The Dance

Boots’s Pick
Robert Watts Lamon


Broken Pilings
Photo Credit: Randy Bayne

He had recently closed his bookstore. The Internet and Barnes and Noble had beaten him fair and square. Now, as he lounged in his North Carolina home, he was thinking, not of his failed bookstore, but of his days in the military. The memories seemed unreal—not only the peculiar dust and bare stone, the heat and cold, the unique vermin of far-flung posts, but also the cheap drink and easy sex of exotic towns. And now that unreality was creeping toward him like a shadow, encompassing the land, increasing the despair, distorting the laughter. Maybe he was getting to be an old fogy, a retread puritan, who had reached an age that allowed few alternatives.

In the midst of these reflections, he left his chair, climbed the stairs, grabbed a suitcase out of the closet, and began tossing things into it. And at last, with his packed suitcase in the trunk and a small clothing bag dangling over the back seat, he steered his Toyota east on Route 64, heading for its juncture with Route 17. It was early February—still the off-season—but the weather had warmed into the sixties and promised to be even warmer on the coast.

Traffic was light on Route 17 as he drove past the dark furrows, the marshes, the waterways, the boats lining the shores. He reached Elizabeth City and headed for the Outer Banks. Crossing the water in the setting sun, he decided to seek shelter and found a pleasant, barely occupied motel. The garrulous manager asked to see his girlfriend—the off-season brought secret romances. He assured the manager he was alone and getting too old for romance.

But his room was clean and looked out on the ocean. He awoke the next morning well-rested, found breakfast at a diner, and drove to Hatteras, where he strolled the beach and climbed to the top of the lighthouse. As he looked out over the ocean, he felt a delight he hadn’t felt in some time. The warm spell had stayed on. The sky was clear blue except for the vague mist over the water—the hint of colliding currents. He could see orange-colored trawlers near the horizon, hear the gulls as they lighted on the waves, feel and smell the salty breeze. He spent hours wandering the broad beach like the plovers, going where the breeze took him—or so it seemed.

As the shadows lengthened, he drove back to the motel. But once in his room he grew restless. He stood at the full-length window, gazing at the darkened shore. He slid the window open and inhaled the night air. Funny how invigorating the salt air is, he thought—and how the sea attracts us. Perhaps it’s traceable to some evolutionary ancestor who lived in the water. He stepped out onto the small brick terrace and slid the window shut. There was a light on, several rooms away, and a country tune was playing softly. He stepped off the terrace onto the sand and strolled toward the breakers, stopping as the sand grew moist and firm. The sky was full of stars and further lit by a quarter moon and mirrored by a thousand ripples on the water. He thought about swimming out until the ocean absorbed him—like that movie protagonist. The producers hadn’t shown the fish and crabs feasting on the remains. He wondered how long this warm spell would last. Sooner or later, the rain would come, and then the cold. Maybe a twister would pull the water from the ocean. Years ago, he had seen a waterspout.

He walked back to the dry sand that sifted through his sandals. He found a hillock and sat down and leaned back against it. He closed his eyes briefly, but opened them wide when he heard music accompanying the surf. It was big-band music—from the swing era. He had an uncle who had loved the big bands and had often played their records on the Philco phonograph. He remembered how his uncle dressed up for a dance and how his girlfriend looked when he brought her home to show off.

But where was the music coming from? He assumed young people still gathered on the beach at night, but their music had become an inscrutable pounding. He was about to doze again, when he noticed a distinct glow in the sky above the next dune. He forced himself awake, got to his feet, and brushed the sand from his shirt and trousers. He walked toward the light, watching his footing as he approached the crest of the dune, expecting to find a picnic for old folks, or a group of superannuated surf fishermen.

When he finally looked up, he saw an enormous wooden building—a pavilion—sitting over the ocean, propped on a procession of pilings, like a great enclosed pier. Most of its glow came from a tall sign on the roof. Swingtime Pavilion, it read, in letters outlined by light bulbs. Groups and couples were leaving their cars in a nearby parking area and walking toward the pavilion. Most of the people were young, some still in their teens. But their dress was unusually formal. There were no jeans, bare midriffs, or running shoes. The men wore coats and ties; the women wore dresses and heels. And their cars—a ’37 Plymouth with its raised back, a ’37 Ford with a rumble seat, a ’34 Pontiac with a running board, a ’41 Oldsmobile with its Hydramatic buzz. He noticed a beautiful wallflower—she had a club foot—and a young man in uniform, but with an arm missing and the empty sleeve pinned up. When did the Army start wearing the old pinks-and-greens again?

Curiosity carried him down the slope toward the wooden hall. Approaching the path to its entrance, he noticed that most of the men had slicked their hair, and some had combed it in a huge wave. He felt out of place in his loose trousers, shirttails, and sandals, yet he sidled his way as far as the broad doorway. He could see colored lights and couples gliding around the dance floor. Standing on the spotlighted stage, the saxophonist fronting the big band looked like Jimmy Dorsey, though he knew both Dorseys had died years ago. Who was that band leader with the smooth tones and competent hands?

He felt a bump from behind and turned to find a lovely woman in a blue dress. She had a fine figure and sparkling eyes.

“You can’t go in there like that,” she said, in a pleasant Southern way, looking him up and down.

“I wasn’t planning to,” he replied.

She smiled and looked interested. “Coat and tie’s the rule.”

“Fine old custom. Glad to see it come back.”

“What ever do you mean?” she asked, obviously puzzled.

“I mean—uh, considering what they wear these days.”

Still puzzled, she smiled anyway. “Well now, you just go home and change, and we’ll dance together. I’ll save you the first one.”

“You’ve got a deal. Say—is this some sort of convention?”

She blinked several times. “No—of course not. It’s a dance—we have them every week.”

“Oh—”

“Now you go on—I’ll wait for you. And you come back now,” she said with a hint of urgency. Then she turned like a ballerina, entered the pavilion, and was lost among the crowd.

He quick-timed over the dune and back to his room. He had brought decent clothes—blue blazer, shirt and tie, clean khakis. Once he was properly dressed and shod, with his tie carefully straightened, he was quickly out the door and striding back to the Swingtime Pavilion. But where was the light? There was no glow above the dune. And when he reached the top of the sandy rise, he found nothing—no great pavilion with its tall sign, no vintage cars, no people—and worst of all, no beautiful woman to greet his return.

He walked down to the place where the covered pier had stood. He gazed at the surf as it hissed among some broken pilings. Was he merely responding to a dream? But who was that woman?—someone from his own past? He didn’t know the answer. He plodded back to his room, feeling silly, betrayed, wondering why the cosmos, the Eschaton, his psyche, had conspired to deceive him. As he reached his small terrace, he noticed a man sitting outside a nearby room.

“All dressed up and no place to go,” the man said.

“You’re right,” he replied simply, though stung by the gibe.

The next morning, packed and ready for the road, he walked down to the ocean for a last look. He saw the broken pilings in the morning sun, along with a faint suggestion of a path and parking area. When he stopped at the motel office to turn in his key, he asked the manager, an old-timer, about the Swingtime Pavilion.

“Oh, yeah—yeah,” the manager said. “That was here years ago. It was the place to go in the Thirties and Forties. But times changed, tastes changed, and folks stopped coming. It got damaged in a storm in—oh, 1960, as I recall. The owner tore it down—no use fixing it.”

Later, on a ferry ride to Cedar Island, he left his car and leaned against the gunwale. He watched the screws churning the water and the gulls swooping so close he could count their toes. And he was still thinking about that dream, or visitation, or whatever it was—and about that woman, so fine in her blue dress.

Driving west on Route 70, he saw the sky cloud over and the first drops of rain hit the windshield. Yes—more cold weather before spring, he thought. Maybe he should re-open his bookstore, maybe specialize in military history, nostalgia—deal in used books as well as new. After all, he still had reality to face. As he drove on, the wind blew harder, flinging the pouring rain against the glass.

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Robert Watts Lamon is college educated, an ROTC graduate, and a former chemist. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, he’s published several short stories in small magazines, including Xavier Review and The MacGuffin. He’s also contributed four book reviews to Liberty. Email: rwlamon[at]frontier.com

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Montanawich

Boots’s Pick
Nathaniel Tower


Turkey Sandwich
Photo Credit: FotoosVanRobin

A friend of mine told me I couldn’t imagine a sandwich the size of Montana.

“Of course I can,” I reasoned. “I can imagine anything.”

“You can’t imagine that which you cannot perceive,” he told me.

So I set out to prove him wrong.

The first thing I did was search for a plot of land the size of Montana. I tried to purchase Montana itself, but there were more than a few residents ready to raise objections. I set my sights further north.

After not too much searching, I found a nice vacant piece of land up in northern Canada. The few residents there didn’t seem to mind when I told them what I was doing and offered to buy them out. The wildlife didn’t refuse either. Northern Canada actually ended up being a much better spot because there I could keep my sandwich under permanent and natural refrigeration. I knew it would take quite some time to eat such a colossal meal, and I certainly didn’t want it to spoil after all of my efforts.

With my plot of land secured, my next step was to bake the bread. I consulted several master bakers along with a few architects and some mathematicians in order to determine the appropriate amount of each ingredient I would need. The first baker told me it couldn’t be done.

“This is lunacy,” he said. “Do you even know how big Montana is?”

“Yes,” I told him. “In fact, I just purchased 147,046 square miles of land in Canada on which to create my sandwich.”

He tried to explain himself further. “Look,” he said, “let’s just say the average loaf of bread is one square foot.”

“Okay, but I don’t think it is,” I told him.

“Well, let’s just imagine it.”

I tried to imagine it, but I couldn’t. I had seen too many loaves of bread in my life to believe that the average loaf was one square foot.

“Fine,” I told him anyway.

“Okay. It takes about two teaspoons of yeast and four cups of flour to create that one square foot of bread.”

“Got it.” Those numbers were easy to comprehend. Since I had never made a loaf of bread, I had no trouble accepting his calculations.

“Do you know how many square feet are in a square mile?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Okay. So to make a loaf of bread that is a square mile, we need to multiply our ingredients by 27,878,400.”

