After School

Fiction
Dacia Price


Photo Credit: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr (CC-by)

He said he loved her on the front porch of his parents’ house with tucked-under legs and sneakered feet. Their backpacks sagged and crumpled against the wall, their skateboards half-buried in unmowed grass. Moments ago, they had been carrying both. But he had wanted to hold her hand. She took note of the smooth pavement and downward slope as they walked. She liked his hair first and his face second. His name was Jeremy and he had brown eyes. He had a square jaw and jagged, angled cheekbones. He had brown hair. Before, when they were still strangers, she liked to watch him twirl it around his finger. A nervous habit. Like nail biting, only sweet. Soft. She thought it must smell like coconut shampoo. Fresh. Tropical. New.

She had never been to his house before and thought the street was also new. Like it had arrived perfectly formed that morning. Like him. She wondered if it might disappear again once she left. She thought a lot about things like that. Roads appearing just for her. Coconut-scented hair. Why the boys she chose were always named Jeremy. This one was her fourth. Though the last had shortened his to Jer so that you were left wondering if his name was Jeremy or something less. A boy at school had called him Jerry Cheesecake once, and the name had struck her with such force, such undeniability, that she had broken up with him, just then, right then. His hair had been the color of cheesecake. Yellowed. Wilted.

This one didn’t shorten his name. He was Jeremy. No abbreviations. She thought his mom was probably one of those who thought Full Names were preferable, superior. Were the only thing their child ought to be called. Moms who had Christophers and demanded they never be referred to as Chris. Or Benjamins as Bens. As though they were offended by it. As though a name could offend.

She was his first Lia. His first girlfriend. His first everything.

Jeremy’s mother had brought them cookies and juice when they arrived. He had rolled his eyes. He’s not a child, he seemed to be saying, who needs after school snacks. But Lia could tell he was. She thought he was the kind of boy who still had his mom brush his hair. Still told her his secrets. Lia could see he was just learning to be his own person.

They sat on the porch and ate chocolate chip cookies and drank orange juice and the summer air twisted and tugged at her hair. It sent it around her head. Under her chin. Across her face. So she saw him through intersecting lines of blond. A cage of strands. The wind whipped around them and wrapped her face in strangling yellows and golds. She struggled to disentangle her lips. Her neck. Her eyes. And in that moment he mistook frustration for fragility and found it beautiful. Found her beautiful.

He proclaimed his love, his undying love, his new and different I’ve never felt this way before love with shining eyes and cookie crumb lips. His hand gripped hers so that it made her palms sweat and her spine ache. He sputtered his love so recklessly, so radiantly that for a brief moment she was sure she might love him too. Might love this Jeremy who didn’t shorten his name and whose hair smelled like an island. She laughed and he kissed her. And together they explored his mouth and lips. His earlobes. His neck.

That afternoon they had sex behind his bedroom door while his mother made dinner. His dark walls lined with posters of bands and airplanes, of medals earned in Little League, and guitars covered in stickers. In black marker. She thought of mac and cheese. Of homework that needed to be done. Of how coconut shampoo never smells like the real thing. The weight of him on top of her, his long hair brushed against her forehead. They used to play doctor like this. She on her back. Hands under her clothes. It was always pretend, before. His mother’s humming crept beneath the door.

When they were finished he cried in her arms, he had found her, he said, he had waited so long, and now it was over. It filled him with a profound sadness. So she held his head and stroked his hair and thought about how cool the evening air would be against her skin. About the heat inside his room and about the way his love clung to her, hot and humid and heavy.

pencilDacia Price loves nothing more than cold beer on hot afternoons, standing on top of tall mountains and writing stories. Some of those stories can be found in Pacifica Literary Review, and discussed on Ploughshares. She lives in Seaside, CA. Email: dacia.price[at]yahoo.com

Looks Like Death

Fiction
William Locke Hauser


jalexartis/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We are driving, my sister and I with our mother, from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, to consult with doctors at Johns Hopkins about our mother’s hemochromatosis. My sister and I are very sad, and our mother is angry. It’s December 2016 and Hillary Clinton has just been elected president, which should make all three of us happy, but we’re still sad and angry from Mom’s predicament.

“I feel awful,” Mom says. “I want to go back.”

“We can’t,” Sis says with an angry shake of her head. I can see in the rearview mirror that her carefully coiffed pageboy is trembling with exasperation. “We’ve got to get you well or die trying.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff,” Mom chortles. “I am dying.”

I remain silent, concentrating on the road. My opinion of this expedition falls somewhere between that of the two of them, to wit, I wish Sis would shut up and I wish Mom would either flatly refuse to go or peacefully acquiesce, instead of sitting in the front passenger seat—I’m the driver—and muttering under her breath.

We’re an Army family, or at least we were when Dad was alive, and Mom is currently resident in a home for Army widows in northwest Washington, a converted mansion furnished with satin draperies, 1930s overstuffed furniture, and gold-framed portraits of intrepid generals from World War II. The main building holds the hale and hearty, there’s a wing for those who need “assisted living,” and there’s a basement dormitory for the dying, of which Mom is one. The walls there are decorated with crayon drawings from favorite grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the odor of urine is pervasive.

