerie of beasts, a husband, and a son. Who might as well count toward the menagerie too. Email: Katelansky[at]gmail.com

Nights and Wishes

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Cheryl Clark


headless mannequins
Photo Credit: James Butler

The circle of yellow light framed its headless performer, but she stood silent.

They always were. He liked the ones in the bridal shop window even after they switched to this headless, modern model. Their costumes were flashy or elegant, take-your-breath-away special, suitable for the stage. But though he could imagine himself in the front row of the concert during the long, lonely hours of his shift, he was destined to be forever just after the performance. Mike stood watching the mannequin in her spotlight, picturing her bow and summoning the impression of applause. He smiled, considered joining in the cheers and clapping, then thought better of it.

“Goofball,” he declared. “Can’t clap with a flashlight in your hand.” He laughed quietly and waved the beam in playful circles. “Wooo! Back up singers, too.” He lit on a trio of aquamarine bridesmaids that shimmered in the moving light as if they were dancing.

His watch beeped sharply once, and the concert was over. Mike sighed.

“Another couple of months of this and they’ll have to carry me out of here in a long-sleeved coat. Bad enough I’m talking to myself.” He instinctively grabbed the card dangling from a lanyard around his neck and turned toward Check Point One. Tennis shoes squeaked against the tiles as he walked. During the day, the mall was packed with shoppers. Guys who got the day shift never had to listen to their squeaky shoes. They never had to stage mannequin concerts to keep from dozing off. There were shoplifters and fights and teenage pranks to police. How long did you have to work the night shift before you’d paid your dues? One year? Two? Maybe it was just until you cracked, and if you could still knock some heads together after that, they moved you to days. God knows the mall security guards he remembered from his teen years were all a little off. Maybe that was how they got that way. Or maybe, he thought, they didn’t let you out of this trap until you found someone to take your place.

He sidled up to Check Point One and ran his badge through the slot. Red to green.

“Tick,” he said along with the unit, then spun on his heel and strode toward the next. His flashlight beam ran merrily ahead. When he first started a couple months ago, he tried to keep himself occupied by imagining attack scenarios on the route of his rounds. Every hiding place held a thief, a ninja, or some variety of skittering, snarling demon thing waiting to lunge out with claws or swords or whatever. Planning his counter to each foe kept him on his toes, but it also started to freak him out a little. He almost wet himself when a poorly balanced display fell one night as he came past the sporting goods outlet. Now he just tried to keep his mind on meaningless trivia, philosophical puzzles, and random daydreams. Then again, could you call them daydreams on the night shift? He decided you could at about the same moment he ran the card through Check Point Two.

Another rapid direction change aimed his track across the central plaza and toward the food court at the far end of the building. He always sharpened his focus for this leg, trying to determine how early he could hear the bubbling of the fountain at the heart of the structure. They switched it to low at night to save energy, but kept it rippling just enough to retard the growth of mold or disease or whatever plagued mall fountains. He was no expert, but he had noticed the newer malls rarely had them anymore, and that was probably due to some public health concern that might be bad for their insurance rates. Maybe there were too many walking texters drowned in them these days. He picked up the faint sound of moving water as he was passing the cell phone kiosk. That was pretty much the same every night. Really, how could you expect something different when the variables weren’t inclined to change much? The only thing that might affect it would be an ear infection or a mishap with radioactive waste that granted him mutant hearing powers.

In a flash, he assumed a comic book pose of vigilance. “What’s that I hear?” He cupped his ear. “Someone has thrown a rare golden doubloon in the fountain and wished to rule the world. With my super hearing, I shall detect its precise location and stop this mad plot by… Oh, screw it. A wish is a wish. We’re all doomed.” He glanced into the rippling pool as he glided past. No doubloons. Must have been hearing things. Mike continued on down the long hall that led to the food court, his flashlight beam bouncing now like a blind man’s cane.

Check Point Three clicked over to green, and he made for the table where he had left his Thermos and sandwich when he arrived. He’d learned to ration the coffee to avoid drinking it all out of boredom within the first couple of hours. Nothing made you jumpy like a pot worth of caffeine and a long night of shadows ahead of you. Mike poured a cup as a reward after each of the scheduled rounds. This time, he poured it to the brim of the lid and watched the glimmer of the black surface under the dim light. A deep, rich scent flowed outward from his personal reflecting pool. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, and he sprang into action.