“That’s a lot of flour,” I told him.

“And that’s just for one square mile. Then you will need to multiply that by another 174,046. So now you see my point. It can’t be done.”

I shook my hand. “I have the land. It can be done.”

Now I had two people to prove wrong. I just need a few imaginative people to help me.

For the next three weeks I recruited my team. Thirteen bakers, four architects, two mathematicians, one surveyor, two engineers, and three employees from a local sandwich shop. When we all sat down together at our first meeting, I knew we had the brainpower to put together the sandwich.

“There’s one problem I see,” the lead baker told me.

“And what is that?” I asked.

“We’re going to need a rather sizeable oven to pull this off.”

“Not a problem,” said one of the engineers. He got to work on it right away.

For the next seventeen months, my bakers put together all of the ingredients with the help of the mathematicians to make sure everything was just the right amount. We weren’t sure exactly what the number was called that represented the amount of flour we needed, but we did know that it was over 999 trillion cups. They slaved away night and day, and their bodies were so caked in flour that I couldn’t tell which was which. But never once did they complain or doubt or even ask for a break or any money. Truth is, we hadn’t discussed compensation, but I felt all along that they were just excited to be working on such a prestigious project.

During that time, my engineers and architects worked on assembling the oven, and the sandwich shop employees, who had all quit their jobs, collected the meat and toppings for the sandwich. We decided on a relatively simple sandwich that consisted of thinly sliced turkey breast, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, pickles, American cheese, and just a little bit of mayo, low fat of course. Although we had to throw out a few bad tomatoes and some moldy cheese, the three did an excellent job gathering the sandwich ingredients. Their job might have been the least impressive, but it was a necessity nevertheless.

At the end of the seventeenth month, my surveyor approached me with what he saw as the first real snag in my plan.

“You need more land,” he told me.

“What? Did Montana grow?”

“No. We’ve taken up more than half of the land with the oven and the ingredients. You’ll need more land to build the actual sandwich.”

This news was a shock to me. The engineers and architects had pulled off an amazing feat. Rather than building an oven the size of Montana, they built an oven exactly one-fourth the size of Montana. We would simply cut the bread lengthwise and then fuse the pieces together in order to get it just the right size. But we had never even considered needing extra land to create the sandwich.

Somewhere during those seventeen months, my buddy came up to me and told me that I could stop. I had taken it too far, he said, and although he was impressed with my determination, he didn’t see the point of building the actual sandwich.

“You’re missing the point,” he said. “By building the sandwich, you are taking it out of the imaginative realm. You still aren’t imagining it. You’re just creating it.”

“But how can you create something you don’t imagine first?” I asked him. I wondered what Descartes and Plato would’ve thought about my question. But my buddy just shook his head.

When the dough was finally ready it had risen a little higher than we had anticipated. We had to have the engineers come help to punch it down. Then everyone on the team had to assist in getting the massive ball into the oven.

There was much debate over how long it would actually take to bake the bread. I contended that if the oven had been built correctly then it shouldn’t take any longer than a normal loaf of bread. One of the bakers said it would take weeks and possibly even months. We agreed we would set the timer for an hour and check often. It was ready in just under two hours.

Cutting it was a bit tricky, but we managed. We also managed to fuse the pieces together. The bread didn’t quite fill up the land mass though. I blamed the bakers for rolling it out a little too carelessly. By my count we were only a few square feet short though, and I didn’t think that would really make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Someone could always just imagine that the sandwich occupied those last few feet.

Putting on the meat and toppings wasn’t as much of an adventure as we anticipated. We had to ward off some birds and bears, and at one point we thought we were going to run out of tomatoes, but it ended up being just the right amount. Those sub shop guys sure knew what they were doing.

The mayo was the most fun part. We rented a small biplane and flew it the length of the sandwich, crop-dusting the mayo all along the way. We ran out just a few inches before we reached the end, which I was pleased with because no one wants mayo in that spot at the end of the sandwich where the toppings really thin out and it’s mostly bread.

When we were all finished putting the top piece of bread in place, we admired our work but regretted the fact that we couldn’t see it all at once. I asked them if they wanted to rent a helicopter and fly up until we could see the whole thing. They said they had best be getting back to their lives. It was a bit of a shame, but I knew more or less what it looked like. After all, it was a normal sandwich that just happened to be the size of Montana. I waited for my friend to come and apologize. He never did.

Turns out that my crew did expect some pay after all. The sub shop guys had been tracking every hour they worked, including their travel time. The engineers gave me a flat rate. The mathematicians provided some formula I couldn’t comprehend, but it seemed they wanted to be paid per square kilometer. The others had their fees as well. None of it was reasonable.

Except for one of the bakers. He said he was happy just to hone his art. I laughed at the notion that making a sandwich was art.

I ended up telling them that their checks would be in the mail. They were happy with that and went about their business. I wonder if the sub shop guys ever got their jobs back. They would be the most experienced sub shop guys around, so I can’t imagine they had too much difficulty.

I stayed in Canada with my sandwich for a few days. I wanted to take a bite, especially since I had no money left to buy any other food, but I couldn’t stand the thought of having a sandwich smaller than Montana (even though it already was slightly smaller). So I just feasted on berries and other miscellaneous items I could find in the Canadian forests. There was quite a chill in the air, which was both a blessing and a curse. I was cold, but at least the sandwich was comfortable.

After a few days of roughing it in the cold, the temperature took a turn for the worse. For the sandwich that is. We hit a patch of unseasonable warmth that I heard would last for weeks. My sandwich would certainly spoil, so I did the only thing that made sense. I called up my friend, the one who started the whole argument to begin with. I asked him if he would help me eat the sandwich. He said sure.

“I never thought it would go bad so quickly,” I told him as we munched on a little piece of the sandwich that could probably feed the world.

“That’s how imagination goes,” he replied.

I still haven’t figured out what he meant.

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Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is due out in July 2011. Visit him at Bartleby Snopes. Email: bartlebysnopes[at]yahoo.com

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Gogo Knows Best

Boots’s Pick
Shannon Schuren


Voodoo Doll Dotees
Photo Credit: April/elasticcamel

Your maman is so good with needle and thread, her Gogo Ezrulie used to say, she could even mend a broken heart.

As Marie stitched the doll, she prayed fervently that she’d inherited that gift. Because something was broken between her and Manny, something hard to name and even harder to fix. If it hadn’t been for the baby, she might not have tried.

Manny was big and dark and wild, a bull in her fragile china world. And though at first she’d found this exciting, the cracks were starting to show. Where he had once been chivalrous, he was now overbearing. Once accommodating, he was now demanding.

It all began with the tea.

At first, it was just a niggling thought in the back of her head. An old recipe from her Gogo, her maternal grandmother, a tea that pregnant women drink to promise a successful delivery. But Gogo had been gone a long time. Surely those remedies had died with her.

But it wouldn’t let go. It gained voice, then momentum. Soon the very idea was a constant drumbeat in her soul, drowning out all other thoughts. The only way to quiet it was to drive down to the swamp, gather the moss, and brew the tea.

She shouldn’t have told Manny. She thought he’d laugh; the crazy cravings of a mother-to-be. Instead, the argument had opened a gulf between them that was littered with the memories of the foul names he’d called her and the accusations he’d thrown. It was up to her to close that gulf, and the old ways were the only ones she knew.

As she stopped to admire the doll’s shiny black eyes and primitive yarn smile, the phone rang. She started and drove the needle through the cloth body and into the palm of her hand. Blood welled up, droplets already soaking the fabric of the tiny dress.

It was Manny, sounding as if he’d been on a two-day bender. Had she cursed him? Given him some sort of hex potion? If not, did she know of some way to get rid of his terrible headache? Something that wouldn’t bring the wrath of God down upon them both?

As she hung up the phone, she glanced at his portrait, hanging upside down on her mantel. It would be a simple matter to turn it, to reverse the headache. But Marie had another idea.

She dressed in one of Manny’s shirts and a pair of old jeans, then drove to the cemetery. As she crouched in the dirt to fill her cup, she saw one of the doctors from her pharmaceutical route kneeling beside a nearby grave. What must he think of her now? But without her black bag of samples and her practiced smile, she was merely a spirit in oversized flannel, and he looked right through her.

Back at home, she burned the rest of the Spanish moss, the cloying odor heavy and thick in her closed-in apartment. She longed to stand at the balcony, to feel the breeze from the bayou on her face, but she resisted. Her neighbors were staid professionals, more likely to consult their therapists than a voodoo priestess on matters of the heart. If they came to her door, she didn’t know how she’d explain the pools of candle wax and grains of salt scattered across the kitchen floor.

She was surprised that she still remembered the recipe for a gris-gris, but she shouldn’t have been. Like her Gogo always said, the memories of childhood are fast forged and last forgotten. She mixed the ingredients along with red pepper and herbs, and some old, dried mistletoe berries she dug out of her Christmas decorations. These she ground with a pestle on the altar of her Corian countertop before pouring it all into a little drawstring bag.

Before she left, she poured hot coffee into a Thermos, then opened the wound on her palm to let several drops of her own blood fall into the rich, dark brew. For binding, in case the doll didn’t work. She stirred it, screwed on the cover, and gathered it up along with her other gifts.

Manny met her on his front porch, his bloodshot eyes wide and accusing.

She took in his rumpled clothing, his messy hair, his swollen lips. The lipstick stain on his T-shirt. The smell of perfume clinging to him like a five-dollar whore.

“I need whatever goddamn concoction you’ve brewed up,” he demanded by way of greeting.

Wordlessly, she handed him the coffee. She felt their baby squirm in happiness as he gulped it.

“I’ve made you something else,” she said, offering him the doll.

He pushed it aside and pointed at the little sack in her hand. “What’s that?”

“It’s a gris-gris,” she began.

He ignored her and snatched the bag, emptying the contents into the Thermos and then mixing it with his finger.

Marie thought about telling him that the gris-gris was for keeping, not for eating. That the graveyard dirt was for protection, and that the mistletoe berries, though highly poisonous, promised fidelity.

And then she thought about the lipstick on his shirt. And the love bites on his neck.

