A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

Darren C. Demaree’s timely collection of poems in his latest book, A Fire Without Light (Nixes Mate Books, 2017) is brave, empathetic, and soulful. The poems shine a bold and searing light into the universe of Trump America. The poems were a surprise to me because they are very different from the other collections I have read and reviewed. They were also very exciting to read—an honest, poignant reaction to the political aftermath of an election that for many Americans felt surreal and unbelievable. In fact, my first thoughts were of George Orwell and his dystopian prose.

Demaree’s collection filled me with wonder. There were moments that took my breath away—and still do as I still ponder the poet’s prose during my daily ride to work as I drive by this one giant blue Trump election sign still intact and seemingly weathering its open, wild, and wintry environment quite well. My imagination takes over and I wonder: Has it been replaced since the election? Its message certainly seems appropriate to date.

Also noteworthy is structure. I liked the structure of the collection. The poems have the same title as the front cover, but slightly differ with the addition of numbers and are interestingly not in numerical order. The first poem begins with #3 and the last ends with #702. More than seven hundred poems composed about one subject. Wow! I wondered about that and then about the order, but was soon distracted by their content.

“A Fire Without Light #10” immediately caught my attention as it evocatively addresses a fire as it burns through a forest:

Blunt limbs, refusing to bloom, refusing to be kissed
by the wind, you hold no webbing to catch my heart.

I came to a full stop when I finished and quietly shuddered as I turned the page. Number 10 disturbs me now as I look out my own sunny window to the surrounding pines and wonder about that burning forest, what or whom the fire truly is, and if there may be any trees left in four years.

In “A Fire Without Light #4,” I returned to thoughts of alternate universes and dark places of the twentieth century:

Imagine the outcome is camps. Imagine the outcome is
walls around those camps. Imagine the outcome is love
shredded by barbwire around those camps. Imagine a
fire without light consuming all of us that do not see
the light and cannot lie about seeing the light. Imagine
I could escape. Imagine I choose not to. I know what
happens in a world like this. I did not think I would
have to stop imagining it.

Yet, among some of the disturbing ideas and imagery there is a beauty that transcends. A beauty in metaphor that Demaree brings to the surface in that earthy way of his that evokes such response in me:

“A Fire Without Light #325”

Bark and saw, I read the phrase “peaceful ethnic cleans-
ing” today, and I lost my posture for a second.  I crawled
into my own heart and I died for a second. I went into
the basement to look at all of my own secrets that I
always manage to metaphor into something awake yet
still hidden, and I pulled them down around me…

I know that place the poet speaks of and from. I went there, too, for a moment as I read and reread those beautiful words and thought from the private chambers in my own heart. I remembered the long-ago places I used to go and their keepsakes that only I know. And I felt safe, untouched. And I wondered if one day I might discover an inedible truth and die there, too. The poem continued to speak to me:

I had to remove whole parts of my person to live
in the world I wanted to…

I ached as I read this line. I thought about the words. I thought about the poet, his pain and his message, and the people he speaks of. Americans who are Americans but not Americans (on paper). It hurt.

“A Fire Without Light #86”

There are dead men still running on anger
and racism. There are dead women kept on budgets by
those angry and fearful men. We have universities, but
nobody thinks about islands when they live in a land
without tides…

The words are meaningful, timely. And again I think about how they could also have been written a hundred years ago and have an equal effect. There is light in Demaree’s prose as well, as he also speaks about a return to normal and hope:

“A Fire Without Light #23”

We don’t need more light. We need to breathe. We need
our leaders to not be dragons. Wrong. We’re all dragons
now. We need to learn what to do with all this fire. We
need to secure the safe places.

 

“A Fire Without Light #40”

Timelessness isn’t a thing. Everything ends. Even the
memory of the end will be lost immediately.
What we hold is a small burning. The hope is that there
is enough light to see each other’s faces through the
heat, the smoke, and the vernacular of the elements.
I don’t see anyone right now, but that doesn’t mean this
moment is over. That isn’t what it means at all.

Darren C. Demaree’s  A Fire Without Light is about borders and division in this country. The collection is a kaleidoscope of earthy-political images that mirror the startling 2016 election, the chaos and civil unrest of this presidency that is America today. Demaree speaks directly to the why and wonder of it all.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently, A Fire Without Light (2017, Nixes Mate Books). His eighth collection Two Towns Over was recently selected the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and is due out March 2018. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

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

Posted in Uncategorized

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: PJ Nelson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

It is winter when the tree blooms. Sarah watches it out of her kitchen window, her breath fogging up the glass. The sight of it sets her pulse galloping.

“Andrew,” she calls, picking up the pot of coffee and pouring another cup. Her husband, shivering in the cold morning, comes to stand beside her. They watch the tree as Andrew takes several gulps of coffee. The silence—the knowledge that sits between them, heavy as all three of her babes piled in her arms—hurts nearly as bad as remembering.

“I’ll tell the kids not to eat the fruit,” Andrew says. He moves away without another word.

Sarah stays by the window until the coffee grows cold in her hands. Her brain is a pit of snakes, writhing, reminding.

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

The words, heard nine years ago, are fresh as the snow fallen that morning. Sarah thinks of the woman—the witch—of her white hair and brittle hands, and she wants to take her children into bed, keep them there till ice thaws and their other trees bloom.

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

Andy, during the last snowfall of a particularly hard winter.

Elizabeth, on a day so cold wet eyelashes froze together.

And every time Sarah gave birth she feared what she might push out between her legs—a child black with rot, a screaming mouth full of maggots. Or perhaps a child shrunken and wrinkled, already dead inside of her.

But she gave birth to three beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed children who said please and thank you and (almost) always listened to her.

And now, seven years after Sarah pushed Josephine, red and screaming, into the world, the tree bloomed. Tiny green shoots press out of spindly branches, reaching toward a gray sky. Sarah pulls the curtain over the window, heads upstairs to wake her children.

The next day, the tree’s leaves are full and there are small, pretty, baby apples hanging on its branches.

Sarah sends her children out to play in the snow—“don’t eat those,” she warns them, and they nod dutifully.

Inside, she cleans the house. Every five minutes she runs to the window—every time her children are far away from the tree, launching snowballs at each other. Andrew, chopping wood beside the barn, doesn’t take his eyes off them.

Sarah cannot stop thinking about that day nine years ago. It is branded into her, a wound that never heals. Remembering is ripping the scab off, letting it ooze again.

As she cleans the kitchen, suds soaping up and bubbles popping, she is reminded of the smell of his skin. Harshly clean, like he had come to her straight out of the bath. Perhaps he had.

Sarah gets down on her knees and her bones begin to ache, her hands red and raw.

He had tasted of sweet salt, like he had nervously sweat on the drive over, let it dry before knocking on her door. They were never ones for words. Their version of talking had been lips between thighs, soft “oh god”s offered up to heaven. Whether in pleasure or in asking for forgiveness of sin, Sarah has never been sure.

When her children come inside, their cheeks are red as ripe apples.

They chatter to her about their game over dinner. Sarah smile and nods, but she sits at the table in a spot where she can see the tree out the window. She swears its leaves grow even as she eats.

If she closes her eyes, she can see his skeleton suspended in dark earth beneath the tree. She wonders—as the tree has grown, have his bones moved with its roots? The image of a root snaking through a skull’s eye is stuck in her mind.

“I’m going to cut it down tomorrow,” Andrew tells her. When she thinks of Andrew with an axe, she doesn’t think of him next to a tree but standing over a pool of blood. A body, empty.

“Good,” Sarah says. She rolls over to sleep and the full moon shines in through their window. It is hours before her brain quiets enough to let her go.

The next day, Sarah breaks a plate. It isn’t a snap-in-half kind of break—it’s a shatter, send-shards-deep-into-crevices kind of break.

“Go outside while I clean this up,” she tells her children. Josephine bundles up the younger ones and they troop outside.

Sarah crouches and digs out ceramic shards, grateful that she can’t see the apple tree for a moment. Earlier she saw that its apples were round and glistening in the cold morning light.

He had gone into town, but Andrew promised the tree would be gone by afternoon.

Just as she is getting the last of the shattered plate off the floor, there is a loud clatter as someone runs back inside.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth sobs, and Sarah is up in a heartbeat, tossing the plate remnants into the sink. Her youngest is crying, snot and tears mixing. Her mouth is black.

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

“I don’t feel good,” her daughter says, throwing herself forward into Sarah’s arms. Elizabeth sniffles. “Mommy, I’m sorry.”

“What happened, pet?” Sarah asks. Her voice is calm, hand steady as she touches her daughter’s hair.

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

Sarah’s heart stops. She takes her daughter by the shoulders and wrenches her away, crouches down to look at her. Elizabeth’s blue eyes are dark, like a cloud has passed over them, and black liquid oozes slowly from one corner of her mouth.

Elizabeth pulls an apple out of her pocket—it has one bite taken out of it. The apple’s insides are made of mold.

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

Elizabeth’s sobs have quieted to hiccups. She nods. “It was Andy’s idea,” she mumbles, but Sarah knows better. Elizabeth, her sweet, youngest daughter, has long been the troublemaker. The one who steals cream from the fridge, feeds the cat pieces of cheese, climbs far higher in the trees than she knows is allowed.

Despite the panic crowding her lungs like one too many cigarettes, Sarah goes to the door and opens it.

