Transmutation

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

My mother died fifteen years ago. The last time we spoke she revealed to me confidentially that she had once had two daughters. All I could think of was King Lear.

After her death my sister cremated her and scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean; she wasn’t sure where, she said. The night she phoned with the news, my mother traveled to me in a dream, shrouded in white. She wants me to make a memorial for her in New York, where she was born, I decided. But it was too late for an urn. I needed a grave-marker—not necessarily a headstone—but at least a place for her in my head. My daughter-in-law, a botanist with the New York City Parks Department, had a tree planted in her memory near our apartment in Manhattan. My mother had also been a plant lady, who seemed happier raising African violets than her own children. I didn’t tell my sister about the tree. She wasn’t exactly sentimental.

Finally my mother had a place to anchor her spirit after it had drifted aimlessly around in the Pacific. But the pink dogwood, Cornus florida, survived only into its first winter. The sapling was splintered and uprooted by a vandal, leaving only a blotch of bark behind. It was New Year’s Eve. That spring a second dogwood was planted for her behind a park fence for protection. She had another home now.

The new tree flourished, producing its first blooms about a year later. In tribute I bought a bouquet of baby’s breath and tossed the sprays singly into its heart. It responded that fall by producing a second floral display. My daughter-in-law, of a more scientific temperament than my own, explained it as a natural phenomenon. The tree had hoarded some of its spring buds for an autumn encore, she said. But I preferred to believe it was with my mother’s connivance. A fanciful idea no doubt, because she usually didn’t thank people for anything. The dogwood repeated its performance the following fall. Its branches were beginning to grow horizontally now, providing a haven for small creatures, a maternal instinct my mother hadn’t shown much of when she was alive. After a sudden cold snap I inspected the tree to see if it had been affected by the weather. The leaves appeared to have changed almost overnight from green to bronze, but flower-like bracts enclosing clusters of tiny red berries clung tenaciously to the twigs. Chattering little birds nibbled on the berries and a few squirrels were camped around the trunk. I shivered as I watched them. A nervy squirrel scampered up to me begging for food, but I didn’t have any.
The tree continued its biannual growing cycles for several years, until I returned from vacation one summer to find most of its leaves brown and shriveled. It had been exceptionally hot and because it lacked an umbrella of taller trees to shade it, the dogwood must have succumbed to the heat. I hoped after the winter it would come back. It didn’t. It remained barren throughout that spring and summer, almost hidden behind its abundantly-leaved sisters.

It never came back. Soon it couldn’t even be seen from the other side of the fence. Now and then I checked. No change. One day I couldn’t find it at all, so I climbed over the fence to see if it had really vanished. It had. Parks must have finally given up on the stunted trunk and carted it off. The saga of the tree seemed to profile my mother’s life. But recently when I stopped by the spot where it used to be to watch a few birds pecking at a budding ground-vine, it hit me. Although the Cornus florida was gone for good, my mother meant to stick around, assuming whatever shape she needed.

pencilAfter retiring from teaching Art History to undergraduates for twenty years, I signed up for a memoir-writing class. I’ve been at it ever since. A piece I wrote on teaching English in the Peace Corps in Somalia, “Girls’ School,” appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (Travellers’ Tales, 2011). Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

The Mac

Fiction
Judy Salz


Photo Credit: Brandon Swanson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Brandon Swanson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jessie regained consciousness slowly, one sense at a time. The water flowing over her right hand burned with the cold. Her nostrils stung from the acrid smell of scorched pine trees, and, when a weak cough escaped her lips, she tasted blood. At first she heard no sounds other than the rushing water, then the distant wails of sirens became evident. She opened her eyes and found herself prone at the edge of the river, her twisted right hand dangling in the rapid current. Now fully awake, she evaluated her condition. Looking back, she saw the scorched leather of her boots. She could wiggle her toes. Breathing didn’t hurt. Slowly, she rolled onto her back. To her left was the old oak tree she knew so well.

The large pool of blood congealing on the ground startled her. Exploring her face, her left hand discovered a gash in her right cheek, extending from her ear to the corner of her mouth. Her tongue found that the cut extended all the way through. Why doesn’t it hurt?

In her fifty some years of hiking, Jessie McIntyre Dupree, widow, physician and mother of the only practicing McIntyre Township doctor, had only once before encountered a forest fire. She was seventeen when the 1974 Mule Ridge fire ravaged the mountain. Her daddy, then current owner and great-great grandson of the founder of the McIntyre Lumber Company, had sent out a rescue party and found her sheltered in a cave, unhurt. She shuddered. This time it almost killed me. Jessie lifted her right arm from the river by cradling it with her neckerchief. She splinted it with a small branch, secured it with the scarf, then struggled to her feet.

The devastated landscape of the once verdant mountainside took her breath away. Gray wisps of smoke hung over the denuded landscape. Thick black smoke almost hid the sun, a ghostly pale disc suspended near the horizon. Jessie tried reconstructing the day, but could only remember parking the jeep at the trailhead in the morning. Post-concussion amnesia, she told herself. What happened? She searched for clues, but saw only the blood-stained soil and a drop of fresh blood by her right foot. Damn. Can’t put pressure on a through and through laceration. Her fractured wrist throbbed. Time to call for help. Her cell phone had no bars and no signal. I can make it home if I can get to my jeep. She reached for her backpack, but it was gone. No! Without the flashlight, hiking in the dark would be chancy. She craved the water and power bar she always packed for emergencies. Hope turned to despair with the realization that her wallet and keys were also in her backpack. She eased herself back down onto the river bank. Supine, with her feet elevated on a nearby rock, she might stay conscious longer. The blood from her cheek slid past her ear, pooling in her silver hair. Her watch said five-forty-five. It was nearly dark, and even curled up, Jessie shivered under her thin jacket in the October twilight. I should have told Leo I was coming up. If nobody comes looking for me I’ll be dead by morning. She closed her eyes.

*

Leo paced at his front door, running a hand through his thinning brown hair. His mother had promised to babysit Joey tonight. Uncharacteristically, she was already a half-hour late, and he knew something wasn’t right. He texted her, but got no response. He tried her landline and was switched to voice mail. He called the members of her bridge club, but none of them had spoken with her today. He thought about driving to her house to check on her. She was no spring chicken any more and refused to wear a medic alert pendant after his father died. His palms were sweaty and his heart pounded. Where the hell is she?

Joey, four years old, pulled on his father’s pant leg. “Where’s Grandma?”

“I’m not sure, honey. She should be here by now.”

“Maybe she got lost in the woods.”

Leo wheeled around to look down at his towheaded little boy. “What did you say?”

“Maybe she got lost in the woods. She told me she was going hiking today.”

He picked Joey up and ran into the kitchen. “Kate, did Mother tell you she was going to the mountain?”

“No. Why?”

“Joey just told me that Grandma went hiking today.”

Kate took her son into her ample arms. “When did she tell you?”

“Yesterday on the phone. She said she’d bring me pinecones when she came over tonight.”

The evening news had been reporting nonstop about the forest fire and how it still wasn’t under control. They were looking for hikers, but hadn’t found any. The search would continue tomorrow morning after daybreak.

“Oh, God.” Leo called Fred Ames, the fire chief of their small town and his best friend since childhood.

Fred’s gravelly voice answered on the first ring.

“It’s Leo. I think my mother is up there on the mountain somewhere. She’s overdue here and Joey just told us she went hiking today.”

“Damn. Jessie ought to know she’s too old to hike alone. I’ll notify search and rescue. We’ll find her.”

Leo was already loading his emergency medical equipment into his truck. “She may need my help, the stubborn old fool.”

“Meet me at the station. We’ll take the ambulance.”