And said nothing.

She smiled sadly as he downed the coffee, the blood-flecked doll still clutched in her hand.

Her Gogo had another saying: A quick death is a snake’s only friend.

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Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]gmail.com

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Be Happy

Boots’s Pick
Jennifer Spiegel


Toasted sprinkled fried scrambled served
Photo Credit: Sarah Ross

New York, 1995

Every year, Sheila’s family goes to Milwaukee for a square dancing convention. “Maybe it’s a polka festival—I can’t remember,” my friend Sue explained. Sheila lives in Archie and Edith’s house in Queens, she’s never eaten Thai, and she’s seen every Tony Award–winning musical since 1981. “Each month, one of her cousins gets married to the boy next door—excuse me, the goy next door—and Sheila’s a bridesmaid.”

Plus, Sheila loves—I mean, adores—Happy’s ice cream.

Sue and Sheila work together and, lately, my friend has been enamored by Sheila’s down-home charms. “She’s like Planet of the Apes movies,” Sue explained. “You know how they make you long for the days of lunch boxes, stirrup pants, and the dawn of MTV?”

“Yeah?” That, I get.

“Well, Sheila makes you crave normalcy. Didn’t we once have normal lives outside the concrete jungle?”

More and more, my friend has been saying how we’ve got to get out of New York City while we still can. To compliment her lamentations, she goes on and on about Sheila. Sheila this; Sheila that.

Don’t be dense, true friend. Don’t be naïve. You think we can make it outside the city? You believe that? Watch us curl up and die. Watch us sink into ourselves and become eccentric introverts. Don’t count on acceptance. Don’t you dare count on normalcy.

We made a special trip to Happy’s, since it would be a good opportunity to test our suburban survival skills. Apparently, elsewhere in America, Denny’s, Coco’s, Happy’s, Village Inn, Stuckey’s, Big Boy, and the like, positively thrive. Two men from Manhattan joined us: one from uptown, one from downtown. Someday, the uptown man may get a job transfer. Someday, the downtown man may get a job.

I’ve been on this road before. Once, I went to the Mall of America in Minnesota. A business trip, if you can believe that. The strollers, frozen yogurt–eaters, and handholding couples scared the hell out of me, but I liked the rental car quite a bit. In the final analysis, I couldn’t wait to get back to my local beggars and anonymous neighbors.

Happy’s smelled like old grease. Our waitress looked like a dirty Alice from The Brady Bunch. A high school kid mopped the floor. As we carefully hopscotched across the wet tile, I whispered to Sue, “Remember, Sheila suggested lunch so we can eat ice cream afterwards.”

Sidling up to a booth, Sue sneered. “Screw lunch. I want breakfast.”

Alice, peds on feet, approached. “What can I get you folks?”

The four of us city slickers studied our laminated menus. Speaking in a singsong voice, Sue said, “I’d like the French toast with crispy bacon, please.”

Alice didn’t move. The wrinkles around her mouth began to tremble. “I’m sorry. We don’t serve breakfast after eleven.”

We all looked at our watches: 11:17 on a Saturday morning.

Sue looked at Alice as if she were crazy.

Alice quaked.

Sue’s eyes were like the pig’s in The Amityville Horror: red, beady. “You don’t serve breakfast after eleven?” It sounded like, Are you fucking nuts?

I tensed up. So did Uptown and Downtown.

Alice smiled sweetly. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Is there something else I can get you?”

Silence followed.

“I’ll need a minute.” Sue ducked behind her menu.

“I’ll be right back.” Alice shuffled off in her peds.

When Alice was gone, Sue’s mouth dropped open. “Can you believe this? Can you believe they don’t serve breakfast after eleven? I was so ready for French toast! You have no idea—no fucking idea!” She dropped her menu on the table. “Who ever heard of not serving breakfast after eleven at a shit diner?”

“Order something else, Sue,” Downtown broke in.

“I don’t want anything else! I want breakfast.”

Mental institution material, right here, folks. Sue slapped both hands down. “This is why I can’t leave New York City. This is why!” She looked at us, wildly. “In New York City, you can get breakfast anytime. There are no designated breakfast hours! If you want breakfast at eight p.m., so be it. Three thirty in the afternoon, that’s fine.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Do you realize that the rest of America only eats breakfast before eleven?”

“We’re actually technically still in New York City—this is Queens,” said Uptown.

Downtown, more comfortable with idiosyncrasy than Uptown, put a hand on top of Sue’s. “That’s right, Sue. That’s why we live in New York City. So we can get breakfast anytime we want.”

“Damn right,” she responded.

Uptown pointed to the corner of his menu. “Get a cup of soup.”

Everyone shot him a look of disgust.

“I really wanted breakfast,” Sue whined.

I reached across the table to touch her arm. “I know, honey. But if Sheila were with us right now, she’d be having lunch.”

Sadness spread across her face, clouding her eyes. “I’ll never be able to leave.”

I watched the grief drift over her forehead. I studied the anguish unfurl across her brow. Sue could never leave New York City. She loved her French toast too much.

Alice cautiously returned. “Have you had time to think it over?”

Sue stared up at Alice. In an itsy-bitsy, sugary-sweet voice, Sue said, “Can you make an exception just this once and prep an order of French toast and crispy bacon?

I didn’t think she’d go this far. Under the table, Downtown pinched my thigh. Uptown stared in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We can’t do that.” Alice, stiff-legged and poised to write on her paper pad, probably desperately hoped that this weird witchy woman would just order a damn turkey club.

Sue, completely fraught now, clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. “Surely you have white bread and eggs. Pretend you’re making a B.L.T., but mess up.”

Downtown flipped. “For God’s sake, get a goddamn Reuben sandwich!”

Sue, red-faced and teary-eyed, said, “Could you just tell me one thing?”

Alice cautiously stepped back. “What?”

“Why can’t I have breakfast after eleven?”

Alice stared at her head-on. “Happy’s policy.”

Sue exhaled deeply. “Get me a cup of soup.”

Yes, I’ll tell you. I’ve lied. When people ask me why I stay, why I choose to live in mayhem, isolation, extravagance, and disease, I lie. I mutter something about art, diversity, the naked truth. That’s my usual one: truth. On and on I go about the rawness of the streets—the hard, cold facts. I say that’s what I need. I need to be surrounded by reality, engulfed in it, nearly swallowed by its gritty, truth-telling jaws. That’s when I feel honest. That’s when I feel like I could sincerely love the world.

That’s when.

But it’s a lie. The truth is this: I like French toast after eleven. I like it so much that I’ll never leave New York City. Give me that, above everything else.

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Dzanc Books will publish Jennifer Spiegel’s collection of short stories, The Freak Chronicles, in 2012. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and journals, ranging from The Gettysburg Review to Nimrod. Recent work can be read online at Pank, Kill Author, and The Waccamaw Review. Please visit her at jenniferspiegel.com. Email: spiegelbell[at]cox.net

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The Gig of a Lifetime

Boots’s Pick
Walt Trizna


Fred's Fingers
Photo Credit: Kelly Taylor

Sweats Connelly was having the time of his life. He nodded to the rest of the band, a band made in heaven, and played his heart out. A glowing fog obscured the audience, but he knew they were there, listening as he gave them his sweet music.

*

Jerome Connelly grew up under the care of his unwed mother on the hard streets of an unforgiving city. His skin was rich ebony, and from the time of his birth, he was rail-thin with the delicate features of a father he never knew. His nickname was Sweats, a direct result of the mean streets he called home. His friends gave him the name because, even on the coldest winter’s day, Jerome would arrive at school drenched in sweat.

His friends would ask, “Hey man, why you always sweating?”

He would mumble something about running late, wipe his face, and head for class. He couldn’t tell his friends that he was sweating from fear. The walk to school was through streets where drugs were dealt, where people were shot for no reason, where life was cheap and held no promise.

First his friends, then everyone he knew, began to call him Sweats Connelly. It wasn’t long before there wasn’t anyone who called him Jerome except for his mother.

Sweats began playing sax in his middle-school band. He continued to play into his high school years, but alone for his own pleasure. With money earned doing odd jobs, he managed to buy a used alto sax, which quickly became his most prized possession and his only close friend. Hours spent playing in the safe solitude of his bedroom sharpened his skills. He was good, and with time to focus on his playing, he knew he could be a lot better. Now sixteen, Sweats felt he was wasting his time in class. He had discovered the meaning of his life and none of the classes he took furthered that purpose.

Sweats returned to the small apartment he called home one day after school and carefully closed and locked the door. His mother, Martha, suspecting that something had been bothering her son for some time now, asked him, “What’s wrong Jerome? You just not yourself lately.”

“Mom, I can’t take this shit anymore.”

“You watch your tongue,” his mother warned.

“Okay, I can’t take school anymore. I ain’t learnin’ nothin’. I want to play my sax, that’s all. I’m good Mom, and someday I could make some real money.”

Jerome’s mother always bristled when he talked about dropping out of school. “I want you to do something with your life, Jerome. Not be like the bums you see everywhere on these streets.”

Martha said to her son, “It’s against my better judgment, school is important…”

“I know Mom, but playing my sax is important to me. I promise to get my GED, but I need time to practice.”

“Oh, Baby,” cooed Martha.

Sweats knew he had her.

*

Sweats dropped out of high school with his mother’s reluctant permission. He still poured sweat, but now it was the perspiration of passion and emotion while playing his sax, not fear of his surroundings.

One day, while darting through the neighborhood on an errand, Sweats saw a sign hanging in the window of one of the local run-down clubs. JAZZ MUSICIAN WANTED, proclaimed the placard. Sweats went inside.

It was eleven o’clock in the morning and the place was mostly empty. There were a few customers sitting at the bar nursing their drinks, behavior born from hopeless lives. About a dozen tables were set up, and across from the bar, was a small stage. Behind the bar stood a man washing glasses and preparing for the day’s business. His name was Mac Shorter, a tough-looking man who had evidently led an equally tough life. He was the bartender and owner.

Sweats approached him and said, “I’m here about the musician’s job.”