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

She doesn’t quite understand how normal her voice sounds. How even it is. It is what she sounds like when she calls them in every day.

There is a choking noise from behind her. Sarah whirls around to find Elizabeth hunched over on all fours, black sludge pouring from her mouth.

“No!” Sarah cries, running, but before she can reach Elizabeth, her daughter is back on her feet, and it is not her daughter any more.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth says. No, Sarah tells herself, this is not Elizabeth. “Mommy,” the thing says again. Its eyes are black and dripping. Its mouth is a gash in its face.

“Hi, pet,” Sarah says, but this time, her voice shakes.

Behind her, the door rattles, and two voices drift through. “Mommy?”

The voices are wizened and old, voices of throat cancer and strep throat, of sickness and phlegm. It is the voice of the witch—of his mother—when she cursed Sarah so many years ago.

Elizabeth—what was Elizabeth—lunges. It moves faster than a child. It screams like a mountain lion in heat.

No time to think, Sarah moves. She opens the door right as Elizabeth runs at her, lets her youngest slam into her two eldest, closes the door behind them. If Elizabeth is lost, surely her other two are as well. Surely they will come after her.

Sarah turns, heart ready to vomit itself onto the floor, to find all three of her children looking up at her through the window in the door.

They look hungry.

She yanks the curtains closed, throws the bolt across. She runs around the house, locking every window, blockading every door. Her mind sings her a song—all of your fruit born in winter be rotten, all of your fruit born in winter be rotten. She can hear them, scraping at the doors, screaming.

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

The shrieks, the noises. Not all of their windows have curtains. Her children peer inside, their eyes black as a moonless night, searching.

Sarah is about to let them back inside—to finish what she began, to end the cycle, to let the rot take her. It is already inside of her. It has been inside of her, festering and growing, for years.

But there is a sound from the driveway. A car, pulling in.

Andrew.

 

Ten years ago, Sarah and Andrew married in a quiet ceremony. Sarah’s parents were eager to get her out of the house—only daughter, a burden. Andrew had a farm, inherited from his family. Means to take care of their daughter. They pushed her out, eagerly put her hand in his during the ceremony. Sarah kissed him on the lips and felt nothing in the pit of her stomach.

But him—him. She met him at the market when summer was at its fullest. He sold her a basket of peaches, and she told him that she would bring him a jar of her peach jam. She brought him one a few weeks later, and he invited her to come see the harvest of plums he had not yet brought out from his truck—they fucked twice in the backseat, once fervent and needy, the next quiet and slow, with the kind of eye contact she had ached her whole life for.

Between laundry and starting dinner, a whole afternoon before Andrew was due back, he would come by. He drove a red truck—Sarah loved the flashiness of it, like a bright fall apple during a hard Canadian winter. He would knock, all politeness, and she would let him in, lead him to the bedroom. Kissing him was inviting summer into her mouth.

But Andrew came home early.

Sarah heard his truck, pulling into the driveway, and her fear was a worm in her throat. She leapt out of bed, yanking on a nightdress. Beside her, he tried to get dressed, fumbling with buttons.

“Who’s here?” Andrew’s voice demanded. It had taken him longer than she would have thought to run inside, but when she came out of the bedroom she knew why.

Andrew stood in the kitchen, dark eyes glinting, axe in hand.

 

Sarah rushes to the window to see Andrew arrive, peers out—her children, or what were once her children, rush toward his truck.

Sarah sees his lips move as he gets out, calling to the children before he can see them. She wants to warn him, wants to say something, but there is still a bit of her old lover lodged in her brain. She will never scrub the blood from her mind, never forget how the soft moan he made while dying was just like the one he made in her bed.

Was it worth it? Andrew had asked her, eyes dark as the bottom of their well. She saw nothing in them. Was it worth it?

When she thinks of the decade of ice between them, of the scent of blood, of the way he smells after sex, Sarah does not open the window. She does not call to her husband—she does not warn him of their children, rotting from the inside out.

She watches as he sees it. Their eyes, black as his own—their mouths, grinning mold. She watches her middle child, named for his father, hand Andrew a half-eaten apple. Andrew stares down at it. Sarah watches him grapple with what lies in front of him.

Rotten fruit. Crazed children. Are they children? He takes too long to figure it out, to realize that Sarah’s dead lover’s mother has cursed them into a horror story. To remember the words Sarah repeated to him after she heard them. Andrew does not hear those words in his sleep—he does not begin each winter with a chest of glass.

The children rip into him. Sarah flinches at the sight—teeth in neck, blood spurting onto snow. Her husband’s blood is so hot it melts the snow down to the ground. The sight makes her think of her children’s art projects, of the way they paint with abandon. She hunches over, her lunch splattering into the sink.

There are screams. She cannot tell whose they are. When she raises her head, looking out, they are done.

They stand over their father’s body, pulling flesh from him. They try to eat, then spit him out, then cry. Great sobs, black tears streaking down their cheeks.

She can only hear the high keen of her eldest. Josephine, standing over her father, looks down at his body and screams, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Sarah stumbles away from the window. She looks around, wildly. They will come for her next. Does she let them? She wonders if his bones can hear—if he heard her children kill their father, if he can hear them now, screaming. She wonders if he wanted this, or if he would apologize. He was an apologizer. Sorry, Sarah, let me, he would say, press his lips to her inner thigh. Sorry, Sarah, that my mother cursed you and your children.

Innocent. They were innocent.

She begins to sob, sinking to the floor of her kitchen. She stays there for a long time, longer than she should. She should keep an eye on them. She should watch where they go. She should be prepared. But she sits there, tears seeping into her dress, unable to move.

A knife would be good, she thinks after it’s been quiet a while. She yanks open a drawer, finds her best knife. Grabs the second best, two. No, a cast iron pan instead. That might not kill them. She could knock them out, call the doctor—

No, no. Fuck, the doctor won’t be able to fix the problem of a nearly decade-old murder and the rotting fruit of her loins.

There is a loud splintering noise.

Sarah struggles to her feet, the knife in one hand and the cast iron pan in the other.

“Mommy?” a voice says. Her boy. He comes in first. At five years old, he already looks like his father. Same dark hair, but her blue eyes. What a heartbreaker he will be, she thinks, as if she has smudged the black away in her mind. Her baby walks toward her.

“Mommy?” he asks again. He blinks at her. His mouth, black, gapes open.

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

Her son leaps at her, and Sarah swings. It’s a decision that takes a moment—her affair can have no more consequences. It has to end with her, with them.

She hits Andy in the side of the head and he flies across the kitchen, hitting the wall with a thud. Black sludge oozes from his head, drips from the pan.

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

Elizabeth tilts her head like she used to when she was a baby.

“Mommy,” she says. She is holding a fresh apple in her fist. “I’m hungry.”

 

Days after Andrew and Sarah buried her dead lover beneath the apple tree, his mother came calling. She drove her son’s truck, the one Sarah had driven back to his house in the dead of night, her lungs hot as coals.

When his mother climbed out of the truck, Sarah knew it was over. She was the picture of fury. The cold wind whipped her hair around her face, a halo of snow white. The slam of the truck’s door echoed like a gunshot.

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

His mother was silent until she stood right in front of Sarah. She was tall, thick, angry. She was the kind of angry that makes you a murderer. Sarah had seen it days before in her husband’s eyes.

“I know what you’ve done,” the woman said.

Sarah tried to look confused. “I’m sorry,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “Have we met?”

The woman’s hand shot out and grabbed Sarah by the wrist. She pulled and Sarah fell forward, so their faces were inches apart. Sarah could see every line in her face—was assaulted by the eyes of her lover. Gold rimmed in hazel.

“Do you know that they call me a witch?” she hissed.

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

The woman—the witch—let go of Sarah’s wrist. “It isn’t a fairy tale,” the witch said. When she reached out again, this time she had a knife in hand—Sarah flinched, stumbling backward, but the witch just laughed.

“I’m not here to kill you, girl,” the witch said, “just to reap what’s been sown.” She grabbed Sarah’s arm and sliced a cut across her wrist, soft and shallow. Sarah’s blood dripped, hot and red, into the snow.

“Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten,” the witch said. When she let go, Sarah fell, clutching her wrist.

The witch cut herself then, letting her own blood drop atop Sarah’s.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sarah said, then. She clamped her mouth closed. She wished the witch would cut her tongue out. “I didn’t do it.”

The witch stood, wrapping her bleeding wrist with a strip of cloth. Her anger seemed to have bled away, laid itself out on the white ground. She looked almost sad. Sarah watched as her eyes flicked toward the apple tree.

Andrew had dug a hole in autumn, planned to plant a tree by the house come spring for the children he was certain they would have. They dumped the body in first, put the tree on top of it. Cold soil from the barn. The tree wouldn’t survive the cold, sure. But for now it was serving its purpose.

“I don’t imagine you did,” the witch said.“But you started it, see?”

Sarah did.

 

She gets in her dead husband’s car. The keys are still in the ignition. She puts her knife, black with blood, in the passenger seat. When she looks into the rear view, to back out of the driveway, she’s surprised to find that her own eyes are still blue.

They match the sky.

It is a five-minute drive to her dead lover’s mother’s house. The witch still drives his truck, a red apple resting in the driveway. Sarah sits in Andrew’s truck for a moment, and she finds that she is the kind of angry that makes you a murderer.

She thinks of Elizabeth’s last words—I’m hungry.

Sarah is hungry.