*

Daddy held her right hand so tightly that it hurt. He pulled her along, racing to catch the bus. Snowflakes were coming down thick and fast and her hands and feet were freezing. The faster they ran, the further away the bus stop seemed to be. They wouldn’t make it. She started crying. Joey gave her bubble gum, but the bubble she made came out of a hole in her cheek and was streaked with blood. Jessie woke with a start. The sky was black, but there were no stars, and the pale moon hid behind the dense curtain of smoke. She felt her fast and thready pulse. I’m bleeding out. Her watch read seven-fifteen. It was quiet except for the crickets and the rushing water next to her. No one knows where I am. No one will come for me. She forced herself to stay awake, fearful that the next time she drifted off would be her last.

*

“Jessie!” Leo’s bullhorn broke the silence every few seconds. Fred wrestled the wheel, keeping the ambulance in a more or less straight line along the dirt road, avoiding the few hot spots smoldering here and there. The lingering haze diminished visibility to only a few yards ahead.

“Car says the temperature outside is forty five.” Leo rubbed his eyes. They stung from the smoke filtering in. “Mother, where the hell are you?”

“We’re almost to the rendezvous, Leo.” Fred shot a sideways glance at his friend. “It gets easier with more searchlights and more personnel. “If she’s out there, we’ll find her.”

“If? Where else would she be? My mother’s loved these mountains since she was old enough to walk! She knows every inch of the terrain. It would be almost impossible for her to get lost here. She must be injured or sick.” Or dead, he thought, but quickly squelched that idea. Two police vans appeared out of the gloom and the ambulance rumbled to a stop.

Fred was out of the ambulance before Leo could open his door. “What have we got?”

“Nothing yet, chief.” The deputy’s flashlight illuminated the creased and soiled map spread out on the hood of his van. Heavily gloved fingers stabbed at areas already searched. “We’ve been here and here and here, but no luck.”

Leo wasn’t trained to read terrain maps. The only thing he recognized was the river, snaking its way across the page. The river his parents visited every weekend. The river he fished in with Grandpa McIntyre. Mother loved that river. Hell, it was even named after her family—the McIntyre, but everyone called it the Mac.

“I know where she is.” The sound of his own voice startled him. “She’s down by the river. If she’s anywhere, she’s there.”

“The Mac flows for miles through the back country, Leo.” Fred’s hand swept across the map. “Does she have a favorite spot?”

*

Daddy’s chisel notched another line in the big old oak tree by the river. “That’s three trout you caught today, Jessie. Good job!” The tree trunk had become a chronicle of the McIntyre saga. The heart with Grandma and Grandpa’s initials, the date they married, the date her parents got married, the date she was born. A new date had been chiseled under her birthdate, one she’d never seen before. 10-10-14. Jessie jerked awake. No, no, no. I can’t die today. I need to watch Joey grow up. Tears poured down her cheeks and she tasted the saltiness that seeped through her open wound. She wondered again why her cheek didn’t hurt. Stupid old woman. Why did I come up here alone? Because this mountain and this river and this tree are part of my life and I can’t stay away just because my husband is gone. That’s why. The cold water running past her head was so close and her mouth was so dry, but she knew if she stood she’d pass out. Her left hand found a twig long enough to reach the river. She immersed it, brought it back to her mouth and licked the water off. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of chimpanzees finding termites in trees. At least my sense of humor is intact.

*

“Stop! There’s Mother’s backpack!” Leo leaped from the ambulance to retrieve it.

“She probably dropped it.” Fred restarted the engine, and the ambulance, followed by the two police vans, continued toward the river.

“No. You don’t just drop a backpack. It has survival gear in it. Mother is a seasoned hiker, Fred. She’d never abandon it.” He rummaged through it, finding her car keys. “Damn.”

They continued along, calling her name with the bullhorn. As the searchlight pierced the darkness, something metallic glinted off to the side of the path.

Leo pointed. “Look!” They veered to the left, following it until they found the source.

“Don’t touch it.” Fred restrained Leo’s arm when he bent down to retrieve the bloody knife lying half hidden in the dirt. “It’s evidence.” The policemen took photos from every angle, then placed a plastic bag around it and lifted it off the ground.

Leo stared at the butcher knife. “You think that’s human blood?”

“Won’t know until we take it to the lab, so we need to treat it as if it were, until we can prove otherwise.”

One of the officers called for backup. “Possible crime scene here,” he reported. “Secured for now.” They drove on.

Leo’s hands shook when he retrieved his mother’s wallet from the backpack. As he’d feared, the credit cards and cash were gone. Bile backed up into his throat and, unable to speak, he handed it to Fred.

“Dear God,” Fred whispered.

*

Jessie knew her hold on consciousness was slipping away. The ringing in her ears drowned out even the sound of the river and her eyes were losing focus. Now I know how it feels to die. Her mind reviewed the bright and sad moments of her life. Wearing the green academic robe when she graduated from medical school. Her wedding day. Leo’s birth. Her parent’s deaths. Leo and Kate’s wedding. Joey’s birth. Her husband’s agonizingly slow battle with cancer, and the day she buried him. It was a good life, all things considered. She so wanted Joey to remember her, but, being only four years old, it was doubtful. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye. The quiet was suddenly shattered by the sound of her name. “Jessie! Jessie!” I’m coming, Daddy.

*

“There she is!” Leo jumped from the still-moving ambulance with his gear, hurtling over rocks and logs to get to her. She lay on her back, feet up on a rock with her eyes closed. “Mother!” he yelled. No response. “Jessie!” He shook her gently.

Fred knelt next to him holding his flashlight on her. Her skin was deathly pale, her breathing shallow and her pulse, when Leo finally found it, was barely perceptible.

He turned her weathered face toward him and saw the oozing gash on her cheek. “Oh, God. Keep breathing, Momma. I’m here now.”

The two policemen brought the gurney and helped Leo and Fred lifted her off the ground. Leo gasped when he saw the amount of blood pooled next to her.

“She’s in shock. Needs fluids. Start IV, give oxygen.” He babbled his orders out loud while his shaking hands tried frantically and inefficiently to do everything at once. Her veins were collapsed, so he inserted a needle under her skin and infused fluids that way. Unaware of anything other than his mother, he looked up only when the medevac helicopter whipped up the dust around them as it landed. Two paramedics sprinted toward them and Leo burst into tears. He had help, and equipment and rapid transportation. Most of all he had others to share the responsibility with him. Terrified of losing her, he knew his clinical judgment had vanished.

“Doc, let us get to her.” The first paramedic put a blood pressure cuff around Jessie’s arm, pumped it up and left it inflated. A vein bulged slightly in the inner crook of her left elbow and he inserted a needle, deflated the cuff and hooked her up to a bag of saline, running it in wide open. He moved the cuff to her other arm and repeated the procedure, working around the twig splint. The other paramedic hooked her up to the portable AED. Her rhythm was rapid, but regular. He administered oxygen and covered the gash on her cheek with a large gauze pad. Leo sat to the side on a rock watching all the activity, too emotionally spent to utter a sound or offer to help. Leo followed the gurney to the helicopter and was helped on board. When the helicopter rose into the air, he remembered that he hadn’t thanked Fred. Too late now. He’d thank him later.

*

The sound of sneakers thudding in the clothes dryer was louder than normal and Jessie wondered if Leo had put in too many pairs. She opened her eyes to ask him and three men immediately leaned over her. Frightened, she snapped her eyes shut again. Who are they? Where am I? She had a fleeting memory of a man with a knife and struggled to escape. Firm hands pressed her shoulders back down and a familiar voice said, “Easy, Mother. Relax. You’re safe now.”

Leo? She opened her eyes again. “Leo,” she whispered. “What happened?”

“Welcome back.” He squeezed her hand. ”Too much to tell you now. We’re in a helicopter on our way to the medical center. You’ve lost a lot of blood. Your blood pressure’s come up a bit with two bags of saline running wide open, but I’m sure you’ll need to be transfused. At least you’re more stable than you were when we found you.”

“Found me? Where was I?”

“At the Mac, near Grandpa’s tree.”

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but Leo kissed her on the forehead. “Rest and conserve your strength. We’ll talk more later.”