Mac looked up at Sweats, and asked, “How old are you, boy?”

Because of his height Sweats looked older than his sixteen years. “I’m eighteen,” he replied. Eighteen was the minimum age to work in a place that served liquor.

Mac was a keen observer. He rubbed his whiskered chin in disbelief. “What instrument you play?” he asked.

“Alto sax, sir, and pretty damn good,” was Sweats’s response.

“I’ll be the judge of that. Come back with your instrument tonight, about nine o’clock, while the band’s here. We’ll see if you have anything.”

Sweats knew his mother would be working the night shift at the café.

“I’ll be back tonight, sir,” Sweats responded as he made for the door. He knew that tonight he would have to play like he never played before.

As he was leaving, Mac yelled, “What’s your name, boy?”

“Sweats Connelly, sir.”

Sweats went home and practiced more intensely than ever. By the time he was done his fingers were stiff, but he knew he was right on for the audition. He left a note for his mother saying he would be out late and headed for the club.

*

The four band members began filtering in at eight o’clock, nodded to their boss, and began setting up the stage.

Mac walked up to the stage.

“What’s up, boss?” asked Joe the piano player.

“Might have a sax player for y’all.”

Frank, the drummer, said, “That’s great! About time somebody saw your damn sign.” The other band members laughed as they nodded in agreement.

“Don’t get too worked up,” said Mac. “He’s just a kid. I’m sure he lied about his age. But there aren’t many musicians in this part of the city, and those there are wouldn’t work in a dive like this. Hell, by this time of night, there ain’t many sober folks of any sort in this part of the city. He’ll be here at nine. We’ll see if he has anything.”

At nine sharp the door to the club opened and Sweats walked in, carrying his sax in a beat-up case.

Joe took one look at Sweats and muttered, “Shit.”

Sweats walked to the stage.

“So they call you Sweats,” Joe said. “Does your mom know you’re here, little boy?”

Sweats’s forehead instantly grew a glistening sheen.

After studying Sweats’s face, Joe said, “I take that to be a no. Well boy, I’m sure it’s going to be a waste of our good time, but we’ll give you a try.”

Sweats hurriedly took out his sax and scanned the sheet music handed to him while Joe introduced the band. Pointing to each member, he said, “This here is Frank. He plays drums. Leroy, over there, plays brass and Fats plays bass.” The musicians looked Sweats up and down. He could see the ridicule in their eyes.

The band began to play the first set. Sweats was nervous at first and made some mistakes, causing Joe to wince. But halfway through the second piece, Sweats fell into his groove and took off. The rest of the band had to work to keep up with him. One by one, the band members stopped playing and listened. The conversation in the club died down. Only the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax filled the club. Sweats was lost in the music. He was at a level the band members tried for but never attained. At that moment, his entire world consisted of his sax and the notes it produced. When Sweats was done, he was drenched; the club was silent. Slowly, the audience began to clap. The enthusiasm of the crowd picked up with shouts for more.

Joe handed Sweats more music and the band played until one. As they were packing up, Joe said, “See you at eight tomorrow night, kid. We play Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That okay with you?”

“That’s fine, sir.” Sweats was getting ready to leave when Mac called out his name and motioned him to the bar. “Look’s like you got yourself a job, kid. I got to tell ya, kid, you fooled me big time.” He handed Sweats two twenty-dollar bills.

He had totally forgotten that he would be getting paid to play. However, his euphoria ended when he thought about going home and facing his mother. He knew she would be home before him, probably waiting for him now.

Sweats made his way home on the darkened streets to the apartment he shared with his mother. Entering quietly, he locked the door behind him. He put down his instrument in the hallway and walked into the tiny kitchen. His mother sat at the beat up table drinking coffee.

“Where in the hell you been, boy?”

“I got the job, Mom,” Sweats said as he laid his pay on the table and pushed it across to her.

“What kind of job, and where you working?” she said as she looked down at the money.

“Playing my sax, Mom. I’m getting paid to play. Shit, I’d play for nothing if I had to, but they’re paying me.”

“Watch your mouth, boy.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Listen, Jerome, the streets around here aren’t safe during the day, never mind at night.”

“I’ll be careful, Mom. I’m playing with a band and I love it.” As he said this, Sweats pushed the money closer to his mom. She looked at the money. Sweats knew they were barely making it.

“Oh, Baby,” said his mom.

Sweats knew he had her, again.

*

Sweats had been playing with the band for a few weeks when Joe approached him, as he was getting ready to head for home. “Hey, Sweats. Good session, man.”

As he packed up his instrument, Sweats said, “Thanks, Joe. I love playing with you guys. The best time I have is when I’m up here on the stage.”

Joe said, “I’ve got to tell you, kid. When I first laid eyes on you, I had my doubts. Shit, they were more than doubts, but you proved me wrong. Telling you honest, we all play better since you joined the group. Hell, Mac hired us to provide background music while folks sit out there and drown their sorrows. But you notice something about the people now?”

“No, sir,” Sweats said. “Can’t say I do.”

“They’re listening to us play, Sweats. When we start up, the room quiets down. You’re good and playing with you is making us better.”

Sweats responded, “Thanks, sir. I appreciate that.” But he was embarrassed by the praise, and deep inside, knew he still had a ways to go.

He made for the door, then turned and said, “Thanks, Joe, for the encouragement.”

As soon as he left the club, he broke into a heavy sweat. The excitement of playing with the band initially blocked out the fact that he would still have to walk the same dangerous streets he had walked to school, but now at night. His mother’s words came back to him. He felt a new level of terror as he walked the streets past midnight. On the way home, men he knew by reputation approached him. During the day, they were around but kept a low profile. Nighttime was the time they owned the streets, when the fears that gave Sweats his name became reality. The only time Sweats felt alive and safe was when he played his music. Feeling the frustration of his life, he shouted into the night, “I just want to play!” He was tired of his life bouncing between the deepest fear and the greatest ecstasy.

What Sweats didn’t know was that his plea was heard.

*

The following Friday night, the band was setting up when Joe turned to Sweats and said, “Can you feel it, Sweats? The air is electric. We’re going to be right on tonight.”

Sweats looked at Frank, Fats and Leroy, who nodded in agreement. As soon as he walked into the club that night, he had felt it too. He just didn’t know what “it” was.

As soon as the band began to play, Sweats knew that Joe was right. All five members of the band found their groove and inhabited their own musical heaven. During Frank’s drum solo, Sweats looked out at the audience. They were clearly enjoying the band. His eyes drifted to a table in front. There, sitting alone, was a man he recognized. The man smiled broadly as his head bobbed back and forth and his hands rapped on the table, keeping time with the music.

After the performance was finished, backs were slapped and high-fives passed around the band. Frank said to Joe, “Man, were we on tonight, or what?”

Joe said, “Shit, man. We were beyond on. We were on holy ground!”

Frank, Fats and Leroy walked to the bar to celebrate. After they left, Sweats approached Joe and asked, “Say Joe, did you happen to get a good look at the audience tonight?”

“Sure, kid. I gave them a look. There were some sweet women out there. That what you talking about?”

“No,” answered Sweats. “There was a man sitting out front. I recognized him. I can’t believe he came to hear us play.”

Joe asked, “You mean a friend of yours came to give us a listen. He sure caught us on a good night.”

“No, Joe. It wasn’t a friend of mine. Sitting there in the front row was Miles Davis.”

“Shit, kid, you must be crazy.”

Sweats insisted, “No, Joe. I’m sure it was Miles Davis. I recognized him from his CD cover.”

Joe stepped back and looked at Sweats, then said, “I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t my man Miles. He passed away about two years ago.”

“But, Joe, I’m sure…”

“Go home and get some rest. And next week, if you see Satchmo in the crowd, let me know.”

*

When Sweats arrived home, his mother was waiting for him. She waited up every night he worked with a hot meal. As he sat eating, she said, “You know, honey. I was reluctant to let you quit high school, but then you got your job, and the extra money is helping out. And you seem to be happier than I’ve ever seen you. You’re a man now, and I’m proud of you.”

Sweats sat quietly eating, thinking. How could he tell his mother that his life was still a nightmare while he lived in this neighborhood? How could he tell her that all he wanted was to play his music? Nothing else mattered.

There was an uneasy quiet as his mother watched him eat. Sweats decided to tell her what happened at the club. “Mom, tonight I thought I saw Miles Davis in the audience. Joe said that he’s dead. Is that true?” He knew his mother loved jazz, had been to the club a couple of times to hear the band play. Then she would walk him home, talking about his music and how proud she was of him.

“That’s true, baby. Miles died a few years ago. It had to be someone who just looked like him.”

Sweats just nodded and went on eating. He was sure it was Miles.

*

The following Friday night the air was the same—electric. Everyone in the band was smiling, joking and having the time of their lives. They were “on” again; their boss, Mac, knew it and the audience knew it. Half way through the evening, during a piano solo, Sweats once again scanned the crowd. He blinked his eyes in disbelief. There sat Miles Davis again, out in front. Beside him was someone Sweats also recognized. The man wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. Sweats could easily hear his gravely voice. It was Satchmo. Louis Armstrong was watching Jerome Connelly play. Sweats was numb with excitement and fear. He had no doubt that he was looking at two dead men. They were his idols, but they were dead. When it came time for Sweats’s sax solo, he flubbed the piece. His playing was terrible. There was no way he could concentrate on playing his sax with Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong in the crowd.

When the night’s work was over, Leroy walked over to Sweats and said, “Don’t worry kid. No one is on all the time.”

There was no way he could tell Leroy why he was off. He avoided all contact with Joe. Sweats walked home doubting his sanity.

Another Friday night and Sweats was living up to his name. He usually calmed down after he arrived at the club. But now, even the club wasn’t his sanctuary. There were dead men watching him play and he couldn’t tell anyone about it. He always found solace in his music. Now even that was gone. If dead men kept showing up to hear him, his only sanctuary would be destroyed.

The band began to play. Sweats didn’t dare look to the front of the audience but couldn’t help himself. There, at Miles’s table, sat Louis Armstrong, along with Duke Ellington and one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Gene Krupa. Sweats could tell they were enjoying the music. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he played his heart out. They were part of the audience and deserved to be entertained. He never mentioned the patrons of the ghost table again. He just played as well as he could for them.