The witch’s front door is not locked. She is sitting in front of a roaring fire, covered with blankets. Sarah’s hand clenches around the knife.

“Sarah,” the witch says, turning to look up at her.

Same white hair, same eyes. Sarah looks down at her and into the past. The witch stares into the fire. “Been waiting for you,” she says.

“You’ve reaped what I’ve sown,” Sarah says.

“Yes,” the witch says.

Sarah wrenches the old woman’s head backward, drags the knife across her throat. The blood that spurts is red—like her son’s was when Andrew sliced into him with the axe. The blood streams down the witch’s body, soaking her blankets. The woman makes a gurgling noise and Sarah can only think of her children, of the only good thing Andrew gave her.

She grabs the dead witch by the hair and hauls her out of the chair. The body thuds to the ground, vacant eyes watching as Sarah sits herself down. She watches the fire pop and sizzle, the knife still hanging in her hand. She knows the blade will rust but she can’t bring herself to clean it.

Something is digging into her thigh.

Sarah shifts in the chair, reaches into her pocket, and pulls out the bitten apple Elizabeth had handed her.

Its insides are white and crisp.

Something snaps in Sarah’s chest. The curse is over. She wonders if her children, dead in her house, are bleeding red instead of black. She wonders if she were to peel back their eyelids, she would find eyes the color of a summer sky.

The witch, on the floor beside Sarah, smells of shit and metal and blood. The fire is hot against her skin. She wonders if she should cry, but finds that there is nothing left.

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

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Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She received second place in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s A Midsummer Tale contest, won a mini-contest with On The Premises, and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


Photo Credit: James Gates/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The sky did not lie that morning, clouds covered it as some indecent warning of that which can never be prepared for in adequate fashion. They would turn the world white. They blanketed even the ground and hung down as if in some attempt to find reflection.

It was a year to the day since Amelia hadn’t lived.

Nick and I needed to go into town to get some supplies.

We could stay there. Or we could go right through.

We could go right through the next town and the next town and the next. We could go and never stop, but we won’t.

We’ll return to our one room cabin with a loft for the bed, open to the bottom floor. Separation, but no privacy, except the bathroom.

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

The cats, Mittens and Boots, watched us from the window of the loft. They would not go outside again for days. Country life is sometimes simple, but never more so than city life.

Before we left for town, we cut as much wood as we could. More money for food. We broke down building supplies.

As the morning passed the sun did not come and the cold did not go, it worsened. The sun hid its place in the sky, dim and evenly dispersed, an indicator of day.

We piled the wood up next to the stove. It almost covered the door. If the weatherman was right, in a day’s time we wouldn’t be able to leave the house anyway. The birds and small animals skittered frantic, never far from their nests and holes.

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It meant that the shelves would be picked. We would get what we could. The wood should have been cut the day before, the supplies acquired, but our mare, Joan, had begun to birth a foal. Though we had attended the birth and given it our best efforts and lost sleep, we lost them both. We should have done better.

Death comes in threes. Last year had been unseasonably warm. The first two deaths had been chickens, taken by coyotes. We didn’t talk about the third.

Amelia.

A year later, death had come again. Two down. No telling who the storm would take. I turned to Nick.

“It’s all up here,” I said. I pointed to my head and grinned.

“Can you tell me where it is in the house so I can go get it?”

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

He looked at it. “I don’t know why we had to do all that,” he said.

There was no reason. Numbness drove me. I felt none of the urgency I should have. This had been true for some time. My notice of it was occasional.

He started the car. “I love you,” he reminded us both without looking at me. He squeezed the steering wheel.

“I love you,” I said back.

I didn’t look at him. I looked at the day. I looked at the year. I looked away but it all looked the same.

The truck tried to make it up the hill. More and more the truck tried to make it places. It made a noise. Chunky, like everything fixed inside it had come loose.

It sputtered. Something tight contained, connected to the other noise in an indiscernible way. We ignored it because we didn’t have time for something like that.

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

Much as it could for something that had never been alive.

“Shit,” Nick said. He hit the steering wheel. CPR for cars, it never works. For CPR to work, you have to break ribs.

Cars have no heart or breath to start. No ribs to break. There were no numbers attached to their deaths. They die alone without envy of our threes.

We got out and looked under the hood.

“There’s a coolant leak,” he said. “We need to patch it and put in more coolant. Otherwise the engine will get too hot and will just run itself into oblivion.”

We were just between the general store and our home. Two miles in either direction.

We didn’t have any coolant or patches. He undid the stick that held the hood up. It slammed back into place. The first flakes fell onto it, melting with the heat left by the engine in some strange taunt.

We looked in both directions. The birds had not yet stopped their calls, beseeching nature not to run her course. More snowflakes were quick to follow.

“We won’t make it to the store and back,” I said.

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

I had a hat with flaps, but my ears were numb within five minutes.

Don’t get me started on my nose.

I tried to walk up close with Nick, for warmth, but it was hard to keep up. He was walking as if trying to lose me.

By the time we got home the birds were silent. It had snowed four inches. About one every ten minutes. We started a fire. We stood in front of it. There was nothing to say. The fire popped and crackled. Boots and Mittens wound around our ankles.

We sat at our table and shared a can of chili for dinner. If all had gone as planned, we each would have gotten our own. He went up to the loft and there produced a bottle of whiskey from the depths of his bottom dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for the next storm,” he said.

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

It raged outside. The wind howled, stealing any other sounds.

I took a drink straight from the bottle. There was no reason to be fancy. It was warm in my chest, my blood coming alive.

“We should take a look at what we have,” I said.

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

He lifted the bottle, tilted it. It was less than half full.

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

“Smart,” I said. We were past the point of caring about quality.

He got the bottle I had known about from out of the cabinet. It was no fuller than the other. We would have picked more up at the store. Even with both, the whiskey wasn’t going to last us the storm.

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The electricity went out. A log cracked in the fire. We went to bed. To say we made love ignores the other feelings we made as our bodies worked and writhed in expression that may well have been meaningless for all it told us about each other.

I searched his face for my own feelings, but it was too dark.

A log cracked in the fire.

I searched his movements for my own and though he stirred inside me, the only feelings I could discern were my own.

Once done, we separated, some mystic push away from each other. We came back together for the warmth. Our limbs did not intertwine.

Weightless, I could feel our stillborn daughter between us. I had all year.

She had been fully formed and came out with my body’s leftover heat. Perfect. Nick hadn’t been gentle as he had pressed his two fingers into her chest, one’s not supposed to be for CPR to work.

It was hard to say if we had her in common anymore.

Two feet of snow kept the doors shut. Wind howled.

I listened to the absence of the steady gentle hum of electricity, sudden and noticeable when it was gone. The world was too unstill for it. Unsaid things moved around inside me like Amelia had. A light snore formed in Nick’s throat.

I woke to blank light and silence. Each lay upon the world, equally distributed across all surfaces. Snow fell onto itself. It reached past the sill, filling the window. The wind had ceased. The birds were silent. Nick was silent.

A silence beyond sleep.

I did CPR. I broke his ribs. I touched his heart, but not hard enough for it to start beating and bleeding and all the things it had done again.

I did nothing.

I started after he’d stopped making his own warmth. Like her, any heat he retained was borrowed from me.

At what point he died in the night, there’s no way for me to tell.

I tried to call emergency services. The lines were down. We didn’t have cellular phones. We lived beyond service.

I screamed. I cried. There was no witness to any of this. I realized that I had the luxury of unobserved grief. I could cry all day or not at all. I could say that either had occurred.

Upon this realization I stopped.

I started some breakfast for myself. I got the fire going with the embers left in the stove. Heat spread through the room.

I would need my strength to get Nick out of the bed. At some point I would need to lay down again. It was the only surface in the house for it and I wasn’t going to give it up for a corpse.

I ate plain oatmeal. We were out of butter and sugar. Each were things we had intended to get at the store.

I fed the cats the parts of Joan and her dead foal that we had had time to cut out and wrap up. Whether the hide and the bulk of the meat from either animal would be salvageable would be clear when the snow was gone.

When I was done, I went up to the loft. I put my hands under Nick’s armpits. I lifted to no avail. I got his head and shoulders less than an inch off the bed, even using all my strength. I collapsed onto my side.

He turned to me.

“Hello, handsome,” he said, just like the night we met.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

“No,” I said. I believed it at the time.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s start over. Hello, handsome.”

All the gestures and facial expressions remained the same. The human mind is a wonderful thing. This conversation didn’t seem like something to do, but he repeated himself.

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

“Handsome, but I’m a girl,” I said again. It was what I said the night we met.

“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

“I do. Or, I do try,” I said. The first night I had just giggled.

“You shouldn’t lie to the dead,” he said. “We know.”

He went back to being dead. I no longer had anyone to talk to. It was a relief. Now I could get back to moving him.

I did not put my hands back under his armpits, but rather his shoulder and hip. I rolled him. He hit the ground with a great thud.

I lay across the bed.

It felt so normal. This was something I’d do after changing the sheets.

It felt so abnormal. Someone had died here just few minutes before. Minutes adding up to hours in all likelihood, but a blink in time however dissected.

I shifted so that all of me remained on my side.

I looked over to the empty space next to me. I could feel the inanimate nature of the body that lay just beyond my sight. Still I lay as time existed outside of me. The snow obscured any of the sun’s telling. It piled on and on in silence. Tears ran gentle down over my nose, outside my control and like all things without a sound.

