The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

In the warm months of July and August I go off my diet of literary fiction and academic nonfiction and escape into my favorite pastime: summer reading. From May through September, one can see summer books in artful window displays in Main Street bookstores, on lawn chairs and colorful beach towels often flipped over with their pages fanning in a downward direction. Some can be spied poking out of a tote bag on a bus or train with just a hint of their titles showing. Some have their pages dogeared purposely to hold the reader’s place while their owner takes a reading break to splash in the pool, the ocean or other inland waters.

Novels filled with adventure, thrills, romance, mystery or history, which is a particular favorite of mine. Historical fiction hooked me into reading at a young age and today I am still drawn to this genre about people and places from eras gone by, some from the distant past to others at an even closer time that I can recall with a certain nostalgia because I was there somewhere. Somehow. Of course, not in the novel but existing in the real world as a younger version of myself, living and working and finding adventure on a much smaller scale.

I recently had the pleasure to read Bill Lockwood’s latest historical novel, The Monsignor’s Agents (The Wild Rose Press, 2020). Lockwood’s novel is filled with all those elements that I love: adventure, intrigue, danger, romance, and that recent historical context that made me think about where I was and what I was doing when Lockwood’s characters went about their bookish business of capturing my attention and literally traveling with me as I, myself, went about my summer business from place to place hoping for fifteen minutes here or there of stolen reading time so that I could catch up with my new summer friends. I spent a wonderful two weeks with Lockwood’s characters. Full disclosure: this is not my first Lockwood novel. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to see all his hallmarks in his latest work.

The setting of The Monsignor’s Agents takes place in two locations: Rome and on the island of Malta, located off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, in 1983, which I thought very interesting. The 1980s were more than crazy hair and clothes and the birth of MTV. They were a very political time in the world and in the Catholic Church as well. In the novel, Lockwood puts a spotlight on the Vatican and Pope John Paul II with speculation of a possible third assassination attempt brewing, and he does this beautifully using television news as a delivery vehicle, showing and not simply telling the reader. Lockwood does this right out of the gate in the first line:

Alison flipped on the TV while she waited for her morning coffee to brew. “May 1, 1983,” the announcer gave the date in Italian at the start of the local newscast for Rome.

Indeed, Lockwood clearly and succinctly orients the reader to the big picture while introducing his main character, Alison, a 27-year-old army intelligence officer stationed in Rome. The reader soon learns Alison’s role. Great writing here and throughout. Lockwood’s story is full of details and character movement.

He also adds a History and Author’s Notes in the beginning pages of his novel that supply some details and explanations of the numerous historical references peppered throughout the story that once more grounds the reader, gives authority to his characters, and also provides context to the exotic locations where the story takes place.

In this regard, authority is further heightened because the setting details are equally important to the plot. In the third chapter, Lockwood blends Alison with the setting in a historically evocative manner:

She had dressed European as cover, to blend in. The light summer dress she wore had, like the little island, a mix of European and Mediterranean cultures. The dress was thin to make her feel cool in the African heat and European in style to show she hadn’t worn a bra. Neither had she worn any jewelry except for a simple watch on her wrist. The guidebook had said that in the eighteenth century young girls in Maltese society were given simple coral necklaces believed to ward off evil. She was trusting in her training and experience to take care of that.

Alison’s character is reminiscent of a time when women were just beginning to break the gender barrier, particularly in the armed forces. Alison refers several times to the famed World War I spy, Mata Hari, who was a double agent spying on the French and Germans and ultimately died violently by a firing squad. Hari used her sexuality to get the job done and while that may have been true to history and the time, it made me pause. In a time of the women’s movement, Me Too, a heightened political climate and social awareness, to read about Alison using her sexuality in a flippant, provocative manner stopped me. It was unexpected and I had a moment of dislike for Lockwood’s character.

However, I recalled that 1980s pop culture was indeed graphic in terms of violence and sex, and women were commonly objectified by men as well as by themselves and had been for centuries. This is why historical female spies like Hari were able to stay under the radar of suspicion. I got that. This notion gave way to another thought. Perhaps Lockwood was showing the gender disparity of then and now in a micro-social commentary through his characters. How different they are to their modern contemporaries. Less serious, for sure. Playful. These qualities attracted me to them in the first place. My new summer besties. People whom I would invite to my house for a barbecue and cocktails had they been flesh and bone.

Returning to the other characters, overall they were very round and robust, charming, funny, and surprising, too. I liked them all, particularly Max, who I suspect may be a favorite of Bill’s. Max is a character I had met in a previous Lockwood novel and was delighted to be reacquainted with. Max and Alison’s points of view are the main plot vehicle as Lockwood switches between them in his linear narrative.

The novel builds to an exciting moment where the reader may guess what is about to happen but doesn’t know for sure, mirroring the character’s exact same sentiment. It’s a true page-turner followed by a traditional and quick falling action and character wrap up.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. Currently he writes articles on the arts and interesting people for the weekly Shopper/Vermont Journal and the daily Eagle Times. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood published his second novel, Megan of the Mists, in 2017, and third, Ms. Anna, in 2018. He has five published short stories. His short story “The Kids Won’t Leave” is scheduled to appear in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, the literary journal of Antioch University, Los Angeles. Bill lives in Vermont.

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

The Shave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Emma Williamson


Photo Credit: Chris Michaels/Flickr (CC-by)

Quarantine ends tonight, and my husband has decided to celebrate by shaving his beard.

I watch as he sits on a folding chair underneath the old oak tree, balances the shaving supplies on his lap. His thick, full beard gleams reddish brown in the rich afternoon light.

Our three acres grew unchecked during the year of quarantine. Sprawling wild rose bushes climb the sugar maple; untended grass and shrubbery tangle in the field. The overgrown copse of cedar to the east shimmers in the August heat. And up high in the branches over my husband’s head is the papery husk of a wasps’ nest that I was supposed to destroy, swaying gently in the breeze.

I frown, hoping he’ll sense my distress. Tell me he’s changed his mind about the beard.

Instead he stares at himself in the tiny hand mirror. He pulls at his beard, sets his jaw. Turns his head this way and that.

“Just tell me why,” I say.

He angles the mirror with one hand, maneuvers the scissors with the other. Hacking away at his beard, a sound like so many whispering blades.

“It’s itchy,” he says.

He rubs his chin as if to prove it to me.

“But you know how much I love it.”

A breeze ripples the foliage, tall grass brushing my bare legs. My arms prickle with the sun’s heat.

“I just want to,” he says finally.

“You just want to.”

He splashes his face with water from the plastic bowl.

“Yeah, I just do. Okay?”

He pumps shaving gel into one palm and rubs his hands together to get a thick lather. Then pats down the remaining bristles.

“Look, Anna. The pandemic is over. We start work in a couple of days. Everything is going to go back to normal.”

“So?”

“So,” he says, “I can’t fucking stand this beard anymore. I want it gone before I go back to the office.”

I press my lips together, thinking of my own return to work.

The drive: forty minutes in my aging Toyota Camry, travel mug of coffee beside me. Talk radio blasting opinions on how the government fucked up its response to the pandemic. The death toll. What to do with all the bodies.

The office: dull cinderblock walls and fluorescent lighting that make my fine lines look like trenches. Tupperware of soggy greens and cherry tomatoes, a listless chicken breast.

And the people: Karen and Maude, constantly asking me why I’m not pregnant yet, and James, my lecherous boss, his eyes sliding neatly to my breasts. Irate customers beaming their misery directly through my headset into my brain.

And I can’t forget the other banal details of living. Obligatory pedicures during sandal weather, monthly trims and root touch-ups. Scrolling through the endless glossy posturing of social media. The bright beep of each grocery item as it moves from the conveyor belt into my cloth sack.

The rest of my life.

“Where’s the razor?”

“What?”

“The razor,” he says. As though I don’t know what a razor is.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I can feel his eyes burning into my back as I walk through the yard toward the house, tall wild grass tickling my forearms.

Sunlight flashes on the upper windows as I reach the back deck, like the house is blinking its glassy eyes. I’ll miss the way our home comes alive with light as the day unfolds.

Then I imagine it—the house—waiting for me to return from my cubicle every day. Like a barren womb, empty and useless. Waiting to be filled with life.

*

Inside the house is thick with hot, stale air, the loamy scent of earth and foliage. I’ve stopped caring, but it’s impossible to ignore. With a day of air conditioning and a wipe-down with lemon pledge, maybe it’ll go away.

The razor is in the medicine cabinet, as expected. A straight razor, gleaming in the daylight filtering through the bathroom blinds. The drugstore sold out of the plastic ones early on. This is all we have.

I unfold it and press the blade to my finger, watch a thin line of blood seep out. I’m not sure how the razor is this sharp when he hasn’t used it in months. He might cut himself.

That might not be a bad thing. Maybe it would force him to reconsider the shave.

I find myself opening the vanity drawer, where last year’s used pregnancy tests sit. Row after row, all negative.

That’s when he’d started working late. Looking at me as though I didn’t exist.

I close my eyes, watching as his long, achingly romantic text message history with the other woman unfurls behind my eyelids from memory. It still hurts, all these months later.

But I know it’s all over now.

After all, she’s dead.

She was one of the first to die, bringing back the disease from a girls’ weekend in Miami. I read about it on Facebook. There wasn’t even a funeral because gatherings were banned at the time.

I never told him about her death. I assume he knew, though. Shortly after the woman’s mother posted her obituary, my husband went completely blank. He didn’t eat. Barely slept. Once I heard him sobbing in the shower.

I waited for him to get better with the patience and commitment that only a wife can provide. I continued snapping the tomatoes off the vine and chopping them for the salad and barbequing the fish he’d caught and smiling and stroking his beard and massaging his neck. Eventually we started having sex again and I forgot all about her.

Other than wondering where her body would be stored until the morgues re-opened.

I squeeze the blood from my finger, watch it drip into the sink and slide slowly down the drain.

I remember his beard from the early days. When we first started dating. The pleasant roughness when he kissed me, my lips raw and aching afterwards. Its scrape against my skin when he moved down my body, pleasure throbbing at the edge of pain.

When his scruff started growing a few weeks into quarantine, I swallowed my excitement. My husband breaks anything I love too much. Better not to mention it at all. But I longed for that beard under my fingertips. In bed, I gripped it in one hand, pulling him in. Eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see how greedy I was. How much I needed him.

*

My husband strokes the razor down his face as I hold the mirror. I gulp the swampy air, trying to dispel the pressure building in my chest.

There are so many lasts.

This is the last day I’ll wear that old embroidered caftan from my college days. The one he hates me wearing in public.

The last day I’ll let my hair dry into wild, beachy waves.

My tan will fade.

There will be no more long, leisurely suppers by candlelight. No more fish from the river, no more evening games of Scrabble. No more silence.

He’s already disappearing from me, bit by bit.

The power’s supposed to be up and running by tonight. By tomorrow morning we’ll hear the hum of the combines from the neighbour’s field, distant strains of morning traffic from the highway. Our charged phones will bleat with text messages sent months ago. Grass will be mowed. Stores will open.

I’m teetering on the precipice of a world that I will never be able to escape.

“What do you think?”

I snap to. It’s worse than I expected.