The next Friday was the last Sweats ever played with the band. The ghost table had a new member. It was John Coltrane. He sat deathly still, just staring at Sweats, his gaze never wavering. When the band was done for the night, the ghost crew was still there. Sweats was totally unnerved. John Coltrane was motioning him to the table.

As Sweats left the stage, the lights of the club dimmed and a milk-white haze enveloped all but the ghost table. Sweats sat down in the only empty seat.

In a quiet voice, no more than a whisper, Coltrane said, “We’ve been following you Sweats, not only your music, but also your life. We want you to join our group. It will be the gig of a lifetime. We have an audience that spent their whole existence loving jazz, living it. Say yes, and the fears, the streets you dread, will be gone forever.

Sweats agreed, and was never seen again.

*

The band missed Sweats. Joe said to the group, “I guess Sweats got himself a better gig. He deserved it. I think we were holding him back. With the right group, no telling what he could do.”

*

It was late Friday night, actually early Saturday morning, and Mac was closing up his club. Lately, he always made sure he was alone when he locked up Friday nights. Friday nights were special. Just before he turned the key in the door he would stand there, with the door slightly ajar, and listen. From afar, he could hear the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax. But it wasn’t just Sweats playing. There was also a tenor sax, drums and more. The music was the sweetest Mac had ever heard.

Mac lived for closing up on Friday nights.
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Walt Trizna writes horror and science fiction and has had many stories published in Bewildering Stories, Black Petals, and Necrology Shorts, among others. Email: wtrizna[at]comcast.net

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Jenny’s Apartment

Boots’s Pick
Anne Greenawalt


Living room
Photo Credit: Jeff Croft

Jenny’s apartment was a shrine to her ex-boyfriends, Jason decided when leaving her apartment after his fourth visit.

On his first visit, Jason noticed the paintings on the living room wall. They were the types of pictures that looked like splattered paint on a canvas, something his six-year-old niece could have done with her eyes shut. The term “vomiting rainbow” came to mind.

“Those are… colorful,” he said. He didn’t want to be rude.

“Aren’t they?” she said. “They brighten up the place. One of my exes was a painter.”

His name was Chad and she’d met him randomly at the grocery store where she liked to shop on Thursdays at midnight.

The second time at Jenny’s apartment, which was the first time they slept together, Jason noticed the set of hand weights on the floor of her closet where most women keep their shoes.

“So you lift weights?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” she said and shrugged. “I dated this guy for awhile—he was really into bodybuilding. He gave me those.” She winked at Jason and said, “It keeps me fit.”

Jason put his hands on her waist then snuck them up under her blue sweater. He felt her soft skin, which was just a thin layer over very tight abs. The bodybuilder, Dave, was her most recent ex, who, luckily for Jason, lived a few states to the west.

His third time at Jenny’s apartment, they cooked dinner together. Jason opened the bottle of wine while Jenny prepared a meal of roast duck, butternut squash loaf, and homemade bread. Her kitchen was filled with the sharpest set of knives, the best food processor, the most expensive blender.

“Where’d you learn to cook like this?”

“An ex,” she said. She flicked her hair behind her shoulder with a quick twist of her neck. The light from the kitchen lamp reflected off her hair and he could see, for the first time, flecks of red mixed with her soft chestnut-colored hair. “He was a chef. He got me hooked up with the latest appliances. Taught me how to use them, too.”

That was Chef Sherman.

On his fourth visit to Jenny’s apartment all they did was cuddle on her couch and watch TV. An ex-boyfriend had gotten her hooked on the show 24, so they watched that. Jason didn’t mind what they watched as long as he was near her.

“This couch is so comfortable,” Jason said. It was soft and molded to their bodies like memory foam.

“Yeah? I guess it is,” Jenny said. “Scott and I bought it together. He insisted that I keep it when we split up. So I guess I’m glad I did.”

Scott was her college boyfriend. He majored in business. They had an apartment together their senior year.

Jason wondered if there were any traces of ex-girlfriends lingering in his apartment. Other than a shoebox of photos on the top shelf of his closet, he couldn’t think of anything. Girlfriends had bought him clothes—sweater vests and ties and even a fleece jacket once—but those items were promptly donated or dumpstered when they broke up.

On Jason’s fifth visit, he got curious and pointed at random objects in Jenny’s apartment and asked about their history.

“What’s that?” he asked. “Where’s that from? How’d you get that?”

Jenny answered each question calmly. “That’s a tool chest Greg insisted I get in case I need it.” “Ralph got that for me when he went to Mexico.” “Barry got me that when we went to San Francisco a few years back. It’s from Chinatown. It’s a stamp with my name in Chinese.”

Jason stroked his beardless chin with thumb and forefinger. If he and Jenny broke up, he wondered what piece of him would linger in her apartment. What part of him would she keep with her? He’d treated her to dinners and movies. He even made her a handmade Valentine’s Day card a few weeks ago. But he had offered her nothing on the scale of Mexican maracas.

Despite five dates and seeing this girl naked, Jason realized he knew nothing about Jenny.

“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked. “You’re not jealous, are you?” She gave him a teasing grin.

“Me? Jealous?” Jason said.

She put her arms around his waist and squeezed. Her head fit perfectly on his shoulder. Her hair smelled faintly of vanilla.

“It’s just that I’m wondering… is there anything here that’s yours?”

Jenny lifted her head from his shoulder so she could look him in the eyes. She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean? Everything here is mine.”

“Yeah, it’s yours because you own it. But what’s yours? What do you have here that you got for yourself because you like it?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said. She looked genuinely startled. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“Ok,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just curious, that’s all.”

“I’m not upset,” Jenny said.

Sometime later, Jason didn’t know what number visit it was because he’d been to Jenny’s apartment so many times by then, Jenny pulled him by his hand into the lounge and said she had something to show him.

“Look!” she said and pointed to the corner where there was a snowboard standing on end.

It was odd to see a snowboard in the middle of summer in someone’s living room. It was red with a floral design like you’d expect to see on a surfboard. It was a top-of-the-line snowboard. He knew from experience and could tell by looking at it.

“Wow, that’s great!” Jason exclaimed.

“Yeah, well, I was thinking how you said I don’t have anything for myself. So I bought this for me.”

Jason felt his face slacken a bit, but Jenny was excited—and serious.

“But, Jenn, you don’t snowboard.”

“But I’d like to.”

“But I snowboard. That’s my thing.”

“I thought it could be something we do together.”

“Yeah, I mean, definitely, but the board isn’t really for you then, is it? It’s more like you got it for us.”

“But I’ll use it. It’s too small for you.”

A few weeks later Jason and Jenny broke up. Jason no longer wondered what he’d left behind in Jenny’s life—a snowboard, even though he hadn’t bought it. And unlike the chef and the bodybuilder and the others, he’d left before he had a chance to show her how to use it. He did wonder if she’d ever use it, if she’d become a master snowboarder, or if she’d just store it away in her closet as another item for her shrine.

Months later Jason found himself driving past Jenny’s apartment to get to his new girlfriend’s house a few blocks away. He saw Jenny coming out of her apartment as he passed. She was wearing a varsity letter jacket, the kind that football players in high school used to wear. The jacket was old, vintage. It had a large maroon M on the back and the word “Soccer” stitched in maroon on a grey background. Jason knew she’d never played soccer. She also wore grey shorts that showed off muscular legs hidden from the ankles down in brown work boots that were clearly too large.

The sunlight caught her hair right before she closed her apartment door. Jason slowed down to watch the sun reflect the many shades of her hair. He noticed there were no more flecks of red. “That’s a shame,” he thought.

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Anne Greenawalt graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. In 2008 she was runner-up in a short story collection competition, which resulted in the publication of her collection entitled Growing Up Girl. She now lives in her hometown in Pennsylvania. More information on Anne and her writing can be found at her blog. Email: greenawalt.a[at]gmail.com

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Infidels

Boots’s Pick
Jim Harrington


The photon blast rocketed past my ear and hit the metal wall behind me. Fiery tendrils exploded from its core like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I uncovered my eyes in time to see the heel of Zorton’s boot disappear down the hallway leading to the crew’s quarters.

I paused when I reached the junction of the two passageways and snapped my head around the corner and back. No Zorton. I edged into the hallway and was greeted by a waving Nolander. He wore a purple and yellow tunic. His hair sprouted from his head like the branches of a willow tree. The thump, thump of a cane tapping the floor preceded him down the hall.

“Did a man run past you?”

“Yes. Don’t know who he was, though.”

“He escaped from the Mitros penal colony three months ago and is here to kill me.”

“Why would he want to do that?” The man rested both hands on the cane and leaned against the wall.

“To get even with me for sending him there. He tried to kill me just now, but I got off the first shot. Thought I hit him, but he’s damn fast for a man with a wounded leg.”

“He dragged his leg, and I thought I smelled burnt flesh.” The Nolander bowed and excused himself.

I continued my search without success. I knew Zorton wouldn’t leave the ship until one of us was dead.

I returned to my apartment around ten that evening. Cassandra leaned against the wall waiting. “Did you forget about our dinner date, Alexi?”

“Oh, shit. Yes. I’m so sorry. Something came up.” I unlocked the door and motioned for her to enter. “Did you hurt your leg?”

“It’s nothing.”

I met Cassandra two months ago in the ship’s game room. Tall, with long white hair, her pale blue Andrean uniform molded to her sleek body, she yelled with every kill, until her opponent was out of players. Victorious, she turned, looked my way, and wagged me over with a long finger. After she kicked my butt in every viral game the place had to offer, we went to the bar, where she out-drank me as well. Before I was unable to think or talk, I asked her to dinner. What started as a platonic affair turned into something more by the end of the week.

“It must have been something important. You’ve never missed a date before.”

“It was.” I put my weapon in the wall safe and turned to her. “How can I make it up to you?”

Cassandra pouted a smile and lowered the zipper down the front of her uniform. She was naked underneath. We made love, slow at first, then as if we hadn’t been together for weeks, instead of days.