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

“Why did you let our daughter die?” he said. He had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask.

“Why did you?” I said. I had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask either.

“Me,” he said. “You were the one carrying her. What did I do?”

“You were never there for me. You were never there for us.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“You weren’t there for me,” I said. “For us.”

“Excuse me for trying to make some money so that I could support us. Besides, you’ve said as much before, but what more could I have done? Climbed in your skin and lived life for you?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No. You don’t be absurd. You’ve said I wasn’t there for you, but what more could I have done?”

“Something. You could have talked to me. Helped me when I was sick. Brought me food. That’s what you could have done. There’s an in between living life for me and what you did which made me feel alone. It made us feel alone.”

“She never got the chance to feel anything. And I wish I could have carried her inside me. I wouldn’t have been so proud. I wouldn’t have tried to do so much.”

I had continued to work a lot.

“Maybe I did do too much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t been hungover so much. You were always somewhere, drinking with your friends, leaving me alone. Us alone. She would have lived if I hadn’t felt so alone.”

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

“What?” I said. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He lay down again. There he was on the floor, broken ribs. Flat lack of breath or muscle tension.

I got up and changed the sheets. I wrapped him in the old ones.

I laid back and let the silence overtake me. The eeriness of the unexpected. I waited for him to speak again, but he didn’t. The snow kept falling. The hidden sun made for a day without time. I was hungry.

I made grilled cheese and soup. Warm food helped keep the house, body and soul warm. Something a person needed in a storm like this.

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

Part of me had hoped I wouldn’t, that some part of Nick would live on. This time his absence would be expected. That would make it tolerable.

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

I didn’t worry about what Nick would think as I cut up a towel, our brown one that was fluffy and soft, but wasn’t as new as some of the others. I didn’t care about his judgement as I stuffed it in my underwear.

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

The plan had been to talk to each other and read. I picked up my book but couldn’t focus. Tears came again. They couldn’t last the possibility that this time they were not for him, but rather for myself.

I paced and paced at a steady pace, faster than the hours crawled on. Darkness came on. The wind started again, the snow did not stop. Nick could sense the evening.

“Are you going to sleep with me in here, like this?” he said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Are you going to stay up all night? My mourning widow until morning?”

“Even sleepless mourning widows are removed from the body.”

“What next then? Are you going to push me down the ladder? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll break? Don’t you love me too much for that?”

Did I?

“You’re supposed to,” he said. “You can blame me all you want, but love goes far to keep things alive. I could never tell how much you loved anything.”

I dragged Nick by his feet. I stopped at the edge of the ladder.

The sheet had fallen off of him. I pushed him. He hit the rungs. His body hit the rungs. He was gone. The way it hit the floor was more solid.

I could never tell how much he loved things either and for a second, it was me that was dead and he was standing above me broken body that he had just pushed down the ladder. I was him and he was me. It was so vivid, it had to be true. It was nothing like the night before when he’d been separate inside me.

It passed. We were ourselves again. In our little home.

The outside world was so far away, it might as well have not existed. I continued to sit and watch him, lifeless. I looked down on him from above, bloating and bruising. His eyes were open. No more could I feel him watching me, either from above or below. Even though I wanted to believe in Heaven.

It was a grey dusk that came. And with it a hunger. And with it a girl. She was ten, an age Amelia had never reached, but I recognized her. There were his eyes, my hair, his chin, and my cheekbones.

His lips parted to say, “Why didn’t you want me?”

She was gone, but I said, “I did. What are you talking about?”

I went down the ladder and put the sheet back over Nick. I went to get the bottle of whiskey that would be my dinner. Not having to share anymore, I only needed the good stuff. Boots sniffed at the sheet.

“Boots, don’t,” I said. “Don’t, Kitty.”

But I didn’t move to stop her. I watched her sniff about.

“How long are you going to let her do that?” he said.

Boots moved to chew on his toes. I shooed her away. She would drift back and I would have to deter her again.

I put more of the cut-up towel into my panties.

I drank the rest of the bottle and passed out to her chewing noises.

It was dark when I woke. The cats were curled up, warm beside me. Out the window, I could stars in the sky. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped.

I was hungry. I had to step over his body to make my stew. I had to put wood in the fire to keep it going.

While it heated I dragged Nick from the base of the ladder. I did not take him far. I didn’t want him in the kitchen area or too close to the stove. I lay him down by the window where he would stay cold. I ate.

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

“What you don’t want to hang around the house with me? You think it’s boring to be expected to do nothing, to just sit there looking pretty?”

“You still think I’m pretty,” he said.

I’ll admit, though I didn’t when questioned, that did make me curious. I went over to the sheet and lifted it. Even in the dim light of the fire I could see, his blood had begun to pool as gravity dictated. I poked at his back.

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

“It happens,” he said. “It will happen to you.”

I didn’t tell him, but it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t let it happen to me like that. Bones had broken in the fall. They floated around inside him, banging against his ribs. His skin was bruised.

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

“Do you think you’ll be blamed?” he said.

“I think I’ll be questioned. Blame must placed.”

“I want you to be blamed,” he said. “It’s your fault. You killed me.”

But I didn’t. I hadn’t. I turned to go upstairs. Amelia stood at the top, six, now.

“You told more than one person that you didn’t want children,” she said. “You told your best friend when you were my age. You told your first boyfriend. And your second. You told me.”

“I told you that you were changing my mind. By the time you were here I wanted you more than you can imagine.”

She turned into the sun which was rising.

I went back to bed. I laid down, hoping to get back to sleep. I didn’t want to be awake any more than I had to. The sun would be an unwelcome guest.

Though I couldn’t get back to sleep, I searched for a connection with widows who would stay up all night. Who reach for their absent husbands in the morning. I moved my hand across his pillow in motions I imagined they took.

His warmth would have been welcome. He was bigger than the cats. I had to go to the bathroom.

I cut off more of the towel. I threw what I had been using away. The cats had chewed the others, sucking out the juices and shredding the fabric. I picked up the pieces.

The snow filled the downstairs windows, dipping under its own weight in the middle. Light flowed from the loft.

The cat had bit Nick’s toe. It was red with blood, but it was not bleeding.

I went to the bathroom and cut up more of the towel.

When I came out, Nick turned to me and asked, “Would you have married me? If it hadn’t been for her? I’ve always wondered. When I do things right, sorry, did things right, it seemed like the answer was yes. But otherwise, I don’t know. It was pretty iffy.”

“I might have married you if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, but not when I did.”

This left him still and deflated.

I made myself a breakfast identical to what I had eaten the day previous. I had enough of yesterday’s lunch and dinner to do the same, but we would see.

Mittens rubbed against my leg. He looked up at me.

“You’re thinking of feeding me dry cat food, aren’t you?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoke. “Don’t you ever want more,” he said. “I want more.”

I patted his head. I would give him some of Joan’s foal, so much like my own human child, when it came down to it. He had a point.

But first I would feed myself.

“I agree with the boy cat,” said Boots. “Sometimes I want more.”

“You may not forever,” I said to her agreeing with the boy cat.

She rubbed against my leg in the same way he did. One difference was that I was secure in the fact that she wouldn’t spray the walls. As though she could occupy a space, but did not need to own it. Lines did not need to be drawn.

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

“You can have some of Joan’s foal,” I told her. “Both of you,” I told them.

Nick sat up under his sheet.

“You again,” I said. “I’m tired of you.”

“Sorry to be an inconvenience,” he said. “I’m curious about whether the phones are up again.”

They weren’t, nor did we have electricity. The storm was over, but I was still waiting.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

“So we are,” I said. I ate in front of him. I didn’t offer him any.

I let the cats sniff my spoon. They did not eat any.

“You’re practically feral at that point,” my mother said.

“You’re not dead,” I said.

“The dead are easier to be haunted by. Anything we say might be something that you want to say to me, but can’t. That will occur to you in the future.”

She was right.

“I know I’m right,” she said. The first time one of them responded to my unsaid thoughts.

To ignore them was to ignore my own mind. There was silence from all of them with this revelation.

The cold white world provided no supplement. All life beneath the placid surface. Death which would not be found in nooks and crannies picked by animals that had wanted nothing more than to survive the storm.

Inside was the home where I did the same. The dead man in the corner. The ghosts dissipated. Silent cats padding along, searching in corners for food until I would give them some.

I looked up as if I was a small animal waiting for food to be delivered. Rather than becoming accustomed to the quiet, it grew. It seeped in through my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. It exploded in my mind.

They all came back again.

“If you had wanted me more, I would have lived,” Amelia said, though she was a baby now. Too young to be talking.

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

“It might be for the best,” Boots said. “You can’t even feed your animals on time.”

I got my coat.

“Plus, it seems awful, this predicament you’re in,” my mother said. “But with the grades you got and your basic looks, this may be as good as it gets for you. Although you do need to find another man, as soon as you can. And for the love of God, keep the baby alive this time.”

I got my boots and snowshoes.

I opened the door to the outside. Snow piled in. I would have to dig my way out. They would talk to me the whole time. They were talking as the snow fell in.

“Great, now we’re all going to die,” Mittens said.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “It will preserve me. In certain cultures, you would have been expected to throw yourself on my pyre in mourning. This works, though.”

“What kind of mother are you?” Amelia said.

“The kind that would kill her own mother,” my mother said.

