Brick by Brick

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


lego_26nov2009_5934
Photo Credit: Patrick Lauke

Last summer, when I moved the community half of TC to WordPress, I indicated that we’d eventually get around to moving the journal as well. In truth, I planned to put it off indefinitely because the amount of work it was going to take seemed overwhelming. But four months of easy-peasy article posting spoiled me. When I sat down to put together the December issue the old-school way I knew that was it. It was time to stick a spork in the hand-coding and switch over the journal. The obvious launch date: March, with the first issue of 2014.

Normally, I am all about process. But this was not something I wanted to do so much as something I wanted to be done. I’d set up the database in the fall and got the layout sorted out, but then I just let it sit. I was busy with other things; there was lots of time till March!

Until, of course, there wasn’t.

It was January, and we’d just sent the shortlist notifications for December. That meant our shortlist for the March issue was complete and it was now time to read and make our selections. And it also meant I had less than two months to get the transfer done.

Finally, I stopped procrastinating and started. First, the easy part: the submission guidelines, the contest guidelines, the issue covers. The pages that would become, er, “Pages” in WP-speak. That part wasn’t so bad, and once I had it done I felt like I’d accomplished something, and I had the bones of the journal in place. All that was left was to flesh them out. That was the part I wasn’t looking forward to. So instead I set up categories and tags. I fiddled with the permalinks. When there was nothing else left to do, I took a stab at Volume 1, the smallest volume in our archives. New post, copy, paste, futz, save. It was going to take forever to do it this way. I didn’t have forever. I searched the WordPress plug-ins again and found one that imported static HTML pages. Whoa, game-changer. It wasn’t perfect; the resulting pages (“Posts” in WP-speak) all needed to be dated and tagged and individually checked for formatting issues, but it was a giant leap forward and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to finish this project. The hard part was done; what was left was the polishing.

Still, polishing can take a long time, if you want to do it right. I got the posts all dated and tagged, and then started in on the formatting. For the last month or so, every time I’ve had a free moment, I’ve worked my way through another issue. One more down, how many to go? It was boring and repetitive. Still, wishful thinking wasn’t going to finish the task. I kept plodding, slogging my way through it. Watching TV? Work my way through another issue.

As I crossed the fifty-percent done mark, the weight of the task lifted.

It always does.

From past experience I know if you have to do something 770 times to complete a task, the first time will take you the longest. You haven’t worked out your rhythm; you might miss a step and have to go back, and so on. The first time isn’t the worst, though, because you’re not bored yet. Once your learning curve plateaus, that’s when the weight of the task settles down on you, the reality of how long it’s going to take you really sets in. I have how many of these left to do? Sigh. I am never going to finish this task. And yet, the only way to finish is to continue. To plod-slog your way through it.

Plod.

(One more, you can do it.)

Slog.

(And another.)

Plod.

And then somehow you’re over the peak and you’re rolling downhill, picking up speed. It’s easier now because you can see THE END—it’s within reach, an “I’ve got this!” not a distant “maybe…”

The only way to get yourself through the first part of such a task is to keep your eyes on your reward for completion: why am I doing this? In this case, to make running TC easier, to save tons of time in the long run. But as you get closer to the end of the task, when the hard part is behind you, you can start to appreciate it for itself. Sure my main motivation was the backend and automating all the tasks that I’d been doing by hand for thirteen years, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t also pleased that TC was getting a fresh look.

When I was a kid, I loved the kind of toys you could build things with. We had wooden blocks, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, even some of our dad’s old Meccano—and, of course, Lego. I liked putting things together, one piece at time, the process–figuring out what to put where next–and the product–seeing what you could make from a bunch of disparate pieces. It always seemed a little bit magic. The thing was, we only had a little bit of each, so while we could build different things, the projects necessarily had to be small. That meant beginning and ending were compressed without much of a slog in the middle.

I probably could have stood to do more slogging.

At the same time I was snapping together bricks and criss-crossing logs, I was writing my first stories. They were uniformly terrible, mainly because I always wanted to leap directly from beginning to end. I’d have a premise, set the story up—and then I’d jump straight to the conclusion. I’d inevitably skip the middle—you know, the actual story. That middle part, well, it just seemed like too much of a slog, too hard to write it all down (writing made my hand tired!) and couldn’t you just read my mind instead? I was used to things being easy, quick. Slogging was not in my repertoire.

But slogging is how you get big things done. Brick by brick, word by word, page by page. You keep plodding, and then one day, you realize you’re not slogging anymore. You’re sprinting, you’re sailing, you’re flying. What once seemed like an impossible task is almost done—and it was you who did it! What an accomplishment. You feel amazing.

I know all this now, but still. Starting will always be hard. It’s hard to counter the resistance, to ignore “the omg, this is too much, it’s going to take forever” refrain in my brain, to just begin. And yet, it’s the only way. If you don’t lay the first brick, or the 429th one, you’ll never get to lay the last one. And it’s the last one that’s the sweetest.

We hope you enjoy the “new” TC, and whatever your own big project is, keep on slogging.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

As We Refer to Our Bodies by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenterAs We Refer to Our Bodies (8th House Publishing, 2013) is a collection of poems by Darren C. Demaree, a recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations. Demaree’s poems traverse human spaces and natural places in the poet’s world—reminiscent of the metaphysical poets. Each poem is an elegy to the tangible and untouchable. Images of animals, people, and rural life are layered within a kaleidoscopic context of emotion and existentialism as the poet contemplates the big questions with swirling thoughts that reach beyond the unassailable boundaries of ocean, sky and earth.

First, they found me,

then it was proven

that I wasn’t there.
I was on the land,

then I was under
the thinnest ocean,

digging back & back
trying to outflank

the processional.

— Ohios, p. 37

The collection is organized in three sections: Directions for Leaving, Ohios, and Black & White Pictures. It is interesting that many of the poems have no titles. Is there more meaning in their absence? Does their absence relate something else, a seamless, unspeakable thought to ponder and track along the poems lines and borders?

There is lovely allusion and repetition of word. The frequent usage of the ampersand is also intriguing, perhaps suggestive of a backward glancing speaker?

                            … She’ll
dream of darkened roses
& their profound thorns.
She’ll dream shining lines
with no context & no end.
She’ll dream in orange
& mango & her lips will
quiver without knowing why.

— Black & White Pictures, p. 66

Burning is another theme that flows throughout the collection along with a strong sense of place, a searing passion for life and love and the land.

Finally, sex like a burned
corn field, raw & rough
& in the dirt, a story peppered
with the word “soiled.”

— Ohios, p. 19

The subjects of the poems are personified in gorgeous figurative language and loving metaphor. Bodies change shape and transform to and from ordinary objects, organic and manufactured, that represent more—a way of life or perhaps a longing for something or someone, and with it a sense that the poet may be lost in his own love and desire—as seen in the Emily poems.

Not as a bee, so close
to the ground, so nested
in the one, colored hive;

my love is a lunatic
with wings, a dynamo
in reds, in oranges,

— “Emily as Thousands of Colliding Butterflies” (p. 46)

There is also an ethereal feature to many of Demaree’s poems. A lingering sense like one has been traveling far in their dream. And then waking up and not fully remembering one’s dream but recalling only fragments, yet knowing the full feeling of the dream and what it meant to be in the dream: so poignant—so vivid—so alive.

There was sky where the stars had died
& each time we replaced one

the heat of falling rock would consume
us. I don’t remember the colors.
I don’t remember the weight of it.
I remember the burning, mostly.

— “Ways You Can Lose Your Heart #16” (p. 12)

Demaree’s reach stretches across the boundaries of the human heart, delving into its many fissures and secret chambers, bubbling up with sentiment and ferocity that disturbs.

Something opened its eyes when
you first did, nestled itself
next to you, in your crib & for

the rest of time will be nose-
to-nose with you, never yielding.

—Ohios, p. 23

As We Refer to Our Bodies is a stirring collection of poems that travels along the American landscape and taps the many veins of the human experience with a heroic passion and an honesty that is brutally eloquent and soulful.

*

Darren C. Demaree lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Toasted Cheese. He is the author of As We Refer to Our Bodies (8th House, 2013), Temporary Champions (Main Street Rag, 2014), and Not For Art Nor Prayer (8th House, 2015). Temporary Champions is a collection of poems about the 1982 title fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. You can find links to more of Darren’s work on his blog and at Twitter: @d_c_demaree.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Flea

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea
Photo Credit: Simone Tagliaferri

In sixth grade my best friend was Jerry Harrison. He wouldn’t let anybody call him Jerry, though. His mom, his dad, his sister, and I had to call him “Flea” to get a response out of him. He’d simply ignore you if you called him Jerry, even if you were standing next to him yelling it in his ear.

“Jerry.” I tried it once. “Jerry. Jerry!” He seemed as deaf as Helen Keller, about whom we often cracked jokes. I started to wonder if he’d actually gone deaf overnight.

“Flea?” I whispered finally.

“Oh, hey, Sam,” he’d said, turning. I’d suddenly materialized into his world. “I didn’t see you there.”

He’d explained the first time we met that he’d fallen asleep on his dog’s bed when he was eight, and that one of Wilbur’s fleas had crawled inside his ear and nested in his brain. The flea’s name was simply “Flea,” and Jerry started blaming all the idiotic things he did on the flea riding inside his head.

“It whispers to me when I first wake up,” he said. “It tells me to do things.”

“So you have like a list for the day?” I asked.

“I never remember until I’m actually doing them,” he said. “He tells me when I first wake up so they’ll stay in my subconscious and I’ll do them without thinking. He told me to take five bucks out of my dad’s wallet yesterday. I’d never do that, so I know it must have been Flea.”

“Did you?”

“There were only a couple of ones in there but he started jumping around until I took them. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t but he moves so much it’s hard to think straight.”

“You know you’re probably schizophrenic, right?” I said. I didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject.

“That’s what my mom thought, too,” he said. “They took me to see this guy and he did some tests on me after Flea told me to bite the neighbors’ cat so he could drink its blood. It scratched my face up. The tests said I wasn’t schizophrenic, though.”

“What did they say you really were?”

“It was something about hyperactivity. Flea was quiet the whole time I was in there so they wouldn’t see any proof he was hiding in my brain. He’s no dummy. He knows when to lay low.”

It was like that all the time with Jerry. He’d do some stupid, impulsive thing and blame it on the flea living in his head. I personally thought it was bad parenting since his dad was gone all the time for work and his mom just tried to be understanding with her poor little boy.

My mom was a social worker, so I heard lots of things about schizophrenics. Jerry definitely fit the bill. He was entertaining to be around, though, so I hung out with him. Mom said he’d probably end up being a criminal someday.