Taking a deep sip from the cup first, he swept it up from the table and marched back toward the plaza with its gurgling fountain. He had an hour to kill before he’d have to make the rounds again, and the collection of wishes in the shallow water could use counting and categorizing. He set his cup on the chipped faux marble that surrounded the pool and dipped a hand into the cold liquid. It felt a little thicker than water should be and a little slipperier, but Mike forced himself not to think about what additives the mall maintenance crew might have spiked it with. It couldn’t be too toxic if they let the general public close enough during the day to toss their pennies in and wish. He came up with a handful of dripping change and shook it as dry as he could before setting it on the ledge. Pennies mostly. Small change for small wishes: little things like cool new shoes, or passing tests, or catching a cute girl’s eye. Nickels and quarters were for bigger jobs: true love, fame, and fortune. He separated the varieties, naming off new wishes for each. Still no doubloons. When he finished sorting, he reached for a second handful. With his hand immersed, he startled as something grabbed his wrist. He jerked, flinging jewels of water through the air and tumbling back to bruise his tailbone on the floor.

“Son of a—” he gasped, never taking his widened eyes from the fountain.

“A wish is a wish,” came a voice behind him, soft and feminine but with a resentful edge.

He spun on his bruise and looked up into the darkness.

Her skin was green and glistening but oddly insubstantial. Mike could see straight through her like rain on a windowpane. She had the same sort of coursing flow running down from the crown of her head to the puddle at her feet. It was really just the idea of a puddle, he reasoned in the bizarre calm that hid beneath a good panic. That steady flow would have made a lake before long if it had been real. Clothing was unlikely, but the figure was so indistinct that it was difficult to tell. She made no outwardly threatening moves. Instead, this mysterious watery spirit loomed unnervingly close over him as if waiting for his response before she would descend on him.

A flurry of feet propelled the guard backward until he hit the fountain edge. Then, remembering the contact there, he scrambled on a tangent somewhere between the two threats. When the lady didn’t follow, Mike tried to speak.

“Go away,” he mouthed voicelessly, and as her eyes shifted accusingly to him, he added, “please.”

The phantasm trickled closer to the fountain edge, staring at the coins laid out on the tile. Mike raised himself on trembling legs.

“Do you know what it is to be a slave to the magic of the well?” The question swirled through the still air, and Mike felt the chill as it flowed past. “Every wish tugs on your essence, siphons a bit more of you away to serve the whims of those who know nothing, nothing of the drain. Water was meant to run.” The figure melted to the level of the ledge, resting as Mike had done when he fished out the coins. One transparent hand rippled over the stacks of metal.

There was a rush like an ocean in Mike’s ears that might have been the spirit’s doing, or else it was the effect of his own frozen heart.

“What do you want?” he asked finally in a tiny voice. The wells of her eyes flooded him with a deep and inexplicable sadness. He swallowed and looked at his shoes.

“Freedom,” she said quietly.

A slow, lonely drip made its way from ledge to floor.

“Who’s keeping you?” Mike found the courage to ask, compassion overtaking his fear.

Again, the accusing presence veiled the sorrow like ice creeping over the edges of a pond. “Wherever men believe, wherever water is drawn and ritual is performed, a spirit flows in and is bound. I am not free until the wish frees me. I am bound and enclosed in stone for all time.” She looked up toward the darkness at the height of the ceiling. A skylight lurked above, but in the absence of a moon, the window might have been obsidian.

“A wish would free you?” Mike shrugged, “Just a simple wish for your freedom? How hard could that be?”

The spirit looked at him like he was six years old. “Just a choice,” she clarified, “Just a choice between your own desires and another’s—whether your own pain is more important.”

Now he felt the heat rising as he turned the matter over in his mind. Struggles were everywhere. We all had trouble; we all had things we wanted. Would anyone truly choose their wish if they knew it was at the expense of someone else? The conclusion he uncovered was a sad reality.

“I’m making that choice,” he declared. “I’m wishing for your freedom right now.”

“And what of the ones who come after?” the fountain asked. “When I am free, another will be bound.”

Mike thought a moment, considering the bars of his own night-shift prison. An endless stream of spirits to rescue was a huge commitment. He could save his wishes to make his lot more tolerable. At the least, he could spend his nights conversing with this spirit so that each would be less alone. There was really only one choice.

“I’ll free them, too,” he replied. “We’ll make a path to freedom, an underground railroad, a river of fountain spirits flowing out into the world.”

“You would be robbing your people of wishes,” the spirit argued, but the ice was melting in her eyes and rolling over the flow of her cheeks.

The stacks of coins on the ledge seemed suddenly so small. “Let them make their own magic,” he suggested. “Most of them don’t even really believe anyway.”

With that, Mike dug into his pocket, seeking the biggest coin he could find. He wasn’t sure a quarter was big enough for a critical wish, but it was the biggest he had. It gleamed as he flipped it toward the pool.

“I wish I could take you from this fountain and make you free,” he pronounced.

Immediately, the spirit began to turn. The smile that was spreading across her lips blurred as she picked up speed, whirling into a waterspout and rising up before draining seamlessly into his coffee cup. The silence was thick now and heavy, not hollow as it had been before his encounter. There was no splash, no displacement of liquid one might have expected as a full-sized woman went into a cup of coffee. All was still, and only the glistening dampness around the fountain told the story that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Mike approached cautiously and peered into the cup, half-expecting a face to be peering back. There was nothing.