*

When Jessie awoke, the morning sun was glinting off the IV pole next to her bed. Familiar ICU equipment beeped and flashed. She’d actually managed to sneak in a few hours of sleep between the nurses’ vital signs checks and the lab tech’s blood draws. Her tongue found the sutures closing her inner cheek laceration, and her hand found the bandage outside. Blood dripped from IV tubing, and a clean white cast encased her right arm, from her knuckles to below her elbow. When did all that happen? So much of yesterday is gone.

Leo walked in to her room, his face all smiles. “Good morning, Mother!” He bent down to kiss her forehead. “Any pain?”

“Not as much as I expected. My wrist is sore, but my cheek isn’t. It hasn’t hurt since I woke up at the Mac.” She shrugged. “I thought it was odd then, and I still do.”

Leo winked. “Okay. Neuroanatomy 101. What gives feeling and movement to the cheek?”

“The seventh cranial nerve. The facial nerve.” Jessie’s eyebrows rose as she said it, then knitted together. “Of course! It was severed. One mystery solved. I must have fallen and cut it on a rock.”

“How much do you remember about yesterday?” He sat on the edge of her bed, his face suddenly serious.

“Not much. I remember parking the jeep and waking up on my belly with my hand in the river.”

“Nothing in between? Think hard. It’s important.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” Jessie’s hand trembled as it touched her bandaged cheek. “It wasn’t an accident?”

Leo answered the knock on his mother’s door. “Detective Mumford from the police department is here to interview you. I’m not allowed to stay for it.” He ushered in a middle-aged, portly man. “Mother, Detective Mumford. Detective Mumford, my mother.” She nodded to him and he nodded back. Leo headed for the door. “See you later,” he said over his shoulder.

The detective settled himself into a visitor’s chair and opened his laptop. “Dr. Dupree, I’m sorry you were injured and glad you were rescued in time to save your life. This interview will be recorded, with your permission.”

“Okay and thanks. Call me Jessie.”

“Jessie it is. I’m Frank. Jessie, did you have your backpack with you yesterday morning?”

“Of course!” she snapped. “You don’t hike without water and supplies.”

“Was it with you when you woke up?”

“No.” She rubbed her brow, remembering her surprise when she couldn’t find it. “No, and I thought it odd. You don’t just misplace your gear.”

Frank’s direct gaze locked on her. “I know after head trauma, a victim often has memory gaps surrounding the event.”

Her eyes widened. “Victim? Event?” She couldn’t get out more than a whisper.

“Dr. Dupree. Jessie. Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “Your backpack was found about a half-mile from you. Do you remember dropping it?”

Jessie closed her eyes. A rough hand grabbed her from behind. She kicked and screamed. Her body jerked.

“Jessie? What are you remembering?”

Her eyes opened. “A man. Strong. Rough hands.”

“Good. It’s coming back to you.” His tone was calm and reassuring. “What else?”

“Can you describe him?”

“He was behind me. I heard his voice.”

“What did he say?”

“He yelled ‘Bitch!’ when I kicked his leg.”

“Then what happened?”

She closed her eyes again, trying to conjure up more, but nothing came. “Sorry, I’m drawing a blank.”

“It’s okay.” Frank reached out to pat her, caught himself, and returned his hand to his lap. “What he was wearing? Did you see his face?”

“An Australian-style bush hat. He had stringy long grey hair.” Jessie shook her head. “I didn’t see his face.”

“Anything else?” Frank settled back in his chair, like he had all the time in the world.

The monitor behind Jessie’s head chimed and she twisted around to scan the display. Her blood pressure was up, and a nurse appeared at her bedside, thumbing off the alarm.

“Sorry, sir. Can you step outside for a moment?”

When he was gone she leaned over to straighten Jessie’s pillow. “Have you had enough for today? I can ask him to leave, if you like.”

“Thanks. Would you ask him to come back later?”

After lunch, she settled down for a nap. Her breath came in shallow gasps. The thick black smoke stung her lungs, and the uphill terrain didn’t help make running any easier. She slowed to a walk when the flaming trees felt like a safe distance behind. Her backpack hung heavily on her shoulders, laden with the bottles of water she’d brought. She sat down on a rock and eased it off. Fishing a bottle out, she drained it in one long swig. The river was still a good half-hour away. She glanced at her watch. One-forty.

Jessie opened her eyes, rolled over, pulled the blanket up around her, and fell back asleep.

The fire had erupted suddenly and spread quickly, blocking her way back to the trailhead and her jeep. The Mac, she knew, led to safety. Rested, for the moment, she resumed her run for the river at a slower pace. Cleaner air made breathing easier, and she loped along for another fifteen or twenty minutes, concentrating on the ground ahead, to avoid stumbling. The arm suddenly thrust around her neck from behind had a big beefy hand holding a knife to her cheek. Her boot sought and found a shin, and she kicked hard. ‘Bitch!’ Her right hand closed over his, pulling the knife from her face, but he twisted his hand and hers. She heard the snap of bone accompanying the sharp pain in her wrist. The pain of the blade piercing her cheek was also sharp, but only momentary. She figured it was only a superficial scratch until the blood began dripping down her chin. The weight of her backpack suddenly lifted from her shoulders, and she turned to see the back of a tall brawny man wearing a tan Australian bush hat running with it at a pace she knew she couldn’t match. He had a slight limp, like a knee was stiff.

“Sorry to wake you.” A different nurse was at her bedside checking her vitals, so Jessie knew she’d slept through the shift change. It was three o’clock. “Your son called. He’s bringing his wife and your grandson to visit after his office hours are over. I thought I’d get you up a little early so you’d have time to pretty yourself up a bit.” She finished her chores and left.

Jessie sat up and pulled the bedside table to her. She knew the lid of the little drawer had a mirror inside. The face of an old woman looked back at her, and she automatically made a clinical assessment. Elderly woman. Hair—silver-gray, short, unkempt, bloodstained. Skin—weathered, lined, thickened. Large bandage covering right cheek. Swelling and mottling of skin over right side of face. Right eyelid swollen and discolored. Lips swollen. This old woman can’t be me. Jessie slammed the mirrored lid shut as tears began to flow. Joey can’t see me this way! Her left thumb found the nurse’s call button and she pressed it hard. “Tell them not to come.”

*

“When can I see Grandma?” Joey’s lower lip jutted out in a pout. His soup spoon made circles in his bowl, but didn’t gather any broth.

Kate sat with him at the kitchen table, not eating much either. “Soon. Daddy will tell us when she can have company.”

“We’re not company! She’s Grandma!”

“You’re wise beyond your years, little man.” Kate ruffled his hair. “We can visit when she’s ready or you’ll see her when she comes home. Your grandma had a hard day yesterday and she needs to feel better before you see her.”

“Can I at least talk to her on the phone now?”

“We’ll call her when Daddy comes home, okay?”

His chin sunk down to his chest. “Okay.” He climbed on to his mother’s lap. Arms around her neck, he clung to her silently for a moment. “Did I really save her life?”

“Yes, you did.” She kissed the top of his head. “If you hadn’t told us she went hiking we wouldn’t have known where to look for her. Daddy told you. Remember?”

*

Leo had suggested that his mother stay with him for a week or so after her discharge, and she’d gratefully accepted. Cooking for one was too much bother and eating alone was worse. At her insistence, Joey had been told in advance about her appearance, but Jessie realized it didn’t matter when he scrambled on to her lap and covered her with kisses. He made her promise never to get lost in the woods again. She promised, and they shook on it.

After dinner and Joey’s bedtime, Kate, Leo and Jessie lingered at the dining room table. “Detective Mumford called me today.” Leo took a sip of coffee. “What you told him plus the fingerprints found on the knife and your backpack should make finding him easy.”

“Easy if he hasn’t already left town. He could be anywhere by now.” Jessie sighed. “Was I a random victim, or did he bear a grudge against me?”

“Mother, no one we know would ever want you harmed. You’re highly respected around here.”