*

Snow days are something no child forgets. A kid who hates getting up in the morning, hates sitting in boring classes, and hates dealing with the sociological nightmare of the early adolescent jungle will dream until he is old and gray of the sort of one-day vacation he remembered having as a boy. There is no guilt in a snow day—none of the latent regret associated with pretending one is sick while one’s comrades are suffering at the schoolhouse. One has simply been given a reprieve by Mother Nature, for a single day, to enjoy debt- and guilt-free. I felt sorry for any kid who lived too far south to experience such miracles, but always did my best to fall back asleep after I’d seen the school-cancellation notice on the television.

I’d nestled back under a warm, just-washed-the-day-before comforter that still smelled of fabric softener on one such morning. I’d nearly drifted back into dreams of breathing underwater or suddenly discovering I could fly if I held my arms the right way when I jumped, a dull thunk having snapped me back into the waking world. I tried to ignore it.

A second thunk brought me into awareness.

I peeked over the comforter and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. Jerry stood in the front yard, knee-deep in wet, sticky snow that threatened to pour into his galoshes. His parka-clad arm came up with another piece of gravel, poised to throw again. I opened my window to the biting winter air.

“What’s up, Flea?” I asked. I rubbed a bit of crust from my eye.

“You’ve got to see this,” he said.

“See what?”

“Just put on a coat and come down. It’s just down the street.”

I realized I wouldn’t be getting to sleep in on this particular snow day. Adventures ranked only slightly below eating breakfast at eleven o’clock on the snow-day list of fun things to do, and were the precursor to taking a hot bath after such wintry adventures had taken place. In anticipation of said hot bath, I put on my coat and boots and opened the front door.

“This better be worth it,” I said.

“Oh, it will be,” he said.

I crunched along behind Jerry for several minutes in silence until we came to a fence at the back of a house.

“This is it,” Jerry said, and began counting fence posts. “One, two, three…”

I listened for some sound of exciting things occurring but heard nothing apart from his counting.

“…twelve, thirteen.”

He tugged at the thirteenth fence post and the bottom nail came loose.

“Look through there,” he said, holding the gap open with both hands.

Crouching down, I expected to see naked girls having a snowball fight, a dancing bear, or some other thing worthy of such an expedition. Instead, I saw fruit trees.

I stood.

“Peaches? You brought me here on a snow day to see peaches? Is this your flea’s latest idea of a stupid joke?”

“It’s the middle of winter, Sam,” he said. “Peaches grow in the summer. They shouldn’t be on those trees at all.”

“Maybe it’s a special hybrid that grows in the winter.”

“No such thing,” he said. “Maybe what you’re missing is that Old Lady Greenleaf is a witch.”

My first reaction was, of course, to chuckle at the ridiculousness of what Jerry had said.

He only stood patiently, arms crossed, as my mockery subsided.

There were ripe peaches in her backyard in the middle of winter. I couldn’t deny what I had seen.

“It’s a full moon tonight, too,” Jerry said.

“So?”

“So the first full moon of January is Mithrastide,” he said. “It’s a pagan holiday, sort of like Halloween.”

“I’ve never heard of Mithrastide,” I said.

“It’s old. I don’t think anybody really practices it here, except witches,” Jerry said. “I… um… read about it in a book. Anyway, you’re supposed to give children sweet things on Mithrastide, and I really want one of those magic peaches.”

“All right,” I said. “So we’re going to knock on her door and ask for some of her magic fruit?”

“Actually, you’re going to knock on her door and ask for some magic fruit.”

“Why me?”

“I… I’m shy. You just have to knock and ask her if we can come in is all. I’ll ask about the peaches.”

With mild trepidation, I took the acorn knocker in hand and rapped it twice.

*

Old Lady Greenleaf, it turned out, wasn’t so old after all. I caught myself staring up into a firm, ample bosom before pulling my eyes away to meet hers.

“Hello,” she said. Creamy skin sculpted over high cheekbones framed full lips that commanded my full adolescent attention. “Are you selling something?” She batted her eyelashes down at me.

“We’re… um…” I stammered.

“Happy Mithrastide, Miss Greenleaf,” Jerry said, nudging me aside.

The full lips curled into a smile. The creamy skin around her eyes did not, however, crinkle with them.

“What do two handsome young men know about Mithrastide?” she asked, sweetly.

“It’s a midwinter fertility holiday,” Jerry said. “You’re supposed to give out treats to children our age.”

“So right you are,” she said, studying him. Then she turned briefly and walked back into the house. “It’s been such a long time since children came searching out treats on Mithrastide. I can’t imagine you’d want any of my peaches. Let’s see what we have.”

Jerry’s eyes had grown strangely beady, devoid of life, and black like a shark’s eyes. His lower jaw sat open and I watched Lady Greenleaf out of the corner of my eye, praying she wouldn’t turn to see him rubbing his tongue in little circles across his top row of teeth. He’d been transfixed from the moment she mentioned the peaches he sought.

“Flea!” I hissed.

Jerry snapped back to reality the moment it escaped my lips, and he shook his head. He placed a finger to his lips. “I’m Jerry,” he whispered. “Just Jerry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Greenleaf stop and turn. She squinted down at him. “Whose boys are you, exactly?” she asked.

We told her. Jerry introduced himself as Jerry for the first time since I’d met him. He made no mention of the flea in his brain. He did, however, assure her we liked peaches as much as anyone.

“Since you haven’t brought any baskets, I guess we’ll have to get you some out of the closet,” she said. “It’s this way.”

I would have followed her anywhere. I watched the rhythmic swing of maternal hips that said everything I needed to know about fertility holidays and nothing about old ladies. In gym class we’d discussed whether we were tit-men or ass-men and I’d said I was a tit-man then. Now, I grew surer with every rhythmic gyration of her womanly buttocks that I was an ass-man. I prayed now that she wouldn’t turn and see the throbbing erection she’d caused. My palms started to sweat, so I crossed my arms to hide them in my armpits.

Jerry seemed strangely unaffected by her, but kept stealing glances out the window toward the garden.

Lady Greenleaf bent over to pick up two wicker baskets from the closet and I coughed in response to the growing ache in the region of my groin.

“Here we go,” she said, handing us the baskets. I quickly positioned a basket at crotch-level, feeling my palm-sweat soaking into the wicker handle. She looked me up and down, a grin never leaving her face.

“Before you gentlemen pick my fruit-tree clean, though, I wonder if you’d give me an opinion on something.”

“Er… okay,” I managed.

Jerry stood on his tiptoes, looking over my head at the peach trees in the back yard.

“Jerry,” I whispered, nudging him with an elbow while carefully maintaining the crotch-concealing basket’s position.

Again, he returned to the façade of sane, reasonably polite Jerry.

“Of course,” Jerry said. “What is it?”

“It’s a painting I bought,” she said.

She led the way into her living room, where a cozy fire burned in the fireplace beyond two overstuffed leather armchairs. On the wall directly across from us hung a painting that seemed strangely familiar. Reds and browns writhed together against a black backdrop to portray the muscled, hideous, humanoid form of something that was not quite a man. Its vertebrae bulged from the skin of its back, ready to burst through. Its eyes—beady, like a shark’s—stared into a bowl. Its tongue stood rigid at the edge of its top row of teeth.

“That’s William Blake, isn’t it?” I asked, looking at Jerry for confirmation. We’d learned about Blake in school. The erection had thankfully subsided now, but hairs on the back of my neck had begun to stand on end.

“You actually pay attention in school,” Lady Greenleaf said. “I’m impressed.”

I would have burned my own house down to impress her further, or sailed a ship into a cliff just to prove I liked her singing.

“So what do you think of it?” she asked.

I thought it was monstrous, but I voiced this as “interesting.”

Jerry cracked his neck, then his knuckles. Something was irritating him. “He’s… beautiful,” Jerry said.

“Would you like to know what was in that bowl he’s holding?” she asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

Jerry just stared at the painting. He fidgeted.

“Peaches,” she said. “My peaches.”

I stepped closer to the painting, trying to ignore the irritated rasping that had replaced Jerry’s breathing. I found, at the bottom of the frame, a small brass placard. It read: William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea,” Tempera with Gold on Mahogany, 1819. I remembered this painting, now.

“I thought this was smaller,” I said. “I thought it was a miniature painting.”

“This one’s the original,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t really buy it. This is the one young Will painted for me.”

I almost asked aloud how he could have painted something for her in 1819, but the hair on my neck and the peaches in her garden held my tongue.

Jerry’s face had twisted into a tormented grimace. “I brought a virgin,” Jerry hissed. “He came freely. I brought a sacrifice to your altar. I claim the right of blood atonement.”

Lady Greenleaf looked me over again. “All right,” she said, and opened a drawer. From it she drew a sliver of what looked like glass. She held it to the light. “Do you know what it takes to carve a solid piece of diamond, the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth, into a razor-edged knife?” she asked. She pulled her eyes from it and looked at me. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

“No,” I said. My feet wanted to back away from her, but my legs felt as though they had been filled with concrete.

“I don’t either,” she said. “One of the Oppenheimers gave this to me.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t you, if it were yours to give?” she asked.

“Probably,” I said. I don’t know if I could have lied, even if I thought it would help me.

She rose then, and walked toward me, diamond knife in hand.

“Men never can resist my fruit,” she said, and paused to stroke Jerry’s hair with her delicate fingers. “Neither can fleas.”

His grimace had subsided slightly, but his left eyelid twitched and his lips curled into a greedy sneer.

“You give your virginal friend as a sacrifice, do you?” she asked. “I want to be sure.”

“Yes,” he said, but it came out, “Yesssssss.

Lady Greenleaf’s lips curled into a sneer, then. The diamond blade refracted the light from the fire for a split second as she whipped it through the skin of Jerry’s pudgy adolescent neck.

“That wasn’t the deal,” she said, as Jerry’s hands shot to the crimson geyser that had erupted from his throat. “I said if you ever tasted another of my peaches, it would restore your form. I said nothing of sacrificing the blood of a virgin. I do not work by those rules.”

Jerry crumpled into a heap, the stream of his arterial exsanguination having formed a pool that continued to spread. His blood painted an arc up the wall and across the ceiling. Some had splattered on my jeans and over the basket that hung loosely in my left hand. Eyes wide, I watched Jerry rattle and twitch. Somehow, not a drop of his blood touched Lady Greenleaf.

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she said. “Not that you could, Flea.”

Then, as the blood stopped flowing, I watched in horror as Jerry’s neck wriggled and twitched with a life of its own. A tiny black speck crawled out of the wound and sprang onto the floor. Even faster than her previous slash, Lady Greenleaf’s hand darted out at the black speck. She held her index and thumbnail to her face to inspect the creature trapped between them.

“Look what you made me do,” she said. “Now your little friend will never look at Mithrastide the same way. You’ve scarred him forever.”

“Jerry,” I said. “You killed him.”

“He would’ve been a tax collector,” she said, “even if I pulled this little vampire out some other way. Once a worm gets into your fruit, there’s not much else you can do for it.”

A tiny voice squealed between her fingertips.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here,” she said. “You should have been content with the mercy I’d shown you.”