He lifted the cup carefully and carried it slowly, step by step, back to the food court. His flashlight was left back at the fountain, poking its cockeyed beam at the wall from where it had been dropped. The light from soda fountains and signs was sufficient to see by as he poured the remainder of his Thermos down the drinking fountain drain. The cup he poured, as gingerly as possible, into the emptied container. He screwed the lid back on reverently. Come morning, he’d be able to smuggle the spirit out and pour her into a little stream in the park near his apartment.

“Gotta go clean up the spill by the fountain,” he told the Thermos and walked away toward the maintenance closet where he could find a mop.

Old Mike was a little off, they all said. He insisted on the night shift, had the run of the mall while the world slept. For thirty-seven years. Every evening, he’d show up with his sandwich, Thermos, and flashlight. Every morning, he’d leave with the same, minus the sandwich. Rumor had it, he talked to the mannequins and the fountain, but he made all the Check Points on his rounds, and he never called in sick. If you got the inkling to ask about his dedication, all he would say was that people depended on him.

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Cheryl Clark wrote an unpublished collaborative fantasy novel with her husband John Reed Clark. Afterward, they took their multiple perspective concept and broadened it into a series of short stories for their website. Cheryl works in a medium-sized library in Northern Illinois where her kindergarten lessons in sharing are put to good use. Email: Cielle_9[at]yahoo.com

Leaving

Baker’s Pick
Cheryl Diane Kidder


Feet in the light and shadows
Photo Credit: Silver Starre

The sun came in sharply against the heavy curtains of Ramada room 615. It was a Thursday morning and the maids weren’t quite up and about yet. There were only a few guests during the week so the maids took their time pulling out the clean sheets, folding them, pulling out the clean towels, folding and putting them into neat white stacks on their carts. The couple in room 615 hadn’t slept all night. But they’d never left the bed.

“What time is it?” He had never stopped watching her.

“Ten, ten-thirty, I’m not sure.” She leaned up on one elbow, “You need to get going?”

He turned toward her and grunted no and pulled her closer. He let the smell of her skin envelope him, pulled the sheet around them in a protective gesture.

“When do you need to go?” she asked him, speaking softly, watching his closed eyes. She wanted him to tell her he would never leave.

He didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to leave. “Sometime,” he said quietly. There was nothing in the room but the two of them, no day outside, no night passed.

She lay back down. Their pillows were overlapping. The sheets were tangled. The bedspread was somewhere on the floor. She had no idea where any of her clothes were.

“Where are the kids?” She didn’t want to know but thought they might be on his mind.

“With the sitter.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. She’d closed her eyes by then, only imagining his face next to her. “Are you hungry?” he asked her.

She opened her eyes. “Kinda.” She smiled at him. “You?”

“To eat I’d have to get out of bed.” He closed his eyes again. There was a heat in the room, under the sheet. He hooked his leg around hers, their ankles entwined.

“What do you have to do today?” she asked him, smiling at the motion of his hips on her, answering back, meeting him under the sheet.

“Work, always work. Go home, then work again.” He made a face at the thought.

“Work is so bad?” She laid one hand on his arm, encouraging him.

“We get a lot of jerks. You just have to deal with people all day long.”

“You need a desk job.”

“I’m not cut out for a desk job.” He let her lead him.

“Have you ever tried it?” She gently nudged his arm onto her hip.

“I couldn’t be cooped up for eight hours. It would drive me nuts.”

“I’d hate to be on my feet for eight hours,” she told him. There was a pause. She listened to his breathing. Her head was just below his shoulder. If she blinked now, her lashes would brush his chest. She wanted to always stay within the sound of his heart beating.

They were like statues in the bed. They were like children in the bed.

“What will she be doing?” she whispered into his chest, not sure he would hear her.

“I really don’t know.” He opened his eyes.

She looked away.

“Do you want me to find out?”

She laughed, “No.” Her breath made a warm spot on his chest and he moved against her.

“Because I will if you want me to.”

“No, no. Not at all.”

He pulled back from her and looked at her. “She’ll wonder where I was last night. And this morning. She won’t ask, but she’ll wonder about it.”

“She won’t talk to you about it?” Her hands had gone silent.

“We don’t talk.”

“Never?”

“Never.” He thought about it. “Only about the kids.” He closed his eyes again and put his hands back on her. “What will you do today?”

“No work.”

“No work for you.” He grabbed her ass and pushed into her ever so slightly.

“No work for me. I’ll be bored. I’ll wonder when you get out of work. I’ll wonder what you’re doing, I’ll wonder who you’re talking to, who you’re seeing, if you’re laughing, if you’re sad.”

“I won’t be happy, much,” he said, rocking forward and back, stroking her back.

“I will be happy for a little while. After I leave here I will be very happy. I will forget everything except that I was here. This will be my only reality.”

He stopped rocking, left his hand paused over her back and looked at her. “This is my only reality.”