There’s also a daily bus to Walter Reed Armed Forces Hospital, where Mom goes every ten days to be bled. If that sounds medieval, it isn’t far from the truth. They say there’s no cure for hemochromatosis—where an excess of red blood cells overloads your liver and kills you very unpleasantly by inches—and no relief from intense pain, except when some phlebotomist nurse draws off a pint or so at a time, and if you’re very old—Mom is now 84—the puncture wounds heal badly or not at all. Gross.

“I’m hungry,” Mom says. She’s not, I know, but she wants to be difficult. I can see her face getting as red as her still-red hair, and her swollen-knuckled hands are wringing one another in her lap.

“No, you’re not,” Sis says.

Now it’s my turn to be angry. “Goddammit, if Mom says she’s hungry, she’s fucking well hungry!”

“What language!” Sis exclaims.

“Well,” Mom retorts, “I am fucking well hungry.”

I turn off at the exit for Baltimore-Washington Airport, and we see a sign with a knife-and-fork symbol, directing us to a roadside diner. It’s a Golden Corral, “all you can eat” of the whole world’s salty sugary fat-fried cuisine.

“Not here!” Sis says.

“Yes here,” Mom says. She’s almost crying. “I want my way. Didn’t I raise you to be obedient?”

Sis refuses to eat anything, and I’m not hungry, but I go through the line and get a small helping each of short ribs, coleslaw, and butter beans. The people in line ahead of me are obese; the people behind are almost as fat, even the littlest kids; and the odor of grease, despite over-airconditioning, is so thick that the very air seems opaque. Mom has grits and red-eye gravy, a harkening back to her Catawba County childhood.

Mom’s still a good-looking woman, despite the ravages of her illness—tall, slender, aquiline nose, long once-expressive hands. Sis must take after our late dad’s father, the one whose portrait hangs in the county courthouse: dark hair, olive skin, and hooded eyes that tell of the clan’s Native American heritage. She emphasizes this by wearing long Indian—Asian-Indian-made, that is—skirts, embroidered blouses, and turquoise bead necklaces. I favor Mom, except for having a dick, which you can’t see of course, and a mustache and beard which you can. I long ago decided I didn’t want to look like a woman, even the woman I love second best after Hallie, who isn’t along because she hates hospitals after what we went through with our son Kevin’s agonizingly drawn out decline.

We get back in the car, my new Jag sedan, which has a comfortable ride despite its racy lines, and despite Mom’s constant shifting in her seat as if she had plunked down her hemorrhoids in a wooden church pew.

“How much longer?” she asks.

“Must you keep asking that?” Sis demands. “Don’t you know this isn’t easy on the rest of us either?”

I look, expecting to see a sour expression, but she looks bland, an adjective which suits the moment because that’s the question she’s posed at least four times since we left the northwest quadrant of the District.

“Zip it, Sis,” I say, and though she relaxes in her seat, the tight sourness of her expression never loosens.

We leave the interstate and find ourselves in Baltimore’s potholed streets, past houses with incongruous marble stoops—there’s a story behind that feature, which our dad used to tell but I’ve forgotten—and the GPS leads us to the Cancer Ward annex. Hemochromatosis apparently isn’t a cancer, or so one of the specialists at Walter Reed told us, but it might as well be, with rogue cells crowding out the productive and clogging the channels, but hematology and cancer are traditionally housed in the same wing of major hospitals. I mean, if proliferating red corpuscles aren’t malignant, I can hardly imagine a more apt use of the adjective.

Dr. Azam is occupied with an extended surgical procedure, we’re told, and we’re asked to make our way to the cafeteria because the waiting room is too full with other backed-up patients, some of whom are absolutely ghastly-looking and falling out of their Eames chairs. I grab a magazine as we exit, and to my dismay discover on the way down the hall that it’s Golf, a game that I played as a teenager but have since discovered distracts me from the pleasures of a walk, if indeed the course lets you walk instead of electric-cart rolling along an asphalt path.

“Cup of coffee?” I ask Mom. “Or tea?” She disdains to answer.

It’s past lunchtime, and the cafeteria is empty except for two waitress-cashiers, who ignore us as we wait to pay.

“Can we get a little service here?” Sis calls out.

“We’re on our break,” one of the women answers.

“Then is there someone else?”

A shake of the head. “She’s in the can.”

“Fuck it,” Sis says, and leads the way to a table.

“Fuck it,” echoes Mom.

I sip my cup of coffee, which tastes awful, conjuring up visions of arrest for not paying, but no one comes. A third waitress joins the other two, and their conversation continues, with arm-wavings and exclamations of “You don’t say!” and “I’da told her…” and “You think I didn’t?”

Finally we are summoned. Dr. Azam is young, courtly, and precise of speech. “There is nothing to be done, “Mrs. _____. No cure, no therapy, no…”

“But we were told…” Sis begins.

“Leave it,” Mom barks. “Leave it!” She rises and leads the way out of the doctor’s little side office, glancing as she goes at his framed diplomas and testimonials. “Thank you, Doctor. We won’t be back.”

“But you may,” he sputters, “if you’re referred again.” His round face bespeaks sincerity, and his plump little hands steeple piously.