Afterward, we lay naked, spooned, my back to her front, her arm across my chest. I opened my eyes and saw the hair on her arm change from white wisps to dark strands. I felt hot breath assaulting my neck in angry puffs. The arm increased its pressure on my chest. The hand edged toward my neck. I heard a growl and reached my own hand under the mattress. Tonight my battle with Zorton would finally end.
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Jim Harrington lives in Huntersville, NC, with his wife and two cats. His stories have appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, Every Day Fiction, Bent Pin Quarterly, Long Story Short, MicroHorror, Flashshot and others. He currently serves as a flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre. You can read more of his stories at his website. E-mail: jpharrin[at]gmail.com

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Boxes of Junk

Boots’s Pick
Alex Myers


When they turned off the interstate and were on the familiar suburban lanes that led to Dan’s parents’ house, he began the litany. “Don’t let my mom bully you about the wedding,” he said, his eyes locked on the road. “And don’t agree to any of her ideas. And don’t promise her anything because she never forgets.”

Rachel nodded, though she wasn’t sure Dan could see her. In truth, she liked to hear his frustration about his parents. It made her feel like a conspirator, like it was us against them, like Dan was hers.

“My dad wants to help with our move, even though I’ve told him a dozen times that we don’t need help,” he went on.

Rachel watched his profile as he talked, the way he leaned his head forward away from the head rest, as if with eagerness or tense annoyance. His hands moved needlessly on the wheel, tapping and sliding, motions unrelated to the direction of the car. They had been engaged for almost two months now, and she felt like this was the perfect moment in a relationship: commitment and security without it being over, as she thought a wedding would make it over, too complete. There was still time, she felt, to get everything just right between the two of them.

Dan continued, “My mom’s been trying to get rid of some junk up in the attic, and I don’t want it. So don’t let her talk you into taking any furniture or boxes from up there. I’ve told her that I’m not interested.”

“Sure. Of course.” She reached over from the passenger seat and squeezed his leg. He smiled at her, but from the side the smile looked a bit like a grimace. “I’ll behave,” she said. Anyway, it was good to be out of their apartment, which was mostly in boxes now, awaiting their move at the end of the month to a real house, a mortgage instead of rent, all settled down. She knew from overhearing Dan’s half of phone conversations that his mother thought they were doing it all wrong, that they should get married and then move. “I promise I won’t take any boxes, and I won’t let your mom plan our wedding.” She squeezed his leg again, but this time Dan didn’t smile.

They made the turn onto his parents’ street, and Rachel noted that Dan’s grip tightened a bit on the wheel, his head leaned farther forward, as if he were trying to see something just off in the distance. It had been a long drive, but suddenly she didn’t want it to stop; she wanted to stay in the car with Dan, just the two of them, driving around, no one but each other to talk to. She wanted to turn the radio off and just listen to him, let topics come up that they hadn’t had time to discuss, all the issues and conversations that never surfaced at home, when they were tired or distracted. But then he was turning the car into the driveway, unbuckling his seatbelt, and before she knew it his parents were at the door, coming out to greet them. He was back in their world, and Rachel knew what that meant: the subtle differences, the way he talked to his parents with a keenness, as if wanting to prove himself, the way he flopped on the couch in the living room, a sort of pure relaxation she never saw in their apartment. She’d seen it on earlier visits and wondered whether this was how he would act when they were married, once he was comfortable and at home with her.

Through the windshield, Rachel saw her future mother-in-law approach, waving, and drew in a breath. She readied herself for the greeting, for the official arrival in this other world, a world in which she was still an outsider and in which Dan was not hers, at least not fully. She let the breath out. Maybe this trip would be different.

The first time she’d met his parents, she and Dan were only dating, just free of the tentative stage of who would call whom, and into the segment where they each claimed a drawer at the other’s apartment, somewhere to leave an extra change of clothes. At the time, it felt like moving in together. At her first dinner with his parents, it reaffirmed this sensation that something serious was starting; the continuity of her relationship with Dan began to feel inevitable, as if in seeing his parents in front of her she could recognize the full dimensionality of him, the past stretching backwards out of these two people, and the future heading forwards, like a mirror, only slightly warped.

A few months later, she’d gone home with him for the fourth of July, a barbeque out back by the pool, his dad flipping burgers and cracking corny jokes. That weekend, Rachel had slept in Dan’s sister’s room, empty because the sister was across the country, somewhere in California, doing an internship at a biotech lab. It was just the one night, a hot summer night with a box fan in the window inadequately pushing the air around the room, Rachel sweaty and glad to be alone in the borrowed bed, falling asleep despite the firecrackers outside. She wondered then about Dan: would they end up together? What would it be like to really live with him?

It was in the wake of that first trip that Rachel had realized the depth of the difference when Dan was at his parents’ house. It was normal, she told herself at first, of course a person would be different around his parents than around his peers or girlfriend. But it was more than that. In a casual comment as they drove home that hot summer weekend, Dan said to her, “I never sleep so well anywhere as I sleep at home.”

Rachel thought of the hot, sticky night that had just passed, thought of the roomy queen-size bed in his air-conditioned apartment and said, “I can’t believe you were that comfortable. It was hot.”

“It’s not about heat. I mean, it’s just being at home again, the smell of the sheets, knowing my parents are in the next room. I sleep so soundly.”

Cute, she thought. At least at first. In the weeks following that, she pondered more about how she felt when she went to visit her parents: the confinement, the sensation of being drawn back into a world she thought she had escaped, her mother making what she thought were Rachel’s favorite foods, her father asking her about career plans she’d dreamed up in high school and long since abandoned. It was as if she were still sixteen in their minds, and she couldn’t wait to leave, to return to her real life. What did it mean that Dan loved this feeling of returning to childhood? That to him his parents’ house and world embodied perfection, some golden age to which he longed to return? Since the visit, Rachel had tried not to dwell too much on the conversation, but now that they were here once again, the questions returned: what made this place so special to Dan? When would that shift occur, when would their life together weigh more than his past? What did the past hold that she, the present, and their future did not?

This was the first time she’d been home with him since they were engaged, and it was also her first Thanksgiving at his house, the first time meeting all the aunts and uncles and cousins who would come for the dinner tomorrow, and the first Thanksgiving not with her own family; her parents were already asking about next year so that Rachel felt herself extended between these families, a sensation she could only imagine intensifying in the years to come until both sides had stretched her long and thin, translucent like taffy.

Dan’s dad clamped his son in his arms with a grasp that was more like a wrestling move than a hug, and Dan bent to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. She squeezed his shoulder and then stepped back, waving them into the house. “Come in, come in. Get settled. Sorry to be rude, but I’ve got something in the oven.” She turned and walked towards the kitchen. Dan’s dad had taken a suitcase from him and the two of them crossed the hall and started up the stairs, already locked into a conversation that Rachel couldn’t hear. She followed after them, noting from behind the similarities, the slightly square head, even the whorl of hair at the crown that formed a perpetual cowlick, though Dan’s was still dark brown while his father’s was gray.

It was starting already, she thought as she trailed behind them, he’s taken a step out of our world and back into theirs. The staircase was lined with family photos, Christmas when Dan was four, a birthday party from his teen years. Rachel hadn’t made it yet into this family lineup, but was sure that a wedding photo would be hung, even if this Thanksgiving visit didn’t make the cut. Pictures went by with every step, Dan, Dan, Dan—his face, smiling, with his sister, with an older woman, with some dog, maybe one he used to own, all these times and places that were part of him and not part of her.

At the top of the stairs, Dan’s father opened the door to his son’s bedroom and put the suitcase down on the floor. “Mom set up an air mattress,” he said and smiled at Rachel. “I’m sure Dan will be a gentleman and let you have the real bed.” He clapped his son on the shoulder and headed out the door. “Get settled in. Take your time.”

Rachel could hear his footsteps going downstairs. She looked at the twin bed by the window, the deflated air mattress at its foot, and smiled, thinking that if she knew Dan, they’d both crowd into his old twin-sized bed and spend an uncomfortable night pushed up against each other, having to agree when they would both turn over, rather than sleep separately. She wondered whether it was because they were engaged that they were now allowed to stay in the same room; that seemed like the sort of old-fashioned value that his parents would adhere to. But maybe it was just practicality: Dan’s sister would be coming home too and there wasn’t a bedroom to spare. Well, it was just for two nights anyway.

Dan lifted his suitcase onto the bed, unzipped it, and started to unload the contents. He turned, opened the top drawer of the dresser and chuckled, “It’s funny, but I still expect the drawers to be full. Like somehow I never moved my socks and T-shirts out of here.”

The drawers were, of course, empty, but Rachel knew what he meant, knew how a house could feel haunted, even if the only ghost was your own. She sat on the bed next to his suitcase and watched him unpack.

“Some things never change,” he said, with evident happiness, satisfaction. “Same curtains, same bedspread. I always tell my mom she should redecorate this room if she wants to, but she never does. I guess she wants me to feel at home.”

He did look at home. He had a smile on his face that she seldom saw, a look like he had just woken up from a pleasant dream: sleepy and satisfied and a little unreal. She felt a flash of resentment—what was so great about this room? But he looked so content as he transferred the little piles of T-shirts from his bag into the dresser that her anger soon dissipated.

Dan had emptied his suitcase and taken it off the bed, shoving it into the closet. He turned and looked at Rachel, and seeing her there, watching him, his face took on a new awkwardness, like he wasn’t entirely comfortable having her in his room, like it might betray him because it knew all his secrets. “I’m going to go downstairs and catch up, see what the plans are for today. But you should unpack, no rush.”

The room was unchanged since his high school days, like a time capsule that had been unearthed, preserving Dan’s interests as a seventeen-year-old. She took in each detail like she was studying artifacts in a museum: the swimming trophies on one shelf (she didn’t know he’d been on the team, let alone any good), the posters of rock bands on the walls, groups that she had forgotten existed, that had long ago been expurgated from his adult music collection. Some of the names were familiar, but only vaguely so; certainly they weren’t bands that she had been into when she was in high school. And she looked again around the room, tried to do so with a stranger’s eyes, as if she didn’t know the man who’d lived here. Tried to compare it to her memories of her high school boyfriends’ rooms: was this a guy she would have been friends with back then? Would they have dated? And if they wouldn’t have, then when did he change and grow into the person she knew?