She can hear the maids outside their room speaking in Spanish but she knows she’s put the “Do Not Disturb” sign out so they won’t knock at the door. The heavy drapes are keeping the light out of the room and the A/C purrs quietly. The room is shadows around them.

“What time is it now?” he asks her, his hands moving across her back, down to her ass again, pulling her closer.

“About noon I’d guess.” She groaned a little, not sure what he wanted, not caring.

“I should get going.”

She opened her legs one last time. He pulled her on top of him, her hair in his face.

He won’t close his eyes any more. He’s getting ready to leave. He hasn’t moved a muscle but she knows he’s getting ready in his head to leave. He’s thinking about where he left his jeans and that his shoes might be in the bathroom. He won’t look at the wine glasses on the table when he picks up his keys to go, but she will sit up in bed a little just to watch him get ready. He won’t look at her again until he’s completely dressed, keys in hand, shoes tied, jacket on. Then he’ll sit on the edge of the bed and take her hand. The room will still be in unnatural shadows around them even though it’s no longer morning.

It was noon and nothing had been decided.

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Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: CutThroat Magazine, Weber—The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Able Muse, decomP Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. For a full listing see: Truewest. Email: chekid[at]hotmail.com

Threshold

Billiard’s Pick
Cindy Clarke


Packing
Photo Credit: Ryan Hyde

The night stretches in a long line of laundry and packed boxes
with dogs by the back door, panting for rain.

This is not a house by the sea.
I am grateful to feel him near.

Uncomfortable in this body,
even warm air triggers distance.

Sleep stalks the edge of wakefulness.
I crave breezes winding through rooms.

Out walking, I stare into the windows of other houses.
Every life displays a different configuration.

Nothing sounds right. I fit nowhere,
a cup of coffee in my hand.

Against the pull of sleep, words
bicker in the corner.

This is not the end of a hall, but
a doorway into a brighter room.

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Cindy Clarke lives and works in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She has had poetry published in several journals including Freefall, Ottawa Arts Review, and The Antigonish Review. Cindy recently completed an apprenticeship in the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild Mentorship program. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Email: cindy.clarke[at]spiritsd.ca

With Accompaniment by

Creative Nonfiction
HC Hsu


pay no attention to the blues singer in the rear
Photo Credit: Mary/goldsardine

A few days ago I saw a video online; it was Mai Yamane singing “Amazing Grace.” The place was probably somewhere in Tokyo, Japan, in what looked like a bar or pub. The ‘stage’ was a black piano, a mic, and in the background pieces of semi-transparent, khaki-colored curtains were put up over a large glass window. There were drawings on the curtains, big, cactus-shaped symbols dyed in black. Some odd decorations hung on the walls, in addition to two black floor speakers that stood on either side of the piano, like two people looming ominously over in the shadows, resembling okami parade puppets, or stage guards. The curtains didn’t cover the window completely, plus they were sheer: flitting slits and hazy patches of the street outside could be seen. There were lights outside, but it was unclear whether it’s day or night. The interior was lit in a soft, sandalwood yellow glow.

I think most people know Mai Yamane from Cowboy Bebop. She sang the theme song to the show. There she was very ‘rock,’ the low, sticky, somewhat hoary voice, belting against waves of electric guitar, like a swimmer struggling against the currents of the ocean, sinking into and breaking out of the undulating surface of the water, spitting salt water back out. She was singing in English. Here, though it was the famous English folk song “Amazing Grace,” she was singing it in Japanese.

I don’t know who recorded, and thought to upload, the performance online, or why. This is the paradox of the internet: anyone can post anything for any reason, without anyone else’s approval, and have it be seen by anyone else, anywhere. Whatever it is, if it has enough significance for you, you can ‘publish’ it, put it out in the world, without depending on someone else’s judgment, but at the same time, you put it out there, because you want someone else to see it. Most of the time it’s ‘supply’ without ‘demand.’ Thus the internet is chock-full of ‘significance,’ ‘open secrets,’ seemingly trite, trivial, meaningless things, that contain a significance, hidden from everyone, except for the one person, in the one place and time, for a reason. And just sometimes, someone else, may be able to see it too.

Mai Yamane was playing the piano, singing “Amazing Grace,” her voice low, tranquil, gentle, the piano trudging along next to her, aged and calm, simply and repetitively, chord after chord. Compared to her usual rock style, this was more jazz-like. Bright, clear, a little lackadaisical. In the background, just on the other side of the glass pane, there were peeks of cars passing by, people walking by. Very close, just a few inches from the stage, right outside. The people outside were completely oblivious to the performer inside, and the performer inside was completely oblivious to the people outside. People kept walking past, and the musician kept singing. But because they didn’t have anything to do with each other, because they weren’t aware of each other, a curious relationship was formed, and one became the perfect backdrop for the other.