I’m staring at a stranger. His cheeks are gaunt and sunken, his brow more pronounced without the balancing effect of his beard. All these months of eating no processed food, of hiking and fishing. He’s lost weight, maybe ten pounds.

I make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It can’t be that bad,” he says uneasily. “Hard to do it in front of a hand mirror, but I think I did a good job.”

This was the face she saw. She looked into this shorn face and she pressed her hands to these bare cheeks. And that smooth, hairless chin pressed between her legs as he fed upon her.

You see me like no one else does, he had written to the other woman.

Was that true?

I’ve always wanted to ask him that. Is that true, what you wrote?

“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing to his throat. It’s a tiny patch, no bigger than a quarter.

“Aw, shit. Really?” He moves to feel it.

“No, don’t touch it, it looks sensitive.”

“Ok, can you hand me the mirror?” He sits down, motioning to the tray.

“I’ll do it for you,” I hear myself say.

“Thanks, babe,” he says.

He sits back down, and I stand before him. He hands me the straight razor. It sits heavy in my palm, the metal warm from his touch.

A wasp investigates, possibly drawn by the shaving cream’s cloying scent. The cream has melted into the bowl of water, leaving a scummy sheen on its surface, but the smell still hangs in the air. Or maybe it’s us, our bodies ripe with sweat. The insect buzzes lazily around my husband’s head. He swats at it aggressively.

“You’re making it angry,” I say.

“I thought you said you got them all,” he says nervously. “Do you have my epi-pen?”

“It’s in my pocket,” I lie.

“Can I have it?”

“Hold still.”

I pat water on his neck, watching as his jugular pumps blood steadily, wondrously. I prod his springy flesh. I marvel again at the fact that we didn’t get sick, that we are still here. So fully alive.

“Well, come on,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallow. “I just want to make sure I do this right.”

“It’s not rocket science, for fuck’s sake.”

My fingers itch to feel it again, that bristly tuft of hair. What I’ve held onto all these months of quarantine.

I press the razor to his skin, trying to get the angle right. And I see myself—like I’ve skipped a few slides ahead in the film reel of my life—plunging the razor deep, watching the blood spurt from his clean-shaven neck.

His eyes are huge, terrified. His fingers paw at his throat, slippery with blood. His mouth opens in a strange sort of grimace. The metallic smell of his blood mixes with the heady floral scent of the yard.

I could do it. It’d be easy. He trusts me. Perhaps then he would understand how important the beard was, how much it mattered.

He raises his eyebrows, gesticulates. As if to say I should get on with it.

“This is the problem with you, Anna,” he says. “You take forever to do anything.”

I stare back. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the Polaroid tucked into a picture frame by our bed. My husband and I on our wedding day, framed by a silky-looking Jamaican beach. I wear a pure white slip dress, hair loose; he’s in khakis and a white collared shirt. It’s always bothered me, that photograph. His smile is wide, earnest, his cheeks pinked with sun. To any casual observer, he looks happy.

But if you look closer, you can see it.

His body, his hips, are angled slightly away from me.

The razor trembles in my fingers. His artery pumps. I am standing outside of myself, looking down at him. I’m floating, fading away. The sun moves from behind a cloud, drenching my body with light.

I see my long wave of hair, the light cotton caftan skimming my knees.

I see my hand held to his throat.

And I watch as the wasp circles him, me, us, its buzzing violent and electric, like the thrumming of my heart. Almost as though it’s deliberating which one of us should kill him first.

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Emma Williamson is a Canadian lawyer turned emerging poet and fiction writer. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of Toronto School of Law, and the Humber School for Writers. Emma is working on a novel and several short stories, and was recently long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Alice Munro Short Story Prize. Emma lives in Toronto with her husband and son. Email: emmawilliamson23[at]hotmail.com

Morning Run

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Justine Gardner


Photo Credit: Corey Butler/Flickr (CC-by)

The fragrant main dish lies steaming on the restaurant table: a cat, whole and deep-fried, and still alive. It purrs when she pokes its crackling skin with the knife—

Something nudges her, leaving a moist slick to cool on her chin. She rises out of the dream, gasping, fingers in her cat’s fur. Listens to its purrs. Her husband’s congested snores that move his body, the bed, with every inhalation. She counts the seconds between his breaths, measuring his need for oxygen. Her watch says it is five-thirty. A glance at the monitor shows the baby smooth with sleep.

She gets up. She pads to the bathroom, then the kitchen, feeds the cat before taking her own half-cup of thin coffee. Her ten almonds, the bite of dried fruit. The jar of apricots is nearly empty. The snip of sky out the kitchen window is dark, but tinged with the early glow of sunrise.

She pulls on leggings, a tank top, straps on her phone. She slips out the apartment door, easing it closed behind her. The hall is ripe with the smell of the overflowing trash closet. The super has been sick, she heard. She hasn’t seen him since last week. Or is it the week before? She can’t quite remember the last time she spoke to a neighbor. The last time she heard the children crying from 6D.

She adjusts her mask, her hands already in their latex gloves, and takes the stairs. Fifth, fourth floors quiet, the lights out on both landings, the bulbs smashed. On the third floor, she smells fried fish through her mask and she thinks of that purring, crusted cat from her dream, feels the sour sip of coffee at the back of her throat. On the first floor there is a man sprawled in the stairwell, mask half slipped from his face, a bottle of vodka spilled from his hand. She does not recognize him as she steps over his prone body—but then there are so many people in the building it is hard to know for sure. He could be a stranger off the street; it wouldn’t be the first time.

She walks briskly through the lobby, pushing open the glass doors with her elbow. The air feels lighter outside; it moves with a slight breeze. The streetlamps are bright against the indigo sky. She breathes, as deeply as she can through the mask, feeling it tighten against her face and then bowing out on the exhale. She smells her coffee breath. And then under that, the rich, moist stink from the garbage bags piled at the base of the thin street tree. Soon, she thinks, there will be a wall of trash. A rat burrows through one bag, looks at her as she looks at the trash and then digs back in, stringy tail the last thing she sees.

She starts to run, slowly at first, letting her muscles warm themselves. She is sweating already. At dawn the air is cooler but it is still August, it is still eighty degrees at six a.m. She runs, faster now, catching sight of the park, the park she cannot enter—not since June—so she will run alongside the stone walls, imagining herself within.

Leaves crunch underfoot, making her think for a moment of that crackle of fried skin, the purring cat. She keeps running, her pace growing comfortable, her legs feeling their place in the usual rhythm. She adjusts the face covering, keeps it from sliding too far forward, although part of her wants to let it slide all the way, untie it, and throw it in the gutter with the bags of spilled trash and let the heavy August air encase her. Maybe she’ll take off her gloves, her clothes one piece at a time as she runs, dropping each item on the curb, her crumb trail home, until she is naked and sweating, pores open, ready to absorb everything around her.

She keeps running, the mask in place, counting off the red posters set intermittently on the park’s low walls. She can read only a bit as she passes each one, but she knows what they say: Closed until further—by order of—the Department of Health—and Mental Hygiene—Do not enter—Penalty can include a fine and—or arrest.

She doesn’t want the fine, or to be arrested, although that last part she knows is a lie—the jails were emptied out months ago and not by an order from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As for the fine, they would have to catch her to give it.

She smiles, considers this as she runs, approaching the nearest entrance. There is no way to seal it, not completely. A police car will be stationed there, waiting to stop anyone trying to slip through with their dog, their toddler, their bottle of vodka.

But there is no one at the entrance—no police car, no soldiers. The barricades are open slightly as though someone pushed against them, sliding in. She pauses, looks left, right. The streets are empty. She wonders: has she seen anyone at all? Not a single car driving down the avenue, not one siren heard crying in the distance.

She slips between the barricades and runs, faster now, across the main road toward the glinting flash of lake. How long has it been? Three months? She can’t remember. She can’t think of the last time she went this far from their apartment—this far alone, even. But now that she is here, inside the park, she feels something brighten within her, wake up. She runs, enjoying the pound of her feet against the pavement as she nears the water.

The lake is still, and barren. Where are the geese? The birds? And then she remembers: they’d been removed by the same force behind the red posters. Known and probable vectors. She runs faster, the mask slicked to her face with sweat, her throat dry. Still, she runs. Who knows when she can do this again? Who knows if they will catch her, return her to the apartment, to her sick husband, her baby, her—

A cat streaks past on the path, a wiggling kitten in its mouth. She jumps, startled, and stops, panting, hands on her thighs. She watches the cat dip into the brush and vanish from sight. A cat is alive. A cat is alive in this park where the birds are all dead and the humans forbidden.

She starts running again, around the edge and down the steep hill. She catches a smell through her mask, something deep and chemically sweet. There is a fog rolling at the base of the hill, the sound of a motor; she sees a truck’s shape through the cloud. She stops. Backs up, watches the slow progression of the gray vapor as it seeps up the hill, creeping toward her. She turns back the way she came, running now, the mask slipping from her face. She pulls it up, holds it to her nose, her throat burning with that sweet, too sweet smell.

She crosses the road, races out the park entrance and crashes into the armored chest of a soldier.

“What are you doing here?” the soldier yells through their gas mask, eyes wide behind their goggles. “Didn’t you get the order—” They clip something at their collar. “We have a civilian at the east gate—”

She runs, faster than she has ever run before, her legs flying over the concrete. She runs and runs until she is at her building and up the stairs, panting and coughing her way over the body of the man and his vodka, up and up and up until she is at her front door, pawing for her keys in her pocket. She sheds her clothes on the doormat, there in the hall, leaving everything, even her underwear, her sports bra in a heap, and slams the door behind her.

It is a long time before she can breathe normally again. Ten minutes? Twenty? She leans her bare skin against the wall, feeling the searing in her chest, her trachea sandpapered and salted. Finally, she takes in air, a gulp, then another. But the smell is on her, that sweet, sweet smell.

She lurches toward the bathroom and runs the shower, standing under water that is too cold, scratching at her skin with the thin piece of soap.

She emerges, eventually, wrapped in a towel, shivering in the air-conditioning, her throat burning. She enters the bedroom, her husband just sitting up, looking at her with sticky eyes.

He points to the window, toward the tips of the park trees they can just make out over the roof of the building opposite. They are glowing, gold, orange—they’re burning.

She sits down on the bed next to him, watching the flickering, the rising smoke. He coughs, and leans against her. She puts her arms around him, kisses his cool forehead. Behind her the baby cries out on the monitor.

She thinks of the cat, the kitten it carried. She wonders if it knew before she did that it was time to run.

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Justine Gardner is a former dog trainer, past pizzeria proprietor, and current freelance editor and writer. She was born, reared, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY, along with her husband, young son, and two cats. Her story “Nature Will Provide” was a finalist in Regulus Press’s 2018 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the contest anthology, Telephone Me Now. Her story “Blood, Bone, Feather” appears in Issue 51 of the quarterly NewMyths. Follow her on Twitter @JBGrumpstone. Pronouns: she/her. Email: justine.gardner[at]gmail.com

Staring At The Sky

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
C.A. Rowland


Photo Credit: John Brighenti/Flickr (CC-by)

Sarah’s gaze was drawn to movement outside the window. Dawn had broken, but there were still more shadows than light among the oak trees that were beginning to fill out their branches with delicate light green leaves.