“I said we won’t,” Mom answers, turning back in the doorway. “W-O-N-apostrophe-T won’t.”

We get back in the car, drive to the exit of the parking lot and discover that we have neglected—“You were supposed to take care of that!” Sis says to me—to get our parking ticket validated by a machine in the entry hall, so I have to feed my AmEx card into the gate for a $25 charge. So we’re disgruntledly on our way.

“I want some oysters,” Mom says. “Stop for oysters.”

“You can’t get oysters on the interstate, you silly old…” Sis begins, and then swallows her words with a stricken look.

Mom and I both ignore the cruelty. “We’ll drive down to the harbor area,” I say. “I know a place that has crab cakes that’ll bring tears to your eyes, and I’ll warrant their oysters ain’t too shabby either.”

The restaurant, a low-slung weathered-wood shanty decorated with anchors and fishnets and with the fiberglass sculpture of a killer whale projecting from the shingled roof, has a poster board by the door that says:

EAT FISH, LIVE LONGER
EAT CRABS, PLAY LONGER
EAT OYSTERS, LAST LONGER

It’s past 2:00 p.m. and the place is empty. We choose a booth in a reasonably well-lit corner, and Mom consumes, with Sis and me helping, a dozen raw plus a huge basket of fried. She leans back in the booth and emits a most-unladylike belch. “Your father always used to say that that’s the way to show appreciation for a really good meal.”

And she leans forward and says, “Did I ever tell you the story about your dad and me and the bad oysters in New Orleans?”

“Be careful,” Sis says, playful for the first time today, “It’s against the Napoleonic Code to criticize New Orleans cuisine.”

“Well,” Mom says, “It was at the Commander’s Palace of all places. We’d been to an excruciatingly boring conference on management of Episcopal parish endowments—your dad was the parish warden back then—the zydeco music at the welcoming reception was appropriately deafening and your dad and I showed that stuffy crowd a thing or two about how to get down and dirty, but the appetizers were skimpy and the dancing had worked up a huge appetite. So we taxied to the Commander’s Palace and they said they were full and we didn’t have a reservation, but then your dad spotted some old friends from the board of trustees at his old boarding school, and they were obviously regulars, and next thing you know we had the best table in the house, under the branches of that magnificent old live oak, and I had all the oysters I could eat, and they were the best I’d ever had. Until…”

“I can almost guess,” Sis says. “You didn’t get sick on the airplane, did you?” Her tone implies that we haven’t heard the story before, which is not the case, but she is too polite to say so outright, and I also pretend to be astonished.

“Sick?” Mom says. “There weren’t enough sick bags on the plane to hold all the barf.”

“Mom, we’re eating!” Sis exclaims.

“No, we’re not,” Mom says. “We’re done.” She rises abruptly, and before I can reach out to steady her, she’s on her way out the door.

“Mom,” I call after her, “you don’t know where the car is parked.”

“I’ll ask the valet, and he’ll give me the keys, and I can start it and get the air conditioning going so the car will be comfortable when you and Sis get there.”

“But I have the claim check!”

“And I have an old lady’s privilege of getting my way. He won’t dare not fetch the car for me.”

Back through the city, which by now is clogged with rush-hour traffic. As we pass through a depressed neighborhood, locals peer into the car, and Mom mutters, “Looks like drug gangs, so make sure the windows are locked.”

I survey the passing and standing-watching parade, and see no evidence of drug gangs. The crowds are young and old, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, working class folks wending their weary way, “leaving the world to darkness and to me.” Then we get stopped by a house fire—red ladder trucks, hoses stretched across the street, forlorn occupants standing in despair and hoping for permission to reenter and rescue their meager possessions. The street is awash with water, and the gutters are emptying frothily. A kid comes up to the passenger window and taps on the glass. Mom presses the down button, and asks, “What do you want?”

“Close it!” Sis barks from the rear. “These people have knives.”

“I don’t have no knife, lady,” the kid says. It’s a little girl, her hair in intricate braids. “I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. We’ve got peanut butters, s’mores, and thin mints. Five dollars a carton, or eight dollars for two.”

“In original packaging?” Sis demands.

“Shut up, Sis,” I say.

“Shut up, Sis,” Mom echoes, and to the little girl, “We’ll take two s’mores, please.”

Cookies are passed in and ten dollars out. “Keep the change, darling,” Mom says, and I can see the sour-pickle expression on Sis’s face at the largesse. I never cease to wonder at her parsimony, financial and emotional, despite having been raised in an environment of outgoing generosity.

There’s a backup getting onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and there’s obviously going to be another onto the Beltway, so I take a detour over to U.S. 1 to kill a little time at Behnke’s Nursery.

“Why are we stopping here?” Sis demands. “None of us has a garden anymore, what with Mom at Knollwood, me in midtown Manhattan, and you on Capitol Hill.”

“This used to be Mom’s favorite stopover,” I answer. “Still is, right, Mom?”

“Still is,” Mom echoes. She strains to turn her head toward the back seat, countering Sis’s glower with a sunny smile.