“Not by everyone, Leo.” He opened his mouth to object, but she raised a hand to silence him. “I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think who could want to do this to me. I came up with one.”

Kate refilled Jessie’s cup. “Who on earth?”

“A couple of years before I retired from practice I had a sweet lady come in with a breast mass. She had forgotten to get her mammogram the year before, although I had scheduled it for her.”

“So it wasn’t your fault, Mother.”

Jessie again put up her hand and continued. “It was highly malignant and she died less than a year later with widespread metastases. Her husband accused me of missing the diagnosis because I hadn’t reminded her to keep her mammogram appointment. He threatened to sue, but his lawyer told him he didn’t have a case because I had scheduled her exam. Her husband appeared in my office shortly after her death, leaned over my desk and delivered a tirade, telling me that he would never forgive me, I was negligent, uncaring, and on and on. I remember listening without comment knowing that, in his frame of mind, he wouldn’t have paid attention to anything I had to say anyway. When he finished, he turned on his heel and walked out my door. He had the same limp I saw last week.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“I’ll never forget it. Willis. Charles Willis.”

*

Jessie sat at her kitchen table drinking tea and watching two robins squabble over a branch in her back yard oak tree. Her finger traced the healing scar on her cheek. The surgeon had done a neat job putting her back together and she knew the purple would fade with time. What wouldn’t fade was the nagging fear that her attacker wasn’t through yet. Ever since returning home last month, over Leo’s objection, she remained on guard for any unexpected sound. Leo had seen to it that she wore a medical alert pendant before living alone again and, although she wouldn’t admit it to him, it gave her some reassurance. Growing older had not been an issue for her until her encounter with her reflection in the hospital’s mirror. There was no more denying reality. Her cell phone’s ring interrupted her gloomy trend of thought. She reached for it with her right hand, now free of the cast.

“Hello?”

“Dr. Dupree. Jessie. This is Frank Mumford. I have some news you.”

Jessie didn’t care if he heard her sharp intake of breath. “Good news?”

“For you, yes. For Mr. Willis, no. His remains have been discovered in the Mac this afternoon, along with his Australian hat.”

She could hardly hear over the blood pounding in her ears. “Are you sure it’s him?”

“His DNA matches the blood we found on the knife. Apparently, he was nicked during your struggle. His body also has the scars of knee surgery on his left leg. Your recollection of his limp clinches it.”

“Cause of death?”

“We’ll know for sure after the autopsy, but it looks like suicide. He had a weight tied to his ankle. Best we can figure, he rowed to the middle of the river and jumped overboard. A dinghy found smashed along the rocks downstream is being hauled out for investigation.”

*

It was mid-December weather on the mountain and Joey giggled when he saw his breath. He cupped his mittened hands to his mouth, trying to catch it. Leo walked ahead, carrying him, and Jessie and Kate walked behind. Jessie had mixed emotions this first hike after her attack. Memories of joyous days spent here during her childhood and with her husband, and Leo as a little boy softened the flashbacks of the attack and waking wounded by the riverbank. The Mac’s swift current burbled over the rocks.

“Here’s our tree!” Jessie reached out to touch the bark.

Leo pointed to a crudely carved message under a cross. “C.W. 10-10-14 An Eye for an Eye.”

“His suicide note,” Jessie whispered. “He thought he killed me.”

Leo took his penknife from a back pocket.

“Don’t destroy it, Leo. It’s part of our family history now.”

With great care, he added a new message.

12-17-14 JESSIE LIVES.

pencilJudy Salz, a semi-retired physician, draws on her years of medical practice, patient encounters and life experiences for inspiration. Her short story “Mikey,” published in The Literary Nest, won the fiction contest. “Reunion” and “First” were published in Flash Fiction Magazine. “Disembodied” appears in A Story in 100 Words. “What Does Old Feel Like?” appears in MUSED BellaOnline Literary Review. “Diaspora,” will appear in Poetica magazine. “Passing Birds” will appear in Helen Literary Magazine. A native New Yorker, Judy now lives in Las Vegas enjoying the sunshine and lack of slush; the only thing missing is the beach. Website: judysalz.com. Email: drjls[at]cox.net

When You Were Young

Fiction
Melanie Griffin


Photo Credit: Rolf Venema (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Rolf Venema (CC-by-nc-nd)

Your lieutenant calls you up while you’re trying to get to the end of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy issue you’ve been able to get your hands on, the one where Star-Lord finally figures out who his dad might be. You’re squinting at the words, sprawled on your bunk next to Jenkins and his phone call home.

“Mom.” He shouts, holding the receiver sideways like his walkie-talkie. “Mom—yeah—hello? Mom? Mom.”

“Kahn.”

Jenkins bashes the phone back into its receiver, shaking the particleboard table that crouches between your beds. “Piece-a shit.”

You feel the shudder travel through the steel frame into the filling on your molar. Your shoulders hunch as if ignoring the order, but only as a microscopic arc of rebellion that immediately swoops up as if it’s a natural start to standing.

“Kahn.”

You straighten to attention, brushing crumbs off your undershirt on the way. “Sir.”

Your lieutenant nods and you relax, although not noticeably. He’s three months younger than you but better at caring, better at blocking the lazy doubts that creep into every crack with the sand.

“Your turn, Kahn,” he says. He doesn’t look back to make sure you shrug on your jacket or buckle your helmet, but he walks away to the rhythm of your gun clacking together.

By now you’ve gotten better at ignoring the yells of “Kahhhhhhhhhn!” that sometimes band together into a unified chant, pushing you out the scrap of door you’re always afraid will break on the backswing. But when you get outside, you inhale the silence and try to keep it in your nose like your girlfriend’s shampoo.

She’s your wife now—you keep forgetting that, keep missing her like you did in high school when her family took her away for a weekend that stretched out into forever and back before you could make out again late on Sunday.

You take off your plain gold band when it’s your turn, button it into your breast pocket because you’ve heard of bullets being stopped that close to a heart by a thick stack of paper, and surely metal beats paper. Your wife would like that story, anyway. She believes in God.

*

Back in the States, a teenager is starting her afternoon by muttering “Sorry” to the cracks in her sneaker’s toe. She wants to disappear between them. But all she can do is blink to not cry and set her own face ablaze with humiliation.

“What’s up, guys?” Above her bowed head, a teacher’s voice floats. It’s mild now, but it’s one she’s heard go stern, usually in the lunch line to remind everybody that French fries aren’t worth fighting over. “Come on. Break it up. They’re not even that good.”

Now she keeps her chin down so they won’t see how well they’ve done. She says nothing.

“Get to class,” the teacher says. His shadow is shorter than hers, and when she gets a cold her voice is deeper, but he’s the one they listen to. “Shoo. I got a fresh pad of detention slips. Don’t test me.”

When she no longer hears their charm bracelets tinkling, no longer smells the chemical peaches and raspberries of their body washes, he squats down into her line of sight. He picks up the uneven halves of what they have taken from her and dashed onto the concrete.

“Con…” He reads part, then flips another piece over and studies it. “Stance. Gripple.” He squints up at her. “That you?”

In the sun fierce and direct overhead, she nods.

He looks at the CD still at their feet, bounced from the broken Walkman and glaring a fractured rainbow. “I like your style, Connie G.” His knees pop when he stands up, but not as much as her dad’s. “If you need some music, I think I can help.”

She follows him inside, trailing the pale stripe of skin showing between his collar and the bottom hem of his haircut. It’s her break, and she doesn’t want to walk home at the end of the day in silence, and nobody’s ever called her Connie G. before. She likes it.

*

It’s quiet in the sniper nest.

(Too quiet, your brain insists on finishing, but just because you saw that in a movie at an impressionable age. As far as the rest of you is concerned, it’s never too quiet when it’s your turn. You pray for boredom.)