She’d looked up from the sewing machine where she was adding the last stitches to a face mask. A child-size face mask of bright colors of oranges, yellows, and greens, which she hoped would help banish some of the fears and illness that had swept through Virginia, as well as the rest of the world.

What Sarah had seen outside was more substantial than the waving of a branch when a bluebird launches itself into the air. A spotted brown deer maybe, since they wandered early in the morning hours, seeking out the moist leaves of the deep green hostas that had burst through the soil to reach for the summer sun.

As she watched the trees and shrubs, nothing else moved. She hadn’t yet opened the window after locking it for the night since her nearest neighbor was half a mile away. Still, she should have been able to hear a few birds singing in the new morning.

She brushed off the feeling of unease, attributing the movement to the shadow of a large bird soaring about the treetops, which were twice the height of the three-bedroom house she lived in. Sarah got up and moved to the window, wondering if maybe Al had been right about curtains.

He hadn’t cared that they were surrounded by woods or a hundred yards from the county road, he wanted windows with coverings. To reduce their utility bills, he’d said. She’d removed them shortly after he died, but she now realized that anyone could see inside if they wandered the property. See her and that she was alone, four years now and counting since he’d passed.

With each minute, the light filtering in through the dark bark of the pine and oak trees strengthened until it warmed and cheered her, chasing away any thought of what might have been there. She moved back to the sewing machine and the rhythmic hum of the needle moving up and down, piercing the fabric and then pulling out, lulling her into calmness.

Sarah looked up, her aching back and the growing stack of face masks, letting her know it must be close to noon. As with all her quilting circle friends that were home sewing as well, she’d stocked up on food for the next two weeks. She was well inside the virus’s target zone of those over sixty-five, although she had no underlying conditions that the virus might use to weaken her system. A ham and cheese sandwich with a few chips was on the menu today.

Sarah moved to the kitchen, where she busied herself. Over the sink, a small square window looked out over the backyard and the rust-red stained deck. She and Al had searched for several months for a green aluminum table and rocking chairs that would blend into the surroundings. They’d spent many a summer evening outside around that table.

As she turned back to the sink, her arms filled with the lunch makings, she looked out, her mouth dropped open, and she jumped, spilling everything from her arms to the floor. For just a quick second, Sarah had thought Al was sitting here. Much as he’d done when he was alive, basking in the sunlight while drinking a cold glass of tea.

The man sitting there was not Al. He was skinny like Al but seemed bonier, almost like a drug addict or someone deep in the throes of the last stages of cancer or other disease. His head was turned toward the forest behind the house, with a beige cowboy hat shielding him from the growing heat of the day.

His camouflage backpack sat beside him, leaned up against his blue jean-clad legs. He seemed relaxed.

What the hell was he doing there? Would he leave on his own, or would she have to run him off, or maybe call the police?

Who was he? A drifter?

Sarah remembered her grandma telling her stories of the Depression. If there was anything Granny knew how to do, it was stretch a meal. Six kids and an alcoholic husband who didn’t always have work, she pinched pennies. She also had an open back door for those down on her luck.

With three growing boys, she’d had no worry about any stranger getting out of line back then. Most had just been grateful to partially fill their bellies and move along. Was that what Sarah faced now? Someone just down on their luck as the pandemic fears caused businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs or worse?

The man seemed cleaner than Sarah expected. If he had no home, it hadn’t been for long, or he had a few resources to call on.

Times had changed. Last year, a man had been seen wandering the woods behind several houses after he lost his home to foreclosure. There’d been break-ins before he was caught. That was when Sarah began sleeping with the pistol underneath Al’s pillow.

Sarah hugged herself. She’d been raised by Granny to help those in need. Was this her time to step up, or would going outside to confront this man be foolish? She wished Al was here. He’d know what to do. No doubt he’d step outside and talk man to man with the person.

Could she live with herself if she failed to act? She might never know if one gesture from her might make a difference. Or would he just leave?

Sarah looked around. Safe in her house. Making face masks for unseen recipients—safe from the disease ravaging the country. Safe. Safe. Safe.

What would her mother do?

She’d been a child of the Depression, and it had had an impact. Her mother saved every penny and spent as little as possible.

But her Granny—there was no doubt that she’d lend a hand if she could. She wasn’t stupid or careless, but she never turned down those in need, even when it meant she went without.

Sarah had always hoped she’d be like her. Now, she had the choice to step up or not.

She watched the man for another couple of minutes. Then she picked up the food she’d dropped, stalling as she struggled with the decision.

Sarah turned and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. This room had no curtains on the windows either. She grabbed some jeans and a long sleeve shirt to replace her thin t-shirt and shorts.

The closet was the only room that didn’t have a window, so she changed there.

Exiting, she stared at the bed for a moment before she moved to Al’s side. She stared at the pillow.

She’d never liked guns. She’d never wanted to own one.

Al had insisted when they bought the house. Too many animals around that could be a threat. Plus, their neighbors were even further away back then. Al wanted her to be able to handle any situation. Now she was glad she’d been to the range to shoot. She still hated the idea of killing anything, but she was on her own and wanted to think she could protect herself.

She removed the gun. Checking that the safety was on, she tucked inside her jeans in the center of her back, the cool metal sending chills up her spine. She pulled the shirt tail over the top of her jeans. She might not be able to get it out as quickly as she needed, but Sarah was still quick for being sixty-eight years old, and she could run if she needed to.

Sarah headed back down the hall and out her back door onto the deck. She closed the door with a click so that the man would hear her coming. Sounds carried in this area of the county.

She took a few steps forward and approached him from the other side of the table. Keeping her distance, both for safety and because the last thing she needed was to be so close to someone, she could catch the virus.

“Can I help you?” Sarah asked.

The man’s movements were slow as if he was aware that she was being careful. He turned and lifted his head to stare at her.

“No, ma’am. Just stopped to rest my feet a while. I’ve been traveling some through the night. Didn’t mean to bother you.”

Sarah wasn’t sure whether she could trust that. At the very least, he was polite, although knocking on her door to ask permission would have been the ordinary courtesy.

“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You from around here?”

“Was.”

That wasn’t so helpful.

“Planning to move on?”

“Sure.”

The man reached down to pick up his backpack. He looked back up at Sarah as if to ask her if she meant right now. His stomach growled.

“Have you had anything to eat today? I was about to make myself a sandwich. Making two is no trouble.”

“I’d appreciate that, ma’am.”

“I’m Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

Sarah turned to walk back to the kitchen, her nerves on edge. This was her most vulnerable time with her back to him.

“They call me Leon.”

She smiled, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. Names were important to know.

In the kitchen, Sarah quickly made two ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. Each went on a paper plate with some potato chips. She grabbed a bottle of water for him as she took the plate out to Leon.

Still careful, she laid the plate on the table with the water and stepped back.

“Thanks.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems like a bad time to be traveling,” Sarah said.

Leon reached across the table and dragged the plate so that it was in front of him. He lifted the water and took a long drink.

“That sure tastes good.”

Leon took a bite of the sandwich.

Sarah waited. Her Al had been like this. Slow to answer and precise in what he said. He’d loved to tell a story, but you had to get him talking first and in his own time.

“Had a room in a house down the county road. I’m a day laborer, and the work dried up. She and her husband had lost their jobs, and they were barely able to put food on the table for the family.”

Sarah frowned. She knew times were terrible, but the folks who were her neighbors wouldn’t usually put someone out when everyone was struggling. Still, she could detect no guile in his manner.

“Sit as long as you like. There’s water from the spigot on this side of the house, from the well, so it’s fresh and cold.”

Leon nodded and took another bite.

Sarah turned and headed back in the house, placing her feet carefully, her back rigid with some tension still left.

Inside, she ate her sandwich standing up at the kitchen window.

She watched Leon finish his food and drink the last of the water. He set the bottle on the paper plate and stared off into the woods.

Sarah made sure the kitchen door was locked and headed back to sew.

A few hours later, she headed to the kitchen. She had some left-over chicken salad she’d planned to eat for her supper.

She checked the deck. Leon was still sitting there. She sighed. She’d hoped he’d have left so she didn’t have to face him again.

A man down on his luck. She’d seen a few in her lifetime. Al had brought a few home to work around the house, helping him with projects that were more than one man could do. Sarah had fed them all. She could do no less now.

She filled two paper plates with the salad and grabbed another water bottle. Sarah headed outside.

“I was fixing myself some supper. I expect you’re hungry as well, so I fixed a plate.”

Leon turned toward her and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but it seemed genuine enough.

“Ma’am, thank you. It’s been a few days since I’ve had more than one meal.”

“You’re welcome. You mentioned you’d be moving on.”

“I will. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I spent the night on the deck. I’d be no bother. It just beats being in the woods.”

Sarah swallowed hard. She’d hoped her hint would mean he’d move along.

What could it hurt?

“I guess that’d be all right.”

Leon nodded and began to eat. Sarah picked up the lunch plate and water bottle. There were only crumbs on it, but feral cats, raccoons, and foxes might be drawn by the smell of food. She’d be back for the supper plate once Leon had finished eating. No sense asking for trouble.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah realized that if Leon attacked her or tried to steal from her, no one would know about it. She headed to her sewing room, where her phone was beside the machine.

She texted her best friend, Linda.

Sarah: A man stopped at the house today. I’ve fed him. He is sleeping outside on the deck tonight.

Linda: What? Who is he? Are you safe?

Sarah: I think he’s harmless and down on his luck. I’ll call you in the morning. But if I don’t call, call me just to make sure nothing’s wrong. If you don’t reach me, call 911.

Linda: I don’t like this. Should I come over and stay? Should I send Jeffrey?

Jeffrey was her neighbor. He was ten years older than both of them, and a turtle would win in a race with him. But he was a good man who’d do anything for Linda.

Sarah: No. Just being careful. Doubt anything will happen.

Linda: I’ll be calling at 7.

Sarah laughed as she put the phone down. Just a few texts and she felt better already. Someone would be checking on her if they didn’t hear from her. Not entirely safe but a bit of net, just in case.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah looked at the window and saw Leon had finished his meal. She went outside and picked up the plate.

“Need anything?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ll just bed down here for the night. Gonna be a clear sky with stars. Better than any T.V. show.”

“All right then.”

Sarah headed back inside and locked the door. She checked all the windows and doors to make sure all were secured and walked to her bedroom.

She knew most of the sounds that the house made, but she quickly realized any noise was going to keep her awake. She turned on her book reader and scrolled through the unread novels. She needed something light, so mysteries and suspense were out. A soft light on the other side of the room was on, and she decided to leave it that way. She’d slept with it on before, and she’d do that now.

In the end, Sarah found an old favorite classic and began to read.

*

For the next three days, Sarah and Leon kept up the routine. She fed him lunch and supper each day. He sat on the deck during the mornings.

In the afternoons, he’d wander the property. He had a few pruning tools in his backpack, and she saw that he understood plants. A clip here and a clip there.

Sarah understood. Just like Al and a lot of the men she had known over the years. Unwilling to take a handout unless they found a way to pay their way. Leon was paying her for the food in the only way he could.

Every morning and evening, Sarah checked in with Linda.