“You’re not even here,” I said.

I went up the ladder to the loft. I looked out the window. The drop was about six feet from the sill. How bad it would be would depend on the density of the snow.

“If I was here, you’d find a way to kill me,” my mother said.

The drop would be fine. I emptied the cash out of Nick’s wallet and put it in my own.

“Now you’re robbing me,” he said. “My mom was right.”

His mom was always so nice. What did she say about me?

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

I lifted one leg and then the other out of the window. I sat on the edge. Only my bottom was still inside. There was no heat to the day. I hopped down. I sunk about a foot into the snow.

I stepped out from the cavity I created, up onto the surface of the snow. Even with the snowshoes I sank into it with every step, but kept walking. They called to me from the window.

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

The world was bright in a way that had to be witnessed. Brightness like that could not be imagined. I would be snow blind the following day, but that was okay. In town they would have been plowing the roads until they couldn’t. They would have started again as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t need to see to take the next bus out of there. I would take it to the next town. To the next town then the next.

Even far into the white that I hoped was the road, I could still hear them yelling from the cabin.pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and currently an appointment setter. When she is not setting appointments, she spends her time talking herself out of secluded cabins in the woods. A previous Three Cheers and a Tiger Winner, her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Subprimal Poetry Art. Email: suavegossamer[at]yahoo.com

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Oenaville, Texas

Baker’s Pick
Erica Hoffmeister


Photo Credit: Woman of Scorn/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She was eleven, but the way he was staring at her mouth he could’ve guessed her at least sixteen. I was sixteen, but the way my narrow shoulders met her chest made her look even taller, broader. Her body a map laid across a table and pressed from corner to corner, asking your fingertips to run across water ridge lines with a smooth spinning compass pointing south.

I took the cherry sucker from her mouth and popped it into my own. Hey! She screeched with the tone of a girl who just got her period for the first time. Her knees were still unaccustomed to the weight of dying blood.

He carried his gaze through gas-stained coveralls, looked back to the pump, sweat on his wrists. The sucker protruded my cheek like an abscess, rotting my back teeth until I threw it at our feet.

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Born and raised in Southern California, Erica Hoffmeister earned her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University’s dual degree program in 2015. She has had work published or forthcoming in So To Speak, Split Lip Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Shark Reef, and Literary Mama, among others. Her poems have: been nominated for Best of the Net in 2107, received runner-up for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2016, and she’s also received an honorable mention for the Lorian Hemingway Award for Short Fiction in 2014. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and daughter, Scout Séverine, where she writes, teaches college English, and perpetually misses home—wherever that feels like at the time. Email: zhoffmeister[at]gmail.com

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The Heart of Song

Broker’s Pick
Roger Singer


Photo Credit: Nicole Marie Edine/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Two blocks into Harlem. White shirts,
black ties, flowered dresses, patent
leather shoes, tattoos and beautiful hair;
the streets are always alive.

The beat mixes up. The man
with a full beard smiles, exposing
a picket fence for teeth. Conga drums
call out the dance in people. Red and purple
cotton hats jive like released shadows.
Tired feet get the sleep slapped out of them.
A guitar strings out a solo,
drawing an applause from a child.

A warm unexpected rain washes everything
down. Clouds soon part. The city
begins again.

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Email: Cabanaph424[at]verizon.net

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Five Poems

Poetry
Bibhu Padhi


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

Sickness: Morning

A dry mouth troubles this
body, the mind is stuck
to the taste of sand.

The salt-taste is long gone
into some other mouth,
its residence far from mine.

Drops of Hanneman and Nash
are believed to be an assurance
against further loss, any savage rite.

But the body, now getting slowly
introduced to a tired unevenness,
looks for consolation elsewhere.

Limbs go cold, like winter,
curled around themselves
to restore warmth and peace.

I go slow with things, like a leaf, pray
for a return to the basics, even as
the mind is a prisoner of disbelief.

 

Mother

I recall the day I saw you for
the first time. The white cloth on you
shone like the stars, like sunlight on

northern snow. You lisped my words
in numerous ways, so I might repeat the same,
my joy filling rooms and corridors

in magnificent forms. I wonder
if you taught all your children
the signature of your pain.

Would you mind if I misspelt a word
that was attached to your name.
Something tells me you will not;

you always misspell my name.
Mother: Today, you seem to be far
From me, in another sphere,

Under another name. Do you see me
From where you are? Do you feel worried
because I am nowhere near you—

thrown away by a wind that shakes
hills and plains, the sea’s divinity? Are you
still in the sea, the hills and the plains?

 

Once More, Faith

However you try, the surrender
is hard to come. All aspirations
have touched only the periphery
of the place where she is believed

to stay, have stayed back with you
or dissolved in the long night sky.
The stars might have seen these
just as the heart somewhere here.

How does acceptance come,
in which miraculous way, which
modes of faith and submission,
which postures of prayer?

You have merely heard about
the subdued matters, the last
line of giving oneself away,
the first words of superior grace.

Waiting is not the only answer.
It should have been over by now,
given you enough to live with
and distribute, to live for.

 

Nothing Shows Clear

Summer is large over the small
town. March is hardly here.

Margosa buds have shown themselves
earlier than it has been in years.

I touch my dumb eyes behind which
another pair rests, ready to take over.

How far is meditation from a mere
closure of the eyes, a stiff brown gaze,

the inspiration of the first view
of transparencies, heaven’s gate?

The answer seems nowhere near, like
the last winter, the first rains of the year.

 

Thinking the Now

What comes is only other than
what you thought you would receive.
The struggle for the whole continues
beyond the boundaries of reason.

Some say that is how things come,
even delay in arriving where
they are awaited by eager hands
and minds, all that is darkened

by the world’s grim ways, useless
intent for passions and possessions,
blocked by the mind’s old habit of
looking back and discovering the lost.

You have to be cautious in choosing
things, shed your past and memories, all
that you held so proudly as your own—
your body’s performances, mind’s dreams.

You must know that you might lose
what is with you now, under a sheet—
the half-line that would not come
to completion, the likelihood of its loss.

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Bibhu Padhi has published eleven books of poetry. His poems have appeared in distinguished magazines throughout the English-speaking world, such as Encounter, The Contemporary Review, The Poetry Review, Stand, The Rialto, The American Scholar, Colorado Review, Confrontation, Mid-American Review, Poet Lore, Poetry (Chicago), The Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, The Antigonish Review, The Toronto Review, Queen’s Quarterly, The Bombay Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Indian Literature. They have been included in numerous anthologies and textbooks. Three of the most recent are Language for a New Century (Norton), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins). Email: padhi.bibhu[at]gmail.com

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Mary Claire

Fiction
Mary Ann McSweeny


Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My brother-in-law John is a funeral director. When he calls me about a new case, as he did this morning, he always goes right to the point. “We’ve got a baby. Mary Claire Stewart. Died during open heart surgery.”

“Ohh,” I said. “How sad.”

“Marie and Greg Stewart are the parents. Marie is the daughter of René and Odile LaFleur. LaFleur’s Jewelry Store. Do you know the family?”

“Marie… and Mary Claire. Yes. Yes, I think I do. I met Mary Claire and her mother a few weeks ago.”

In a supermarket bathroom.

“What a beautiful baby,” I had said, admiring the baby in the carrier. “Look at those rosy cheeks. What’s her name?”

“Mary Claire,” her mother said, proud and delighted. “She looks healthy, doesn’t she? But she has a problem with her heart. Can you believe the doctor wanted me to have an abortion? He said she wouldn’t live to grow up. Even my husband pressured me to have the abortion. But I said, ‘She’s my baby. I love her. I won’t give up on her.’” She smiled at her tiny daughter and touched the pink cheek with a gentle fingertip. Then she looked at me. Her eyes widened and darkened. “She’s having surgery in a few weeks. There’s a hole in her heart.”

I am accustomed to people confiding in me, although not usually in a public bathroom, but this outpouring seemed to wash away my intelligence. I managed to say, “I’ll pray for you.”

Her smile took the shadow out of her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. She whirled out of the bathroom with her baby. I hoped and prayed her love would heal that hole in Mary Claire’s heart.

John said, “I’m meeting with the family at ten o’clock. Do you want to be there?”

I don’t usually sit in on arrangements, but meet later with the family to plan the funeral service and provide grief support. But I thought I heard a plea for my presence in John’s invitation. “Sure,” I said.

Since my husband Mike died, John has rented me the apartment over the funeral home, so it was a quick walk to work that sad morning. Marie was no longer shining with hope. Her hair was tightly drawn into a messy top-knot, her makeup a valiant attempt at normalcy. She sat on a couch next to her husband, an athletic-looking young man, arms firmly crossed, legs spread wide, remote, sulky. Her mother sat close to her on the other side and kept touching her shoulder, arm, leg as if to be sure her daughter was safe. There were two opinionated aunts and Marie’s father, lanky, sharp-nosed, bald-with-fringe, who looked as if he were prepared to keep expenditures in check.

Except John never charges for a baby’s funeral.

I stayed unobtrusive while they decided on the tiny casket lined with pink velvet. Marie wanted a wake, but her husband said an immovable no. Marie insisted on a two-hour period before the funeral mass for people to pay their respects. Her husband’s mouth tightened into a lipless line. He moved to the window, his hostile back turned to the room. Marie’s mother clucked and the aunts raised their eyebrows. Marie’s father asked about limousines. The aunts put their attention back on the prayer card book. They favored the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Marie and her mother preferred the Guardian Angel.