It’s hard for Mom to maneuver her walker on the gravel paths, and she eventually yields to necessity, switching to an electric-motored buggy. “Whee!” she exclaims, outdistancing Sis and me, slowing down when she herself becomes apprehensive. We tour the rose beds first, with Mom leaning precariously out of the cart to read labels with her AARP magnifier, of which she must have a dozen because that silly organization keeps sending her recruitment letters that offer one as a “free gift.” “That’s redundant,” she says. “A gift is always free, unless it undertakes a moral obligation, which I certainly don’t feel toward a bunch of patronizing do-gooders.”

And then to the houseplants, which I don’t have any of in my little flat, and I’ll bet if Sis has any in her 38th & Park terrace apartment, they’re tended by her and Geoffrey’s Filipina housekeeper with strict instructions not to let the children touch. We look at hen-and-chicks, snake plants, aspidistra (I recall an unheralded George Orwell novel, worth rereading), and a philodendron that stretches all the way across the ceiling of the check-out shed that would give me bad dreams to have in the house.

“I’ll have that snake plant there,” Mom says.

“It’s too big for your room at the residence,” Sis says. “And your roommate will complain.”

“She won’t complain,” Mom says. “She’s dotty. Anything I do is all right with her, because she thinks I’m her beloved sister. Or sometimes her mother. Sometimes even her husband.”

I load the plant onto the back of her buggy, and we head for the check-out.

“That’ll be $17.67 including tax,” the clerk says.

“Oh, no,” Mom says. “That bench of plants had a sign that said ‘SALE’.”

“Yes, ma’am, so it’s marked down from $25.00.”

“But one of the outside leaves is cracked. Look there.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s why it’s on sale.”

“Never mind my mother,” Sis interjects.

“Never… mind… my… mother,” Mom says. “Did I just now hear that correctly? Surely not.”

“I meant, ‘Thank you for the bother’,” Sis stammers.

I hand the clerk a twenty, mumble “Put the change in that crippled-children’s-fund jar,” and we make our exit.

We’re on the Beltway within minutes, and after the bleakness of strip malls along U.S. 1, the landscape—if you ignore six lanes of traffic—is lush with trees. We pass signs telling of stream valleys now bridged with concrete, and I recall woodland adventures thereabouts from when Dad was in the Pentagon and I used to go camping with my Cub Scout den. The “den mother,” a woman of whom I grew so intensely fond that Mom would bristle when I praised her over the dinner table, was “only a housewife.” That’s what Mom would say, contrasting the lady’s status with her own as a lobbying firm’s legal secretary.

We take the Connecticut Avenue exit, and suddenly we’re in Washington’s elegant Upper Northwest suburbs. Massive houses of brick and stone fronting on the busy avenue, with once-deep lawns now amputated by the addition of lanes. And there’s a brand-new house of garishly modern design, turrets and furbelows, with a circular driveway in the middle of which looms an ornate fountain. Only half the lawn is green, the other half still bare but for stacks of sod. The traffic, already clotted, now slows to a crawl.

There is a bicyclist riding alongside us, sometimes getting a bit ahead, sometimes falling a bit behind. Now he’s passing at a glacial pace, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that he’s old and diminutive, helmetless with a bald head, bony face, and pale shanks showing beneath a billowing white garment instead of the usual road-biker’s colorful jersey. He’s waving his left arm at us, as if to encourage us forward.

“Looks like an angel,” I comment.

“Looks like Death,” Sis counters. “Brrr!”

“No,” says Mom, “he looks like Shorty Morgan. Shorty was my hometown boyfriend before I met your father. You probably met him at that tricentennial we went to, editor of the local paper founded by his granddad and run by his father back when I was a girl. It’s probably under his son now, more than likely. All named Arthur. They always were a close-knit family.”

“Still looks like Death to me,” Sis repeats.

I get distracted by something in traffic, and when I look again, the biker is gone.

We enter the residence’s gate and start up the drive to the main building. “We’re here, Mom,” I announce, but there’s no answer. I pull to a stop, and she is slumped forward in her seat, held in place by the shoulder belt. I set the parking brake, get out, and walk around to the passenger side. There is no pulse. Mom’s gone.

Late that evening, back at the hotel after dealing with the residence’s management and with a funeral director, I say goodnight to Sis and go to my own room, exhausted. I order supper from room service, and while waiting for it to be delivered, on impulse call 411. “Operator, please give me the residence of Mr. Arthur Morgan, on Magnolia Avenue in Newton, North Carolina.”

She reads off the number, and I copy. A recorded voice comes on, offering to ring the number for an additional charge. I push “1” to indicate assent.

“This is the Morgan residence,” a lady answers.

“Sorry for calling so late, but may I speak with Arthur Morgan?” I say. “I’m the son of an old friend.”

“Mr. Arthur Senior?” she asks. “Or Junior?”

“Either one,” I say. “Actually, I know Senior better. Like I said, he’s an old friend of my mother’s.”

“Well, you’ll have to speak with Junior. Mr. Arthur Senior, the one they called Shorty, he died this morning.”

pencilAfter military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of  writing fiction. Thirty-four of his short stories and narrative essays have been published, most recently in Stand Magazine, Big Bridge, Shadows & Light, and Rosebud Magazine. He is seeking an agent for a trilogy of novels. Originally from North Carolina, he and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons. Email: wlhauser[at]comcast.net

The Candle

Fiction
Nancy Christie


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

As Margaret leaned forward to light the tall white candles, she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. It wasn’t that she wanted to commit suicide—at least, not exactly. But she had given death a great deal of thought in the past few weeks.