Each day, Sarah got her mail and ran an errand or two, which took her away from the house. She checked to make sure the doors were all locked, and that nothing had changed each time she returned.

Linda: When is he leaving?

Sarah: Don’t know.

Linda: I don’t like this. I’m going to come over with Jeffrey so he knows you aren’t alone.

Sarah: No. I’m fine. I’ll ask him to move on.

Linda: Tell me when you do that.

Sarah headed out at lunchtime with a hamburger and chips.

“Seems like someone might be missing you. Don’t you think you should be contacting them or going to see them?”

Leon looked up at her from under the brow of his hat. He shook his head.

“No. Nobody to contact. But sounds like I need to be moving on. Tomorrow okay with you? Looks like its gonna rain.”

“That would be fine. I have a tent in the garage. Why don’t I get that out for you? You can use that to keep some of the wet off you?”

Leon smiled.

“That would be very kind of you.”

Sarah headed back inside, kicking herself for making the offer. She knew almost nothing about this man. He’d probably spent many a night in the rain throughout his life. Why on earth did she say that?

Because she liked him. In Leon, she saw what she’d loved in Al—the slow movements, his respect for her, and his paying her for what she was doing for him.

Sarah realized she was sad and a bit lonely, but not so lonely as to do something stupid like bringing him into the house.

In the garage, Sarah located the camping tent and a sleeping bag. Al had been an organizer, and she’d left it all where he’d carefully placed things. The tent and bag were dusty from being left in storage, and she shook them both, the polyester bright blue waving like flags in the wind.

When she took out the supper meal, she made a second trip with the camping gear.

“You can put this up in the grass if you’d like. Anywhere back here is fine.”

“I’ll do that shortly. Maybe by the garage so that the house breaks the wind.”

“That would be fine.”

Sarah pulled out a rocker and sat down.

Leon looked over at her.

“I come out most nights to watch the sunset. Thought I’d join you if you don’t mind.”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t realize I’d kept you from seeing the sky.”

“I don’t always do it, but with the storm blowing in, I thought I’d sit a few minutes.”

Leon went on eating.

Sarah realized it was peaceful, partly because she knew this was the lull before the rain and wind would arrive.

In the end, she got up and picked up the plate.

“Good night, Leon.”

“Good night, Sarah.”

Sarah closed the kitchen door and locked it. She headed down the hall to her bedroom, which shared a wall with the garage.

Sarah: I’m headed to bed. Leon is leaving in the morning.

Linda: I’m relieved. Text me when he leaves.

Sarah: Will do.

A few minutes later, she heard Leon pounding the stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place for the night.

She found her book reader and clicked it open to the novel she was reading. She’d always had trouble sleeping during storms.

Sarah sat up straight in bed, realizing she must have dozed off. Her reader was dark, but the light across the room was still on.

“Dammit, get off me. You bastard, I’m gonna kill you.”

It was as if the shouted words were inside the room. Sarah realized that they were coming outside the walls.

A man screamed.

Leon.

Sarah was up, grabbing yesterday’s jeans and shirt.

Pulling them over her flimsy gown.

She jerked the pistol out from under the pillow.

Jamming her feet in shoes, she ran down the hall.

Grabbing her phone.

Through the kitchen she ran, hitting the light switch that turned on all the outside lights.

Down the pathway to the garage area.

Around the corner of the house.

Sarah could see the tent was askew. As if something had attacked it.

The wind?

No.

Leon was on the ground outside, with two of the largest raccoons she’d ever seen around him.

They snarled, and he was fighting them off.

Sarah clicked off the safety and shot the gun in the air.

“Out. Get out,” she yelled.

Four sets of gleaming eyes turned to look at her. Then they turned back to Leon.

Sarah could see scratches on his arm where they had gone after him. The pants on one leg looked to have a large wet spot—from the rain or something worse.

Sarah moved so that she could shoot away from Leon.

She aimed and fired near one of the animal’s legs.

The ground poofed where the bullet hit.

She aimed again.

Fired.

The raccoons ran.

Sarah fired again—behind them but making sure they didn’t return.

She hurried to Leon’s side, leaning down to check for wounds

“Where are you hurt?”

Leon moaned and leaned back on the ground, his arm over his eyes.

“Those damned raccoons scratched my arm and leg. One bit me. Shit, that hurts.”

“You need a doctor. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Leon almost screamed the word, and Sarah fell backward.

“What?”

“They’ll take me to the hospital. They’ve got the virus there. I’ll die if I go there.”

Sarah had heard there were such fears. Linda knew someone who had a relative die because they wouldn’t seek treatment.

“You need bandages. I’ll be back.”

“No ambulance. You hear me?”

Sarah ignored the words. She’d already risen and was hitting typing the numbers on her phone.

In the kitchen, Sarah pulled out dishtowels and some plastic gloves. She headed to her sewing room, grabbed scissors and an old bedsheet she used as a foundation for quilt blocks.

As the operator answered, Sarah gave her address and told her what had happened. She had hung up before she was back out through the kitchen door. Leon was getting help whether he wanted it or not. Raccoons didn’t attack unless they were rabid. He needed a doctor.

Back around the house, Sarah dropped everything on the ground. She pulled the gloves on—the ones she used while washing dishes. Not ideal, but they’d have to work.

Sarah cut the bed sheet into strips. Leon had lowered his arm and was watching her.

“Your arm is bleeding. I’m going to put a towel over it and tie it off. I’m going to need your help.”

Leon nodded.

Sarah folded the red-and-white checked dishtowel and placed it on his arm where the deepest scratch was. Leon held it in place while she tied it off with a strip of the bedsheet.

She moved to his leg. It was by far the worst.

Sarah picked up another dish towel. She stared at it.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“Nothing. It’s one my mother embroidered for me.”

Sarah laid on it on the leg. It couldn’t be helped. A man’s life was more important than a keepsake.

She slid a bedsheet strip under his leg and brought it to the top. Tying it off, she moved to his chest and side.

“All of these need to be sterilized and treated. I’m not a nurse. I can only do so much,” Sarah said.

“No doctors.”

Sarah continued to put towels over his wounds and add some pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Leon laid still, his breathing labored from the battle he’d fought, and his eyes closed.

As the first sounds of the ambulance siren rang through the night, Sarah wondered what had brought the raccoons out. She hadn’t seen any signs that they were rabid.

Lights flashed as the ambulance turned into her driveway.

“Dammit. I said no doctors.”

“Raccoons can carry rabies, which is much worse than the virus. I had no choice.”

Leon opened his eyes.

“There’s always a choice.”

“You’re on my property. I’m not willing to let you die or become sick because I didn’t do anything.”

Doors slammed, and two uniformed male attendants hurried over.

“What happened?” a tall, young blond-haired man asked.

Sarah explained the situation.

The second man leaned down and began examining the wounds, pulling up the dishtowels to see below.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Leon said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” the blond-haired man
said.

“No.” Leon took a swing at the dark-haired attendant with the unscratched arm.

The dark-haired man opened his case and pulled out a syringe.

Stuck it in Leon’s arm as he continued to struggle. Then he went limp.

“We’ll be taking him to General Hospital. You can follow us if you want, but with the virus, you won’t be able to come in,” the blond-haired man said. “We can give the hospital your phone number if you want.”

“He’s only passing through. I won’t be going there.”

The two men nodded.

They pulled a stretcher from the back of the ambulance, placed Leon on it, and loaded him inside.

As they pulled away, Sarah wrapped her arms around her waist. She stared at the vehicle until it turned onto the county road and drove away.

She walked back to the house and washed up, throwing the gloves in the trash. What had happened outside while she slept?

Sarah walked back to her bedroom, knowing she’d never get back to sleep. She took a quick shower and sat on the bed, staring at the wall.

A couple of hours later, as the sun streamed in, Sarah changed into her clothes for the day and headed back outside. She took a new pair of gloves, just in case. The tent and sleeping bag would still be there.

As she rounded the corner, she caught her breath. The grass was torn up. The tent had deep tears down one side as if someone had cut it with a knife. Likely the raccoon’s claws. But what were they searching for?

Sarah took a couple of steps closer. Two empty tin cans were at the cloth door of the tent. Leon’s backpack was open, and more tins were inside the tent and in his pack.

What were they doing there? They reeked of days’ old chicken.

Not five feet away was her trash container. Why hadn’t Leon thrown them away?

All her care in making sure no trace of food was left on the deck, and he was storing these cans?

That might have been what drew them. It was like he’d sent out a smell invitation for the animals.

It didn’t matter. He was gone. Sarah needed to clean this up.

She moved to the waste container and threw the top open.

She gathered up the cans, the sleeping bag, and the tent, and tossed them in.

She slammed the cover shut.

Sarah had saved the backpack once she removed the tins. It held other things of Leon’s that he’d likely want, including the pruning tools he’d used on her plants.

Which meant he’d probably be back.

And none too happy with her.

Sarah picked up the backpack and raised it to her nose. Still smelled of food.

She took it inside. The last thing she wanted was to violate his privacy, but it couldn’t be helped. She emptied it and made sure it was washable.

Sarah texted Linda while the backpack churned in the washer.

Sarah: He’s gone. Had a run-in with raccoons and he went to the hospital.

Linda: There’s a story there. Are you okay?

Sarah: Yes. Just sad. He was scared.

Linda: But you couldn’t do anything else.

Sarah: I know. Still feels awful.

Sarah signed off and went to sew. She’d always found that her mind cleared when she sewed. Today, she kept wondering whether Leon would be back, and if so, how angry would he be. She’d decided to put his backpack on the aluminum table on the deck once it was dry. She’d leave it out all day, bringing it in each night.

Sarah didn’t sleep well that night or the next one. Not knowing if Leon would come back angry left her with keeping the light on at night and reaching out at times to make sure the pistol was there under Al’s pillow.

Two days later, Sarah returned from grocery shopping. As she placed her cloth bags on the counter, she glanced out the kitchen window, just as she had several times before.

The backpack was gone. In its place was something white. Sarah headed out the kitchen door.

The white was a dish towel with some light red stains, but it was clean. She turned it over, and a shiver ran up her spine. The towel was embroidered. Leon had returned the towel her mother had made for Sarah.

Sarah looked around, wondering if he might be watching from the woods. She figured she’d never know. What she did know was that Leon had forgiven her for sending him to the hospital. She knew he’d had to travel ten miles to return the towel, as well as he’d taken the time to wash it. No one did that who held a grudge.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. She wasn’t sure she could handle anything or anyone that came her way, but she knew she’d never question meeting a challenge like this again. She could stick to who she was and wanted to be, and be able to meet whatever came from that.

Sarah hoped Leon found his way to another who would help him, a place where he could watch the sky and was safe. That’s what she’d be doing tonight on her deck—watching the stars and the sky.

pencil

C.A. Rowland is a recovering lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Virginia home—a place of history, folklore and inspiration. She’s published short stories and non-fiction articles and her first amateur sleuth mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, “The Meter’s Always Running,” is being published in June 2020. She has stories in the Fiction River anthologies, Spies and Stolen. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at carowland.com Email: carolyn94549[at]gmail.com

The Tomato

Creative Nonfiction
Carol Shank


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

Day three of my stay in Nice, I returned to the hotel with a magnificent red tomato I’d bought with the last of my money. The tomato couldn’t possibly satisfy my hunger, but it would have to do. I wondered­—should I eat it now or wait? Waiting was all I’d done since arriving in Nice.