It reminded me of bars, when people would talk, drink, laugh, smoke, and amidst all this dingy brawl, a musician would just quietly walk onto the stage, and begin playing. People wouldn’t stop talking, but the musician keeps playing, the music at times floating over, at times mixing into the clinking of glasses, the shuffling of footsteps, murmurs, peals of laughter, the chairs dragging across hard concrete floors, the strands of light, the glimmers of smoke. Chaotic, yet at peace. Maybe some musicians don’t like it, but I like that kind of atmosphere. It’s not a concert, with a performer and an audience; neither one is serving the other. You can’t say the musician is simply marching to the beat of his own drum, tuning out and without regard for anyone but himself; if that were the case, he would be playing just inside his own apartment or bathroom. By putting himself in public, he reveals in himself some desire to perform. To be seen. To be acknowledged. And sometimes, someone would turn his head, as if caught by a hook, by a fragment of a melody, and stop talking, or doing something else—and look up, and listen. Perhaps something deep in the recesses of his memory, in the things buried, left on their own, or that otherwise no longer register beneath the sediments of time—perhaps something in there has been momentarily, somehow, stirred up, just slightly, by the tiniest inflection in an estranged voice—and he looks up. For only a moment. At the blurry, yet unusually brilliant, dreamlike sun rippling above the green, silk-lined abyss. Then the din floods back in, and he sinks, and looks back down again.

A couple of years ago the violinist Joshua Bell took part in an experiment devised by The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, disguised himself, and played the violin in a subway station in Washington, DC, where he had performed a concert the night before, to see whether anyone would stop to listen to, or even recognize, him. A secret camera was installed. Of course, over a thousand people in the subway passed by him, and only one recognized him—and she had attended his concert the night before. Afterward Weingarten wrote a piece about it called “Pearls Before Breakfast,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Then the hidden video was posted on YouTube.

I personally think the video is very beautiful. In time-lapse, hundreds, thousands of people, passing through, brushing past one another, coming and going, each in their own separate world, following their own story, carrying on in their daily lives. Yet somehow there is a unity. Only Joshua Bell, in a black baseball cap, stands in place, like a mendicant monk, the lone crag in an ‘ocean of people.’ To me, the image has a feeling of vastness, of ‘cosmic-ness,’ of almost ‘karmic-ness.’ I wonder whether this was something like what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara saw when she looked down from Mount Potalaka. Can she hear it, too?

People lament that no one stopped to listen. Rather, I think it’s more poignant this way, and speaks more to humanity, than if a crowd had gathered around to watch the performance. Perhaps some people did listen, but they didn’t want to make a gesture, and disturb the flow, or, disturb the performer. In any case, I don’t think Joshua Bell was playing for everyone. He was playing for the one who recognized him.

Perhaps, that should be enough.

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HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, May 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, First Place Winner of A Midsummer Tale 2013, Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, and The Best American Essays 2014 Nominee, he has written for Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, Louffa Press, China Daily News, Liberty Times, Epoch Times, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland, where he is completing a commissioned translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s biography. Email: khsuhc[at]gmail.com

Breakers

Fiction
Ralph Uttaro


Gulf Stream Park
Photo Credit: Lisa Jacobs

David Morrow stood alone on the beach. He stared out toward the horizon, an invisible point he knew existed somewhere off in the dark. He watched the faint white lines of foam at the crest of the waves, lines that widened and grew more luminous as the waves rolled closer. The breakers were relentless, pounding in his ears as they crashed against the shore. The beach was cool on his bare feet. He sat and tiny grains of sand filtered through the thin fabric of his seersucker shorts, collecting in gritty patches on his haunches.

He looked up at the red flags flapping in the wind, posted to warn that the water was closed to swimmers. The flags were attached to a white sign with tilted bold black letters on top that read: Break the Grip of the Rip. The sign gave simple, concise instructions on how to escape a rip tide. It meant nothing to David. He had never learned how to swim growing up in Manhattan.

David wasn’t an impulsive man but he had decided just the previous night to buy a ticket to West Palm Beach. He had flown in from LaGuardia that morning. His apartment had begun to feel empty and claustrophobic all at the same time. He was tired of the intrusions, the widows and divorcees in the building dropping off casseroles, pans of lasagna, pots of chicken soup. There was a naked hunger in their eyes.

He hadn’t told a soul he was leaving. Who was there to tell anyway? His son Steven lived in L.A. and communicated only sporadically, usually by text. David had a network of former business colleagues and casual acquaintances, but no one he was truly close to. Maureen had always been the constant in his life. He hadn’t really needed much else. He had been happy among his books, his classical music collection, his online chess matches.

*

David had been hungry when he checked in shortly after three. His room was on the concierge level and included a complimentary afternoon tea. It was September, the hotel was quiet, only one guest examining the finger sandwiches, cut vegetables, and cranberry scones arrayed on the round banquet table. She was a tall, frail woman, probably in her late seventies. She wore a powder blue pant suit with flat white loafers. A double strand of pearls was wrapped around her neck. Oversized Chanel sunglasses covered half her face.