With that, she closed her fingernails to a point and a tiny red spray shot up between them. The black speck disappeared entirely. She looked again to me. “Bury your friend,” she said.

“What?”

She stepped closer. The fingernails of the hand that had just annihilated Jerry’s brain-flea now traced the curve of my jaw. “Do it for me,” she said. “Mothers know best.”

Nothing about the fecundity she exuded with every breath seemed seductive any longer. She was Nature—living, growing, and entirely indifferent to human suffering. Yet some part of my brain still worked logically and realized that she had spared me. The Flea had offered my blood and she had destroyed him instead. Perhaps she simply had no good reason to use me as fertilizer, but I was alive.

Numbly, I grabbed my best friend’s ankles and dragged his bloody, half-decapitated corpse out the door leaving a red stream in its wake. Jerry’s tongue still pressed rigidly against his top teeth as his head flopped along the floorboards.

*

My back ached from swinging the mattock and shovel as I scooped the last load of dirt from Jerry’s grave. Lady Greenleaf tread softly on her moss carpet, appearing above me as I climbed out of the pit. She drew a small object from a pocket, stooped, and placed the object in Jerry’s mouth.

“I’ll help you,” she said, and grabbed Jerry’s wrists as I grabbed his ankles.

*

Jerry’s parents never called the police. No missing child posters ever showed up on telephone poles. No one at school asked me if I had seen Jerry. He simply vanished, and I seemed to be the only one that knew it had even happened.

I walked by Old Lady Greenleaf’s house a year later and noticed that she had mended the thirteenth fencepost. Above the fence line, though, I noticed a new tree amidst the peach trees.

Lady Greenleaf said I could talk to Jerry as long as I wanted.

He seemed more at peace than he ever had in his tormented flea-ridden flesh. The wind that swept through his leaves and shook his limbs seemed to soothe the spirit that Flea had twisted into a knot.

His trunk groaned, softly, as the wood shifted, and I had to laugh at what he said.

I looked through the window to make sure her back was turned. For him, for both of us, I picked a peach from one of her trees.

I took a bite.

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

Mother’s Nature

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lynn Bauman-Milner


Tombs
Photo Credit: Coralie Mercier

The warning crawled across her neck as the sun dropped below the horizon: the boundaries had been breached. Anger at the disobedience flared through her, but she breathed deep, pursed her lips, and allowed the lesson to teach itself.

*

Aliot slumped over, resting her head on her forearms while her lungs laboured to find the breath she had outrun. The cemetery was quiet in the moonlight, the only sound her gasps. Lank chestnut hair fell in sheets on either side of her face, cutting off her peripheral vision. As her breathing slowed, she relaxed her grip on the gunstock, her knuckles popping. How am I going to get out of this? What was that? She yanked her head up and glanced around, eyes darting but never settling. Her own footsteps showed as black hollows in the glowing snow, marking her as an idiot. Aliot winced at the rookie mistake. She was worried now that they had lingered too long in this soulless place of myth and death. The regimented rows of squared marble blocks stretched far off in every direction, the creeping darkness hiding the gates and the way home. The rumours of the evil that abided here drifted into her mind. Her heart pounded twice—hard—before she hauled back her memories from the stories that they told about this place. Why did I listen to him? Mother will be furious if she finds out where we’ve been.

Aliot forced her breath to a stop while she listened for sounds of search and pursuit: a crunch through the icy crust of the snow, a snorted breath to clear out for a clean scent trail. No sound reached her, except her increasing heartbeat thumping in her ears. She checked her equipment: pulling loose belts tight, readjusting her boots, rebalancing her grip on the hand cannon. Now you’re just stalling, you coward. Get out there!

She puffed staccato breaths, trying to goad her courage into life, and scrambled to the top of the marble memorial. From here, she could see the entire park and any movement between the rows. Aliot leapt from headstone to headstone, angling towards the greater cover of the central mausoleum over to her right. She staggered after the third leap, pinwheeling her arms and poised on one foot.

Aliot had almost regained her balance when a sharp jab vibrated through the pack on her back, and her chest guard lit up with an array of LEDs. The cartoon sounds of explosions echoed throughout the cemetery, and the surprise toppled Aliot. She landed on her back, a woof of breath shoved out by the impact. As she lay in a snowdrift, legs angled up with her heels hooked on the edge of the plinth, she stared at the black sky, tattooed with stars and clouds, and gasped for air.

Laughter floated on the night air, and Aliot heard a voice say, “Gotcha! You’re dead.” A tousled mop of hair crested the headstone, revealing a pair of dark eyes filled with stars and humour. “You really suck at laser tag, Aliot.”

“Shut up,” she said, her face burning with humiliation and her back freezing from the press of snow beneath her. Aliot struggled to her feet, dusting off the snow that clung to her as her hands turned red from the cold. Jorge stepped around the grave, sniggering at her defeat and the subsequent glare she gave him. Her brother was taller than she thought he had a right to be: even at fifteen years old, he was nearly six feet tall, and his messy midnight hair made him look much older. Most of her friends pronounced him “gorgeous” and she was jealously certain that several of the girls were only nice to her so they could have an excuse to talk to him—which meant mainly giggling so much that Aliot wanted to slap them for being so obviously vapid.

“C’mon,” he said. “We should get back before Mother sees it’s late.”

Aliot, caught up in these resentments, had to rush to catch up to him as he strode through the rows towards the gate. She had turned thirteen this past autumn, growing just enough to reach her brother’s shoulder, and finally stopping him from using her as a ‘resting post’, thumping his elbow onto her head and leaning with all his weight until her knees gave way. Aliot barrelled into Jorge with a full-body shove, just for being him.

He stumbled to one side and recovered, looking back at her over his shoulder, a half-grin on his face with a twinkle of jovial malice in his eyes. “Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, eh?” he asked, his voice rising and falling with playful tones of threats. “Sore loser, you’ll be a snowman when I’m done with you.” He scooped up a double-handful of snow, his eyes gleaming from under the fringe of his midnight hair.

Aliot took a half-step back, her hands facing out for protection, her protests broken up by giggles. “We’ve got to go, you know. Mother will be angry, like you said. All those stories…” Her voice trailed away as Jorge loomed towards her. A huge mound of snow was piled in his hands, and he began to laugh: a cartoon evil “Moo-ha-ha!” rolled across the field of the dead. Aliot’s giggles followed in a merry chase, as brother and sister ran in varying pursuit after each other, playing in the snow, Mother forgotten again.

While the stars and moon looked down dispassionately, another set of eyes smouldered. How dare they? How very dare they cavort in my demesne?

Jorge crowed victorious, head thrown back and mouth wide, while Aliot shrieked and danced about, trying to shake out the snow that had succeeded in slithering under the collar of her coat and down her back. Clouds scudded across the sky, covering the moon in fitful starts, making odd patterns of light on the snow.

She did not—she could not—see that she had danced her way around to the lee side of the mausoleum, close to the edge of an open grave cut into the ground before the winter snows had fallen and frozen the earth. The last clump of snow slipped out from under the hem of her coat, landing with a wet flump just behind her. Aliot sighed with relief, her face red from the exertions. She grimaced at her brother, who was perched on the corner of a gravestone just a few feet away, grinning in return.

Whites of eyes revealed, mouth curved into an O, and Aliot was gone, leaving Jorge staring at the space where she had been. Stunned, Jorge blinked. “Aly?” Only silence answered him. “Aly?” His voice rose with the rising fear in his heart. “C’mon, kiddo, you can’t be messing around like this. Mother will want us home, like, now.” He slid off the cold marble, and took a tentative step forward, craning his head to see where she went.

The clouds scuttled away from the moon then, leaving behind gleaming light to surround the yawning maw, the bottom hidden by shadow. Jorge edged closer, one eye on the snow, making sure he didn’t fall as Aliot had. He could see where her foot slipped: a dark gash down through to the grass below. It was painful to look at, almost like a wound. “Aly?” He shuffled closer, and the snow shuffled forward and over the edge, falling into the darkness. His voice quavered as he spoke. “Are you okay?”

The grave was not speaking, and he could not see Aliot in the shadow below. Jorge peered closer at the snow lipping the edges of the hole. He spotted claw marks that started in the snow, disturbing the virgin crust of ice, and cut back towards the grave, disappearing over the edge. His breath tripped in his throat as it became clear that Aliot did not fall, but was pulled. He dropped to his knees at the edge and leaned forward, searching. The nape of his neck crawled as he found more scratches in the frozen mud on the inside of the grave. A low groan from the blackness made him scramble back to safety.

He whispered his sister’s name to the grave, a question asked in hope. But he did not—he could not—approach the grave again, as fear began to uncurl in his belly, sending tendrils of chills along his limbs and spine. Jorge began to shiver, despite the sweat freezing on his forehead. Ignoring the bite of snow, he crawled forward to the edge again.

The blackness of the empty hole was rich and unending. How did we miss seeing this? It’s huge. Jorge stopped three feet from the edge. He swallowed hard, forcing his stomach not to upend its contents into the hole in front of him. She’ll never forgive me if I barf all over her. He tried to crawl forward, but felt as though he was pushing against a tangible obstacle. He paused and reached out with his hand to feel for the thing that was stopping him. He reached past the point—the obstacle suddenly gone—and over-balanced, landing in a shallow belly-flop, facing the open grave, his hand touching nothing in the air above it.

Ice cold crept along his finger tips, and even in the moonlight, he could see the flesh turning blue, tracing the movement of the cold as it drew spirals around each finger. Jorge gasped, feeling his own blood draw the cold through his arm.

The shadows in the grave shifted, moving with feline grace, revealing the broken body of his kid sister, twisted on the frozen soil below.

“Aly!” She can’t be dead, she can’t be, it’s just a short fall, she must be playing a joke, she—

“She isn’t playing.”

Jorge twisted abruptly, nearly sending himself into the hole, as he hunted for the source of the voice. He could feel needles of cold enter his ears, piercing his mind. He worked to quell the new surge of fear. “She’s fine,” he said to the empty night. “She’s only joking about with me. Aly’s like that.” The words sounded hollow in the darkness. With the generous arrogance of a boy on the brink of manhood, he had dismissed all the folklore of this place as mere stories to frighten naughty children into goodness.

The darkness responded with a chill that ate through his body, trying to reach his soul. “She is mine now, and here she shall stay.”

“No!” His shout was amplified by the grave. “Give her back; she is not yours.” Jorge could see Mother’s reaction if he came home with the news of Aly’s death. The image of her disappointment—and of the blame that she would direct at him—etched itself in his mind.

The shadow swarmed up the side of the grave. Jorge kicked away from it, scuttling backwards, and stopped short as he slammed into the edge of a headstone. The sudden pain brought him back to rationality. He stared at the shadow before him, and tried to recall those stories for any hint of how to escape the Blue Lady.