It was early September and I was expecting a letter from my mother with money from the sale of my car, and another letter from Poal, my Danish lover, telling me when he’d pick me up for our trip to Rome. I’d been traveling through Europe on five dollars a day like so many other young people, and I wasn’t ready to return to the states. My Eurail Pass had just expired so I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d thrown my fate to the wind.

My hotel room was windowless, and by the elevator on the sixth floor. It had a narrow bed, a small stuffed chair, and a floor lamp. There was a stool by the chair that I used for a table. One wall was part of a brick chimney. Had the room been a maid’s quarters? A broom closet? I suspected broom closet, since the faint odor of cleaning supplies lingered.

I’d paid for two nights only, and stayed a third night. I’d sheepishly pass by the desk clerk who’d been kind enough to rent me the room at a special rate. One more unpaid night and I could be homeless, and sleeping with the hippies farther down the beach.

The first couple of days going to the American Express were disappointing. The middle-aged clerk behind the counter wore Clark Kent glasses and was dressed in a fine suit, which I found odd considering his lackluster job. I’d ask if I had any mail and he’d say, “Nothing. Next,” at which point I’d go outside and join the hippies who sat on benches lining the shady grove of trees. They’d bum cigarettes from me and we’d chat. I figured they were also waiting for letters containing money or information, lifelines to help them move on.

Ian, a tall Canadian, had a lion’s mane of brown hair streaked with gold, and a five o’clock shadow that highlighted his angular face. He seemed like the leader of the tribe of drifters running low on their luck. He’d ask how I was doing and I’d assure him that any minute my letters would arrive. I had some bread and butter and a couple packs of cigarettes to help ward off hunger. Somehow I’d manage until my ship came in.

Besides going to the Amex twice a day, there wasn’t much to do other than act the part of a tourist, donning my two-piece bathing suit for dips in the glorious Mediterranean, an infinite bathtub of light blue water. I’d float on my back in a dreamy state, tilting and gliding as the sea sought alignment with the shore. Somewhere beyond the cloudless sky an invisible moon orchestrated the gentle waves so different from the rough, dark waves of the Atlantic that I knew. This was the sea I’d seen so many times on maps in college classes as I learned about the ancient world and beyond. It seemed any moment Botticelli’s Venus would float by on her half shell. Neptune would rear his head, holding his trident high. These waters had rocked the cradle of Western civilization and now they were rocking me. Me! I loved that thought.

However, stepping from the water and weaving through the crowd of sunbathers, I felt out of place amidst the bronzed men wearing expensive sunglasses and the bikini-clad women tending to their toddlers. It seemed Western civilization had been reduced to a postcard of bourgeois pleasure seekers, and all that heady historical and cultural stuff I’d learned was sitting idly in my brain without any practical purpose. Yet, on the surface, I was part of the scene—an American chick on her holiday perhaps? I entered the hotel like other sun-kissed guests, sand between my toes, before vanishing into my broom closet.

On day three I awoke to sounds inside my stomach. Gurgles echoed. Boings ricocheted off cavern walls. This body needs food!

My bed groaned in sympathy as I sat up and placed my feet on the cool linoleum. I had the end part of a baguette left to eat and a tab of soft butter. I spread the butter with my finger and gnawed on the bread like a dog—so unladylike! I smiled and thought, “If Poal could see me now” and was glad he couldn’t.

On my morning visit to the Amex, before I could open my mouth to ask for mail, the impeccably dressed clerk shook his head and said, “Next,” fixating his gaze on the customer behind me. I was stunned. I stared at him, but he failed to acknowledge me.

Cheeks hot, thoughts racing, I walked out. I must have looked distraught, because Ian, who was sitting on a stone bench, gestured for me to join him.

“That man is rude,” I said, collapsing beside him. “He didn’t let me ask for my mail. He dismissed me like… like I wasn’t even there.”

“Oh, don’t mind him. He probably assumes you’re a middle-class American girl waiting for a handout from her family.”

What? Was Ian a jerk, too?

But then he smiled. “You Americans have some nerve traipsing around Europe carefree.”

“Ha, ha. Well, Americans are fortunate, generally speaking,” I said, still feeling defensive. “But my family hasn’t much money. It’s money from the sale of my car that will keep me here longer. I’m not ready to leave. My life in Europe is interesting, not like my drab life back home.”

Ian laughed. “Interesting means many things. What’s it mean to you?”

I felt myself blush and thought a minute. “Adventure, I suppose. Marrying and settling down isn’t for me. Do you know the picture of the Fool on the Tarot card?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s me. I’m stepping off a cliff with my bag on a stick, a hobo off to see the world, each day a new beginning.”

He nodded like he understood and we talked some more. I gazed up at him, marveling at the contrast between his sandpaper beard and straight white teeth. He exuded goodness. I wondered was this goodness a Canadian quality? He told me not to be upset about the clerk. He was just a bureaucrat doing his job.

Ian invited me to the beach at seven o’clock to play music, and I said I’d go.

With my handful of centimes and other small coins I dug from the bottom of my bag, I went to the outdoor market to buy what food I could, maybe a pear or an apple. Whatever it was, I’d know it when I saw it.

The tomato sat on top of the pile, a plump jewel of a fruit, a queen on her throne! I picked it up, marveling at its girth. The woman weighed it, and looked at me quizzically, probably wondering why an American girl had to pay with French pennies. On the surface I did seem pathetic, but I didn’t care. I was fortunate to have such a perfectly ripe, gorgeous tomato.

Back at the hotel, I took out my travel kit, removed the plate and stunted knife and fork, and arranged them on the stool with the tomato. I sat down on the floor, ready to devour it, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t want hunger to win. Not yet.

I found the hippies by the sound of drums, and joined them in a circle on the beach though I didn’t like calling them hippies because they weren’t like the free love, sex-crazed American hippies. They were an international group, ready to engage in conversation on just about anything—books they’d read, music, art, and philosophies of life. One of the men (they were mostly men) handed me a drum, and though I’d never played one before, to my surprise I kept the beat. The guys I’d known back in the states had always hogged the drums, like it was their manly right to play them, relegating tambourines to the girls.

Our arms moved in sync, our sound radiating out over sand and sea. Above the crescent moon, a bowl of stars seemed to twinkle in delight as it received our insistent message of good will. Maybe I could live like this. I could be part of a tribe like this.

Walking back to the hotel, my stomach rumbled from deep inside, a major upheaval was going on. The desk clerk looked up when I entered and said, “Miss,” but I pretended not to hear and kept walking.

Back in my room, I lay on my bed, attentive to the chaos that emanated from my body. The light from the lamp was dim like the glow of a candle, because I’d hung two pair of clean wet underwear on it to dry. The tomato on the stool seemed to shimmer in the soft light, and every few minutes I’d look at it and wonder if the moment had come to consume it. Could I last a little longer? No, it was tempting me. Yes, no, yes. Yes, I could wait. The tomato was giving me strength to persevere. We’d coexist a little longer.

I awoke the next day to the same guttural sounds as the day before, only worse. I sat in the chair and read a few chapters of a novel, barely able to concentrate, until it was time to check the mail.

As I walked down the tree-lined sidewalk, for a wild moment I could feel another body inside me—a woman dressed in rags. She was looking furtively about, something I didn’t normally do. I feared she’d call out to strangers and beg for food. Oh, when would the Fates relinquish the letters and allow me to save face? Please! I didn’t want to be a rag woman.

Mr. Clark Kent clerk shook his head and called “Next!” dismissing me like he’d done the day before. I wanted to both cry and lash out at him, but I just left, eyes smarting. Ian wasn’t outside to calm me. I was on my own.

Hadn’t I’d gotten exactly what I deserved? I wasn’t the Fool on a Tarot card, I was just a plain fool. I’d tricked myself, thinking I could live in the present moment, a member of the “be here now” generation, but I wasn’t liberated. I was waiting for a letter from home to rescue me, just like other American girls the clerk had to deal with. His job seemed incredibly boring, but at least he could be independent, dress nicely, eat out at cafes. Had he realized early on he wasn’t superman or anyone special? Or maybe he had a special spark, nothing grand, but something worth cultivating and yet… and yet, he had to put food on the table. I wasn’t so different from him. It was just taking me a long time to realize it.

I spent the day in misery with the added anxiety of a note from the hotel to pay up by tomorrow. On my afternoon visit to the Amex there were no letters and more humiliation, but I saw Ian. He invited me to come again at seven o’clock and join the tribe. He assured me if I were kicked out of the hotel the group would protect me and teach me how to survive on the street. I appreciated his offer, and would take him up on it if I had to.

When early evening came I lay on my bed, too weak and hungry to walk down the beach. The rag woman inside was taking over, crying out for me to act.

I rolled onto the floor, and edged over to the stool. I lifted the tomato from the plate, and inhaled the sun-blessed, dry-leafed aroma of the sweet field it came from. I encircled it in my palms turning it over and over, our skins kindred in their smoothness. I could feel the sun’s heat inside it even though it had spent a day in my cool room. It seemed like a warm-blooded creature and I could almost feel a heartbeat, hear the crickets from the field where it had lived, like the crickets by my mother’s cellar door.

I held it close against my chest and the sun’s energy passed into my heart.

Oh! I thought of the sacrifices the priestesses made in the temples in ancient Greece. Of course it was with love they slit the animals throats. I had thought it a terrible thing to do, but in this moment I understood.

I set the tomato back down on the makeshift table, its altar. If time and my hunger didn’t matter I’d keep its beauty whole, a “joy for ever” as John Keats would put it. Its skin shone without blemish as good on the outside as I imagined the glorious interior.

I would eat it European style. I would bring each morsel to my mouth, holding the fork in my left hand, after cutting it with the knife in my right hand. I needed to begin a new path and do it with a sacrifice—something red, something round, something ripe. The life of the tomato laid down for me, to make me right again with the world.

I made the first cut. The skin sprung away from the wound and there was no turning back. I sliced downward and the tomato opened to me.

The architecture was all that I’d imagined—vaulted ceilings like in the finest European cathedrals. Arches. Thick, blushing walls. A bounty of seeds spilled forth. Manna from heaven! I cut a section free and the semi-opaque, seed laden liquid oozed onto the plate in a seemingly endless flow. This was the wet stuff of life. This is how the world began.

I stabbed the piece with my stubby fork and lifted it to salute the gods. Pieces to lips, to nest of mouth, to explosion of taste buds, to blessing of throat, swallowing flesh, seeds of wisdom, seeds of infinity.

Whatever would be would be. I could accept whatever lay ahead, letters or no letters. Yet somehow I knew the letters were coming, clickety-click, speeding through the night on a train. I could see far into the future as well. A tomato seed lodged in my brain would send out its root, keeping this bond, this memory with the tomato alive. Always.

My plate licked clean, I lay in a state of suspension, not unlike my brief floats in the sea. For the first time since renting the room I could hear the sea whispering through the cracks of the windowless walls. The foam of the waves seemed to dissolve in my ears, the retreat of the waves carrying me out to sea, slowly enveloping me in sleep.