Even as Rachel felt different than she had in high school she also felt something eternal, something essential about herself. Her room at home had been redecorated by her parents after she moved away to college; it was now a guest room and more comfortable for the transformation. When she and Dan visited, they could sleep in a queen-sized bed in a room that was hotel-like in its anonymity. Looking now at Dan’s desk, the top still cluttered with old pens, notebooks, a dusty jar of pennies, she was glad that her past had been erased, that she didn’t have to face all that when she went home now.

She shoved her unpacked suitcase next to his in the closet. The curtains didn’t prevent the mid-afternoon sunshine from coming into the room, a strand of it falling irresistibly across his bed. Rachel stretched out on top of the covers, let the patch of light hit her stomach, pretending she could feel its heat even though the start of the New England winter had already leeched the warmth from it.

She put her arms behind her head and tried to imagine Dan here as a teenager, what he lay in bed and thought about, whether he’d ever snuck a girl up here without his parents knowing it. She’d never asked him about high school girlfriends, no details anyway. Her eyes trailed across the posters, across the tidy stacks of paperbacks on the book shelf, mostly science fiction, she guessed from the titles she could see. He never read science fiction now and she wondered if it was something he didn’t like anymore, a taste that he had grown out of, or a conscious decision to leave that part of his life behind in favor of more sophisticated texts. She wanted to know how the man today related to the boy who had lived in this room; she suspected that Dan missed being here, that part of him was sad to be grown up and out of this house. But she also felt that if she were given the chance to get to know his past, to figure out what made him so happy in it, she could carry that into their marriage.

Getting up off the bed, she took one last look at the room and headed downstairs. She could hear voices coming from the kitchen, and she walked towards the back of the house. Dan and his father were leaning against the counter, chatting as Dan’s mother moved among the oven, the sink, and the flour-strewn countertop, busily assembling pies for Thanksgiving.

Dan smiled at Rachel as she walked in. “All set up there? My dad’s about to head out to the airport to pick up my sister. I figured we’ve had enough driving for today, so we’ll just stick around here, help them get things ready.”

Rachel nodded. “Sounds good.”

Dan’s father took his car keys from the hook over the counter, gave his wife a quick kiss, the sort, Rachel thought, that married couples often shared. A statement less of passion than of commitment, a gesture that was no more intimate or meaningful or romantic than balancing the checkbook or doing the laundry, or anything else that long-term couples did for each other. “I’ll be back in about an hour-and-a-half, if everything is on time,” he said and headed out the door.

“So,” said Rachel, “what can I do to help?”

“Well, my father asked me to take a look at their computer. There’s some problem with the anti-virus software.” Dan gave her a tight grin; his parents’ computer illiteracy was a standing joke. They were always calling to ask Dan how to fix basic problems.

Rachel smiled back.

“I bet my mother could use some help in the kitchen, though.”

Her smile slipped a bit, and Dan’s mother piped up from the sink. “Oh, I don’t need much help, but if you wanted to keep me company, that’s fine.”

Great, thought Rachel, Dan gets to sit on the computer and probably surf the web and check his email, while I have to sit at this counter and make small talk. Yes, here it was, that feeling that had been haunting her: Dan was at home here and she was the stranger. He had retreated from their relationship, their couple-dom, and gone back to being a son. Instead of being the supportive boyfriend, the dedicated fiancé, he was the petulant, indulged child. There was nothing she could do about it now, and she repressed a sigh as he left the room giving her arm a quick squeeze on his way out.

His mother immediately began bustling about. “Now, you just sit there and relax. Tell me about the wedding plans.”

“Can’t I help you? Do some dishes or something?” Rachel wished that Dan had picked a better chore to help with, something like cleaning leaves out of the roof gutters, where she could hold the ladder and they could be outside, which would smell like Thanksgiving. And for a while it could be just the two of them, domestically together, the young folks helping out with a strenuous chore. But he’d left her alone with his mother in the kitchen, the seat of her power. “I’m happy to wash those pans,” she offered.

“No, no. It’s all fine.” And she turned her back on Rachel, began rolling out another pie crust. “Have you picked a spot for the reception?”

This was just what Dan had warned her about, just what troubled her about his mother, the barely-below-the-surface pushiness and insistence that floated along veiled by politeness and sincerity. It was, Rachel thought, the semblance of sincerity and kindness that made her so difficult. Even after a year, Rachel still didn’t know what to call her. After the initial few meetings, she had wavered between calling her Helen and Mrs. Somers, the first seeming too familiar and the second, childish; she had finally asked at the fourth of July picnic which she preferred, but Dan’s mother had replied, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Mom. That’s what I answer to most.” This request, for some reason that Rachel couldn’t articulate, was impossible, and so she tried to work around addressing her at all and thought of her only as Dan’s mother—a title that made her remote, detached, that dragged Dan along with her.

Meanwhile, his mother was continuing as she bent over the oven, “If you don’t plan now, you’ll never get to book the spot you want, they go years in advance. I’ve told Danny this before. I know you’re waiting until you’ve moved into the new place, but really you should start thinking about this, and I am happy to help if you want me to.” She stood up and closed the oven door, just as the wave of heat and sweet odor wafted over the counter towards Rachel.

“That’s really very nice of you,” said Rachel. “But we’re just focused on the move.” She weighed her words carefully, thinking of Dan’s warning in the car. “I feel so useless sitting here when there’s work to be done. Can’t I help setting up tables and chairs or anything?”

Dan’s mother looked at her, sweetly and skeptically, as if she knew Rachel was just looking for an excuse to get out of talking with her. “Really, it’s all set. But you know what you could do, there are some boxes and stuff up in the attic that I’ve been trying to get Danny to take for months. It’s all his old stuff that he asked me to save for him. You should take it with you to the new place, you’ll have room for it there.” As she spoke, her fingers deftly crimped the pie crust along the rim of the pan, a movement that Rachel found mesmerizing. She was a mediocre and disinterested cook, and knew Dan’s mother was something of an expert—he idealized her cooking, at least—and so she watched, trying to figure out if this was something she could learn to do, to make him happy. Watching his mother’s fingers fly beneath her stream of chatter, Rachel thought it would be impossible.

“Why don’t you go on up to the attic and look for yourself. Just pull aside whatever boxes you want and Danny can carry them down later for you. Okay?”

Rachel nodded, relieved that she had been dismissed from the kitchen even as she felt a sense of doom descend; his mother had trapped her after all. These were the boxes she was supposed to ignore, the stuff she wasn’t supposed to take, that Dan didn’t want. Oh well. She’d just go up to the attic and not set anything aside; Dan couldn’t be upset with that.

She walked up the front stairs, skirting the den where she knew Dan was working on the computer. She hadn’t been up to the attic before, but the stairs were off the second-floor landing, the door next to the bathroom. She felt around for the light switch and headed up. Dan’s mother said the boxes were clearly marked, and sure enough they were, a tidy little stack of about a dozen cartons, all neatly labeled with his name. His mom must have been a schoolteacher; her handwriting was overly precise. This struck Rachel as exactly the sort of detail that she should know about Dan’s family: who they were, what they had done. But their world was walled off to her; they were a solid family unit and she was decidedly not a member. At least not yet, and she wondered if she ever would be, or if marriage would be a process of pulling Dan away from his family, if he would let himself be pulled.

She looked at the pile of boxes, wondering what was in them that Dan insisted he didn’t want. She imagined stacks of elementary school report cards, drawings he had done as a little kid, that had been stuck to the refrigerator for a few weeks, enough to fade them in the sunlight, and then stored away up here for years. Maybe somewhere in here was a clue that would open up Dan’s childhood world to her, allow her to see and understand what it was like. Perhaps this understanding would give her some degree of access, so that this house would not be like a foreign country, her fiancé a dual citizen.

There weren’t any markings on the boxes besides his name, so she didn’t know where to start and just picked one at random. She took a key from her pocket to slice the tape open and pulled back the flaps. Inside were children’s books, well-worn: Goodnight, Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. Books that were immediately, viscerally familiar. There was probably an identical box in her parents’ attic, and this realization comforted her as she flipped through the stack of books. Then her satisfaction ebbed a bit: weren’t these everyone’s childhood books? There probably wasn’t a person of her age who would be unable to identify with these. And she had to admit that she was slightly disappointed; she wanted not to unearth his secrets, certainly not to find the diary that Dan had kept in high school—not that he was the type to keep a diary—but something that would give her insight into what was so wonderful about his childhood, about his parents, that let him relax, be comfortable, be—she was afraid to admit it—himself, in this place but not with her.

Rachel pulled another box towards her, opened it to reveal board games—some she didn’t know, but also a couple of familiar ones like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. She shrugged to herself. Boring. She grabbed another box, tore back the flaps to find Lego, hundreds of nubby plastic blocks, a jumble of odd-shaped bits. Didn’t these things come with instructions, special kits so that you could build a perfect supermarket or moon station or whatever? What were you supposed to do with this mess?

Dan was right, all this stuff was useless. But Rachel was more annoyed with him than with his mother. Was this the best he could save from his childhood? It was as if she’d been promised treasure and gotten dirt. All these boxes of just stuff, the toys and games that filled rainy afternoons or sleepy evening hours, the times in between, when we need distraction from ourselves. Where was Dan in these boxes? These books, these games, they could belong to anyone, and Rachel felt cheated; she wanted truth, some vision of what he had been, what he had thought and felt and desired. No wonder he hadn’t wanted any of this; all these pieces of his childhood could be bought at some big chain store, new and shrink-wrapped and probably improved.

There were a few more boxes that she hadn’t opened, and maybe Rachel should have held out hope that they would contain what she was looking for. But the attic was large—it stretched out to dusty corners around her, and boxes and bins were piled everywhere. She was certain that those drawings, those childhood journals and pictures and stories were filed away somewhere but not in this pile. His mother would have bundled them up neatly and saved them for herself. Rachel felt resentment rise up in her: towards Dan? Towards his mother? She turned her back on the boxes and headed down the stairs.