Whirling like a tornado, the shadow shaped into a human form from the ground up. The figure pulsed once and settled. The blackness tore near the top of the figure, pulling back on itself to reveal its face. Its skin was tinged death-blue, and every feature was sharp, defined by angles and cutting edges. Its prominent cheekbones made hollows of its cheeks, and its predator’s smile revealed needle-sharp teeth. But the eyes were just holes, revealing the darkness within. The Blue Lady regarded Jorge, its face tilted in a caricature of human curiosity.

“You think you can defy me?” No emotion, no intonation, no inflection in the voice, just the force of its power as it extended it toward Jorge.

He felt his grip on reality slip, and clenched his jaws together, grinding teeth to stop the hysterical laughter from escaping. He pushed himself up, keeping the solid stone behind him. The hand cannon from his laser gear dangled from its coil, knocking between the stone and his thigh. Jorge gripped it like a drowning man, his mind churning. “We can’t be here. We have to get home. Mother…”

“Those who enter these doorways do not leave again. She has paid the blood price and must stay.”

The Blue Lady gestured towards the still form in the grave. Jorge’s eyes widened as black tendrils extended from the Blue Lady, reaching down into the grave to caress Aliot’s cheek, the flesh stiffening into rigor even before the cold could touch it. The Blue Lady flowed down into the hole, clasping Aliot’s body to itself, in a parody of a maternal embrace.

“She shall be our first for this winter’s season, as the open graves dictate.”

“Wait. What? Those were just rumours, gallows humour of the spring…” Jorge was torn by confusion and rage. But rage won out at the sight of Aliot in that thing’s arms. “She is not dead,” Jorge cried out, his voice rent into shards of glass. He stepped forward, still gripping the toy gun. “She is coming home with me.”

“If she can leave the grave herself, move under her own power, then I will release her.”

Jorge raked at his face, trying to think of a way to save his sister. If she is—truly is—dead, then I cannot leave her. If only I had listened to Mother’s warnings… If only I hadn’t lied… If I could only get Aliot to move. The toy gun knocked gently on his head with every pass of his hands. He stared at it, his eyes unfocused as he tried to think. His eyes grew large and Jorge grinned with desperation and relief.

“I have here,” he said, “the latest technology of reanimation.” Jorge held up the toy gun and, with showy deliberation, levelled the muzzle of the gun at the still form of his sister. He breathed a silent prayer to whatever guardian angel was listening, and pulled the trigger.

Cartoon noises clashed against the solemn silence in the pit, and the chest pack lit up in a blast pattern of red and orange. But it was the vibration of the pack that set Aliot’s body to dancing within the Blue Lady’s embrace. Her torso jerked side to side, and the momentum carried through her limbs, but the motion fooled no one. Jorge let the gun fall and hung his head. His rage had become fear, transformed by desperation and failure and the mocking voice of the Blue Lady.

It swept its head back and forth, a judgemental shake. “You are an idiot to try to fool me.” Its voice hissed and slithered its way into Jorge’s mind, twisting in frozen whorls through his bones to join the cold that still lingered in his blood. “But your attempt has amused me. I will let her go. For a trade.”

Jorge could hardly believe what he was hearing. He thought of Mother again, hoping that this was the way out of his lies and he could start fresh. He dared to smile when a crack of noise jolted him from his inward stare. His leg gave way beneath him; a searing pain blinded his vision with red. Jorge collapsed, his left leg broken and jutting out above the knee. Another crack, and his left arm was wrenched behind his back, flopping at the elbow and the forearm kinked in the opposite direction. He doubled over, leaning into the open space above the grave, screams tearing from him with steel barbs. He felt, rather than heard, a hollow pop coming from within himself, and the dull, spreading numbness told him something inside had ruptured.

Even as he suffered, Jorge kept his eyes on his sister, and wondered what would happen next. He searched for some indication that her injuries were healing, that each one was being transferred from her to him, and that he would take her place in the grave. But the moonlight had clouded over, giving only glimpses of the body below.

There was no change.

Jorge lifted his gaze, reluctant to look at the Blue Lady. His body was wracked with agony, his heart filled with hate and longing.

“I cannot bring the dead back to life. Nor can I transfer life from one to another. The balance of order must be maintained.”

Jorge could only ask the question with his eyes, for his throat and mouth were filling with blood and he could barely choke the next breath past the bolus.

“I said I would let her go. I meant that her body would be found.”

Jorge dropped his head, coughing out blood, and felt his body go weak from the pain. He lay down on the ground and rested his head on his one good arm. He could not stop the blood bubbling from his mouth.

The clouds flitted across the moon’s face, wiping it clean and illuminating the grave, allowing Jorge one last look at his sister. Aliot was twisted, her limbs at painful, broken angles, and blood had smeared down across her chin. Her eyes were open but sightless, pointing up to the open sky above. He could see a faint expression of fear imprinted on her frozen face, but Jorge thought that at least she looked mostly peaceful.

The Blue Lady rose to stand by Jorge’s feet. Its face loomed above him, the mouth shaped into a rictus as it leered down. Moonlight pierced through the shadow, making the empty holes glow white, eerie against the eternal dark of the creature.

“You are mine now, and will nourish me.” The mask was swallowed back into the darkness and the amorphous form of the Blue Lady moved in lapping waves up Jorge’s legs, spreading and covering him, swallowing his fear and his love. Cold replaced pain.

Jorge could almost see the golden aura of his own life seep from his every breath, hovering in the air before him. Mother, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you or Aliot. Forgive me. He watched as the shadow enveloped his legs, creeping along the length of his body, and he let his tears fall freely.

With a wrenching yelp, the shadow disappeared, and Jorge sucked in a deep breath, life returning to him in a rush. He coughed out a last mouthful of blood, and wiped his lips, then realized that he was no longer broken. He sat up, bewildered and frightened, looking for the Blue Lady…

…who was currently dangling from the tight grip of his mother’s hand. “This lesson has gone on long enough,” she said, voice tense with suppressed rage. “Jorge, get your sister out of the grave. I’ll take care of this pretender to my throne, and then we will have words about your disobedience.” Mother did not look away from the shadow in her grasp as she spoke. Her eyes burned with sun-bright flames, and she transformed into her elemental form, tall and queenly, crowned with hawthorn berries and mistletoe. She wrenched the shadow’s head—sharp, tight shakes of hate and venom—and when she spoke again, her voice echoed with centuries of power. “It’s not nice to try to fool me, but mess with my children, and you will pay the price.”

Jorge slipped into the grave, escaping the sight of the punishment he knew Mother would exact. He slid his arm under Aliot’s shoulders and raised her to a sitting position, resting her back against the wall of the grave. He chafed her hands and arms and face as her life force returned and her body healed. She tried to ask a question, but he shook his head and gestured up towards the world above. He mouthed Mother, his face gone pale in the moonlight. Aliot’s eyes widened and she shivered, lips drawn down as she considered how Mother would punish them for lying to her.

They waited for Mother—shuddering with the fear of naughty children caught—as the howls of torment rolled across the cemetery grounds before ending with a squelch.

pencil

Lynn Bauman-Milner is a forty-three-year-old displaced Canadian, currently living and writing in West Yorkshire, UK. She is a former English teacher, having left the profession after seven years to pursue new challenges, with a focus on writing. Her first novel, Firesoul, for which she is seeking representation, was completed in September 2013. Currently, she is working with Brad MacMillan, of August Media, to develop his idea of a fantasy quest into a novel, which will be the foundation for a film script within the next year. Her blog showcases her writing skills, from fiction to travel writing. Email: lynn[at]wayf.co.uk

Mother

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
J. Chad Kebrdle


Abandoned House
Photo Credit: Jodi Grove

Across a blowing, windy, empty cornfield covered with a thick blanket of snow sat a small house. The colorless cube had been weathered with time and lack of concern. Two randomly-placed windows glared out untrustingly at the lonely vast surroundings. The fragile and tea-stained dressings behind the eyes of the home had not been pulled back in years, leaving the interior sheltered from any light the outside happened to have available to share. A scattering of dim, bare bulbs now served to illuminate the inside of the house. She was a miser with her resources now, but he didn’t mind waiting to inherit everything after she was gone.

He walked through the house along one of the few pale trails that had been worn into the dark stain of the hardwood floors. One path led from the kitchen to the living room. Though the furnishings showed evidence of nobility and intentional placement, the color had since been drained from all fibers in the furniture and the worn carpet and the thin curtains that covered one of the two windows in the house. A fine layer of dust was the proof that the intentional placement of all furnishings had not been disturbed, down to the copy of TV Guide that sat in the same spot on the once-regal coffee table from years prior.

Another path led from the living room to his tiny back bedroom. Long ago, it was a nursery, filled with love and light, but now the baby blue paint was peeling off the walls and the picture frames holding past remembrances of joy were cracking at the corners. A large stuffed bear, given with affection, had lost his smile along with an eye and sat on an old chair much too small for an adult. A sweat-stained mattress broke the room’s pastel palette and a tattered blanket with baseball players barely visible lay crumpled in the middle of it.

In a small area between his bedroom door, the bathroom door, and the back entrance of the kitchen was a nest of a bare spot scarcely noticeable due to the lack of a bulb in this insignificant square. It had served as a garage for toy cars when he was a child. It was also a guard shack, prison cell, hospital room, ice cream stand and, later in his life, the creaking tattle-tale that announced his early morning entrances to his sleeping mother. The floor still creaked every time he took the step or two through it, though he was no longer sneaking.

The bathroom had been paid the least attention to over the years, but definitely had the largest contribution to the smell of the tiny abode. It had been ages since his mother had been out of her bed, and so the amount of scum that had accumulated across all of the porcelain made the fixtures look a filmy grey rather than the sparkling white that she used to insist upon. The odors wafting from this room only slightly covered the stale, burnt offerings of the tiny kitchen.

When his mother was mobile, the meals that were crafted gave the whole house a mouthwatering aspect that was often different but always comforting. Some nights it was onion and cilantro; other nights, rosemary and oregano, or perhaps cumin and turmeric. She made everything taste wonderful. Now, a small stove held uncleansed remnants from meals of yore as well as a warm pot of stew that offered insight into its flavor via bland visual presentation. The smell was more sour than sweet and more bitter than spicy. Tan droplets slopped out of the pot onto a table that served as a division between the kitchen and the living room. A plastic tub of a powdered, concentrated cleaning product sat near where a bowl of soup had just been stirred.

He was taking the bowl of lukewarm sludge along the final path in the house. A path so worn the splinters would often pierce through the bottom of his foot whether or not he was wearing slippers. The road to his mother’s room was one he could have walked through a hurricane blindfolded and reached without incident. He had walked this path in all of his emotions: love, hate, sorrow, sympathy, joy, pain. No matter what emotion he was expressing, this stretch of the small house always seemed impossibly long. It was an extension of the house so removed that at times it seemed like she was more of an omniscient being of faith rather than flesh and blood.