The next morning at the Amex I felt certain the letters were there, but if they weren’t they’d be there soon. The clerk couldn’t treat me like I was invisible, because I’d never been more present. I had a name, a voice, and a smile.

I asked if I had any mail.

The clerk smiled back at me and our eyes met. He handed me two letters. Two!

“Next!” he called. Had I imagined his disdain or was I worthy of his glance now that I had something of substance in my hands? Or was he just glad to be rid of me?

I walked out and eagerly ripped open the letter from home, relieved that it contained traveler’s checks though my car hadn’t been sold yet. I nervously opened Poal’s letter and discovered he was coming that day! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Roma here I come!

I rushed over to Ian who was standing with three other tribe members by a huge beech tree. I announced my news and Ian was glad for me.

“The next chapter of your interesting life begins!” he said, and we laughed.

We hugged goodbye. I said farewell to the others and wished them well, but their eyes had veils. A chasm had formed between us, for my luck had changed and theirs hadn’t. I wanted to say I was still like them, that I understood poverty and the communion with food that hunger brings. But I wasn’t like them anymore. Money had changed everything.

I slunk back into the Amex and cashed a check. My brain was spinning. Had sacrificing the tomato brought my good fortune, or would it have happened anyway? Had my tomato experience been written in the stars, always meant to be? I sensed if I told anyone about it, the magical feeling would disappear, so I’d keep it to myself.

The tectonic plate I stood on was sliding away from the tribe, the drums, the broom closet, the sea, from Venus on her half shell. I was moving on.

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Carol Shank is working on a memoir of her European travels. She’s written picture books for educational publishers and her poetry has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Chronogram, and First Literary Review-East. Her poem “Bug Lights” won Highlights High Five 2016 Pewter Plate Award for “Poem of the Year.” Carol recently became a dual citizen with Canada, and is excited to be an American/Canadian. Email: crl.firefly.shnk[at]gmail.com

The Letter

Fiction
Bartosz Maj


Photo Credit: Sylva K. Ficová/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She sat in the middle of the cell. I don’t remember how I could see her but I remember she didn’t see me. The cell was filthy, but she wasn’t. Her uniform was fresh, her blonde hair straight and her pale skin vibrant. I was seven. I later found out she was eighteen.

The cell was small. Almost claustrophobic. I wanted to talk to her but I was too shy then. I knew mother was looking for me. She hated it when I wandered off. Even then I knew I had found something I wasn’t supposed to have. So I kept my mouth shut. At first out of fear of mother. After that I’m not sure.

*

My eighth birthday was an extravagant affair. More extravagant than I wanted it to be. More extravagant than it should have been. Though of course in reality it had nothing to do with me.

My memories of it clash with each other, and sometimes I can’t know what was real and what was not. It took place at our villa. It was a bright warm day, as is every day after all, and the adults were all grouped around gazing at their prized possessions.

The walls were white. Everything was white all the time. The pillars, the walls, the dresses. The world was spotless, though no one ever cleaned it. I never questioned it. A part of me didn’t have to question it; I always knew really.

I had to talk to everyone though I don’t remember anyone I spoke to. It’s impressive they were all so forgettable; our community only consisted of forty people after all.

Community.

I know mother made a speech. I don’t remember most of what she said but the word community stood out. The adults cheered for and applauded it. The clapping echoed on. No one wanted to seem ungrateful for the community. No one wanted to be the first to stop clapping. To the children it seemed amusing, but now it seems pathetic.

*

By the time I was nine I had already spoken to her many times.

The cell scared me when I saw it. In a world of polished whiteness it was the only place with grey walls.

At first it was the fear that stopped me from going back, but with time I convinced myself it showed my moral virtue. After all who was I to disobey my mother and go wandering where I wasn’t meant to? But the curiosity of a child wipes away the lies we tell ourselves.

When we spoke for the first time we were both different than when I first saw her. I had grown, but she had withered.

She was frail. Old. Too old for a nineteen-year-old. Too old for anyone really.

The first few times I spoke to get her attention she ignored me. There was a pile of books in the corner and one on her lap. She sat cross-legged in the centre of the cell reading her book, positioned so that the paper was illuminated by the sunlight that forced itself through the small slits at the top of the walls.

Later she told me she learned to ignore the voices. There was always someone talking, though no one ever spoke to her directly. Well, except for me I suppose.

*

As the birthdays went on the extravagance became obnoxious. Things never stopped being white, but with time we gained new colours. Our roads became surrounded by trees, our gardens grew vibrant with grass and our skies became more saturated. It never rained. It always rained in my history books, but it never rained for us.

Mother didn’t seem to age, none of us did. The children grew stronger, more intelligent, fiercer, but the adults didn’t seem to get old. No one got grey hairs, no one got wrinkles, and no one ever became frail.

She became frail. She was almost always frail. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t but with time it became more than frailty. More than vulnerability. Exhaustion.

As I grew I had more time, and more access. No one ever had any jobs, but we had responsibilities. We had no builders, no plumbers, no electricians and no cleaners. I only knew of them because of their brief mentions in books I read and even then they were just that. Brief mentions. No one ever paid them much attention apparently.

We were told we were gifted and lucky to be a part of the community. Our only responsibility was to study. So I studied history.

The historians I read always seemed to feel connected to history. They were aware of their place in it, but I seemed to exist outside of it. There were no records leading up to our century. We had no century. The only time we had was our own age, and I only learned the concept of a century from the history books.

I asked mother what century we were in, she looked at me with her usual indifference and said, “We are beyond history my dear. We learned all there was to learn from the past.” It seemed my curiosity was more than just adolescent craving because I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. I was never satisfied with any answer.

I asked everyone. The librarian. The philosophers. The teachers. The students. Everyone gave the same answer as if they knew something I didn’t. The more I read the more distant I felt, though I presume that would have happened regardless of what I did with my time.

*

She listened to my stories. She listened like no one else did. I told her of the ancients. The myths of Heracles and the murder of Caesar. Of the word of Jesus and the collapse of civilisation. Alfred’s dream of England, Charlemagne’s Paris, the Hussars at Vienna and the Ottomans at Constantinople.

The Italians’ art. The Americans’ freedom. France’s blood. Napoleon’s failure. The Soviets’ prisons. Hitler’s solution.

Then came the fall from grace of humanity. If you could call it grace. A second darkness brought by arrogance. Humanity lost their respect for their gods. They lost their humility and stopped looking at themselves with judgement. They replaced judgement with righteousness, caution with blind pursuit.

My history books stop there. They talk of the fall of humanity but nothing else. Not of how we got here, who we are or where we are. But her books are different. Her books talk of what happened after.

*

By the time I was fifteen, an ocean had settled itself behind the villa. The outskirts of our community had been nothing but a white horizon before. I questioned it but no one had answers. Satisfactory ones, at least.

The adults seemed to grow stronger. With time I realised it wasn’t just that they didn’t age, but something more than that. Their youth returned to them. Their skin became brighter, their hair healthier and their bodies firmer. But still they had no answers.

With time I saw mother less and less. We were never told what the parents did. They had offices, in which they would pass their time, and then would come out to meet the others.

I remember as a child we used to have dinners. Humble but filling dinners. With time the dinners became more extravagant. We drank wine, fed on the corpses of animals, laughed with each other. At each other? The distinction was frail sometimes. I could usually forget about the girl in the cell after enough wine, though never for long. With time everything started reminding me of her for she spoke of everything, and it was impossible to separate the world I lived in from her.

She never complained about the cell. She never questioned it as if it was a matter of life that couldn’t have been any different. I complained, though only to myself. As I drank the wine I felt her around me. The sunlight reminded me of her hair and the ocean of her eyes. I never complained to anyone else. With age I began to notice the futility of voicing one’s true concerns.

*

When I was sixteen, she struggled to read, so I read for her. I would come to her every day by then. I would study during the day, drink in the afternoons and read to her in the evenings.

Her books taught me what my own could not. Of the savageness of humanity after its collapse. The collapse of community and the rise of tribes. The concept of humanity eroded with time as people became animals. It frightened me, but I couldn’t stop reading.

She would collapse many nights, fall asleep on the concrete floor out of fatigue, but I would continue reading long into the night. I was more frightened of waking up to another day than I was of reading about our cruel past.

From the savage times rose civilisation. Or at least they called it civilisation. Communities built on sacrifice. The utility of the community was in its bonds. The sacrifices of the few allowed the many to prosper in a community, though sometimes it was more than that. It was a family and the family was not free of its share of sacrifices.

*

“Have I ever told you the story of Dorian Grey?” I asked her one evening.

“I don’t think you have, no,” she said faintly. She was sitting down, leaning against the wall, doing her best to keep focused.

“He was a beautiful man, though he knew his beauty would end one day. He loved the immoral sides of life, and so he could continue enjoying them he traded his soul for eternal beauty and youth. He lived a life of pleasure and experience whilst a painting of him took the beating of his dying soul. The painting withered as he endured.”

“How does it end?” she asked.

“It doesn’t really matter how it ends. When he wants to change his path it’s already too late.”

*

When I was eighteen, mother asked me into her office. It was the first time she asked me to do anything instead of commanding it. It was also the first time I was ever in her office. It was painfully white like the rest of our community, but certain aspects were bogged down by darker shades. Her desk was black. Her walls white but her carpets grey. Her bookshelves were brown but the books were white, just like all the books I ever studied from.

But some weren’t white. Some were like the books which weren’t mine. The books from the cell. Her books.

“I’m glad you and your sister got along,” she said as she sat down behind her desk. She smiled. I had never seen her smile before. It was a tired smile. I had never seen her tired before.

“I don’t have a sister.” I looked at her, startled. I thought I knew what she meant but I didn’t want to.

“We both know that’s not true.” She looked at me with… pity? Or does she pity herself?

I paused.

“Why is she in that cell? Your own daughter?” I felt anger rise up within me. I’d never been angry before.

“And if she was a stranger’s child would it be any less detestable what we did to her?”

“We? I didn’t put her there. I was her friend, her only friend.” The anger didn’t last long, and soon something else rose.

“You didn’t think our pleasures came from nothing did you? You read the books. You read of the sacrifice.”

It was shame. Shame was rising in me. She pitied us both.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I turned from her, walked to the windows in her office, and looked at the ocean. It suddenly seemed far less vibrant.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I asked again.

“The community votes.”

“I never voted.”

“You don’t get to vote. You’re a child.”

I didn’t question it. I knew she wasn’t wrong.

“She’s dead,” she said.

The world became blurred like it never had before. I felt my eyes water but the tears didn’t come. It almost felt like it didn’t matter. She couldn’t have died. She never lived.

The ending doesn’t matter when the path’s already been chosen.

“Has the community chosen the next sacrifice?”

*

They gave me a pen and a piece of paper. It was more than they gave her.

I don’t resist my punishment. I feel like I deserve it. It’s not meant to be a punishment. It’s sacrifice for the greater good. It’s practical. Cold. Calculated. But it’s my punishment. I see it as my punishment. For the path I took and never thought to stray from.

I only ever write one thing and that’s this letter. The letter of my life, and the only meaningful thing I gathered from it.

Nothing is worth trading everything for.