Her long blonde hair swung forward and, for a brief second or two, Margaret let the carefully-cut ends hover dangerously close to the flame.

Suppose, just suppose, she stayed that way—her hair close to the lit candles. Soon there would be that peculiar odor so typical of burning hair, growing stronger and sharper as the moments slipped by.

Then the golden strands, fed by the heat, would twist and turn with a life of their own. Fire would race along the shaft, hungrily seeking a pathway to her body until she herself became a flame-tipped candle, burning in death with a fire she had never know when alive.

Margaret stepped back quickly, pulling her hair safely away before shakily lighting the rest of the candles. That had been close—too close. A few more minutes of imagining could have brought that particular fantasy to life.

Although, she considered as she carefully set the spent matches in the crystal ashtray, that method of death stood a greater chance of success than pills or alcohol. With an overdose, there was always the chance that someone would find you before it was all over. You would no longer have the energy to tell them to leave you alone, that it was entirely your own choice to surrender.

Someone would certainly find her, she knew. And, once found, her body would have to suffer the indignity of a stomach pump while her veins were filled with life-giving fluid. And she’d awaken from blessed darkness to see accusing faces, her husband’s among them, staring down at her.

Sometimes, in her all-too-frequent nightmares, she would see the baby staring at her with just the same expression—accusing and unforgiving.

It had been such a small thing she had to do, after all. A pill each morning, and her womb would be kept under control. One of the few tasks Paul had expected of her—one of the few responsibilities they had both considered she was capable of handling.

When had it begun, Margaret wondered, this belief that she was incapable, incompetent, unreliable? She had long given up wondering if there was any truth to it. If she had any inner strength, living with Paul had drained it from her. Paul needed to be in control of everything—his life, her life, their future. There was no forgiveness in him for anyone who disrupted his carefully orchestrated plans.

She hadn’t even considered pregnancy as a possibility when her period failed to appear one hot June morning. It wasn’t until recurrent attacks of nausea kept her from eating even the blandest of foods that Paul ordered her to see the doctor.

“There’s obviously something wrong,” he had stated irritably, folding the newspaper in exact thirds as she came back into the living room, the remains of that night’s dinner flushed down the toilet. It had stayed in her barely long enough to make an impression on her delicate system before being summarily discharged. “This can’t continue.”

It was inconveniencing him, he meant. Already two dinner parties had had to be canceled for fear that Margaret would be unable to handle her role as hostess.

She made an appointment—she always did what Paul told her to do—expecting to hear a vague diagnosis of virus or flu.

Even now, more than two months later, she could recall every moment of the visit—the way the paper gown shifted to let a chill down her back, the cold metal stirrups, uncomfortably hard against her stocking feet.

Blood pressure, white count, palpitation of the lymph nodes lying quiescent under the skin of her neck and in her armpits, a urinalysis—all the usual tasks performed with impersonal efficiency. And then the diagnosis, tearing apart the calm fabric of the visit. It was totally unexpected, and after the first shock, she was filled with unaccustomed exhilaration.

“You’re about four weeks pregnant,” the doctor had said, and Margaret could only look at him in shock, hardly daring to believe. She had long since given up hope of ever having a child. Sex, like everything else in their life, was far too regulated to allow one renegade sperm to find her egg.

She was to come back, he said. Even something as random as this pregnancy must be brought rapidly under control. There would be regular appointments, blood work, routine examinations.

Margaret nodded her head, hardly hearing his words. It was the baby she heard—its heartbeat, its soft murmurings. A child full of life, who would, in turn, bring new life to her.

But the abortion ended her brief resurrection just as it ended the life of her child.

Although, as the psychiatrist later insisted, it really wasn’t a child. No longer able to bear her silences or her tears, Paul had made an appointment with the man, determined to “fix” her mind as he had “fixed” her body.

“You have to understand that at such an early stage it is just an indistinct mass of cells—not recognizable as a baby at all. This was just a medical condition you corrected.”

Margaret had closed her eyes against the stream of lies pouring over her. It was a baby—a tender, delicate thing with her eyes and smile. She would have held it and kissed it and watched it grow.

And loved it—how she had loved it already, poor little fetus. But she had let it die. She had signed the paper giving some strange doctor the right to probe inside her body and steal away the only thing she had of any value.

It didn’t matter that it was Paul who had insisted on the abortion, presenting her with carefully thought-out reasons. She was too old to consider any other course of action, he had said. She would look almost obscene, pregnant and waddling, when so many of their friends were becoming grandparents. (But first, they had children, Margaret thought.)

And he added, think of the disruption to their lives.

“What would we do with a baby? How could we entertain, travel? There would be diapers, bottles, toys scattered everywhere. And we would both be unhappy,” he said the night before she was to see the doctor again. “And it would know that—it would know that it wasn’t wanted and be unhappy, too. You wouldn’t want it to be unhappy, would you, Margaret?” he asked persuasively.