When he reached the closed door to the entrance of her room he paused and the whole world around him seemed to pause in unison. The sound of the harsh wind had momentarily subsided and he could imagine himself the only mobile object in a world paused in time. The house seemed unnaturally still as he balanced the warm bowl in his left hand and rested his right against the cool finished wood of the door. His mind raced through a library of vivid scenes from his past that all happened where he was now standing. He felt his breath becoming more shallow and fast. He was beginning to change his mind.

It took an unusual amount of pressure to push the door and as he did, a gush of air swelled around the door from inside the bedroom. His unkempt hair blew back and the sound of the wind picked up singing in cacophony with the chug of the oil furnace kicking on and the blower starting its low roar. As he stepped into the room it smelled sweet like the fermenting of rotten fruit. The floor creaked as he walked toward the bed and he could see her quiet face in the dim light of the lone bulb in the room that was lit on a table beside her bed.

He set the dish on the table and as it hit the wood top, her right eye exploded open and the white around the cold blue iris flashed against the dull shadowy bedroom. He sat in the only other piece of furniture in the room—an old, feeble rocker. It was the same one his mother rocked him in when he was an infant. It creaked methodically against his weight as he sat down and looked into her unwelcome glare.

They locked gazes for a moment and he could hear her long wheezing breaths over the sound of the wind and the furnace blower. The sound of her voice broke the rhythm of her breathing. It started out as nothing more than a cracking sound. Her purplish lips parted, smacking with sticky muck webbing in the corners of her downturned mouth. With another wheeze she motioned as if she were speaking but the air leaking out from her windpipe did not have the force to cause a noise. Instead, her once-soft lips writhed like earthworms across the grey wrinkles of her face. With another effortful breath, she finally managed audible speech.

“Good morning…” She wheezed. “…boy.”

She always said good morning when she woke from a nap, no matter what time it was. And she always called him boy. She was his mother; it only made sense that in her eyes he would always be a child. In fact, he was shamefully reliant on her even as she sat barely alive in her bed. Sixty years after birth he was still sucking nourishment from her as if the cord had never been cut. He knew that would all change the moment she passed away and all of her resources became his. He grinned slightly as his focus shifted from his mother’s stare to the steam rising up from the bowl on the table between them.

“Good morning, Mother. Hungry?” His voice was not much clearer than his mother’s from an equally insufficient lack of use.

She closed her eyes slightly and smiled.

Her smile used to comfort him. She would delight in watching him play and discover and grow. But when his excursions began to take a darker turn—when he began coming home with cigarette smoke on his breath and whisky spilled down his shirt, when he would not come home for days until he had run out of money or just needed a place to sleep—her smile began to change. It became a smile of distrust and acceptance at once. They both knew he was up to no good and she was going to love him forever anyway.

He stood as she smiled at him and walked over to the far side of the bed to help adjust her pillows and sit her up. He could have thrown her across the room if he had wanted to, she was so light. But instead, he slid her gingerly up as if she were a child and tucked her thick soft quilt around her. The colors in it had faded a great deal but he still recognized the patterns from childhood clothes: the corduroy pants he tore while ice fishing, the jacket that got stained from picking and eating too many wild raspberries, the shirts he outgrew from kindergarten to graduation day. He walked back around the bed to his chair and their eyes locked cheerfully for a moment.

She truly loved him and had since the day he was born. She blamed herself sometimes for the way he had turned out. She only wanted the best for him—like any mother would want for her child. She gave him everything she could and when he wanted more, she found a way to provide. And when he still wanted more, she found ways to sacrifice herself in body and soul to make sure he had everything he wanted and thought he needed. She loved him, but was ashamed of what he had become. Where she had thought her provisions were being distributed in order for her son to provide for a future generation or generations, they instead turned out to be providing for his own selfish whims. When she was younger, she would trick herself into thinking that her son’s solitary existence was due to lack of good company, but she had grown to understand he had no intention of sharing any of his life with anyone, and yet was still thinking he did not have enough. The bitterness inside her would swell up at times and, though she would try and contain it, begin to spill out.

“Is that smell you or my lunch?” she said.

This took the smile off of his face and reminded him of his current agenda. He sat down in the chair and sighed. A fly that had somehow become warm enough to take flight buzzed lazily around his head. He swatted at it and responded to his mother with an unoriginal “I’m sorry I could never be as good of a cook as you, Mother,” and waved the fly away with his hand and a scowl. He grabbed the bowl and scooted his chair closer to the bed in order to administer her last meal.

“I doubt that the smell is my soup, really,” said she. “I don’t think we have enough vinegar in the place for the soup to smell like that.”

Normally, this would have set him off. Sent him running to his room for fear of what he might do to her. Because this was no concern at this time, he was able to respond with a steady tone. “Mother, why do you worry so much about my hygiene? You’re the only one I’ve seen for months and you’ve been asleep over half of that. Is it so bad that I don’t want to completely emulsify myself in water in the dead of winter for an audience of one-half every day?”

“It’s not about impressing anyone. It has to do with you and your self-respect.” She was beginning to get excited but calmed herself. She closed her eyes and let an unintentional low whistle through her nose. Her eyes crept open and a weak but genuine smile split across her face. “I love you, boy. I only wanted you to love yourself as much.”

“God, Mother!” he spat, and slapped the bowl onto the table causing small, thick drops to splash out onto the table. This was her way. About the time he was fed up with her, she would show her kind, loving side. “I do love myself! I just wish—” The fly interrupted by tickling the end of his nose. He snapped his hand at the bug in such anger that if he would have been off-target even a fraction of an inch, he would have broken his own nose. However, his target was skillfully hit and both people in the room looked at his fist in impressed surprise.

He moved his gaze to his mother who was still staring at his buzzing hand with raised eyebrows. Her eyes lifted to his. He grinned and lifted his fist to his ear and shook it, causing the trapped fly to buzz louder. Without blinking, he closed his fist tightly and the buzzing sound was replaced by a soft crunch. He opened his hand palm down and a small crooked dot fell to the floor leaving a miniscule stalactite of goo hanging from his hand. He wiped his hands on his shabby pants and leaned forward in the rocker, moving closer to his mother.

“I like myself just fine, Mother.” He reached back and scooped up the bowl. He offered her a dripping spoon of the cooling muck. “Now open wide.”

“You used to be more kind.”

“You used to be more giving.”

“You used to need less.”

“You used to give more.”

“I used to have more.”

“Open wide now…” He opened his mouth at her as he would an infant and she responded by mirroring him almost as sarcastically. He tipped the spoon in her mouth and her wrinkled grey lips closed around the silver stem and held firm as he gently pulled it back out, empty.

“Mmm,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm scarcely noticeable. “That tastes even better than yesterday’s.”

“It is yesterday’s.” He scooped another puddle and she received it just as happily.

“No. I don’t believe you. It tastes so different.” She took the next spoonful. “This tastes much more… more…” Another bite. “More chemical-y.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“I know that isn’t a word but I don’t know how else to describe it.” She smiled and opened her mouth.

It was that smile. She knew.

He stirred the bowl a round or two before feeding her another scoop. He was unable to take the same amount of joy as he had before. He was a criminal caught in the act, but still allowed to continue. He became unsure of the outcome, questioning her and questioning himself. He fed her more and she began to hum as she ate and smiled. He was led away from his reckless thoughts by the soft sound of her voice. It didn’t take long for him to recognize the tune, though he couldn’t name it or its composer.

“What song is that?” He tried to remain cold as he asked this and fed her another spoonful.

She paused momentarily and her smile changed from one of knowing distrust to one of genuine love. “Ah, boy, that is Mozart. LA-da-DEE-dee-Da La-da-da-da… You used to love this as a child. I would hum to you and you would calm down immediately no matter how sour you were.” She gathered up her arms as if she were holding a bundle close to her. “Serenade No. 13 in G major. It was no wonder you took to it. The song is just like you—full of pomp and circumstance, yet swaying into lighter moments of sorrow.” She started humming again and hugging herself.

He stopped serving her for a moment and looked upon her as she drifted off in song. He saw how beautiful she was. Her silver locks had the same curl they always had. The light of the small bulb in the room reflected off her hair and made it glow as it circled around her head like a large halo. Her skin, in this light, began to lose its shadows and appear smoother and younger. “DEE-dee DEE-dee dee-dee dee-dee-dee, lee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee.” He looked at her lips as she hummed and the color had faded to a soft pink in the strange lighting. He was mesmerized by her and came to the realization that he was killing the thing he loved the most—that he needed the most.

The humming stopped and quickly took the glow from the room with it as she opened her eyes and coldly looked at her assailant with welcoming open arms. “More please.” She opened her mouth like a baby bird.

There was no turning back now. The damage was done and he felt at this moment as if he owed it to her to finish the job. And so he did. Spoonful by spoonful, he slid the toxic sludge down her throat as she hummed and smiled and swallowed. It only took a minute or two for the bowl to be empty and she closed her eyes and sank satiated into her pillows, humming Mozart with a wide grin across her face.

He stood up with the empty bowl in one hand and smeared spoon in the other looking down at his mother as the chair behind him rocked, tapping the back of his calves. He walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. In shame, he never looked back. Instead, he walked straight to the kitchen and threw the bowl in the sink with a crash. He stared down into the sink at the three large sections of bowl littered with similarly colored slivers and chunks. The bright blue bottle sitting on the counter next to the sink caught his eye. Before he could even feel one speck of remorse, he grabbed the bottle up and buried it deep into the already mounded trash can. He pulled his empty hand out and used it as a compacter, leaving enough room for at least another day or two’s worth of garbage. Just as instinctively, he moved into the living room and sat on the couch.

He felt sick to his stomach. He nested his face in his hands and massaged his cheeks, his eyes and his forehead. He had expected to feel like celebrating and instead he felt like he was grieving. Though nothing even had the chance to be different, he was lost with no idea what step to take next. Everything in his whole life had been dictated by his mother and now she was gone.

Boy!

He heard her from the bedroom as if she were screaming in his ear.

“Boy, help me! I need help!”

Instinctively, he leapt off of the couch and rocketed through his mother’s door. He pushed his way past the rocker to her bedside. “I’m here, Mother. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” He began to weep as he took her hand up in his. “I’m here. I’m sorry.”

“Boy.”

“Yes, momma.”

“Boy, come close.”

He leaned in close to his mother and took her soft hand up with his trembling one. As he leaned into her, a tear dropped from his eye and splashed upon their entwined fingers.

“Boy.” Her voice was so soft he could barely hear it and closed in to the point that their foreheads were touching.

Suddenly, her eyes opened wide and she began to let out an inhuman scream. Her mouth opened like a chasm and through the squeal, a projectile spray of flies flooded out of her body and swarmed around him like a cyclone. He covered his ears to protect himself from his mother’s alarming wail but it could not protect him from the cloud of insects that spun around him creating a visual cocoon. The screaming became his own as tiny bits of his flesh were torn off here and there before quickly unraveling tissue and shredding it into invisible-sized morsels. The house shook as if ravaged by a hurricane. The gray haze of the twister turned an odd shade of pink for a moment and through the veil, the boy’s skeleton could be seen with bony hands still clasped to the side of his skull. As quickly as the skeleton had appeared it collapsed into a pile of dust as the swarm dissipated and everything began to go beyond normal into an unusual state of calm.