“Could we put her picture on the other side?” Marie asked.

John nodded and made a note.

“The one with the pink bow around her head?” That was Marie’s mother.

“Oh, no, no, the one in the car seat where she looks like she’s waving,” one aunt said.

Marie shook her head. “I was thinking of the one—”

“—in her Baptism dress,” the other aunt finished. She and Marie exchanged nods and trembling smiles.

Marie’s husband looked over his shoulder at the group. Silence descended. The family stared at him. Marie made a small gesture, an invitation, a plea. He turned back to the window. She took a breath.

“And I want the passage where Jesus says let the little children come to me…” Her voice failed and tears leaked. One of the aunts pulled out a packet of Puffs and handed it to her.

“I’ll be in the car.”

A sigh flitted through the family as the door slammed behind Greg.

Les Anglais,” said Marie’s mother with an eye roll.

The aunt who had favored the car seat photograph pursed her lips. “His mother hasn’t even shown up yet. No feelings.”

“Of course she has feelings. So does poor Greg. They just can’t talk about anything important. They stuff all the real stuff.” Marie’s mother sounded New Age knowledgeable.

John cleared his throat and gathered the papers together. “I think I have everything for the moment. I’ll write the obituary and email it to you before I submit it to the papers. Penny—” He nodded at me. “—will help you with the details of the liturgy: readings, hymns, who you want for readers, that kind of thing.”

We arranged an appointment for the early afternoon to give them some time to think about their choices, and then the bereft group drifted out the door, down the walk to the car, talking, gesturing, touching, with Marie protectively flanked. Greg’s stern profile and the stiff set of his shoulders were just discernible through the car window.

“I give that marriage six months,” John said.

“You think?”

He ducked his head and got busy putting the papers in a file folder. “You ever want to talk about Mike?”

“What? Where did that come from?”

“Speaking of stuffing,” he said with that bold grin he thinks is charming.

“I’ll let you know what they decide for the liturgy.” And I went back to my apartment.

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Mary Ann McSweeny holds an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been published in The Merrimack Review, Highlights for Children, Queen of All Hearts, and Pastoral Life. She is the co-author of a series of spiritual meditation books published by Liguori Publications. “Mary Claire” was inspired by a true story. Email: mamcsweeny[at]verizon.net

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Fathers

Fiction
Amanda DeNatale


Photo Credit: Stefano Corso/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

When I was eight years old I saw my father for the last time. Mom and I had dinner with him in our old town in Kansas. We were there visiting some of Mom’s friends, and met my father at Hal’s for a bite. A yellow light hung in the air of the dimly lit bar, and wood paneling raced around all four walls. Mom said she used to work there when I was little, but I didn’t remember.

At dinner, my dad told me he was going on another long vacation soon, so he wouldn’t be able to be in contact with us. At this age I remember realizing that vacation was another term for his bullshit excuses, or some trouble he was in with the law. I remember watching mom pat her bottom lip with her fingernails, a habit she’s always had when she’s nervous. We ate our mediocre cheeseburgers and said goodbye.

I hugged my father around the waist—he was so tall then—and he patted me on the head and said, “I love you, kiddo. You always remember that.” I’ve thought about his words a lot over the years, before deciding, they too, were bullshit.

When we drove by the little house where we used to live, I remember feeling a wave of familiarity, but no concrete details. There was a little red wagon in the yard, and a few pink flowers planted below the front windows. I remember seeing Mom cringe a little. It looked like it could have been a decent home once, but the one we lived in now was much nicer.

Eight years later, double the age when I last saw him, and I still haven’t heard from him. I took one last pull and tossed my cigarette to the curb. I could see Mike walking down the sidewalk. I ran my hand over my shaved head. Mike’s curly brown hair that hung to his shoulders—a huge hit with the ladies—made him easy to spot from a distance. I pulled my notebook out of my back pocket and recorded the blood sugar level that appeared on the insulin pump clipped to the belt loop of my jeans. I pressed the button to inject the bolus I would need for lunch, and returned my notebook to my back pocket. Everything was normal.

Mike and I were meeting our girlfriends, Hayley and Leah, for a double. They were sisters. We were cousins. Hayley, Mike, and I were all juniors at Ridgedale High, and Leah was a sophomore. Hayley and I had caught Mike and Leah making out in her backyard one day. Mike and Leah had started dating, officially, a few weeks later, and the four of us had become nearly inseparable.

“Hey man,” Mike said when he was close enough. He was glaring at his phone.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He let out a huge sigh. “Leah said she wants to talk or something, so it looks like we are not going to lunch anymore.”

“Weird.” I double-checked my phone to be sure. “Hayley hasn’t said anything about it.”

“Why do we always need to ‘talk,’” Mike groaned. He started sulking in the direction of the Jacobsons’ house.

I slapped him on the back and laughed. Girls.

He shoved me back.

“Oh yeah, I have something for you.” Mike slid a picture out from the side pocket of his cargo shorts.

It was a picture of both of our families together, in some sort of cabin with a log backdrop. Mike and I looked barely two. Uncle Ron and Aunt Katie were kneeling next to a little kid that must have been Mike. Ron was patting down his curly fro, and Katie was straightening his tie. Aunt Katie and Mom looked even more identical than they do now. Next to them, I rested on my dad’s hip with my arms hugging his neck. Mom had her arms wrapped around his waist and her head leaned on his chest. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful, happy even. Everyone looked so young. I had a sudden urge to crumple it up and throw it in the street.

“I wonder where they took it,” I said. I had stopped walking to take in the full picture, still holding it delicately between my fingertips.

“My mom made me help her clean out the basement yesterday. We found it, and she said it was from a vacation they all took to a cabin my dad’s company owned.” Mike shrugged. “I thought you might like it.”

He knew I didn’t have many pictures of my father. “Cool, thanks.” I wanted to say more, but I had no idea what.

“I like how it’s candid, you know, we can see them un-posed—exposed.” He pretended to take a picture of me looking at the picture. I rolled my eyes. Mike could thrive on dramatics. I slid the picture carefully into my pocket.

When we got to the Jacobsons’, I knocked on the door of their large two-story, and we waited. Mike lingered slightly behind me. I looked back at him and mouthed, “Good luck.” He cracked a little smile and pushed me forward as Hayley opened the door.

“Hey guys,” she said. She smiled at me and leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek. “Leah’s waiting for you in the living room, Mike. Let’s go.” She dragged me quickly down the front walk towards her Old Malibu, while Mike closed the door behind him.

I felt lucky with Hayley. Her milky brown hair hung down to the top of her jeans, and she had a way of talking that made you never want to stop listening. I knew her parents thought I was trouble, but I had realized a long time ago that girls’ parents rarely trusted boys over the age of twelve.

Hayley seemed nervous after we settled into the car, and then suddenly her eyes were wide and panicked. She tried to smile at me, but her faced looked pained. I grabbed her hand that rested on the gearshift and kissed it.

“What’s up?” I asked. Our hands rested, intertwined, next to the shift. She opened her mouth, but said nothing. What was she afraid to tell me? I squeezed her hand.

“Well,” she started. Her forehead scrunched up and she started to sob.

Was she going to break up with me? Was it something I did? I stumbled over my words. “What—what’s wrong?”

“Just everything,” she said. I pulled her into a hug. I wondered if she could hear my heart racing.

“Tell me about it, you can tell me anything.” I swallowed. I tried to be earnest, but I was terrified.

She mumbled something into my chest and I heard the word pregnant. My stomach dropped, and I could feel a cold trickle down my spine. “What?” My voice had become hoarse. Images popped into my head—a baby, a pregnant Hayley, Mom sitting at the table with her head in her hands, disappointed.

She stopped crying for a second and looked up at me with her eyes wide. “Leah’s pregnant, and she hasn’t told our parents yet.” Hayley broke into more sobs in my arms.

Part of me felt relieved, but I was still tense. Poor Mike. Leah must be telling him right now. We were only teenagers. Leah was only a sophomore. Mike was my best friend, my family. Wow. He must be terrified. Aunt Katie and Uncle Ron would flip, and probably my mom too. The four of us hung out way too often for Hayley and me to be left out of this.

“So she’s telling him now, I guess?” I looked over my shoulder at their red front door.

She nodded and her gaze focused bleakly behind me.

“Wow—just wow—Mike and Leah and a baby.”

Hayley shook her head. “I just want everything to be okay.”

“Me too.” I looked hard into her golden brown eyes and wished for the best possible outcome—whatever that could be. “Why don’t we get lunch to go and head to Helena to detox?” I pulled a small joint out from my cigarette carton, and wiggled it between my fingers. Helena was a large lake that was enclosed by a huge park, just outside of our subdivision. There were tons of places to sneak off to there.

“Gotta make sure we feed Panky there first.” She smiled weakly. Hayley had named my insulin pump Panky, since it was a replacement for my pancreas. It was cute that she was so understanding. I think that’s why my mom liked her so much.

As we drove away, the sun seemed too bright overhead.

*

Hayley and I lay together on the green-checkered blanket she kept in the trunk of her car for occasions like today. Our legs intertwined, and her head rested on my chest. We held each other close as the weight of the news about Mike and Leah pressed down upon us. The warmth of the sun seemed to weld us closer, and the haze of the afternoon lulled us into a phase of comfort—at least we had each other.