Margaret sat, still and silent, in the rocking chair, her hands clasped protectively over her slightly swollen abdomen. She could never withstand Paul when he spoke like that. It was one of his strengths, this ability to appeal to her better nature, to make her feel any other choice would be foolish or selfish.

That was the way he had spoken when he wanted Lady, Margaret’s pet collie, put to sleep, because “you know, Margaret, the city is no place for a dog that size. It would be miserable in the apartment”—the apartment he had chosen, although Margaret had preferred to live outside the city. “We would be doing it a service to put it down.”

“‘She’,” Margaret had said, stroking the soft fur as the dog lay trustingly at her feet. “Lady isn’t an ‘it,’ but a ‘she’.”

It was all Margaret could say in the animal’s defense, not that any more words would have made a difference. The dog was taken first thing in the morning, like the baby, years later.

Paul had called the baby “it,” too, Margaret remembered suddenly. The few times he had spoken about their child, he said “it” as though the genderless term gave it less right to exist in a world of two sexes.

But Margaret always thought of the baby as a girl—a tiny, blue-eyed, golden-haired daughter who would love her mother just the way she was.

She realized with a start that she had been standing there, watching the candles flicker, while the minutes ticked by. Paul would be home soon, and he would expect that dinner would be ready—candles lit, wine chilled.

He always insisted on having a formal dinner in the dining room, instead of the more intimate nook off the kitchen. The first few days after Margaret’s treatment (he never referred to it as an abortion), he had permitted her to have a tray in her room, while he ate at one of the many expensive restaurants in town.

But now he judged her to be fully recovered—although, she wondered, what was the expected recovery time for grief?—and wanted a return to the way their life had been organized.

The baby would have been so inconvenient, so disruptive—and Margaret wasn’t certain if the thoughts were her own or Paul’s.

“Is dinner nearly ready?”

Margaret turned, startled. She hadn’t heard Paul come in. He was frowning. It took so little these days to irritate him.

“Very nearly,” she said hastily, picking up the matches from the ashtray.

“Fine. I’m going upstairs to change my shirt.”

And Margaret nodded her head, not that an answer was required.

“Why don’t you take a glass of wine out to the patio, and I’ll join you there,” he added, the force of command underlying the suggestion.

Margaret nodded again, like a marionette. Nod your head, Margaret, smile and agree when you are told.

She walked into the kitchen, but instead of opening the wine, reached for the vodka. Carefully, she poured some into a tumbler and then added several ice cubes. Then, seeing there was still room in the glass, she gently tipped in a second thin stream of alcohol.

Pulling open the French doors, she stepped onto the brick patio, stopping at the wrought-iron table to light the candle securely placed in a pierced brass holder. Then, still holding the glass, she settled herself on the cushioned glider, watching the stars as they glittered in the night sky.

It was nearly eight. Night had fallen, and the candles and stars were the only source of light in the darkened world. As Margaret sipped her drink, she hoped that dinner would go smoothly, that she would give Paul no excuse for any more irritation.

Her eyes blurred, and she blinked them hard before taking another sip of her drink. The alcohol burned a bit, but the pain inside her was slowly being drowned, and that was all that mattered.

She brushed a hand across her forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again—was it a moment or longer? How long had she been out here in the dark?—she heard Paul’s step in the kitchen. She knew he was searching for her, but she was too listless to call to him.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have had that drink after all, she thought. Not when she was still taking those tiny blue-and-white pills the psychiatrist had ordered.

“For your nerves,” he had said, not knowing Margaret had no nerve at all.

As she forced her eyes to clear, she noticed a delicate white moth hovering dangerously close to the patio candle. Translucent wings danced and darted above the point of light, toying with self-destruction.

Margaret sat, still and silent, unable to stop watching. With one breath, one small motion of her lungs and lips, she could save the life of the small insect. Voices echoed in her mind—“It’s only a moth”—no, that wasn’t right—“It’s only a baby, not even a baby” and suddenly she shivered.

Startled by the sudden motion, the moth dipped and swirled over the table. As she watched, still unmoving, it gracefully circled the candle, drawing nearer and nearer the flame until, in one perfect second, the fragile wings burned with light.

pencilNancy Christie is a writer by trade and a fiction writer by preference, the author of a short story collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and the inspirational book, The Gifts of Change. Her fiction has been accepted by magazines such as Down in the Dirt, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, St. Anthony Messenger, Talking River, Wild Violet, EWR: Short Stories, Hypertext, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal, Fiction 365, Full of Crow, Red Fez and Xtreme. She’s also the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day, an annual celebration of short stories and those who write them. Email: nancy[at]nancychristie.com

A Family Tradition

Flash
Tim Love


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

“Now your hair Jenny,” she said, glumping shampoo onto her daughter’s head.

“Do I have to?”

Her mother moulded Jenny’s hair into a cockscomb. “There, Roadrunner.”

Jenny looked at herself in the mirror. “Again!”

Her mother pulled on each side of Jenny’s head. “Two big ears. You’re Mickey Mouse now.”

“What shape did you like when you had hair?”

“Roadrunner and Mickey Mouse were all my mother could do.”

“Was she nice, your mummy?”

“Yes.”