High above the rest of the base, tucked in the crotch of a functioning electrical pole (if you bump it with a fist, Skaggs’s porn DVD will waver on the rabbit-ear TV by his bunk), you let your eyes roam naked to the hills. They’re the same as ever; undulating tans you’ve almost memorized as they shift through the patterns of their days, with the angled metal shock of camp springing up under your chin. You can smell the latrine if you sniff too hard and taste the first salt of sweat beading on your lips. It’s got more seasoning than those flash-fried potatoes you got with your powered orange juice.

Nothing moves, so you strap on your binoculars, settle your rifle into its stand so it points alert at the horizon, and fish an extra wire out of the pocket labeled with your name, the one with the Velcro you keep loose so it won’t catch on itself or snarl out loud. The earbuds you find are a bitch to fit in with one hand, and, strictly speaking, not allowed, but the iPod they’re attached to connects you with home.

You won’t admit how much you need that except when you’re up here alone and scanning the landscape for death.

A flick of the thumbnail you need to trim floods your ears with shimmering guitars and a mournful voice. It makes you want to dance, or at least push a tuneless sing-along out of your throat, but you have learned to stay still.

So still that between drills and raids and four-hour nights of Skaggs’s moans and Jenkins’s wails (they are both terrible mufflers) and nothing ever breaking up the desert as it wavers and bakes in the sun, your eyes blink for longer and longer seconds. At some point they stay down for an entire song, the one that blared over your girlfriend’s car stereo as she drove you to the airport for deployment. She didn’t listen to anything but the pop station, and that with only half an ear.

“I’ll pray for you,” she said, around tears and a kiss she’d started using on your wedding night. You’d nodded and kissed back and smiled with the cocky assurance of a second go-round, but you never did catch her gaze and sometimes you wonder what she thinks—

The whistling pop and searing chest pain rip into you at the same time. You’re wide awake now but can’t move, can’t get down any further than the wooden planks your head is drumming into splinters out of your control, can’t scream to drown out the music that’s still playing, somehow, assuring you that he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman like you imagined when…

*

In the teacher’s classroom, she takes the disc he offers with fingers careful to grip around the edges without smudging. She studies the title and band suspended between them, scrawled in the same color Sharpie she had used to label her player.

“It’s for you.” The teacher leans against his desk, looking smug to ignore the untidy stack slanting towards the computer behind him. Its monitor’s boxy side touches the papers’ edges. “For your drive home.”

She blushes at the bounty of the gift and what she has to tell him now. “I walk.”

“You walk.” A furrow between his eyebrows deepen into deliberate expression. “Oh. Shit.”

She nods at the Emily Dickinson poster peeling off the wall beyond his shoulder.

“Well.” He moves behind the desk, which is two tables pressed into an L so she can see the bag he leans down to root around in. His hands stop moving before he stands up, and when he shows his face to her again, it’s decided something. “Here.”

His knuckles, brushed with the cuff of his sleeve and bisected by a gold band, cover the new offering. She hesitates to put out her other hand. He lets his own drop to the desk and reveal the smooth sleek cigarette pack of a portable music player. Its middle is circled in insulated wire that unwinds to dangle earbuds in a tempting pair.

She looks at them a long time, unconsciously counting the clock ticks that fill the void. “Mine?”

“For the afternoon,” the teacher says. “Overnight.” The word thuds between them, and he clears his throat. “Just bring them back.”

She takes it, slips it into her nearest pocket, in the jeans that don’t quite cover her ankles anymore. It doesn’t resist and is hidden quickly, before she’s ready. She imagines this is how the bad girls get away with stealing lip gloss at the drugstore.

“Thanks,” she says. She makes herself look at his eyes. They’re a green that shifts from dull to bright as she watches. “I appreciate it.”

“Try the Killers,” he says. He grins. This is what he really likes about his job, she thinks, a flash of stark grown reality making the glee shine bigger from his stubble. “I just got their new album on there.”

The bell pierces their bubble and she turns to rush to class, only now remembering she hasn’t filled the pursing emptiness in her stomach yet and Mrs. McAllister won’t let food get anywhere near calculus, figuring how many hours she’ll have to babysit the neighbor’s dog—they always take their children with them—to replace her Walkman.

On her way home, she takes the player out of her pocket, adjusts the earbuds, and swirls the controls with a private marvel she conceals in ducked-head boredom. She does what he says, and she learns that he’s right. He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, either.

*

They send you back pinned in purple and heart-shaped copper. You are full of honor, and a certificate signed by the President says so.

Your body rejects pop music like spoiled milk, triggering a violent voiding of rage over whoever is closest.

On your first ride out of the hospital, your wife turns the knob of the car radio. For a second you’re more grateful to her than you’ve ever been, pleased at her intuition that the only thing worse than silence right now would be mindless chatter, sure that you’re in the right hands. But when the Killers come on, you start punching without thinking.

“Shut up,” you say, faintly aware of something tearing, of something gushing out of you, but you don’t stop. “Shut up shut up shut up shut up—”

She takes you right back to the hospital and checks herself in for a black eye. You get to talk to a nice lady a couple times a week. You sit in the overstuffed armchair across from her wingback and watch the wrinkles around her mouth move her bleeding lipstick up and down, and you hug her softness before you walk out her door, towering above her and feeling a little like her son.

You don’t have to pay her, or for the pills she hands you in bottles swallowed by your palm. You take them on time, according to the ding of the egg timer in the kitchen you share with your wife again. You let them wash through your bloodstream and whisk away your brain, and you feel like you finally know what it’s really like to get high, not like when you fucked around with pot in school, but to let go of control completely and not give a shit that you don’t have it anymore.

The pills are nice.

But the bullet finds you every night. Sometimes it’s your gut and sometimes it’s your heart and, one time, your spleen, memorable because you didn’t realize you knew where your spleen was. You wake up soaked and sore and staring at the rigid back of the woman you love.

Or you would, if she could stand to sleep with you anymore.

She stays for six months before bursting into tears and saying, “I can’t take it anymore” like she was the one who got shot, and you hand over her music and her God and don’t protest when she leaves because this is a movie scene you’ve been rehearsing in your head for half a year.

Your life moves on in its slow grinding process, indifferent to whether you’re still holding on. After considering the bullets they kept in the rifle they let you bring home, you reach out your hand.

*

The girl grows up.

In a year, she goes to college, setting her sights on the out-of-state school her parents don’t like and the major that is projected to make less than her summer babysitting gigs. And yet.

And yet her practicality nudges its way through her haze of idealism. She counts her savings, once, twice, three times a week to the beats humming through her own iPod, the one and only major purchase she’s made. She’s set it up like the teacher’s.

She lands a scholarship that does the heavy lifting of her tuition, and a part-time job shelving in the school library to almost cover her meal plan, and it all rushes into reality faster than she can get ready.

“Well,” her father says at the airport. He looks everywhere but her face. “Off you go.”

Her mother hugs her, crushing the padding of backpack stuffed with new underwear still in its vacuum sealed plastic wrap, and whispers he means he loves you, he really does. The girl mostly believes it.

She says her goodbyes and takes the first really deep, clear breath of her life as her parents fade to the other side of Delta’s automatic door. She presses play through her front pocket and pulls her eighteen years stuffed into a trunk to the security line before they can both take off.

*

When you meet the girl, you are two weeks into being thirty years old.

Eight years of change have passed, dragging their heels into the dirt of the moment but flying along the road of time. You’re still not quite sure how that works.

“You’re wearing that?” Your girlfriend—not new, exactly, but the differences between her and your wife and the blur of women you’ve been through in between keep surprising you—nods at your plaid with her purple stegosaurus cap.

You look down. “Yes?”

“Good.” She grins and brushes against the part of you that reminds you of sin and Skaggs if you’re not careful. You catch the keys she tosses you as she sails out the door singing show tunes.

You’re meticulous about locking up, securing the one-room flat stuffed with books (hers) and food (yours) and Internet (you share). That instinct and your gun leaning against your side of the white iron bed are all you’ve kept from before. Your girlfriend insists you keep your gun empty; you argue mildly but suspect she’s right.