She let out a sigh and closed her eyes. Her lips came together and started humming Mozart again. A tiny belch slipped out and she pushed herself comfortably back into her pillows. Humming and smiling, she drifted off into a peaceful slumber.

When she opened her eyes, the sun had finally broken through the clouds and sent a bright shaft of light through the bedroom window that illuminated the whole room into the hallway outside. An instinctive smile spread across her face and she easily sat herself up. She wiped hair from across her face and noticed as she did that it had returned to its more natural golden color. Staring out the window, she brushed her hand against her cheek and could feel how smooth and tight her skin was.

The draw from the beauty of light outside was too much to ignore and she flung the covers off with a zest she had not known for years—decades even. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat looking down at them before she put her feet to the floor. The taut pale skin reflected the incoming sunlight and made her legs look even more youthful than they had become. She slid herself down, placing weight on her delicate feet that wobbled from lack of exercise. Her rubbery legs shook as she lifted her body weight onto them. She took her steps toward the window like a newborn foal, arms outstretched toward her target.

Her fingers clasped at the curtain when she had reached her destination. She stood clinging to the deep red velvet fabric and stared out the window. The sun was casting its light over the rippled waves of snow that spread across the surrounding fields. Her eyes squinted as if seeing light this bright for the first time. Icicles that hung down from the edges of her home’s roof were glistening and dripping in the heat of the new day. She placed her hand across her torso and felt the warmth inside her of a new beginning. She closed her eyes and smiled and hummed.

Soon it would be spring.
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J. Chad Kebrdle resides in a little windy farm town in Indiana. Though he has only recently worked on submitting, he has been writing most of his life and recently acquired my Masters in Liberal Studies that focused on the teaching of writing. He has had a poem published in the journal From the Well House, and concert reviews on jambands.com. He has had a strong part in helping the local music scene by holding songwriting workshops and teaching music at a local store. He also teaches writing at the local university. Email: jckebrdl[at]iuk.edu

Callas the Great

Beaver’s Pick
Rupprecht Mayer


Royal Opera House Covent Garden---La Bohéme
Photo Credit: Andrea Puggioni

Yes, Callas. And she was great! You never got to see her live, on stage. And recordings from that time are so rare. Back in the day, singers used to sing for flesh and blood people, not just for recordings. Or CDs, whatever they’re called now. But those few live recordings that exist, they really capture the atmosphere. The space, the audience. You really feel the dialogue between the artist and her audience. We adored her, we followed her. Everywhere. Milan’s La Scala, in 1955; then in 1959, in Edinburgh. We were there! Walter and I, I mean. My late husband, you knew him? Of course you knew him. You’ve heard him; you’d recognize his voice. No, he never sang himself. But in Lisbon, during La Traviata, 1958, if I’m not mistaken, the coughing during the “E strano” aria? That was him. Maybe you weren’t paying attention. I can understand that. But in this immortal Tosca recording from 1965, in Paris, you definitely heard him. By that time his coughing had become so distinctive, almost a kind of barking. Unmistakable! I listen to these records over and over again. Callas, di Stefano. And my beloved Walter’s coughing! Soon afterwards I had to take him to Davos. The lungs. He never came back.

Today’s recordings? No comparison. So sterile. Nothing but studio. And you know what? Now they’re beginning to delete the sounds of the audience from those old recordings. They simply run them through computers, they say. The other day, my niece gave me a CD as a present, with the famous concert at Covent Garden, 1965. You know. That was just before Davos. I waited to hear my dear Walter’s five coughs in the “Caro nome” aria. But they were gone! Deleted! You can’t do this to an audience. What a lack of piety. My poor Walter. Great as Callas was, but I can do without stuff like that!

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Rupprecht Mayer was born 1946 near Salzburg. After some 20 years living and working in Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai, he recently resettled in Bavaria. He translates Chinese literature and writes short prose and poetry in German and English. Publications: English versions appeared in Atticus, Bicycle Review, Frostwriting, Hobart, Mikrokosmos/Mojo, NAP, Nano Fiction, Ninth Letter, Orange Quarterly, Postcard Shorts, Prick of the Spindle, Radius, Whole Beast Rag (forthcoming) and Washington Square Review. For more of his work, see his website. Email: rupprecht_mayer[at]hotmail.com

For Sale

Bellman’s Pick
Marisa Marinelli


For Sale
Photo Credit: Lis Bokt

my heart keeps wandering into dark, empty bedrooms
filled with cobwebs and a weird, musty sort of smell
and by the time my head follows my heart
those rooms have no more space left for my love
because someone else has already hung up posters to hide the holes in the walls
but i only took so long to move in because i was getting the materials to fix the holes
instead of pretending they weren’t there
darling, i would’ve patched up your wounds
and kissed away the cobwebs
and even with that musty odor, i thought i could smell your cologne
i would’ve painted you yellow in hopes of cheering you up
and the sign on the door would’ve said “don’t forget to wipe your feet, but come right in”
the shelves would’ve been filled with books that smell like tea leaves
and there would’ve been dozens of sunflowers scattered around the room
babe, we’d open up all the windows and sing as loud as we could
and even though we wouldn’t hit a single correct note, we would feel beautiful

but you’ve rented yourself out to her
she arrived and unpacked her things but it felt more like something was leaving
your shelves are empty and dusty
a “do not disturb” sign has been hanging on your door for weeks
she didn’t bother to re-paint you or fix you
she didn’t even try to love you
and every wrong note you sing is lethal

pencil

Marisa Marinelli is currently a sophomore in high school. She hopes to attend college at the University of Buffalo and major in Psychology. marisamarinelli2[at]yahoo.com

Cultural Anthropology

Fiction
Tony Press


thorvaldsson
Photo Credit: Jen Kim

The morning of the last class of that summer session—the university campus aching to finally empty for the remaining weeks of August, 1970—Professor Cortez presented “an old friend,” introducing him as Charles Culbertson. He told us that his friend, a colleague for many years, would deliver a unique perspective on courtship, marriage, and sexuality among certain traditional Native American cultures. Like our professor, Culbertson was probably 40, and equally tanned. In all other respects, he was the antithesis of Cortez. He wore drab, baggy suit pants, a mismatched, tired sport coat, and a wrinkled shirt that had a faint memory of white. He was no more than five foot six (Professor Cortez was a good six-four). His backpack, open on the floor beside him, contained a liquor store paper bag out of which he sipped, furtively at first, but more openly as his talk progressed. He spoke with an inflection that strayed from Latin American to Eastern European. Neither sounded true. Although he dangled intriguing phrases like “temporary adoration,” “sense penetration,” and “descending into the power,” his talk lacked compass and meandered from one obscure reference to another. Thirty minutes in, as if a timer had sounded, he stopped, giggled, swooped up his belongings, and scurried off the stage, out the side door into the sunlit parking lot. The door slammed behind him.

Cortez walked to the vacated podium and invited response. Little was offered and the desultory discussion faded quickly. Cortez burst into an extravagant smile: “Actually, Charles Culbertson isn’t his real name. That was Carlos Castaneda. It’s been a good summer. Thank you. If you turned in a postcard, you’ll get your grades in about a week.” And he was gone.

We didn’t know if it was true. We didn’t even know where to begin thinking about it. Worse, April had never heard of Castaneda. Since then, I’ve never investigated, never felt any urgency to seek the truth of it, but the incident has never quite faded. Then and now, it seemed an appropriate coda to the course, and to what was to be our last night of the summer. Fall classes were racing in with a vengeance but this year I wasn’t playing. I had a ride-board connection to Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend of a friend would house me for a few days. After that… who knew? It was all waiting for me. For three months. Of course, after the three months, it would be back to school to save my student deferment. In another year, I’d have a degree. Maybe the war would be over.

I had met April in the front row of that Cultural Anthropology course, the day Cortez lectured on something about “titan realms of the mind.” I always sat in front rows figuring if I was going to be there, I might as well be there. If I wanted to sleep, I stayed home. Cortez worked the room, hair hanging to his shoulders, tight black shirt painted on his torso, blue jeans clinging to his long legs. His boots—April and I called them “Spanish rock & roll boots,” punctuated the smooth floor with each observation and challenge. Daily for six weeks, 120 students packed the room. It was the class you’d invite a visiting friend to see. He was also rumored to be rich—we saw him drive a bright red British sports car. He was so fantastic it crossed my mind April might have been looking for him when she searched my face. I couldn’t have blamed her.

Cortez was a scholar of the world. I played the role of a student. I did want to travel some day but Vietnam was not high on my list.

Bob Dylan was a titan, as were Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger. Me? April’s eyes, trained on me the next morning, made me feel that she thought it possible, and it was a good feeling. She sat cross-legged at the foot of my bed; her girlish body covered by one of my earliest Grateful Dead T-shirts. Though the shirt had been designed for someone much bigger, the shirt rode up when she shifted slightly, allowing a glimpse of her still damp pubic hair, and I stirred once more beneath the crumpled sheets.

She was eighteen and I was almost twenty-one. I had logged three-plus years of college; she had just begun in June, one week after graduating from high school. It was a significant gap.

She was the first girl I’d slept with more than twice. And for the last three weeks of summer school, she had been staying with me four nights a week, going home to her parents for the weekend, and then to her dorm for Sunday night. Her parents assumed (we assumed) that she was always at the dorm when she wasn’t with them.

On my bed that last morning she kept looking, as if she might forget everything the instant I crossed into Idaho. Even though I was the one leaving, she was the first out from under the covers. My ride was due. I remembered an earlier summer, still in high school, when I’d taught myself to sleep naked. It seemed odd then, to not wear pajama pants or underwear, but I knew that some day, soon, I hoped, I’d want to be comfortably naked with a girl.

“This is like Romeo and Juliet,” April said, playfully or seriously, I couldn’t tell. I often couldn’t. The movie had been our first date

“Remember,” she said, “he knows it’s time to leave, and he gets up, but she can’t stand it, and convinces him to stay a little longer. Let’s see, what did she do?” To my delight, she remembered.

Jesus, that guy was mad, but then he was laughing, when we staggered out to his car, my shirt in my hand, after ten minutes of honking. He dropped April at her dorm and we were on our way.

In five days I was in Madison, smoking dope in a brown-shingled house that supposedly once was Fighting Bob La Follette’s. After a few blissful days, I recognized the seduction of simply trading one campus town for another, so I put some effort into the next step. I found a job, and a room, in Janesville, forty miles south (and much farther still, it felt, especially without a car, from the hypnotic pull of student life). I worked, to my thrill, in a real blue-collar job, on an assembly line at Parker Pen. In postcards home I made cryptic references to “developing alliances with the proletariat.”