“Look,” Jenny said, squashing her hair flat, “You!”

pencilTim Love’s publications are a poetry pamphlet Moving Parts (HappenStance, 2010) and a story collection By All Means (Nine Arches Press, 2012). He lives in Cambridge, UK. His poetry and prose have appeared in Stand, Rialto, Oxford Poetry, Journal of Microliterature, Short Fiction, etc. He blogs at Litrefs. Email: tl136[at]cam.ac.uk

Eventually Air

Flash
Michelle S. Lee


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

Corinne and Daniel have been together three years to the day when she found him in a souvenir beach shop in Vero. She had two days off from her job as an admissions receptionist at the Urgent Care and went south for a drive. She stopped for cheap coffee. He stood in the window next door to the café, blown-up plastic, and posed next to a surfboard.

She paused at the pane, seeing Tom Selleck in his golden days of Magnum P.I. when she was sixteen and did not yet feel thoroughly fucked like she did at twenty-eight. He was $25.99, plus tax, but that included his outfit (a faded blue cotton button-down and khakis) and his name, stamped on the bottom of his left shoe, a brown, precisely printed loafer.

Daniel fit perfectly in the front seat of her ten-year-old Camry, same one she drove in high school. Corinne knew she was crazy for buying a plastic man, but then he spoke to her.

“Thank you,” she heard him say in a matter-of-fact voice that caused her to believe in him more than she knew she should. “I was hoping.”

Corinne remained apprehensive for one main reason: that men, in her experience, lasted only until they found someone who was “more accessible.” But maybe Daniel, she thought, would be different. Besides, she had stopped touching people as a rule. Not even after four hand-pumps of anti-bacterial gel followed by size-small latex gloves. Day to day, behind plexiglass, clipboards, and a name tag that read “Ask me about Shingles,” Corinne just saw too much.

Today, their anniversary, Corinne wakes Daniel at dawn and drives them to a small, secluded inlet in New Smyrna where they will watch hot air balloons rise over Spruce Creek. Corinne packed egg sandwiches in foil, a thermos of black coffee, and a blanket because it is March, early, and the car heater is temperamental. She parks almost to the sand. A striped balloon is first to crest the water.

She leans across the armrest, puts her head on his shoulder. It still smells soapy from their shower the night before. A blue balloon joins the sky. She wonders if the earth looks far enough away from up there.

“I wait for moments like this,” she says.

Daniel wants to say, “Me, too.”

He doesn’t. Her contentment presses through his slick skin, fills him as much as it can. He listens to it fall deep into the hollow of who he is and thud to the bottom. In the same moment, he watches balloon after balloon sail into the morning.

Daniel had little memory of a time before her. Just a protracted hissing sound, like air slowly escaping from a hole he couldn’t see.

He wants to say, “Eventually, we won’t be enough.”

He doesn’t.

pencilMichelle Lee is an associate professor of literature, fiction writing, and composition at Daytona State College. She’s been an editor of academic and literary journals, has published across genres, and has earned a Pushcart Prize “happy to be nominated” badge of honor for her poetry. Most recently, her words were published in the anthology, All We Can Hold, by Sage Hill Press and with Spry Literary Journal, Gingerbread House, and Literary Mama. This winter, you can find her work with Hypertrophic, Dying Dahlia, and LitBreak. Email: Michelle.Lee[at]daytonastate.edu

Panhandling Uncle Perry

Flash
Travis Keys


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

My Uncle Perry is a whistler. He’s also a hitchhiker. Oftentimes, he’s a panhandler. If you’re lucky, you can catch him being all three simultaneously I discovered one afternoon when I stopped and picked him up.

It was pouring outside, and he was walking on the side of the road, hands in his pockets like the sky wasn’t trying its best to drown him.

He turned his head when he heard the car, then stuck out his thumb. I could tell by his puckered lips, rain be damned, he was whistling.

When he got in, he wiped his face with his arm, and continued to whistle. He didn’t even acknowledge me. It was as if he had been expecting his only nephew to come driving by and offer him a ride.

“You going home, Unc?” I asked him. He lived on the outskirts of town about eight miles from where I picked him up.

He paused his whistling. “Yup,” he said before picking up the tune again.

We drove in silence for a couple of miles.

“Why you always whistling?” I asked him.

He didn’t say anything at first. I thought he was wasn’t going to answer, but after a spell he said, “Whistling is joy leaving the body.” Then he went back to it.

Joy?” I asked. “You happy, Unc?”

“Yup.”

“What you got to be so happy about?”

“I’m out the rain.”

I guess that was as good a reason as any.

“Why you always hitchhiking?”

“I ain’t got a car,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I guess it sort of was when I think about it.

Everyone in town says Uncle Perry is crazy from serving in Vietnam. I never believed them. He just likes to keep to himself is what I always figured. But as I glanced at him sitting there with droplets of water beaded up on the graying naps of his hair with a strange faraway look in his eyes that was matched by the melancholy hissing coming from his face in spitting spurts, I knew they were right.

We were only two miles from his house when Uncle Perry said, “Let me out here.”

“But you’re almost home,” I said, pressing the gas a little harder.

He repeated his request.

I slowly pulled the car over to the shoulder. Uncle Perry opened the door, then sat there looking out at the rain.

“You got a couple of dollars I can hold?”