You follow her bright tufts of hair escaping from the stegosaurus down the stairs lining your apartment building. It’s like the barracks, hastily put together with cheap material, but shellacked with a veneer of permanency.

*

Across town, the girl lifts a martini glass unknowingly in your direction, aiming at the three female coworkers clustered around the small wrought-iron table. Her drink tastes like a melted Skittle undercut by cough syrup, and she smiles nervously to have something to do with her lips besides sip.

One of her coworkers catches her smile and widens it on her own face. “Oh my god, we’re so glad you’re here.”

“And there,” the coworker to her right says, pointing a stirring stick at the office cube farm they came from. “We are so excited to work with someone who, like, knows, you know?”

The girl is not sure what she knows at this point. She is here because it is the first Friday night of her first full-time job, the end of her first autumn week without homework, the beginning of her first weekend in her own place, fully and unequivocally alone. She is terrified.

“The food was really good,” she says. The girl can think of her coworkers’ names, but the lemon drop loosens the cement of certainty without their name badges, which have all been tossed into purses, so the girl addresses the group.

“Yeah, but the rest of this place is kind of boring.” Her third coworker glances around at the dark polished wood, mostly empty. “We’re heading out in a sec.”

“Karaoke!” says the second one as if she’s already got a mike in her hand.

The girl freezes up until a melody starts in her head and she hums along without hearing herself. She knows what song to sing, at least.

*

You get to the bar at the same time, taking a step back and holding the door open for a gaggle of women tottering on high heels. The last one in is the only one to glance higher than your forearm, the only one who doesn’t look like she wants in passing to lick your Don’t Tread on Me tattoo segmented down to your wrist.

“Thank you,” she says, and your girlfriend’s disapproval softens around her glasses.

“You’re welcome,” you tell the last girl as you all step into the looming cavern of colored Christmas lights and sputtering tea candles. You part like different schools of fish at the bar, where at one end a lift of your finger gets your drink in under the five minutes it takes the girls on the other side to decide.

“Youths,” your girlfriend says, but without her full venom. You clink your whiskey sours and she makes you flip through the songbook.

The girl fiddles with her straw, letting her mind rest idly on appreciating your symmetry.

“Oh my lord, that is the hottest man I have ever seen.” Coworker—Bethany, yes, suddenly it’s there as if written in her neon nail polish—fans herself with a cocktail napkin.

The girl nods along with the swell of chorusing agreement, refraining from bursting any bubbles by pointing out your date. The punk music that has been grinding away in the background cuts off.

“Awrightawrightawright! Time to get sangin’!” The growling carnival barker draws what crowd he can manage into the next room, including your girlfriend’s eagerness pulling you along.

“We have to sign up! Come on!”

And you go, because the only other times you’ve seen her this purely excited is when there is strawberry cake and she can eat it.

The girl ends up following you again, stopping at your elbow, mirroring your semi-amused expression when it sees the makeshift wooden stage and the machine smaller than your video game system at its edge. You share a brief bond of doubt before a bartender you don’t recognizes bounds onto the platform and touches a button. A name pops up on the bare plaster wall behind him. He turns around, startled.

“Oh shit,” he says. “I guess we better get a screen. I mean first up—Connie G.!”

The girl is already crimson under the cellophane shades, but it doesn’t go away when her crowd jostles her into the spotlight. She stands unmoving and grim, and your girlfriend whoops encouragement that you join half an octave lower.

And then the song starts.

The girl relaxes into it, drawing strength of familiarity—she sets herself on automatic and won’t miss a note, just like she’s washing dishes or filling up her car or sorting laundry—and the fact that she can’t really see anybody in the overbearing star pointed right in her face. She closes her eyes.

She doesn’t see you change. Your girlfriend doesn’t see you change. Nobody sees the bullets rushing at you or the dune rising up to drown you all.

You blink, hard, and it disappears from sight but the panic it leaves behind like salt from a pulled-back wave, or like sand, the sand that gets everywhere so that even now, now, on especially bad days, you will fish out a grain or two from between your sheets and fuck it all, won’t someone stop that goddamn song?

You’ve been rushing the stage, and you only come to when the machine is fighting your grip and you’re dashing it at the girl’s feet as she finally shuts up and looks uncertain about any escape routes that don’t involve forcing her way past your hip. You grab the mike and lunge towards her face, now trapped and very settled on terrified. You press your lips onto hers, pressing your memories and that goddamn song down her esophagus so it will get digested and shit out by a system unriddled by your own holes.

The girl reels back but still can’t find a way down.

“Sorry,” you say into the mike. “Sorry,” you say, and move, and the girl watches you pause at your new girlfriend.

“What the fuck was that?” your new girlfriend says in the middle of the stilled crowd. All you have for her—for them—is a shrug as you push your way out.

The girl eases offstage and lets her coworkers draw tight around her in a protective shield (that still asks what a good kisser you are). Soon she will go back to own emptiness—she can’t bear to call it home yet—and listen to that album, and try to find where it goes wrong.

pencilEmail: mlgriffin2011[at]gmail.com

A Tasty Morsel

Fiction
Melodie Corrigall


Photo Credit: Catherine Roy (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Catherine Roy (CC-by-nc-nd)

Linda was determined to prevent her adversary from storming the castle but too cowardly to pull the plug.

Hours earlier, she had sailed down the hospital corridor, a roast beef sandwich and a coffee in hand, and a mystery novel under her arm. The sight of a bony priest black as a crow crouched by the hospital bed, his shoulders high, his sharp eyes focused on the morsel before him had stopped her cold. She had yanked back her head to confirm it was the right room. It was. The morsel was her ex-husband, a very thin meal, his face as crumpled as stale breadcrumbs.

This was all she needed. She had been looking forward to a restful night. Her ex-husband, who had once seemed invincible, would die within a few days. She was back in town to help her two children through this last challenge. Now that Jason was playing silly bugger, her presence was crucial.

Winston, her son, worn to a wisp by his overbearing father, was immobilized by remorse and guilt. He could hardly bring himself to enter the sick room. Her daughter, bitter from years of abuse and neglect, boiled at the sight of her father and resenting the adulation that he received from his adoring fans. Neither could cope with the relentless plodding of their father’s illness.

“What’s happening?” she said, bursting into the room.

“Mrs. Edwards?” the priest lisped, rising and offering a parchment hand.

“Yes. And you are?”

“Father Beauregard. Your husband asked to see me.”

“I think not. He’s not practicing.”

The victim, still as the corpse he soon would be, stared in her direction, his eyes anxious, his face pinched.

“The nurse called me in.”

“Well, I call you out. I’ll talk to my husband.”

“He’s in a weakened state.”

“I know the state he’s in, damn it,” she said pushing the priest aside.

With a restrained smile, he slunk from the room.

“What’s this about,” Linda said, crossly dropping her purse and plopping down in the still warm chair. “What have you to do with a priest?”

Her husband’s thin blue eyelids fluttered. His pupils drifted towards her, like dead fish in water. Was he even there? His voice, when it came, was as taut as silk thread. Linda leaned forward to hear a rasp, “Need a… (sounds like beast, must be priest).” An electric bolt shot up Linda’s legs and burst from her head.

In his death as in his life, her celebrated ex remained egocentric. The effect on his children of his latest flip-flop, if he remembered it by morning, would not have entered his mind.

Having finally escaped years as her husband’s appendage, explaining to all and sundry that his thoughts were not hers, was she once again to be entangled with Jason and mother church?

That was the downside of marrying a celebrity. And Jason was that: not a five-minute celebrity, a longtime runner whose notoriety had been built on his witty and scathing tirades against the Church. And now here he was hanging around death’s door and calling in the clergy.

If she let him go through with this Catholic elastic snap back, the publicity would be vicious. The media would hound her about the role she had or had not played. His editors would rush to add another chapter to his biography, now at the printer. A wry epilogue: After a life profiting from his hatred of the church, he insisted on the last rites.