“Everything they make here is spicy,” she said, closing one of the chafing dishes with disdain.

“Really?” David smiled.

She lifted a tumbler of scotch toward her lips, her two trembling hands steadying the glass as she sipped loudly.

“It might not be spicy to you but I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. Anything spicy affects me.”

“Oh.” David slowly circled the table, examining the offerings, trying to discourage the conversation without appearing rude.

“Just get in?”

“Yes.”

“You with a convention?”

“No, no. I came down alone. Just want to be by myself for a bit.”

She looked David up and down, screwing up her lips. “Well, we all have our idiosyncrasies.”

David could picture Maureen rolling her eyes. They would have had a good laugh about it later. The Breakers had been a special place for them. They had spent their honeymoon here, had come back often after that, usually in April near their anniversary. The last time had been two years earlier, to celebrate David’s retirement from his law partnership. Maureen had gotten sick three months later. It had been eleven weeks since he buried her.

A middle-aged couple entered the room. The old woman accosted them. “Forget about it. Everything they make is spicy. I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. I can’t eat spice.”

David took the opportunity to slip away. At least Maureen would be spared the indignity of old age.

David walked outside to the small tiki bar at the edge of the beach. He ordered a banana daiquiri from the pretty blonde bartender. Angela, read the silver nametag on her bright yellow polo shirt. She was tall and big-boned in a way that wasn’t unattractive, sturdy athletic calves extending down under her long khaki shorts. Her shoulder-length hair curled around her face in the wind, her teeth were big and a brilliant shade of white when she smiled at him. David found himself straightening his back, puffing out his chest a little. Then he realized how pathetic that was. David went to the gym at least four times a week—weight training, cardio, even some yoga. He still had a full head of hair that was not yet completely grey. But he was old enough to be the girl’s father, maybe even her grandfather.

Even if she were closer to his age, David was sure he wouldn’t know what to do. He had never been good at opening lines. It was Maureen who had made the first move back at Oberlin. He had watched her quietly from across the room during history class, inconspicuously he thought. She had flaming red hair, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose, vibrant green eyes. Her voice had a slight Indiana twang but her comments in class were always thoughtful, well-reasoned. He admired that. She was witty too, relaxed and outgoing in a way that he could never be. One day she walked up to him after class and asked if he wanted to buy her a cup of coffee.

David had chosen Oberlin for its academic reputation and its beautiful campus but mostly because it was in Ohio, hundreds of miles from New York. Hundreds of miles from his parents. His father was a partner at Solomon Brothers, his mother sat on the boards of three art museums. They were formal, fastidious people. They had high expectations for David.

“I had lunch with Ed Sherman today,” David overheard his father say one night. “Randy was accepted at Princeton.”

David heard his mother gasp. “Are you sure we shouldn’t have steered David more toward one of the Ivies?”

“Oberlin’s a fine school. He’ll be ok. But it does make you wonder.”

“Isn’t Ed a Princeton alum?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Does he donate?”

“No doubt he does.”

“And Ed and Marge are coming to our party next Saturday. Marge will be insufferable.”

David’s parents threw lavish dinner parties in their Lexington Avenue apartment. His mother would review the guest list with his father, would carefully construct the menu, would agonize over the seating arrangements. Rosa, a domestic they retained part-time, would be brought in for the evening. When he was younger, David would be sent to spend the night with his maternal grandparents who lived a few blocks away. His mother would describe their stately brownstone on Seventy-Eighth Street to her friends as dark, threadbare, outdated. David thought of it as a safe haven.

David’s grandfather loved chess and had achieved the rank of master. He patiently taught David the basic moves when he was four or five. He had a long ruddy face and pale blue eyes that were perpetually bloodshot and smiling. By the time David was ten, his grandfather would let him tag along when he went down to the West Village to find a match in one of the storefront chess parlors that were prevalent at the time. Soon he began lining up matches for David, carefully picking opponents who would challenge but not overwhelm him. He would sit to the side and silently watch every move. They would stop for something to eat on the way home; their favorite spot was a diner on Sixth Avenue near West Seventh Street. David would order a milk shake and a BLT while his grandfather would sip coffee and recap the match. He would patiently point out alternative strategies that David might have pursued, opportunities he missed. He would use salt and pepper shakers as queens and bishops and forks and spoons as pawns and rooks to illustrate his points. David was sixteen when his grandfather died. He went down to the Village on his own a few times after that to find a match but it was never the same.

David’s grandfather would have liked Maureen. His parents told him pointedly that he could do much better. They first met Maureen during his junior year on their annual trip to Oberlin for parents’ weekend. It was a visit David dreaded and one his parents treated like a mandatory social obligation. Maureen had a tendency to talk fast when she was nervous, to try to fill in every gap in a conversation. Her Midwestern accent would get more pronounced. David found it charming but when Maureen used the phrase “y’all” he saw his father cringe. When Maureen dropped her fork at dinner, David’s mother looked away remorsefully as it clattered to the floor.