I put the car in park and reached into my back pocket. I handed him a five-dollar bill. As he took it, I noticed his hand trembling.

“God bless you, sir,” he said. He got out of the car and shut the door.

I drove away watching my uncle in the rear view mirror. He put a hand in his pocket and used the other to stick out his thumb. I shook my head and began to whistle.

pencilTravis Keys lives in drought-stricken San Diego, California where he works as systems administrator. He loves to write. Email: t.b.keys[at]gmail.com

Tex-Mex Special

Flash
Lori Cramer


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

I’m scribbling down an order from a rowdy family of five when my best tippers stroll into the main dining area and seat themselves at the corner table. Mr. Stevenson’s got on his faded Astros hat, as usual, and Mrs. Stevenson’s clutching her metallic purse as if it’s a shield. They show up here every Thursday for the Tex-Mex special: endless tacos for $9.99. He’s crazy for the hard shell; she prefers soft. Greeting me like a cherished friend, they ask how I’ve been and whether my son’s sleeping through the night yet. After a minute or two of chitchat, I take their drink orders—same as always—and promise to return right away. When they think I’m out of earshot, they start sniping at each other, and on my way back to deliver their Drafts of the Day, I overhear phrases like “never listen” and “don’t even care anymore.” Once they spot me heading toward them, the angry conversation halts and they paste on pretend smiles. Setting down their icy beverages, I consider telling them how marriage counseling saved my friend Trudy’s marriage, but then decide I’d better keep quiet. Can’t afford to lose that 25% tip.

pencilLori Cramer’s short fiction has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, FewerThan500.com, Ink In Thirds, Postcard Shorts, Pudding Magazine, A Quiet Courage, Rum Punch Press, Seven by Twenty, Unbroken Journal, and the 11th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection. Email: bulldog29[at]msn.com

Punctuation and Puncture Wounds

Flash
Isaac Buckley


Photo Credit: Iain Farrell (CC-by-nd)

I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t have anything against them. It’s just that no single image has ever stood out to me enough to ink into my skin. Besides, scars have always been life’s way of marking me with reminders of the periods and events in my life. My latest acquisition is two circular scars on my left side, one about an inch above the other.

The most recent trend in body art is the semi-colon—an outward sign of an inward struggle with depression or mental illness. Looking in the mirror now, I find meaning in my own markings. My left ribs bear a colon.

A colon, the internet tells me, is a punctuation mark “used mostly to call attention to what follows (as a list, explanation, or quotation).” Though I didn’t choose my newest decoration, I can’t help but ascribe meaning to it. A colon divides a sentence. It announces that a writer is introducing something different, that a new clause is coming. Everything up to the colon has been a prelude, an introduction. The meat of the matter—the colon declares—is here.

I may be a hole short of a three-hole punch, but I’m fond of my new punctuation mark. Like an unwary breakfaster discovering the image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, I choose to find meaning in a world that seems mad. Everything up to here has been leading up to what comes next, my ribs proclaim.

And what is that? To tell the truth, I’m not sure yet. But I do know one thing: the day I get out of this hospital I’m gonna find the rat bastard that shot me in the side.

pencilIsaac Buckley lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he spends his time fishing, listening to blues music, and failing to provide his parents with grandchildren. Email: isaackbuckley[at]gmail.com

Real Man Howls

Poetry
Timothy Pilgrim


Photo Credit: Neha Viswanathan (CC-by-nc)

Armpit hair with darkened curl
announces a soulful,

acoustic woman. Organic.
Escapee from brotherhood

of jockstrap. I sense hope
within black growth, believe

she might, indeed, be free—
doesn’t love beauty contests,

riding horses, can make
a decent quiche—will teach me

how to knit, read Munro aloud,
show me how a real man howls.

pencilTimothy Pilgrim, a Pacific Northwest poet and emeritus associate professor of journalism at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., has published over 300 poems—with acceptances from journals like Seattle Review, San Pedro River Review, Third Wednesday, Prole Press, Cirque and Toasted Cheese. He is author of Mapping Water (Flying Trout Press, 2016). His work can be found at timothypilgrim.org. Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Pulling the Tooth

Poetry
D.W. Moody


Photo Credit: Ben Grantham/Flickr (CC-by)

for days
my jaw my bones my face ached
occupying my waking thoughts
alone in bed I’d stare at the emotionless white ceiling
struggling for a few moments of rest

one morning upon waking
I could feel it slowly letting go of me
it sagged and jiggled in my mouth
alone
with mom working
everyone else
outside playing
not waiting for me to tackle the day’s adventures
even by bus too far the clinic
yes alone
my bare feet padded quietly through the house
till I stood in the cool shadows of the kitchen
hand trembling
hot sauce spreading through my mouth
blood and condiment swirling together
strings of nerves dangling in the crevices of my mouth
a crimson river flowing into the sink
shaking trembling holding my prize of bone

pencilD.W. Moody grew up between California and the Midwest, lived on the streets, hitchhiked around the country, and held a variety of jobs in Kansas and Southern California until settling into life as a librarian. His poems have appeared in Shemom, The Avalon Literary Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. As a new father, life is busy juggling the demands of work and being a committed parent: he writes when he can. Email: d.w.moodysmailbox[at]gmail.com