Linda collapsed into the metal chair. Stop the press. Right now. No way would she let Jason’s family triumph. She had suffered too many years being blamed by his relatives for taking him from the faith. Years of smiling to soften Jason’s vitriolic public outbursts against mother church. Years of rationalizing his defense when one of his young disciples splattered red paint across a church altar or caught the media’s attention with some other anti-clerical outrage.

The ghost mumbled something; Linda crouched forward to hear the scratches, “A Catholic funeral.”

“No way, no way Jose,” she said, lips still. She refused to put up with that mumbo jumbo. The media would descend in droves to pontificate about what had happened and to question all he’d written.

“First you’re not dying,” she said crossly, “Secondly, we paid for our memorial service ten years ago.” That had been five years before their final split. A time when they were still planning an old age together touring Italy not, as it turned out, divorce and her return to Ontario to watch his last gasps.

The breakup had not been convivial, sparked with hurl-against-the-wall fights. But even after the turmoil and a five-year separation, it bruised her to witness her ex-husband’s fading soul.

And where were the doting fans? The nubile young women and poetic men, who had drifted in and out of their lives for years, the acolytes who had sat at Jason’s feet and worked their way through the family’s wine?

Once again, she was in charge of navigating a safe way forward. With the kids in tow, she had to ensure she didn’t rip any arms or legs off on the rocky coastline. What were her options? Who were her allies?

She jumped up and paced the room. The frustrating thing about hospital visits was the time spent sitting; Linda had too much energy to tolerate stillness. She flipped through the get-well cards guarding the windowsill, a few new ones: from Jason’s publisher, colleagues, and the innumerable fans. There’s a laugh, she said, seeing his longtime adversary and critic Peter Southland’s card. “Hope you get back on your feet.” Yes, she bet he did, otherwise who would be his sparring partner.

Retrieving the nail scissors from the bedside table, Linda hacked the deadheads off the resilient mums. She hated mums, so stiff and hearty.

She needed to talk to someone—someone discrete who would help her to navigate this moment. Her daughter would be in after her fencing class but Linda was too twitchy to wait. In any event, Jill would just add to the turmoil by raging about the room shouting, “How dare he?”

As if on cue, her son Winston appeared in the door. Noting her agitation, he beckoned her into the hall. They sidestepped a crumpled body abandoned in a wheelchair.

“What’s up?” Winston whispered, holding up some tapes. “Da asked me to bring these in.”

“Gregorian chants?”

“I guess they’re soothing.”

Soothing for some, she thought.

Winston would be the last one she’d tell about his father’s request. A reed against his father’s wind, he was too softhearted to stomach any conflicts at death’s door. She took his hand and squeezed it affectionately. After a brief update about the grandchildren, her son slipped into the night. Linda wished she could join him, get back outside to the chilled air, but if she left, the crow might return.

Perhaps Jason was hallucinating on the medication and would laugh about it if he regained his senses, but what if he did want a Catholic funeral? What could she do? She pulled out her notebook and listed the possibilities, unsure whether they were, in fact, options.

  1. Pull the plug now. The doctor said Jason had only a week to go; he was medicated to ease the pain. But no, she was not up to playing God, especially when Jason had not asked her to do so. Not asked recently in any event. They had talked about it when they were younger and supported the Dying with Dignity group.
  2. Leave it for him to choose but get out of town fast. That would put Jill in the hot seat, not fair. Her daughter had spent enough of her youth fielding the paparazzi.
  3. Give Jason the right to choose. Give? That showed how far he had fallen. Then what? His family coming on strong to arrange it all. “We’ll have the ceremony at the Cathedral” his brother would announce and she would attend and sit with the kids, head dropped forward, her tail between her legs.
  4. Not tell anyone, just bar the priest from the door, and hope Jason slipped across the river Styx before any damage was done.

The Marseille chimed from her cell phone. “I’m on my way,” Jill cried over the traffic noise.

“I found him talking to a priest,” her mother blurted.

“Bugger it, it’s the damn fundraisers. Grandpa Downs donates so much to the hospital, they’re after more.”

“Apparently your father asked for one.”

Linda almost added, “Worse still, he’s talking about a Catholic funeral” but her mouth snapped shut. Why did Jill have to know? What could she do?

“He’ll have forgotten by morning.”

“Probably. Yesterday he asked for Aunt Bess—dead ten years.”

“There’s a traffic jam, mom. It’ll be another half hour.”

“Never mind coming; he’s out for the night. Come tomorrow.”

“And the doc says?”

“Only another few days.”

This time she would be strong. She would sit outside the door like Cerberus guarding the gate to the underworld. Who needed to know? If they swooped in for last rites, she’d tell the papers Jason hadn’t been tough enough to fight them off.

She perched on the unyielding metal chair near the door and tried to imagine herself as a short stubborn bush with roots firmly planted. It would be a long night, the morning was uncertain, but she would hold firm.

pencilMelodie Corrigall is a Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in Blue Lake Review, Bartleby Snopes, Litro UK, FreeFall, Toasted Cheese, Six Minute Magazine, Mouse Tales, Subtle Fiction, Emerald Bolts, Switchback, and The Write Time at the Write Place. Website: melodiecorrigall.com. Email: mjcorrigall[at]gmail.com

An Interesting Case

Flash
Claire Polders


Photo Credit: William Patrick Butler/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: William Patrick Butler/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In the matter of doctors, I prefer the ones who are young. They’re still interested in your body. When you put your ailments on display, they act as though you’re handing them a scientific article stuffed with fascinating, mind-blowing facts.

Some people wouldn’t dream of surrendering themselves into the care of great inexperience. A doctor’s face without wrinkles gives them the creeps. Not me.

Once I suffered a skin condition that wouldn’t let up after fighting it with the usual armory of moisturizers, cortisone creams, salt water baths, dry-brushing, soda-soaking, oils, ointments, cold compresses, disinfecting sprays, and long hours staring in awe. I went to see a dermatologist in Paris. He was an older man. As he listened to my complaints concerning my mysterious affliction, he worked hard at giving me the impression he had seen every possible human skin disease imaginable at least a thousand times. From across his desk, he glanced at the red patches on my lower arms and suggested he should test me for perfume and metal allergies. As if I hadn’t heard that one before. I was as bored listening to him as the man was of looking at me. So I got up and left.

I don’t like doctors all that much, generally speaking. And particularly speaking, I dislike the ones who are patronizing or uncurious. For years, I avoided doctors completely for that reason until I developed a peeling condition and went to see a podiatrist in Florence. She was a young woman. She had just graduated from whatever program you go through before they let you touch anyone real and alive. When I showed her my heels, she pushed her glasses all the way up her nose, which heartened me. She also turned on the spotlight above the white-papered gurney on which she had asked me to lay down. Afterwards, she bombarded me with personal questions that I couldn’t answer truthfully without telling her the truth.

But that old dermatologist in Paris? Not a single question. That is why, in the matter of doctors, I prefer the ones who are young.

If the older man in Paris had only asked about my habits, my likes and dislikes, my own suspicions, if he had been as curious as his younger colleague in Florence, he might have learned that I used crushed chili peppers to create these beautiful patches on my skin, not perfume or metals. The thing is: older doctors are not shocked easily, so you can be more truthful with them. The problem is, however, that in their eyes, I am lost, whereas in the eyes of a young doctor, I am an interesting case to be solved.

pencilClaire Polders is a published Dutch author of novels, short stories, and nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in anthologies and magazines in The Netherlands and in France. One of her pieces was included in 25 under 35, the Dutch equivalent of Granta’s 20 under 40. She’s currently writing her first novel in English and sending out her first short prose in English. Email: cp[at]clairepolders.com

Line of Sight

Flash
F. C. Brown Cloud


Photo Credit: van Ort (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: van Ort/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

When I fell in love with the actor, it wasn’t because he was beautiful. He was, of course. Hollywood puts only beautiful men in the movies. But I’d convinced myself that he had real warmth. Those expressive eyes! His smiling mouth! And I never could believe that all the things he said were screenwriter-penned lines. I believed in him, as a person, a unique individual with whom I’d developed a genuine connection by watching him onscreen.