So I sit. Like she sat. I wither away as I read all the books I could ever dream of. The books I once dreamed of, and now have all to myself.

I sit hoping one day someone will read my letter and understand it.

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Bartosz Maj is an unpublished short story writer and an International Relations student at Durham University in Britain, who holds British and Polish dual citizenship. He has an education rooted in history and politics, and this heavily influences his writing through laying a foundation of ideas and events from which he draw his inspiration. Email: bmaj3035[at]gmail.com

Artichoke Heart

Fiction
Marie Barry


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

The phone rang at what should’ve been the crack of dawn, but it wasn’t. The amount of light streaming in through the window in the kitchen clearly suggested close to the afternoon, 11:32 according to the microwave clock.

Brian blinked slowly, cradling his mug of coffee, listening to the insistent blaring of the apartment landline. He knew exactly who was calling, and why. With a sigh, he reached for the receiver right as the voicemail clicked on. “H’lo?”

“Hello, Brian? Hi. This is Karen Wexler from BMCC. We have you on our substitute teacher list for city high schools. We need coverage tonight for one of our high school extension classes. Are you available?”

In the last three years of doing odd jobs around every inch of New York City, including substitute teaching at a variety of schools in which he hoped to never be asked to go to again, Brian had somehow never been approached to sub at a community college. It sounded intriguing, at least, even though he would still be working with high schoolers, and he could use the money towards his next rent payment.

One of these years his gigs with the band would take off and he wouldn’t have to spend hours looking up subway times and thinking of amusing stories to tell kids who always looked so bored, their eyes on cell phones clenched in fists under desks that he could see but chose to ignore. “Yes, I’m free this evening. What’s the assignment?”

“Oh fabulous, we appreciate your availability on such short notice. It’s at our main campus on Chambers Street, from 7:30–9:00. Intro to Cooking 101. We’ll forward you the assignment to the email we have on file. Please try to be there by no later than seven. Security will check you in at the entrance.”

With nothing else to say, Brian exchanged pleasantries with Karen Wexler and hung up. His coffee had grown cold in his hands, but he sipped it anyway; it was gross, which is what he had expected.

Brian’s eyes trailed towards the stove of his very small kitchen. He stared at the burners, blackened by whomever had lived there before him.

In the three years of living in his apartment, Brian had never once turned them on.

 *

The last time Brian had attempted cooking he was eighteen years old, at home, and his adventures in pan-frying a grilled cheese had resulted in his sister having to call the fire department.

She had definitely overreacted. The smoke seeping out the open kitchen windows after they had been told to leave unfortunately backed her up.

His mother had told him he wasn’t allowed to cook again until he took lessons. Brian was both a good son and incredibly lazy, so of course he obliged and stuck to a steady fare of take-out and microwavable meals.

 *

The cooking lab at BMCC was very unassuming. There were several stove tops, a wall of pots and pans and other tools, and a handful of Bunsen Burners, which seemed a bit suspicious, but Brian was none-the-wiser to how normal that was. Poking around the cabinets and refrigerator, Brian wondered how he should be proceeding. It seemed that the one ingredient he needed for the class was eluding him. There were no artichokes in sight.

The lesson plan he had received was about cooking artichoke hearts. Artichokes were a food that Brian had never cooked, never seen anyone cook, and automatically associated bad memories with—his grandmother had forced him to eat them at Christmas dinner every year until she died, choking them down with a lasagna he didn’t particular care for either.

He was beginning to wish he hadn’t answered the phone.

He was also beginning to wonder where he was going to find fifteen artichokes on such short notice.

*

Brian was ten web searches and five phone calls to local bodegas and supermarkets later when the door to the classroom creaked open. A man with a full beard, mustache, and longer hair than most of the girls he had ever considered asking out hustled into the room. He held bulging grocery bags in each hand and was muttering under his breath, the expression on his face suggesting that he seemed to be about as happy to be there as Brian did.

The door slipped closed.

“Who’re you?” the long-haired man asked.

Brian tried to ward off a frown. He wasn’t so sure that this wasn’t one of his students; most of the high schoolers he had taught before were apathetic, but a few had been rude, and it looked like this one was toeing that line spectacularly. “I’m your substitute. You can call me Mr. Sella.”

The man laughed, settling the bags on one of the tables. “I’m not one of your students. I’m Dr. Ziegel’s TA. You can call me Matt.”

Brian blinked. This had suddenly gotten awkward. “No one mentioned there’d be a TA,” he said, his voice very quiet as he wondered vaguely if having a TA in community college was normal or not. He watched as Matt began to unload the grocery bags, artichokes appearing one by one until twenty were piled closely together.

He smirked. “Everyone seems to forget I exist because I don’t have a doctorate yet. Lucky for you I’ll be teaching the cooking tonight. You just need to teach the kids about the artichoke mafia.”

Brian blinked. He really shouldn’t have answered his phone earlier. “The artichoke… what?”

Matt strode over, grabbing Brian’s phone. He typed away for a few seconds and then placed it back down, an article open with a picture of Fiorello La Guardia holding an artichoke prominently displayed. “Get reading. Most of them arrive about ten minutes early.” And with that he returned to his pile of artichokes, beginning to place one at each seat.

*

Brian learned a lot that night. First and foremost, an artichoke was technically a flower, but also a vegetable. He had jokingly posed the question: Does that make all flowers vegetables? to his students and Matt, none of whom had laughed, the latter groaning loudly in the back of the room. Second and just as important, the mafia apparently thought artichoke racketeering was a smart idea. Kidnapping, extortion, and murder were suddenly all being caused by the selling of their artichokes, and they were banned in New York during the mid-1930s. The ban lasted for a week, artichokes growing in popularity once the word was out that the mafia was pedaling them for exorbitant prices.

He had zoned out immediately following Matt’s takeover of the lesson, occasionally watching some of what the TA was up to but mostly just scrolling through his phone. Matt had whipped his hair up into a man-bun because of course he was probably edgy in that way and having loose long hair while cooking was a bad idea, but he moved with an ease amongst the students that Brian would’ve been jealous of if he was actually interested in teaching full time.

Open artichoke heart surgery was being performed by the class when Matt sidled up to him. “You want in on this?” he asked, offering an artichoke to Brian.

Brian glanced down at the plant-vegetable. “Not really. Last time I attempted to cook I almost burned my house down.”

Matt stared at him. “Are you one of those people?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“They really got a substitute for a cooking class who has no interest in cooking?”

“I have enough money to buy pre-made food. I think I’m doing just fine.”

Matt sighed loudly. “I told them I could handle this on my own. No one listens to me. Maybe if I had that fucking PhD.” He dropped the artichoke in front of Brian, heading to check on one of the students, muttering about lack of higher education degrees.

Brian looked down at the artichoke. The green vegetable seemed harmless enough just sitting there, waiting to be dissected, its heart cut out and cooked in a garlic tomato sauce. The latter was currently simmering in a pot, two students overseeing that it wasn’t burning.

He glanced across the room. Matt was busy instructing a student how to hold a knife properly to slice the outer parts of the artichoke off without getting cut or ruining the heart. He watched as Matt demonstrated the motions a few times, going slow enough to be imitated, smiling brightly when the student perfectly copied him.

He had a nice smile when he wasn’t muttering moodily.

Brian jumped up suddenly. That was not a thought he should be having now.

Matt looked up at him. “You good?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

Brian glanced down. Apparently he had knocked the artichoke onto the floor along with two cookbooks and his cell phone. Fabulous. He scrambled to pick everything up. Glancing up, he could see Matt watching him, an amused smirk on his face.

That look was not doing anything to calm Brian’s sudden nerves. He ran his hand through his dark hair, trying to think how he could play this off.

“You know what, maybe I will attempt to cook this thing,” he announced, waving the artichoke around with flourish. A few of the students glanced his way.

Matt grimaced. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable letting you use one of these knives if you don’t know how to cook.”

Brian rolled his eyes, waving an artichoke-clenched hand dismissively in Matt’s general direction. “I know my way around sharp objects,” he announced, receiving more glances from the students and a wide-eyed stare the TA, “Trust me. I can handle a knife.”

He placed the artichoke down at one of the stations, picking up a knife. “The heart’s at the bottom of this thing, right?” he asked, slicing at the base.

A few red drops fell onto the table. Brian raised an eyebrow. Apparently artichoke hearts had blood in them. That was strange.

The room had grown oddly silent.

“You are one of those people,” Matt muttered, grabbing Brian’s bleeding hand.

*

Several stitches and half a foot of gauze later, Brian’s hand was bound and healing. He thanked the doctor and nurses and hoped the bill wasn’t going to absolutely murder his bank account. Gathering his things, he sheepishly entered the waiting room of the hospital. Matt was sitting in one of the plastic chairs, the hood of his jacket pulled up over his head. He had his phone out and he was thumbing listlessly at the screen.

Brian was standing completely in front of him before Matt even raised his head. “You’ll survive?” he asked, and while his voice was even, Brian noted humor shining in his dark eyes.

“Barely. The only cure is to never sub a cooking class again.”

Matt chuckled, rising out of his seat. “Not to insult you or anything, but I wouldn’t be expecting a phone call from BMCC again anytime soon.”

“I think I’ll be okay with that.”

They rode downstairs in the elevator in silence. Brian kept glancing at Matt out of the corner of his eye. Matt was looking up at the lights in the ceiling, a pleasant expression on his face.

Brian wondered what happened next. The night had certainly been an adventure, and he wasn’t sure if it was one of those nights you just ended with a goodbye and never spoke about again. He could also offer to buy Matt a drink, or invite him back, or something that… didn’t sound quite like he was insinuating a date.

They walked through the sliding doors onto the sidewalk. A brisk wind tousled Brian’s hair and blew Matt’s back over his shoulder. Matt turned to face him, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“So, Mr. Sella. Where do you live from here?”

“A few subway stops north. I’m in Washington Heights.”

Matt nodded with recognition. “Washington Heights is chill. I’ve been up there with friends a few times.”

“Yeah, it’s a fun area. At least I can afford a place there.”

Matt laughed. “And that’s the dream, isn’t it?”

“It is when you’re paying for it on your own.”

“Oh, no roommate or girlfriend?”

Brian paused, taking a moment to think about the question. Matt was staring at him, looking perfectly innocent. It wasn’t weird to ask if you lived with somebody, but he couldn’t tell if Matt was just asking for the sake of being polite or if he was trying to find something out.

He sorted his words for a moment longer. “No, that’s, uh, not really my thing.” He threw in a smile, hoping it didn’t look awkward even though Brian knew he looked awkward. He finger gunned Matt for the hell of it, because what else did he have to lose that night?

Matt stared at him, with eyebrows raised. “Roommates aren’t your thing, or…?”

“Go with the or.”

“Oh.” Matt nodded, glancing away. “That’s cool. I don’t really do the or much either.”

“Oh.” Brian looked away as well. “That’s fun. Interesting how that works out for both of us.”

“Very interesting.”

“Is it interesting enough that you’d consider letting me get you a drink sometime? Or dinner? I do owe you anyway for taking me to the hospital.”