We had been lying there for at least an hour when our phones buzzed simultaneously.

Leah was calling Hayley in hysterics because Mike had freaked out about the pregnancy—naturally, I thought.

Mike had texted me that he and Leah had broken up, but nothing else. I offered to meet with him later to talk things over. They couldn’t just be ‘broken up.’ Mike was stupid to think that was an option. I wasn’t really surprised by his reaction though, he could be a hot head—and was great at overreacting. Maybe I could talk him into a more reasonable state.

Hayley dropped me off at home, but we were going to meet up by the docks later. I would talk to Mike there, and she would talk to Leah at home. I leaned over to kiss her goodbye through the driver side window and squeezed her shoulders. “Everything will be okay.” It had to be.

“Okay, I’ll see you then.” She took a deep breath and nodded. She closed her eyes for a moment then said, “I—just don’t know what I’d do without you.” Her eyes had a sparkle to them and I felt my stomach turn over. I loved this girl, even if I couldn’t tell her yet.

She drove away, and I lit a cigarette. I thought about what I would say to Mike. We had agreed to meet down by our old spot at seven. It was the place we had always fled to as kids to escape the rules of our parents. Our dock was partially enclosed by a cove of trees, and not many park goers ever looked beyond them. As kids we would race there and see who could throw the biggest things into the lake. Once we heaved a huge boulder over the wood railing. You could still see the top if you looked closely. It was perfect for childhood or teenage delinquency. We liked to call ourselves delinquents—it felt edgy and exclusive, although the most that ever went down there now were a few beers or a joint or two.

I tossed my cigarette butt into the street and headed inside. Mom’s Honda was in the driveway, so I knew she was home. I wondered if she knew about Mike and Leah yet.

She was in the kitchen sitting on a stool at the counter. She stared at her phone that she cradled with both hands. Her blonde hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she was still wearing her maroon scrubs from work.

“Hey, Mom.” I opened the fridge and poured myself a glass of OJ. I figured she had just gotten off the phone with Aunt Katie, but I was going to let it lie until she brought it up.

She looked up and smiled, but then both corners of her mouth drooped downward. She definitely knew, and she was definitely upset, but I had to play it casual. “So how was work?”

She sighed, and then looked at me like she was calculating something. “Just the same old thing.”

I nodded, took a slow drink of my OJ, and tried to lean casually against the counter across from her. She did medical coding and billing for some small company. They paid her well there.

“Cade,” she said, standing. She started pacing back and forth, and crossed her arms. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

She set her phone down on the counter, screen down. I nodded and waited for her to go on about safe sex and mature relationships, like she had a few times before.

“Your father just called.” She paused and looked up at me. Her forehead was wrinkled with concern. She ran her hand over her head and down the length of her ponytail. “He’s going to be driving through here in a few days. Wednesday, specifically.”

I stiffened. “And?” I turned away from her and braced myself on the lip of the counter.

“He asked if he could see you. I told him it was up to you—you’re old enough to make your own decisions now.” She pursed her lips and continued pacing and shaking her head. I could tell she was pissed too—but there was something else there.

“It’s been eight years, and now he wants to see me?” I was fuming. Who did he think he was anyway? Waltzing into our lives now? We’re doing just fine—thank you for nothing.

“I know it’s tough, but this may be an opportunity—”

“For what, Mom? For what? What the hell does he even want?” I pressed my palms over my eyes.

“Cade,” she said, stern. She had closed the gap between us. “This is an opportunity for you.”

“To do what?” I snorted. I could feel a stinging rising behind my eyes, and dropped my hands hard to my sides.

“Whatever you want to do.” She looked me right in the eyes, and grabbed my arm tightly.

“What if I don’t want to see him?” I challenged her. I couldn’t tell if this was one of those “make your own decisions, but make sure you choose the right one,” type of situations.

“Then don’t see him.” She released my arm. She seemed so conflicted—I couldn’t read her. “But know that not everyone gets a chance like this.”

I could tell she was trying hard not to sway my opinion one way or the other. She never talked much about my dad—only if I had questions. I could tell he’d hurt her pretty bad.

“You’re right, not everyone has a deadbeat father come knocking, asking you to choose to meet with him or not.” What a prick. I should ask him where he ‘vacationed’ for the last eight years while mom worked her ass off to go to school, work, and provide for us. Dickhead. I turned away from her, shaking my head.

She placed her hand firmly on my shoulder. I could feel the tension radiating from her body. “Just let me know by Tuesday what you decide, and I’ll call and let him know either way.”

“I have to go meet Mike at the dock at seven.” I turned toward her and tried to walk past, but she stopped me.

“Cade, wait.” She folded her arms around me. “I love you, buddy.”

Her hug made me catch my breath. I could feel her hesitation and her sadness about the whole thing. I knew that she wished it had never come to this with my dad.

“I love you, too, Mom.” I sighed and rested my head on top of hers. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Of course,” she said. I thought I heard her sniffle a little, but I had never seen her cry before. “Now get on. Don’t make Mike wait on you too long.”

“Right,” I said. She definitely didn’t know about Mike and Leah yet. I could feel a headache coming on as I left toward the docks to meet Mike.

*

It was about a ten-minute walk to the dock from my house, and by the time I got there, the sun was nestled on the horizon. Everything had an orange tint to it, and the trees seemed almost black in the lighting. I could see the slouched figure of Mike leaning over the dock. I had tried to clear my head of my father on the walk over, but I couldn’t shake it completely. This needed to be about Mike and Leah.

“Hey man.” I walked up and patted him heavy on the back.

“What’s up?” Mike was drunk. He burped. “Want a beer, dude?”

“Uh sure, man.” Damn. I wasn’t surprised, but I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with this shit.

He passed me a PBR tallboy. I cracked it open and took a sip.

“Remember that time we dug that huge hole in your mom’s backyard?” Mike asked. He hadn’t looked away from the lake. The wind was blowing mini rips of water into the dock.

“Yeah.” I laughed. “Our underground fort.” We had spent one summer when we were kids digging a hole in my backyard. I think it ended up being about four feet deep by the end of it. We had been obsessed with the Ninja Turtles that summer. We had even sculpted footholds in the walls and made a small dirt couch to sit on. We kept a piece of wood over the top to hide it.

“Your mom was so pissed.” Mike smiled for a second, and then his face was blank.

I laughed and took a sip of the beer. The orange sun sank lower.

“So, Leah’s pregnant,” he offered.

“I know.” I took a deep breath and leaned on the rotting wooden railing next to him.

“I broke up with her,” he said, in a challenging way. “Can’t be mine.”

“Uh, you think it’s not?” This was not what I was expecting. Of course it was Mike’s. They had been dating for six months and doing it for five, a fact that Mike had been very open with me about. Leah wasn’t the type of girl who got around.

“Can’t be, we wrapped it every time, man.” He shrugged, smashed his empty PBR can on the railing, and chucked it into the lake.

I was silent. I knew that Leah had not cheated on him, but I didn’t think this was really a time for an “accidents happen” lecture.

“Fuckin’ bitch,” he mumbled, cracking open another beer.

“Come on, man. I don’t think she’d make this up.” I tried to sound neutral, but anger was starting to creep into my voice. My headache was really starting to pound.

“Well, I’m not fucking falling for it. She’s not going to trap me with some ‘pregnancy’ bullshit.” His words slurred together.

I snorted. “Mike, she’s fifteen, I don’t think she wants to marry you or anything. She’s scared, too.”

“What do you fucking know, man? Huh?” He shoved my chest and I dropped my beer. It hissed and spewed at our feet. I felt anger curl around my chest like a snake.

My head was still throbbing. “Listen, I don’t—”

“Of course you side with her, Mama’s boy.”

Rage flooded my body to every extremity. “Mike,” I tried to say calmly, but it came out a growl. “I know this is hard—” I grabbed his shoulder.

“You don’t fucking know anything, Cade!” He pushed me again.

I didn’t know anything? Me? The mama’s boy, the fatherless kid, and I don’t know anything? He was going to abandon Leah, just like my dad had my mom.

“I don’t know?” I yelled at him. “There is a baby and he deserves to have a father, Mike, goddammit.” I gripped his arm tighter.

Mike decked me in the face with his free hand. It felt like a rock smashing into my eye socket. I swung back, and connected with his jaw. Strings of pain shot down my wrist.

“This kid did nothing to deserve this!” I shouted. We wrestled our way to the ground.

“You don’t know anything about my life, dickhead.”

“Fuck you.” I pressed my arm hard over his chest.

He wiggled underneath it. I didn’t know? Mike was the dickhead. My father was the dickhead. How could Mike, my best friend, be acting like him?

I felt a splitting pain in my side and cried out. Mike must have raised his leg and kneed me in the side. I couldn’t breathe.

Mike scrambled to his feet. “Don’t come around anymore, Cade. I’m done talking about this. Fuck.”

I grabbed at his ankle. He kicked me again in the stomach, and I wheezed. I needed help. My pump, the injection site was on my side, he must have kicked it. “Mike.” I tried to say his name but nothing came out. I could feel the thud of each step as he ran off. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t catch my breath. I coughed, reached for my phone, and dialed Hayley. I heard the ringing, but still couldn’t speak. Heat rushed to my head, and all I could see were images of Mike and my father, and the two of them morphing into one. No answer.