His part is prominent for the first third of the film but then he’s inexplicably absent for the remainder. With each viewing I have forty minutes, more or less, before he disappears and the movie drags on for another hour and a half. I’ve seen it so many times. With later viewings I hoped to spot some detail that would explain why he was gone. Although it’s true that, in the beginning, for my first three or four times, let’s say, I hardly noticed how strange it was for his absence to go unremarked. In one scene he walks out of the camera’s line of sight and that is all for him.

As I watch again today I have to pause during that scene, the final scene for him. I freeze the action onscreen and say, “Please, I know you’re going to leave, to disappear until I have time to watch the entire film again. Could we share at least one parting kiss before you go? Something to mark this moment and make it special, instead of letting it slip like sand away?”

He turns to look at me. He nods without speaking. I step toward him and reach out my arms and he falls into them and we kiss, tentatively at first but within moments open-mouthed. I see a tear glide down his cheek. He knows as well as I that soon I will press “play” and he will step off screen and that, for whatever reason, will be the end. As long as the movie lasts we will not see each other again. Maybe I’m squeezing a little bit too tightly because I know that this is fleeting.

pencilF.C. Brown Cloud received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University but, grasping at happiness, abandoned research and now writes full time. He has published articles in The Journal of Cell Biology and Molecular Membrane Biology. Brown Cloud lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his wife, an award-winning science teacher, and young daughter. He can often be found running with a pack of adolescents in his capacity as volunteer coach at the local high school. Email: fcbrowncloud[at]gmail.com

Oops

Poetry
Marne Grinolds Wilson


Photo Credit: Kate Sumbler/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Kate Sumbler/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

That look from you, that tone of voice, and suddenly
I am not an adult woman arguing a point with a colleague.
I am 8 years old again, working with my daddy,
and being told “That’s not the way you hold a shovel,”
That’s not the way you plant lettuce,”
That’s not the way to close the gate.”
Then the object in question is ripped roughly out of my hands,
never to be entrusted to me again.
I learn two interlinked lessons:
it is the worst thing in the world to be wrong,
and I am always the one who is wrong.

Later, after I am married, my husband develops
his own way of handling the same situation,
less violent but no less condescending.
When I do something that he does not like
or simply cannot fathom,
he always has the same response: “Oops.”
As if to blot out, with that one word,
the possibility that there might be motive behind my actions,
that I might have a reason for doing what I’ve done.
In his mind, it can only have been a cute mistake
from a wayward girl with no mind of her own,
and so he graciously gives me the opportunity
to realize the error of my ways.

Now here I stand with you,
someone younger than I am with less experience,
and still you take that tone of voice with me,
assure me that what I did was very wrong,
lecture me on how I can keep myself safe
from committing the same error in the future.
Can you blame me for walking away from you
before you think you are finished?
But I suppose you think this is just another mistake on my part.
Oops.

pencilMarne Grinolds Wilson was born in North Dakota and now lives in Parkersburg, W.V. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as Atlanta Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Texas Review. Her first poetry chapbook, The Bovine Daycare Center (Finishing Line Press), came out in July. Email: marneswilson[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Diane Webster


Photo Credit: Breigh Hammarlund/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Breigh Hammarlund/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Untied Knots

Like tweezers her fingernails
pinch each knot and loosen
its grip from the lengthening
strand patiently hearing
her mother teach
not to waste any string
because it will be useful
later lying wound
in a ball in the junk drawer
the same as I save
old shoelaces now
in pairs draped together,
and I wonder if she
would secretly itch
to tie them together.
Unanswered

Do my letters cause you to cringe
when you see my printed envelope?
Do you bury my words in your purse
like a pauper casket in a grave?
Do you burn my thoughts
into curly wisps blown away
by unconcerned wind?
Do you read and pretend
you’ll answer later
because later is always later?
Do you secretly wish
you could write “return to sender”
or “address unknown” and hope
I wouldn’t know the writing
because I’ve seldom seen it?

pencilDiane Webster enjoys the challenge of picturing images into words to fit her poems. If she can envision her poem, she can write what she sees and her readers can visualize her ideas. That’s the excitement of writing. Her work has appeared in The Hurricane Review, Eunoia Review, Illya’s Honey, and other literary magazines. Email: diaweb[at]hotmail.com

Sisters

Poetry
Angela Inez Vargas


Photo Credit: purplegirlalyssa/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: purplegirlalyssa/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Her long black hair sticking down
to the waist. We could be sisters.

She looks the strong, silent stock and
hard up for self-service, just like I was once.

Her teeth look as untarnished as spring’s carefree song,
I bet she smiles diamonds that light up your world.

But a scarlet residue sticks to my skin,
long-soiled and steeped in your scandal.

Your chopped beef squirms dumb questions
Like washing out the daggers you once flew.

You want to know how I’ve been?
I pawned everything, except these pearls

the shop owner said were worthless.
I also learned to kill and start over on command.

Twisted polish until my soul shined,
Your moonshine slime was only the beginning.

And, oh, how I dreamt of seeing you this high,
two lofty towers regurgitating lies and

framed at the altar of your lovely defeat.
And this freedom I cling to, once dear to us both,

still creeps in your loins, once mine, but never enough
to spread sweetness on your finger-heavy grip

as you pushed it all down to please your own girth.
Oh, how I clawed my way out of your words.

What I wanted to say is that you look loved,
Cherished, honored and maybe even obeyed.

And how I love the mirrored sameness of her face.

pencilAngela Inez Vargas has lived most of her life in Puerto Rico and is now pursuing a master’s degree in Comparative Literature and Translation studies in the New York area. A DIY enthusiast and filmophile, she speaks English and Spanish fluently but is passionate about French. Although most of her poetry and articles are in English, she is currently working on a collection of short stories in Spanish. Some of her writings and videos can be found here. Email: angela.vargaspr[at]gmail.com

Three Poems

Poetry
Jonathan Shipley


Photo Credit: Erik Jackson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Erik Jackson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Those Flowers

You wandered the art museum aglow.
Under certain light you are happy.
O’Keeffe always painted herself
in those flowers. The curve of a
woman has quiet beautiful color.
You wonder aloud what it must
be like in New Mexico this time of year.
The mountains must have snow.
How many shades of white are there?
What emptiness can fit on a canvas?
A wall. A lifetime. You sat on a particular
bench staring at a particular painting.
People shuffled by— me, too.
I wanted to leave you be.
I wanted to leave you to yourself.
Expressionless, you sat for quite awhile,
as long as O’Keeffe finished
a cup of tea gazing out her morning
window to a horizon only she could see.
I came back for you, held
your hand, and wandered out
into a life painted white.

 

A Burst Cord

I think my body will fail me.
I know it will. Not soon.
Maybe soon.
How many bones are in these hands?
How would I describe the color of my blood?
I worry about my heart.
My daughter can’t take care of it.
She’s young. It’s hers, but
other bodies can’t perpetuate your own.
My skin creases at the weight of
thought. Lungs fill with the unknown.
Not soon. Maybe soon the
answers will slip into my body—
a growth on my liver, a burst
cord in my neck— and as
my body drains itself of
whatever alchemy it possesses,
my daughter will lay my body
into the ground. It’ll wash into the
earth, seeking the nourishment
the living never knows of.
The color of lilacs over a grave’s stone.

 

Failure

I failed you.
I know this now.
I stand on this beach
and no matter
how loud the waves
crash I can
still hear you.
No matter how
far I walk out into
it, I can still hear you.
No matter how
much I go out
into the dark swells,
I know that I failed
you. But the ocean.
It never fails.

pencil Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in Seattle with his daughter. His writing has appeared in various publications like the Los Angeles Times, Fine Books Magazine, and Meatpaper. Email: jonshipleysemail[at]yahoo.com