“Your parents don’t like me,” Maureen said the day after they left. There was no bitterness in her voice; she stated it as a simple fact.

“They don’t have to. I like you.” David hesitated. He always chose his words carefully. “In fact, I love you.” It was the first time he had expressed this sentiment to anyone.

Maureen’s eyes widened, filled with tears. Then she smiled. “I love you too, David.”

Maureen moved to New York after graduation and took a job teaching third grade at a public school in Hell’s Kitchen. David enrolled at NYU Law School. They decided to live together before getting married. It was the seventies and such arrangements were not yet accepted on the Upper East Side.

“You’re going to be an attorney,” David’s father said when they announced their intentions. He spoke directly to David, ignoring Maureen who was sitting beside him on the sofa. “You can’t go off and live like two beatniks. I find the whole arrangement scandalous. If you proceed, you do so without my blessing.”

They rented a tiny fourth floor walk-up on the edge of the East Village. Maureen was intimidated by the city at first: the pace, the noise, the sour stench of the trash piling up on the sidewalks, the aggressiveness of the people. She adapted. They married almost two years later in a simple City Hall ceremony. There were no guests.

David got his degree and was hired on at Sullivan and Cromwell. He was assigned to the tax department. He found the work satisfying. The tax code was dense, complex, its language thickly nuanced. It took patience and rigorous logic to find the most unlikely connection, the tiniest opening that could be cleverly exploited. In that way, it was a lot like chess.

David became a leading expert in off-shore tax shelters. His aggressive, meticulously-crafted strategies saved his clients millions. He spoke at legal conferences in San Francisco, Palm Springs, Denver, Honolulu, even London when the ABA held its annual Tax Section meeting there. He might have been in a conference room in his Midtown office for all he saw of those places. It was the same windowless hotel ballrooms with their bland floral wall coverings and dim yellow lighting, the same flavorless food, the same banal small talk. He would pack a briefcase with work to do on the plane and in his hotel room to get his quota of billable hours in. It was good for business, helping him draw in clients and referrals from other law firms, but he hated being taken away from Maureen and Steven. He missed his normal routine.

David cherished the law. As a student, he read with awe the writings of John Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas and the other great legal minds. He marveled at how a few men on the Warren Court could forever change the course of history with their courageous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But the practice of law changed dramatically over the years. What he once considered an honorable and learned profession had become nothing more than a business, its reputation tarnished by the shrill tasteless television ads placed by ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyers. He suffered through partnership meetings devoted to slick presentations by advertising firms about the best strategies for marketing legal services. There were endless debates about the proper way to allocate profits between the rainmakers and the transactional lawyers. The rainmakers increasingly held sway, cutting lucrative deals with rival firms that coveted their client lists or using the threat of a defection to extort a bigger cut of the pie. Loyalty became a quaint, outmoded concept. By the time David turned sixty, he had had enough.

Angela picked up David’s empty glass and wiped down the counter in front of him.

“Doin’ ok over here?” She cocked her head to one side. David understood it as a rhetorical question. People didn’t really care how you were doing.

“Fine,” he said. It was the answer she was looking for. She seemed like a nice kid. He wouldn’t burden her with his story. He wouldn’t tell her how desperately quiet his apartment felt, how his social life consisted mainly of casual banter with the doorman and brief pleasantries exchanged with his neighbors on the elevator, how he had senselessly renewed Maureen’s subscription to Psychology Today just a week ago.

“Want another?”

“Sure. One more,” David answered.

David looked out from his barstool toward the water. A young mother and her son were bobbing up and down in the surf. They were laughing. The boy’s arms were wrapped tightly around the woman’s neck. A wave rolled in and they jumped to clear it, the boy screaming with delight. David remembered Maureen playing in the water with Steven while he sat on the beach under an umbrella. He would have a book open in his lap but mostly he sat and watched the two of them, waving if they looked his way.

Maureen had encouraged David to take swimming lessons after Steven was born. He signed up for private lessons at the Y with a polite young college student. He quit after the third lesson.

“Why?” Maureen asked.

“I’m afraid of the water. I panic every time my head goes under.”

“That’s what the lessons are for. Give it time.”

“You don’t understand. You’ve always known how to swim. It’s hard when you’re an adult. You can’t overcome the fear. It’s hard to explain. It’s humiliating too, splashing around in the shallow end with the instructor’s arm around your waist so you don’t sink.”

“No one is watching you. And if they are, so what?”

“At least I learned the dead man’s float.”

“See! There’s hope for you yet.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t give up. Think how much you’ll miss if you do.”

The mother and the young boy were running up onto the beach now, red-faced and breathless, their teeth chattering as they dried themselves with their towels in the sun. Maureen was right, he had given up on the lessons too soon.