“Cade! Cade!” I heard a warped voice. I was shaking. No, someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes and saw a dark blur surrounded by white baubles like a halo. I tried to speak, but all I could do was close my eyes. “Oh God,” I heard. I think it was Hayley.

*

“Cade,” I heard. “He’s awake, Jen. His eyes are open.” Someone shouted this.

I immediately smelled hospital. My body ached everywhere, like a workout gone wrong.

“Cade, I’m here. Your mom is here,” Hayley said. She was holding my left hand. My right, I noticed, was in a cast.

My eyes opened and closed a few times before I was really awake. My mom came running into the room.

“Hayley, will you go get the nurse, please? I want her to check on him.” Hayley’s eyes were red around the rims, and so were Mom’s. She patted Hayley on the shoulder, and Hayley squeezed my hand before leaving the room. It was like someone else had been driving for the past few hours, and I was just along for the ride.

What happened?” I asked. “Where’s Mike?”

“Hayley found you on the dock like this, and called 911,” Mom said. “Was Mike with you? They can’t find him.” Her voice was full of concern. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and looked at me again. I could see tears brimming in her eyes.

“Mom,” I said. I didn’t want her to cry.

“Who did this to you boys? Did someone take Mike?” she pressed. None of them knew what had happened.

I looked away. Mike did this, I wanted to say. “No, he was there, and we kinda just got into a fight.” I shrugged.

Mom’s mouth hung open. “Did he do this?”

“I didn’t help,” I said. “We got into a fight, and—” I paused. I could see the anger flaring up in Mom’s eyes.

“And what? Where did he go?”

“It’s not all his fault, “ I said, feeling guilty. He had been wasted when I got there, and I had been heated over everything with my dad.

“So he left you there?”

“He didn’t know,” I said. “I said some stuff too.”

“You could have died, Cade.” She started to cry for real.

My nose started to tingle and I could feel my own tears well up, just looking at her. I had never seen her like this before. “Its okay, Mom. I’m okay now. Everything’s okay.” I squeezed her hand.

“I know, I just.” She took a deep breath, calming herself. She shook her head, and looked at me sternly. “No more fights, ever.”

“Promise,” I said.

“So you don’t know where Mike is?” she asked. Her brow creased.

“No, he just told me to leave him alone and walked off,” I said.

“He didn’t say where he was going?” She took out her phone and pulled up a text with someone.

I shook my head. Where could he have gone? I shouldn’t have overreacted. I couldn’t believe that Mike would actually try to run away. I hoped he hadn’t passed out somewhere like I did.

“They can’t find him anywhere I guess. Katie is a mess of course,” she said. “And Leah’s pregnant.” She looked behind her at the door.

“Hayley already knows,” I said. “That’s why I went out there to talk to him. He was pretty upset.” I didn’t want them to think Mike was the bad guy here. We were both just pissed and got into a stupid fight.

“She was the one that told me.” Mom looked preoccupied. Everything was starting to feel a little weird. I could tell there was something she was keeping from me. I couldn’t believe Mike had run away.

“Everything okay?” I asked. Mom looked at the door again. “Waiting for someone?”

“Cade.” She looked at me wide-eyed. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t not call him since you were in the hospital. It didn’t look good for a minute there, and I couldn’t—”

“Mom, what?”

My father walked into the room.

“Cade,” he said. His voice was deeper than I remembered. His eyes were blood-shot, and he’d definitely been crying. He was older-looking than the last time I saw him. Definitely older than the picture—I glanced quickly at my jeans that were splayed on a chair next to me. Gray hairs littered the edges of his beard, and his hairline was receding a little. He had also gained a few pounds in the stomach. It had been eight years, I guess. We looked to be about the same height now.

I looked away. I was pissed, but a part of me was happy he showed up, and that part pissed me off more.

Then Hayley walked in with the nurse, and she asked everyone to leave. They all looked at me as they walked out the door. Hayley with a wary smile. Mom looking guilty—I didn’t blame her. My Dad looking scared. I was relieved to be alone for at least a moment.

The nurse checked my injection site and a few other vitals. I snatched my jeans from the chair, and dug through the pockets. The picture was still there. It was a little crinkled and folded around the edges. I stared at my father, my family. I felt so disconnected. He looked so happy. I couldn’t remember the feeling of the love in this photo. The nurse left. I hid the picture under my crumpled jeans and crossed my arms. There was a knock on the door.

“Can we talk?” My father poked his head into the room.

I nodded and he walked in slowly and took a seat in the chair next to my bed. We were both silent. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It seemed like he was trying to make himself smaller.

“So,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me. His voice was deep, but quiet.

I shrugged. “Fine.” He was the one that wanted to talk. Start talking, I thought.

“I—” he began. “I’m sorry.” He looked down at his feet.

“Okay.” My voice rang with annoyance.

Then, my father looked up at me and started to cry. His sobs were deep. He folded forward, cradling his head between his hands.

I stared at him, shocked. It felt like someone had dumped a cold bucket of water down my back. “I—” My voice was dry.

He looked up at me. I could see that his hands were shaking where he clutched them together in his lap.

“Can I show you something?” I asked, scrambling to pull the picture out from under my jeans.

He nodded. “Of course, anything.” He leaned forward, and looked me right in the eyes. His were the same light brown as mine.

I could feel tears sting the corners of my eyes. “Mike found this picture.” I held it out for him to see. “Our family,” I mumbled.

His eyes grew wide, and he stood and hugged me over the bed. I remained still at first, and then sank into it. He smelled like stale coffee and clean laundry.

pencil

Amanda DeNatale is an alumna of Creighton University’s MFA program where she served as the nonfiction editor for Blue River. She is currently a junior editor for F(r)iction. Amanda is a writer by day and a waitress by night. She is a St. Louis native, currently residing in Omaha, Nebraska with her cats Lady and Booger. Email: AMD34342[at]gmail.com

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The Santa Realisation

Flash
Michael Sams


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

I remember I was nine. I was in the back seat, behind Mum, who was driving sedately. My older brother was beside me. It was an early Saturday morning in November, already uncomfortable with the dry Australian heat. The air-con blasted pitifully, unable to eradicate the lived-in stink of the family sedan. We were on our way to the markets for some bromeliads for Mum and, I hoped, a slushie for me. My cotton floral dress was sticking to the polyester seat. Mum was humming along to a song by her favourite piano rock artist. She stopped at a red light.

“Sweetheart, look in the park, there’s Santa!” Mum exclaimed.

We looked. He was a sorry excuse for Santa. Even from a distance I could see his shoes were scuffed and the suit was tattered and faded. His belt wasn’t shiny, in fact, it wasn’t even a belt; I think it was a scarf. The beard-strap was clearly visible and his cap was missing the pompom.

“He looks terrible,” I said.

“Oh, that’s not the real Santa,” Mum corrected herself. “He’s just helping Santa out, like the elves do.”

She returned to her humming, so she didn’t hear my older brother whisper there was no real Santa.

My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. I stared amazedly at my brother, eleven, who was sagely nodding. My heart was racing. My brother put his hand on my shoulder, consoling. I blinked. No real Santa. My brother removed his hand.

I turned and saw my Dad, twisted in the front passenger seat, looking directly at me. He had heard my brother. He had seen that moment. I could see he wanted to console me, so I gave the smallest nod and slightest smile to let him know I was okay. His chest heaved with a silent, heavy sigh. The traffic light changed. Dad turned to face front. I wanted to console him, but I couldn’t.

Mum sang softly along, “…but I know that the ice is getting thin…” as she moved the car toward bromeliads and Dad-purchased slushies.

pencil

Michael Sams started writing short stories as a boy. He won a couple of competitions and attended a writing camp where he was mentored by published authors. In the last couple of years, he has been writing short plays. He has had several performed in various cities around the world. In the last couple of months he has returned to short story writing and is enjoying it immensely. Email: mike.sams003[at]gmail.com

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Cloise

Flash
Lynn Mundell


Photo Credit: Miss Wetzel’s Art Class/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

In their favorite game, they’re joined together, like famous twins Chang and Eng.

“Safety in numbers,” says Eloise, older by forty minutes. “Two heads are better than one.”

“Hahaha,” says Chloe, younger by the same. “Two-heads-two-heads!”

Chloe drags the skirt up their skinny legs with Eloise’s help. They’re eight years old—or sixteen, combined. Eloise pulls the sweatshirt over their heads. Each girl gets a sleeve. Side by side, they squeeze through the hallway, a double Popsicle.

“Girls, you’re stretching your clothes again.” At the kitchen table, Mother sits with ruined mascara like a masked bandit. Father has left. They’ve separated; like an egg.

“Please call me Cloise.” They keep moving, past the suitcases.

In the garage, they share a gum. Chloe gets the grapey first minute, chomping near Eloise’s ear as her sister searches for the duct tape.

They hear Father’s VW pull up. Raised, scrambled voices. They undress quickly.

“Chloe, time to go!”

Naked, they move chest to chest. Eloise stares into Chloe’s vague eyes, which may be looking back.

Eloise winds the tape around and around them, from armpits to bottoms.

They’re joined clamshells. They’re a double rainbow. No one’s splitting up Cloise. They’re a package deal.

pencil

Lynn Mundell’s fiction and creative nonfiction can be found in The Sun, Five Points, Hobart, Fanzine, Superstition Review, Tin House online, Eclectica, and other fine literary journals. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story and is co-editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, April 2018). Email: lamama36[at]gmail.com

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