My room was over a garage on a quiet street midway between downtown and the plant, in walking distance of a sweet little park. I walked along it to get to my bus stop, the playground packed with little kids, mothers, and some fathers, and grandparents. It was a place a grandmother would love, and I readily accepted its comforts.

I was making more money than I knew possible, drinking Point beer, and even playing softball. Parker Pen had four teams in the city league, and I got on a team that played on the increasingly autumnal Wednesday evenings. Kirby’s Bar on Main Street, its walls lined with Green Bay Packer pennants and photos, was our team’s post-game site. If you went out the back way, past the pay phone and the toilets, you could stand, carefully, above the darkness of the Rock River. If you were drunk, you were a fool to get close.

It was from Kirby’s that I usually called April, the time difference working in our favor. I’d grab a bottle and set up camp at the phone with an ashtray filled with change. We talked for as many quarters and dimes as I had, with a little sighing and heavy breathing thrown in. In my time in Janesville, I was just so happy with the whole situation that beyond those calls I had no need for female company.

One Wednesday night, after seven innings of body-numbing softball in rapidly declining temperatures—“how can any third baseman in the world throw a ball with hands this cold?”—we were a particularly loud and raucous group, making the place even more our own than ever.

The “hello” sounded wrong. I thought for a second it was her roommate, even though that unknown entity had not once answered since I’d begun calling from Wisconsin.

“April? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s just that…” I heard nothing more.

“What is it, babe? You don’t sound good. What’s up?”

“I’m pregnant.”

I can’t speak for a pin or a feather, but you do hear it when a bottle of beer drops. It didn’t break because it had been low in my hand when it fell, but it thundered on the concrete floor, and it was the only sound either of us heard for a long, expensive time. Only the phone company was happy.

“Shit, babe, are you sure? Forget that, that was stupid, of course you are. What, what… how are you?”

“Not so good.”

I’d never heard her cry.

“It’s so scary.”

“What… who… does anyone else know? What are you doing? What are we going to do? What do you want?”

“It’s all set up. It’ll be taken care of next week. Honey,” the crying increased to sobs. “Honey, can you come back?”

“I’ll be there as fast as I can. It might take a couple of days, but I’ll be there, I promise.”

“I love you.”

“I love you. Don’t worry.”

“Hurry.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. We’ll take care of it. I’m with you all the way. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”

It took two tries to get the receiver back where it belonged. I picked up the empty bottle and walked out the back door to the river steps. The wind laughed as it whipped through my thin Parker Pen jersey, and I screamed the word “fuck” louder than I’d ever screamed anything before. I made my best throw of the night, heaving the bottle as far south as I could, maybe all the way to Beloit.

I could have made my excuses, hustled back to my rented room, and began the process of getting myself back to Seattle, but I didn’t. Not right away.

I stopped first at the bar for another beer, and more, for commiseration. How could this happen to me? I’d been riding so high. Why hadn’t she taken care of things? Why hadn’t I? I was older, maybe I should have been more responsible, but we both were so careful. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

My teammates were several beers ahead. My face invited questions. Questions led to answers. Answers led to more beer. More beer led to sarcasm, irony, ribaldry, raunchiness, drunken wit. Soon there were toasts to my virility, cheers for the size and skill of my tool, hip-hip-hoorays for April’s fertile delta. Ballplayers competitively imagined, and loudly described, “April-the-Acrobat.” We argued the best ways to tell, just by looking, how juicy a girl was. Then we got to their smells, their flavors, and the curse of pubic hair between the teeth.

Things did not improve—Kirby simply locked the door to prevent newcomers—as we reduced all women to manipulating cunts, as we hilariously topped each other’s suspicions of April’s motives, as Rocky said “that’s another reason to stick with sheep,” and Carl added “damn it, if they can bleed, they can breed,” But when Arthur, our shortstop, team captain, and my forty-five-year-old line supervisor and I chanted, repeatedly: “4-F, 4-F—Find ’em, Feel ’em, Fuck ’em, Forget ’em,” part of me realized that I was behaving worse than I knew possible and that if in that bar, or watching or listening through some unknown window, were any girl or woman who actually knew me, or was related to me, or might ever meet me, I would have thrown myself in the Rock River and prayed never to surface. It was the worst night I’d ever witnessed, and I was right in the middle of it.

In the midst of it, they did take a collection and I was able to leave for Seattle the next afternoon. In the morning I quit my room, quit my job, signed over my last check to pay the guys back, and threw up. Repeatedly. I was nauseous on the bus to Chicago, and the flight, through delays and bad weather, simply duplicated the morning’s agony. I spent most of the red-eye hanging over the cramped toilet.

We spent Friday together. She had indeed set everything up and the abortion was going to be first thing Tuesday. She’d been resourceful, gotten herself on benefits so it would be almost free, and most importantly, her parents wouldn’t know. We didn’t talk a whole lot, just walked around campus holding hands. Her body didn’t look any different but her face was a mess. She said she felt like shit. I was pretty weak myself, but I was smart enough to shut up about that, and she didn’t have much energy for me anyway. Because it was a Friday, she was, as she had in the summer, going home for the weekend. We would see each other on Monday, and then drive together to the clinic on Tuesday. She had arranged to borrow a friend’s car that I could drive.

Although there were plenty of floors and couches that I could sleep on, I didn’t much want to be in Seattle and I especially didn’t want to tell anyone why I was back. Maybe I feared a repeat of Kirby’s. It happened that my mother’s birthday was that Sunday, so I decided to hop a bus down to Portland to surprise her. For all she knew, her baby boy was still in Wisconsin. The idea of another bus ride made me cringe, but the thought of making someone happy, especially my mother, really appealed to me. I could get back on Monday, and nobody, especially mom, needed to know the real reason I was in town.

She said she was the happiest mom in Oregon when she saw me, and she may have been right. I stuffed myself with lasagna and because I can be as stupid as the next guy if I give myself half a chance, I drank red wine. With wine I usually just drink a glass, maybe two, but my aunts were pouring and my uncles were singing, and I had a bunch of stuff to not think about. Around midnight, the party broke up, and I was in my old room. A few minutes later, I was back in the TWA bathroom. All the lasagna, all the wine, everything. My misery was so loud my poor mother woke up, and she stayed with me for a few minutes before I could convince her to go back to her room.

I tried to get some sleep in the morning but my body swung from feverish to freezing to feverish, always one or the other. My mom twice made me get up so she could give me new sheets. The afternoon was worse, which I wouldn’t have guessed possible: delirium, shivers, sweat, and more vomiting.

“Mom, I’m a wreck, but I’ve got to get back to Seattle.”

“You’re not going anywhere.” She pressed a warm washcloth on to my forehead. “I’ve already cleared tomorrow so I can stay home with you.”

“No, mom, it’s important, I’ve got to go.”

“Honey, just think if it had happened in Wisconsin! Don’t worry, I’m here.”

She said I wasn’t going anywhere because I wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere. And nothing, she said, was more important than my health. Whatever I thought was so important would just have to wait.

I called April at three o’clock that Monday, my eyes burning as I held the phone, the receiver slippery in my feeble grip. I told her the truth: I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life, that I’d been bedridden and throwing up for twelve straight hours, that it showed no signs of getting better, that every medication I’d taken, over-the-counter and prescription, hadn’t done a thing. There was diarrhea, too. Endless. Everything endless. I told her I was sorry, I was so sorry, but I wasn’t going to be able to be there with her. Maybe her roommate, or the friend with the car, could go with her. I apologized again and again until she finally said “okay, okay, I understand, I really do” and “I’ll see you when you’re better” and then she hung up. I continued sick for two more days. I had never been, nor have been since, so physically ill.

Thursday morning, I was on the nine o’clock to Seattle. I caught a local from the station and went right to the dorm, but her roommate said she had gone home, was staying home for a few days. I called her, but she didn’t want to talk much. She said she felt dead. She said her parents didn’t know and it was hard not telling them. She said all she did was hurt. She said I shouldn’t call her there, and that we should talk next week.

Next week arrived, and we spent another miserable day walking those same campus paths, hand in hand. She said she forgave me. If she did, she’s the only one.

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Tony Press lives near San Francisco. He strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses; Boston Literary; Doorknobs & BodyPaint; 5×5; Foundling Review; Grey Sparrow Journal; Halfway Down the Stairs; JMWW; Linnet’s Wings; MacGuffin; Menda City Review; Qarrtsiluni; Rio Grande Review; Riverbabble; SFWP Journal; Shine Journal; Switchback; Toasted Cheese; Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel; Contemporary Verse 2; Inkwell; Naugatuck River Review; Postcard Press; Right Hand Pointing; Spitball; Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature; Quay; Toasted Cheese. tonypress108[at]gmail.com

Drought

Fiction
Eileen Gonzalez


Drought Along Po River
Photo Credit: Sergio Bertolini

The first time she hears Gina’s voice, she fears it.

She is reading the first question on her first college midterm and suddenly Gina is behind her, crunching granola and hissing a wrong answer in her ear. Carly whips around, face cold and chest hot, and finds nothing but an unused chalkboard. She stares at her test until the numbers blur together and spends the remaining time worrying that the pills have stopped working.

The second time she hears Gina’s voice, she ignores it.

She is driving home for the weekend when Gina chirps from the passenger’s seat, “Red light!” Carly glances up, just long enough to confirm the light’s obnoxious green glare, and doesn’t stop. Gina chatters about comic books and basketball for the rest of the trip, smelling of spare ribs from the take-out place they ordered from whenever they had to study all night. Carly says nothing. When she gets home and her mother asks about the drive, she says “Noisy” and retreats upstairs.

The third time she hears Gina’s voice, she accepts it.

Now she sees an echo of Gina, like a reflection in a fog-covered mirror. She perches on the headboard, her hair a luscious berry red even though it was lavender the day she died. A cat’s cradle links long, paler-than-flesh fingers. Once Carly finishes her history paper, she ties together a pair of shoelaces and contorts them into knitting needles.

“‘Bout time you joined in,” says Gina. “Wanna watch a movie?”

“No.”

But they do.

Gina’s visits come with increasing frequency and solidity as Thanksgiving break approaches; she sits on the table at every meal, heckles Carly’s favorite documentaries, and lulls her to sleep with dirty limericks. Everything seems so normal, so much like before, that Carly sometimes forgets and asks Gina’s opinion while standing in the cafeteria or shopping for hoodies in the school bookstore. At first, she is quick to realize her error and hide in a bathroom until the blush fades and Gina stops laughing. Then she learns to wear a Bluetooth and stops caring, exchanging movie reviews in the mall and laughing at Gina’s jokes as they turn the corner of Eidolon Street. Gina all but lives with her now, and Carly still can’t ask the question that has burned its way through her stomach since April. The flame jumps and flashes inside her as she walks, shriveled scrub tugging at her jeans and sand rising in small puffs with every step. Gina walks beside her, and Carly doesn’t have to look behind them to know they leave just one set of prints.

“Do you think Stonehenge was built with alien levitation technology?” says Gina.

“No.”

“I’m trying to make conversation here.”