When Angela returned with his drink, David asked for the check. He took a long sip and the frozen liquid triggered a sudden headache. He walked back to his room to rest.

*

David woke up woozy and disoriented, surprised that the bedside clock told him it was past nine. That was when he had walked back down to the beach. The salty air was invigorating. He stood up and brushed the sand from his legs and off the seat of his shorts. Oddly, he felt drawn to the ocean. He walked down onto the spongy wet ribbon of beach closest to the water, letting the foam curl around his ankles. He had never liked the brackish clammy feel of the ocean, the way the pebbles and shells shifted under his feet and stabbed at the soles, the way the seaweed clung to his toes, but tonight the water felt almost medicinal.

David stepped out tentatively until the water reached his waist. His shorts became heavy. His boxers clung to his shriveling skin. The feeling was exhilarating. A wave crested and rolled up his back as he turned away. He went under for just an instant but didn’t feel the usual panic. He continued to move slowly away from shore, taking testing little bunny hops with his feet to pop himself out of the water. There was no one in sight.

David leaned his head back, extended his legs and began to float. He was surprised that he still remembered how. There was no moon and he was out beyond the reach of the lights from the hotel tower. There was a scattering of pulsing stars but the sky out there had an intense blackness, a gauzy depth that seemed to reach out to infinity. He wasn’t a religious man. The sympathy cards that arrived in his mailbox uniformly assured David that the sender’s “thoughts and prayers” were “with” him. He wondered how many of his friends actually prayed. Maureen was raised Catholic. She had believed in prayer, even attended Mass regularly at one time, but she, too, eventually became ambivalent.

David had no illusions that there was an afterlife where he and Maureen would be united. He was a man of logic. It just didn’t add up. Their forty-two years together, that was tangible, something he could hold on to. It was the little things he remembered the most. There were evenings at the opera where he would glance over at Maureen during a powerful aria and marvel at her rapt attention, her mouth slightly open, her hand pressed to her chest. There were the winter excursions to Wollman Rink in Central Park when Steven was young, each of them holding one of his hands as he struggled to stay upright on his ice skates, all of them sitting on a park bench afterward sipping hot chocolate and watching their breath float away like little puffs of smoke in the frigid air. There was their ritual of sleeping late on Sundays then walking to brunch at Sarabeth’s on Central Park South. Maureen would always order the lemon-and-ricotta pancakes. Then they would spend the afternoon reading The Times. Maureen would start with the Arts section, carefully ripping out notices about upcoming gallery exhibits or listings for off-Broadway plays. David would glance at the Sports page then plow into the Business and Real Estate sections. Sometimes they would work the crossword together.

Toward the end, David would spend long hours by Maureen’s bedside watching her sleep. Her thick red hair had lost its intensity and slowly grayed over the years. Now it had turned a wispy white. Her skin was pallid, almost translucent, hanging loosely from her cheekbones. One day she opened her eyes—still an intense green but fearful now—to find David staring at her.

“Will you miss me?” she asked softly.

“Of course I will.”

Even after the oncologist had coldly advised Maureen to “put her affairs in order,” the two of them had kept up the illusion that she would recover. She had that relentlessly positive spirit that made it seem possible. But the cards were all clearly on the table by then.

“I don’t want you to dwell on it, ok? Get on with your life.” She had given him this sermon before, he knew what the response should be.

“I will.”

She smiled sadly. They both knew better.

David really did try. He joined a support group, reached out to some of his old law partners to schedule lunch dates, signed up for adult education classes at The New School. Still, he would find his mind drifting. He would see something interesting on the street and make a mental note to tell Maureen about it when he got home, then he would remember that there was no one at home to tell. He worried what would happen if he got the flu. Maureen would always be there to bring him those first few sips of ginger ale after the nausea had subsided. She would pour some into a glass then leave it on the kitchen counter for a few minutes to let the carbonation settle, let it come to room temperature so it wouldn’t be too jarring on his stomach. His mouth would be so dry it would taste like champagne. Then she would go down to the Jewish deli to get him a bowl of chicken broth. He could call the deli to order in but it wouldn’t be the same. David wondered who would plan his funeral, whether anyone would even come.

The water went calm for a moment, splashing languidly around him, rocking him softly up and down. David never planned to come out this far, never intended to go into the water at all. He wasn’t sure he could even make it back to shore but he felt an odd sense of tranquility. He had lived a good life. He had mastered the complexities of the tax code, provided useful counsel to his clients. He had read history, had been a loyal and trusted husband, a reasonably good father. There was nothing more he wanted. There was nothing more he needed to do.

David waited calmly for the next wave to take him where it would.

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Ralph Uttaro lives and writes in Rochester, New York. His work has previously appeared in Toasted Cheese and in other publications such as Bartleby Snopes and Blue Fifth Review. Email: ruwriting[at]gmail.com