Brian chanced looking down. Matt was looking at him, his expression guarded, hands still shoved deep in his pockets. His eyes were bright, however, and that seemed to be very promising. “I would consider doing dinner,” he said slowly, his face still very smooth. “But with one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Matt paused, looking at him for a long second. A smile slowly broke over his face. “You don’t do any cooking.”

Brian felt insulted for one brief moment before he smiled back just as bright. “I don’t know if I can agree with that. I was planning on cooking you artichoke hearts in a garlic tomato sauce.”

“You ever touch an artichoke again I’ll slice your hand for you.”

Brian laughed, his insides warm. “All right. I’ll stay away from that. No cutting artichokes for me. Deal?” He reached out his non-injured hand into the space between them.

Matt’s eyes shined as he glanced down. He reached out, and their hands met in the middle. “Deal.”

It was supposed to just have been a handshake.

Brian doesn’t mind when it isn’t.

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Marie Barry was born, lives, and writes in the state of New York. She has been published in Esprit and Down in the Dirt Magazine. When not moonlighting as a writer, she teaches high school. Email: mariebarrywrites[at]gmail.com

The Silent Sentinel

Fiction
Priyadarshini Banerjee


Photo Credit: Andy Howell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

She couldn’t recall when exactly the mango tree had been planted in the field. As a child, she wasn’t interested in acquiring that knowledge and as an adult; she had trouble finding someone who could give a reliable account.

The mango tree had always been there, facing the north-west. The only one of its kind in the vicinity. Had her father played near the sapling when they were young? She never asked. She spent summer holidays with her maternal grandparents, who lived in another town. It was a vacation filled with splashing in the club’s swimming pool as her grandmother gossiped with the neighbouring ladies, learning pottery from her experimental grandfather, colouring to her heart’s content (often, sections of the wall became canvas to her creative inspirations), additional nap-time stories in her grandmother’s public school English accent and endless, cool summer treats. But as the vacation neared its end, she would return to her one-storied house. It was a few minutes away from the field which played host to youngsters of all ages, their parents remaining indoors to escape the stifling summer heat.

It was under the cool shade of the young mango tree that their friendship bloomed. The sweet scent of the tree in summer blew over the two heads bent together, discussing their birthday presents and comparing Miss Rita’s strict rules of conduct to Savitri Madam’s variety of punishments. Upon asking her father for a bicycle so she could race with her other friends, she received a set of coloured pencils to draw one. As she rushed to her room in a fit of temper, she missed the pinched twist of her mother’s lips and the helpless sigh from her father. The branches of the mango tree bore witness to the rantings of the ten-year-old, wishing that God would grant her all that he easily demanded from his parents.

Seasons later, the tree fell prey to Officer Shastri’s wife, who felt that the garden-park could benefit from her green thumb. The economy had prospered, so the town developed. Housing societies grew along the edges of the once vast field till it shrank to the size of an extensive park. The grumpy gardener Gopal was tasked to cut down the branches that could damage the walls of the surrounding houses. The bare branches of the tree saw the girl longingly gaze at the object of her affections as he skated past the pavement surrounding the park. That summer saw the bloom of their love; hushed giggles permeated the air and the whispers of sweet promises rustled the green leaves of the mango tree. The playfulness of childhood has given way to the passion of adolescence. Reclining against the trunk, she gazed at the moon as his head rested upon her bosom, wishing for the ardour to last beyond that moment.

One monsoon, she took refuge under the umbrella of dripping mango leaves from a torrential downpour. The grey skies matched her pallor as the rain washed away her tears. She felt as though the blustery wind had blown away the foundation of her love. The yellow leaves, like the tears from her pale visage, had fallen before the biting winds of winter’s wrath. Cocooned in his bungalow, he agreed to his father’s request to finish schooling at the city’s premier institution. For ambition and talent were the roots of grand success and couldn’t be compromised for the scattered leaves of youthful folly.

She relished the green mangoes of the spring, suckling the salted pieces with one hand and caressing her protruding belly with the other. The fragrance of spring blossoms drowned the stench of the town’s gossip as she ambled along the park’s sidewalk with her widowed mother.

Under her careful supervision, the boy plucked the ripe mangoes hanging from the lower branches. Alongside the store-bought apples, they enjoyed the yellow-orange pieces of the juicy fruit after the sumptuous picnic lunch. She sat in the tree’s shade, watching her son play hide-and-seek, creating untainted childhood memories. Sometimes she read stories to him; occasionally she narrated memories from her childhood. At sunset, mother and son walked home hand-in-hand.

She never glanced back at the mango tree that had stood witness to countless stories from its birth. A weathered guardian of the realm of men, it would continue to do so until chopped away to provide land for our desires.

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An alumnus of Jesus and Mary College, Priyadarshini holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Delhi. A voracious reader of novels and short stories of all genres from a young age, she is passionate about literature and dancing. Being part of the editorial team of her school magazine, had set her off on the journey of writing. She loves to scribbles poems and fictional tales. Email: pbanerjee1309[at]gmail.com

Five-Thirteen

Fiction
Genevieve Allen


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

It was five-thirteen on a Sunday afternoon, and I could barely breathe through the fingers clamped over my mouth.

The day was still hot—paving stones on the patio holding the sun, warm-watered goldfish ponds furred with algae—so hot the very air felt thick. All was quiet outside of our stuffy little bubble. The orderly streets of the suburbs were almost deserted as teatime drew near, the cabbage smell of people’s Sunday lunches slowly replaced by lighter evening meal preparations, cigarette smoke and gin and lemon. In the stillness, I could just make out the warbling of the radio inside the house, the thin, laughing cries of children a street or two away, yet to be called inside by their mothers.

I breathed in through my nose, hard and quick. The potting shed smelt of wood stain, of compost and my father’s wilting tomato plants. Under my bare feet, sore with a blister from the after-lunch walk my mother had insisted on, the shed floor was gritty, and cobwebs bunched in the corners.

“You have to be quiet, Iris,” Julia whispered through a giggle, moved her hand carefully away from my mouth. Her fingers were hot and damp and smelt faintly of a lunch she’d probably helped prepare: thyme and carrots and gravy granules. “Or we’ll be caught.”

“I know,” I said, already feeling silly about the noise I’d let slip the moment Julia’s mouth had touched mine. “You caught me by surprise.”

She laughed, a soft and quiet mumble behind her lips, the cotton of my dress bunched in her hand. “Then perhaps this time, it won’t be a surprise.”

I let Julia kiss me again, my head humming blank and body hot, nose full of the smell of old wood and Julia’s lily of the valley. Her lips were greasily dry under their coat of peach lipstick, her stockings rough on my bare calf. After an immeasurable time she broke away, smiled at me before she made to slip out of the potting shed door.

“You’ll be there later, won’t you?” she said just before she left, a dark shape against the brightness of the sky, “I’ll wait for you, by The Lamb.”

“Yes,” I said, too turned around to form any other reply. “Yes, of course.”

I let her go. Not that I was able to do much else, left slackened and overwhelmed by what we’d done. I liked boys, of course I did. I’d let Tommy kiss me after he’d taken me to the pictures last week. He was sweet. But I liked Julia too, smiling into my clenched hand like a fool over her, running my lips over my fingernails like there might be a trace of her left behind.

“Iris?” my mother called from outside, and the sound of my name coming muffled through the shed walls brought me back to myself. “Where’ve you gotten to?”

Smoothing my sweatily mussed hair, I unlatched the door and stepped out, sun making me squint after the dim closeness of the potting shed. My mother’s gardening gloves, abandoned at my father’s call for the first drink of the evening, were left on the lawn by a bed of half-weeded begonias. I walked around from the back garden to the front, bare feet smarting on the hot paving stones. The tops of them were pinked from too much time in the sun, two neat, white stripes left behind by my sandals.

“Have you caught the sun, Iris love?” my mother said, touching my face as I sat next to my father on the worn tartan blanket. I thought I probably had, though I wasn’t sure how much of it was sunburn and how much of it was Julia. Unbidden, I imagined her expectant face looking up and down the street outside the pub, pale in the dusk as she waited for me.

“Thinking about Tommy Parker, no doubt,” my brother piped up with a wink, avoiding the halfhearted swat delivered from my father for his teasing. “She’s pink to the ears.”

“It’s the sun,” I said with as much tartness as I could manage, and lay back to play at flipping through one of mother’s magazines. Tommy Parker was the furthest thing from my thoughts.

I let my eyes land without seeing on thrifty recipes and tips for adjusting old dresses to new fashions, as my family continued to bicker back and forth with practised good nature. I thought of myself as I would be later that evening, teeth clean and tucked up in bed, sound asleep and wilfully oblivious. Or I could be hurriedly trotting down the high street, eyes on the pavement and hoping not to be noticed as I sniffed out that longed for lily of the valley. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself with either of those potential girls. Each eventuality seemed equally impossible. I wondered which of them would win out as I settled on the wilting grass to listen to my family chatter, and read an article about a hair mask made of eggs.

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Genevieve Allen lives by the sea in Cornwall, UK. Whether it’s one hundred or one hundred thousand words long, she most enjoys pieces of writing that take you out of your life, however briefly, and into another. Email: gallen52[at]hotmail.co.uk

Poof the Sheep

Flash
Lucy Zhang


Photo Credit: S I/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Poof the sheep didn’t stare when you pulled the lid off your plastic container of rice mixed with egg and ground pork—a yellow-grey mush catalyzing questions you’d rather not answer: the girls asking what is that, the boys trying to toss tater tots into each other’s mouths. Poof didn’t laugh at your new haircut, the pink bobbles once tied around your pigtails now gathering dust in the corner of the bathroom counter, the frayed strands of hair above your ears, leaving your neck exposed to the morning cold. The guy who would drop out of high school in a few years, who sat across from you on the school bus, laughed and said you looked like a boy as the vehicle swerved into the neighborhood ghetto where both of you lived. Poof didn’t follow you, a twenty-something-year-old with long, thick hair past your shoulders, around at two a.m. while you navigated to an Airbnb, the apartments too closely stacked, Google Maps in a kerfuffle. Poof didn’t offer car rides to directionally-challenged foreigners and expect affectionate pets and nuzzles and kisses in return.

Poof did offer a warm body covered in wool for you to lean on after you’d attempted to gift the stranger who drove you to the sliding doors of the Airbnb a 3D-printed, bright orange ornament held together by interweaving stripes of ABS plastic, a product of your hours spent extruding shapes, chamfering corners, sweeping polygons along lines, but the driver said no thank you and instead asked for just a kiss on the cheek to which you declined, except you’re not sure you ever really learned how to say no so if it’ll get the driver to leave—even if a kiss on the cheek becomes a kiss on the lips and a hand between your legs and eventually the driver who found you leaves you to your own devices, unpacking your toothbrush and phone charger from your suitcase, lying on a futon mattress on a tatami mat, thinking about tomorrow and the izakayas you’ll visit, the underground book stores you’ll discover, because the jetlag refuses to let you sleep. Shush brain shush shut up; you’re counting sheep now—just one sheep, just Poof grazing on grass, untrimmed wool like cumulonimbus clouds, stopping sporadically to chew its cud and stare.

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Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work has appeared in Atlas & Alice, Okay Donkey, Jellyfish Review, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @Dango_Ramen. Email: lucy.7a11[at]gmail.com