“You’re not trying very hard.”

“What’d you expect? You know how lazy I was when it came to everything except basketball.”

That is probably the first truth to ever cross Gina’s lips.

*

Carly remembers her first semester at Tobosa Bluff Academy, a shamefully overpriced boarding school far away from irritable parents. The main building used to be a mission. It now serves as a library, its scuffed silver bell silent except at the start and end of each semester and, as Carly discovered her senior year, the death of a student.

Her second class that day was German, and the professor hadn’t arrived yet. An unfortunate glance through the textbook told her that German had at least six words for the. She was clicking around the school website for openings in any other language course when Gina walked in, school uniform looking awkwardly perfect between aquamarine hair and peep toe pumps that would have been more appropriate in an S&M club than a high school.

Some of the girls, Carly included, briefly stared before returning to their smartphones and laptops. As far as she could tell, she hadn’t done anything differently from anyone else, but Gina took the seat next to hers and said, “So! Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, or Winona Ryder? I have to write an analysis of feminist themes in Little Women, and I’m trying to decide which of the movies to watch instead of reading the book.”

Carly picked Hepburn. It must have been a good choice, because the next night in Observational Astronomy, when Gina once again ambled in and stole everyone’s attention, she sat by Carly and invited her and her boyfriend to the basketball game that weekend.

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Wow, really? ‘S’okay, you’re still invited. Bring a not-boyfriend. You have one of those, right?”

*

Carly’s mouth twitches into something like a grin as they curve away from the road toward open desert. No, she didn’t have one of those. She still doesn’t. Normal girls have friends, not hand-wringing paranoiacs who take more pills than their grandmothers. So when Gina barged into her life with invitations to sporting events she couldn’t care less about and enough enthusiasm to intimidate a golden retriever, Carly allowed her to stay and claim the otherwise unwanted title of Carly’s Best Friend.

True, Gina hadn’t been much of a friend. Friends don’t make fun of each other’s names. (“Carlotta? That’s a thing? I thought it was something Hitchcock made up to sound creepy.”) They don’t distract you with Wii bowling when they know you have a test in the morning. They certainly don’t drag you to comic cons and shove you into unflattering costumes belonging to characters you’ve never heard of. At least, Carly’s pretty sure friends don’t do that. But Gina helped her with her German and taught her enough single-player games to fill every lonesome evening, so if her teasing sharpened after Carly came out, neither of them mentioned it.

Clouds shuffle across the hidden sky, a seamless patchwork of cotton and steel-gray. There have been many days like this lately, dark and promising, but nothing ever changes and Carly can’t bring herself to object.

Gina’s head remains bowed as she walks, avoiding every dry crack in the sand. Nothing bothers Gina, not even the time Carly caught a flu bug so fierce that her roommate abandoned her for a week. When Carly texted Gina to cancel their study session, she got no answer. Carly assumed she didn’t care until she barged in two hours later with an armful of DVDs, insisting Animaniacs could cure all ills. Carly watched it for days after Gina died. It didn’t work. Gina always was a liar.

“Hey look, a frog!”

It takes a moment for Carly to find Gina’s transparent finger and follow it, ending at a black-flecked brown lump sitting beside what is either a small pond or a large puddle. Probably the former.

“That’s a Rio Grande Leopard Frog,” says Carly.

“There’s a mouthful. I’m gonna call him Bean.”

“That’s why you got a C in biology.”

Gina laughs and sits cross-legged beside the… beside Bean, her hand flickering through the oblivious creature when she tries to touch him. Carly feels something molten ripple in her chest, and she wonders why Gina’s presence hurts so much more than her absence.

“Why’d you do it?”

She didn’t mean to say it but there it is, hanging between them in the desiccated air, and Gina doesn’t even have the decency to acknowledge it.

“Do what? Name him Bean? He looks like a Bean.”

“You know what I meant.”

She does, too. Carly can hear the sudden inhale, can see the almost-frown trying to wrinkle her non-existent forehead. When Gina smiles, the edges could cut diamond.

“Well that truck wasn’t going to stop itself, now was it, sweetcheeks?”

“That was the point.”

“It was a stupid point and I should stab you with it.”

“You were going places. You had a perfect roadmap of where you wanted to go and who you wanted to be and all I knew was that porpoises were cute and Argentina looked interesting.”

“What makes you think that?”

“My family’s from Buenos Aires…”

“You know what I meant.”

Carly recognizes mocking when she hears it, but she can’t pinpoint the cause. The long silence must give her away, because Gina rolls her eyes and makes a tch sound.

“The part about me knowing what I was doing? Hello?”

“All that stuff you used to do—basketball, parties, geography club, nerd conventions. You loved everything and everybody, and meanwhile, all I did was sit around staring at walls.”

“Just because I did a lot doesn’t mean I knew what to do with any of it.”

A sweat drop rolls down Carly’s back, and she doesn’t know if she imagines the flush on Gina’s cheeks or if she feels the heat as well. She thinks she hears a crackle of thunder in the distance, but it never rains so late in the year.

“What’s it like being dead?”

“What’s it like being alive?”

Carly’s mouth flops uselessly. Gina laughs as another thunderclap startles a cedar waxwing into flight, its feathers a yellow-gold blur in the corner of Carly’s stinging eye. It disappears long before Gina takes pity and says, “I don’t remember anything that happens when we’re not hanging. Considering what I did to my dad’s favorite chair on my last Valentine’s Day, that’s probably a good thing.”

The smirk Gina gives her is far too reminiscent of the day she asked her to the basketball game. Carly’s responding smile never appears, lost to the hollow feeling of the world slipping through her fingers. Gina’s smirk twists into a grimace.

“Y’know, sometimes I wish you’d grow balls long enough for me to kick them. The ‘oh poor me I’m obviously a failure despite all evidence to the contrary’ act was old before I croaked. It’s probably on life support by now, and trust me, that shit’s no fun.”

“Look at my life!” Carly yells, and Carly doesn’t like to yell but she feels like if she doesn’t do it now, she never will again. “What have I ever done that was worth throwing yourself in front of a truck?”

“You’re eighteen. Unless your name begins with M and ends with ozart, no one expects you to have done anything. I just made sure you had plenty of time to decide.”

“How do you know? How do you know there won’t be another road, another truck, and no other you to step in front of it?”

Carly wonders if there’s a connection between Gina’s look and Bean’s hasty departure.

“Yeah, well, let’s stay away from large moving objects, shall we?” Gina says. “I could try the whole heroic sacrifice bit again, but something tells me that was a one-time deal.”

The desert grows dim. A smoky gray has conquered every cloud, crowding out the white and swallowing shadows. Gina snorts.

“I can’t even believe you. I save your life, and what do you do? Wander around the desert talking about frogs. Don’t you get it? You’re alive! You’re supposed to do things! Discover a new exoplanet! Learn Norwegian! Get laid!”

“You wouldn’t let me. All we ever did was what you wanted.”

“So what’s your excuse now?”

Gina falls silent as the first raindrops hit the sand.

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Eileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, tentatively titled A Nice Wardrobe, will be available on the Kindle in 2014. piedpiper59[at]ymail.com

The Robin and the Red Thread

Fiction
Terry Barca


Red-capped Robin, male
Photo Credit: David Jenkins

I’m pretty sure it was a Friday.

At the very least it was late in the week.

I remember because I like Fridays, not just because it’s the day before the weekend. Every day is pretty much the same to me, I don’t ‘do’ weekends.

It started because my dad taught a sparrow to trust him.

It took months and months but eventually this most distrustful of birds would land on my dad’s hand and eat crumbs.

I always marveled at my dad’s patience.

How many people could convince a sparrow to trust him?

For months after my father died, the little bird would hang around outside the back door waiting for my dad to come out and feed him.

It broke my heart.

The little bird did not trust me; I wasn’t the right human but he would come close and I’d throw him crumbs.

I wasn’t around often enough because gradually the bird came less and less until finally he didn’t come at all.

I had other things on my mind. My dad was dead, my mum was distraught, and I had a young family of my own to feed so I forgot about this brave little bird and went on to live my life.

 

Time flew by and my kids were grown and off building families of their own.

I had time on my hands and a mind that would not behave.

Spending time in the garden seemed like a good way to pass the time.

A garden is different when you are actually in it.

 

Looking at it through a window gives you a rough idea but sitting on a chair surrounded by it, is amazing.

Slowly, you start to melt into your surroundings.

You hear things that you didn’t notice when you first sat down. The birds and the bees seem to forget that you are sitting there and get on with living their lives.

As the years have gone by, I have noticed new species of birds in our yard as each new season rolls around but I had never seen a robin, not until spring a few years ago.

My wife had been working on the back deck and there were threads left over from her project.

A red thread had caught the robin’s eye and he was working his way toward it while keeping one eye on me.

My fascination kept me very still as the robin picked up the thread.

He stopped for a moment, looked directly at me and flew away.

My guess was he was building a nest and needed the red thread to impress his mate.

“Look what I got for you today dear, and right from under the nose of a human.”

I imagined her being very impressed.

The next day I put out another piece of red thread, but he didn’t come back.

I was a little disappointed, but magic rarely happens twice in one week.

I left the thread where it was and when I checked a few days later it was gone, probably blown away by the wind, but maybe he had come back and collected it.

The thought brought a smile to my face and brightened a particularly bad day.

I imagined a small nest with two pieces of red thread running through it and a particularly proud male robin sitting next to it. “Look what I made.”

 

A few days later I found myself in the yard again armed with a cup of strong tea.

On the railing, about where the red thread had been, was a small gold coin.

I know it was gold because I showed it to a friend who collects coins.

 

He said it was not particularly rare but it was solid gold, probably a late eighteenth-century Spanish coin, worth about two hundred dollars, give or take.

There was no logical answer to how the coin got there so I concocted an illogical one; the robin put it there as payment for the red thread.

You think I’m nuts, I can tell; but I don’t care.

 

That day I put out another piece of red thread and a few days later there it was, another small gold coin.

I thought about tying one end of the thread to my finger and seeing if the robin was brave enough to tug on the thread in much the same way that the sparrow had taken crumbs from my dad’s hand.

In the end I decided to respect the robin’s privacy; after all, he was bringing me something he thought I would enjoy in return for the precious red thread.

The ritual stopped at the end of spring but started up again the next year and the year after that.

Spring has begun again and I’m patiently waiting for my robin to return.

It’s not about the coins anymore; I’ve got a trunk full of them and any way you slice it, that should see me through, even if I live to be a hundred.

I just want him to come back because it keeps me connected to something special.

A huge pile of small gold coins is rather special but having a deal going with a wild creature is something amazing.

I might be a bit crazy but at least I know that one small bird likes me.

I’ve got lots of red thread, a big cup of tea, and all the time in the world to just sit and wait.

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Terry Barca is a writer who lives and works in the hills on the edge of Melbourne, Australia. He’s been published a few times but always as non-fiction. Email: araneus1[at]mac.com