From the second-floor landing she could hear voices, but she couldn’t tell whose. The sounds were tangled, and she thought maybe Dan’s sister and father had returned. She didn’t feel like facing them, wasn’t up to the forced cheerfulness of interacting with semi-strangers. She considered ducking into Dan’s old room, hiding there, to collect herself. But the old rock posters on the wall, the extraneous trophies on the shelf, would only reinforce the strangeness that she felt. How did one sojourn in another family? She wanted Dan, just him, as if she could pry him neatly out of this house, this family. But the past didn’t just disappear and couldn’t be captured, contained in dusty boxes. Nor could she suddenly belong here in the way that he did. She doubted that she could ever be that security, that comfort to Dan; she would always be second-best to his real home.

Slowly, Rachel went down to the first floor, where the murmur of conversation resolved into Dan’s and his mother’s voices. She went through the dining room, the table already laid out with linen and silver for tomorrow’s dinner. Through the doorway, she could see into the kitchen. Dan’s mom was bent over a sink full of dishes; he was leaning against the counter, talking to her. Rachel watched his hands move as he spoke, the rapid gestures she knew so well, the animation of his eyebrows. Seldom did she get to observe him like this—when he was unaware, when she could be sure he wasn’t putting on some act for her—only when he was asleep, and, sleeping, Dan’s face held none of the vigor, the desire that she could see as he spoke to his mother. Over the running water, she could hear some of what he said, but not everything. She tried to imagine what story he was telling so enthusiastically, couldn’t remember anything exciting that had happened recently. She felt another swell of resentment; then Dan lifted his eyes and saw her standing there. He smiled, a curve of his mouth that hadn’t been there before. Behind his mother’s back, he rolled his eyes—a boyish gesture, immature and rude, yet just what she wanted to see, confirming her place in his universe.

She walked into the kitchen and he turned from his mother, put an arm around her waist. He squeezed her gently against him and went on talking to his mother, picking up in the middle of some silly story from work that he’d told her weeks ago. The kitchen was warm and sweet-smelling, and Rachel leaned a little against Dan, felt him shift his feet to take her weight. Yes, she thought, there are parts of him I’ll never know, and parts of him I’ll share with his mother. But their new house had a large attic, empty right now, as all the rooms were momentarily empty, waiting for them to move in.

pencil

“I live and teach in Rhode Island. My fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Apple Valley Review, flashquake, Santa Clara Review, and ghoti mag. In addition to writing, I enjoy playing the tuba, reading, and training for triathlons in my free time.” E-mail: AlexMyers1[at]gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Do Not Go Gentle

Boots’s Pick
Richard Wolkomir


(1)

“What’d your cat say?” Elroy asked.

No response.

They stood down there on the dock—the man, dog, and cat—staring up at his house, their skiff bobbing beside the dock where the lanky man just tied it. Elroy figured he must be a crabber from across the river in Old Cootchicalla. He had that sun-bleached look—unkempt yellow hair and mustache, both faded to straw.

Now the short-legged dog plopped down onto the dock, yawning in the Florida sunshine. Probably a Welsh corgi, Elroy thought, except its eyes seemed preternaturally bright. It gazed genially at Elroy. But the black cat and the crabber exchanged another long stare.

Elroy knew a conference when he saw one.

“She got anything interesting to say?” Elroy asked.

For the first time, the crabber looked directly at him. He had eyes like smoke. “We seek the corridor,” he said.

And Elroy thought, with sudden glee: “No martini and Turner Classic Movies tonight.”

He’d been raking palm fronds off the patio, but he guessed the rake he held wouldn’t do much against this younger man. He remembered his bedside nightstand, where he kept a pistol.

Abruptly, as if something was decided, the cat padded up the stairs and across the patio, cucumber cool, tail up, and disappeared into the house through the French door he’d left ajar.

Elroy thought: “Yes, a lively evening shaping up.”

He smiled a little, his tiny white mustache stretching out. He stood mulling the situation, a small, delicate old man, white hair moving in the hot breeze off the Gulf of Mexico.

“I get out of Connecticut every winter and I come on down here alone, now Evelyn’s gone,” Elroy told the crabber. “I garden, and pester Junior with know-it-all phone calls about the business, and he patronizes me, and I watch dolphins swim in from the Gulf.”

He hoped to smoke the guy out, see what he had in mind, because this sprawling house made of glass cubes must look enticing to a Florida Cracker from across the river, making nickels a day. But the crabber stared at the door where the cat disappeared.

“Where’re you from?” Elroy asked.

Now the crabber turned those almost-white eyes on him. He felt himself not so much looked at as looked into, an odd sensation, since who noticed old men? Then the crabber looked away, toward the glass door, watching for the cat.

“I come from far,” he said.

She reappeared on the patio, staring at the crabber. He nodded. He trotted up the steps and walked past Elroy. Then he stopped and looked back. “I am rude,” he said. “It is because of our concern—I beg leave to enter your home.”

Elroy looked at him wondering, how do you handle this?

“We shall harm nothing, take nothing, we mean only to seal the corridor’s doorway,” the crabber said.

“All well and good,” Elroy said, thinking of the corridor where Evelyn hung the artworks she’d collected in Europe. “But I like looking at those paintings now and then.”

“It is not a corridor of which you can possibly be aware,” the crabber said. “You will never notice the sealing.”

Elroy thought again of the pistol in his bedroom nightstand, which would certainly help equalize things. It was a question of how to maneuver himself to where he could get it.

“I’m Elroy Whitt,” he said. “Who’re you?”

Solemnly, the crabber looked at him. And, again, into him. “Wil Deft,” he said. “We are not to be feared, these animals and I—others might come, and they must be feared, although it may not seem so.”

“William?” Elroy said, stalling to gain figuring time. “William Deft, is it?”

For a moment, the crabber seemed preoccupied, like a man in a library, researching. Then he returned from wherever he had gone. “Wil,” he said. “Only one letter ‘l’, for so, in my own realm, is that name written.”

Ever wilder, Elroy thought, which pleased him. But he wanted his pistol.

Ahead of him, Wil Deft started across the patio toward the French doors.

“So these other folks who might come, they’re bad guys?” Elroy asked, to slow things down. “You’re the good guy?”

Wil Deft stopped, turned, his expression strange. His left hand, of its own volition, seemingly, rose to touch a blue scar running down the side of his face. But then he shrugged and walked across the patio, through the French doors.

Elroy smiled faintly, stretching out his tiny white mustache, thinking this was the most fun he’d had since seven years ago, when Evelyn volunteered at the animal shelter—he’d snuck off and bungee jumped.

He followed his visitor into his house. Inanely, he hoped Wil Deft would appreciate the Italian marble tabletops and the fancy leather furniture and Persian carpets, and the artworks. Such things were all that remained of his life with Evelyn, back when he still mattered. He wanted even burglars and robbers and homicidal maniacs to admire them, although he did not believe he dealt with anything so mundane. He felt strangeness had come into his life this evening, and it pleased him.

“Even if I get dead and dismembered,” he thought.

Walking behind Wil Deft, he slipped into his bedroom. He took his pistol from the nightstand drawer and slid it into his khaki trousers’ pocket. It felt heavy. His eyes fixed on the nightstand telephone. He imagined dialing 911, the approaching siren wail. Probably this man would turn out to be just a crabber from Old Cootchicalla, hoping to steal a few things. Elroy found it depressing, that the crabber might be just a crabber. He stared a while at the telephone. Then he walked out of the bedroom without calling 911, thinking, “Now I’ve done it.”

He found Wil Deft in the kitchen pantry with the cat, who sat staring at the back wall, just blank wallboard against which brooms and dustpans and mops leaned. Not the house’s most interesting feature.

“Yes,” Deft said. “It begins here.”

“Just mops and brooms,” Elroy said.

Wil Deft ignored him. He studied the wall. Elroy kept his hand in his pocket, clenching the pistol. He thought he saw Wil Deft’s lips move a little, as if he mumbled something to himself, maybe a poem. And then Deft held up his hands, palms down, fingers clenched, except that each ring finger extended outward, pointing at the wall.

Elroy felt disappointed.

So it’s just some weird cult ritual, he told himself. These loony sects worshipped imaginary extraterrestrials or fairies in rose bushes, or they’d give a wacky spin to some obscure Old-Testament verse, or whatever. It depressed him, that his visitor might be just a whacko. Also, his left leg hurt from standing too long. He slid his hand back into his pocket and clenched the pistol, remembering Charles Manson.

A circular patch of wallboard shimmered.

Elroy thought: “Eye trick.”

But nothing else in the pantry changed, just that round patch of wallboard, big enough to walk through. It looked silvery, touched with gold. It looked like the sunlit river, rippled by a Gulf breeze. But now the glimmer faded. Elroy saw just wallboard again. He doubted he ever saw the glimmer at all.

“It is finished,” Wil Deft said, turning to him. “That weapon in your pocket is unnecessary, and useless—even this desiccated realm retains trickles of flow, for calling upon.”

“I’m a scientist,” Elroy muttered. Maybe he had an eye disease. That would explain the glimmer. He kept his hand on his pistol. “So you’ve sealed out the bad guys?” he asked.

A shrug from the crabber. “This sealing merely veils, against seeing eyes, and our hope is it remains unfound,” he said.

“So now it’s covered in fairy dust?” Elroy asked.

Wil Deft regarded him. “It is dire,” he finally said. “You do not understand.”

Again that piercing stare.

“Will you accompany me to your dock, Elroy Whitt, scientist?” Deft said. “Would you try an experiment?”

Elroy thought: “Let’s keep the fun going.” So he followed Deft and the cat out onto the patio and down the steps to the dock. Now the dog lay in the skiff, sleeping.

“Tobi,” Deft called.

Grudgingly, the dog lifted his head. Deft looked closely at Elroy.

“Yes, I am right,” he finally said. “Allow me to do this, Elroy Whitt.”

He placed his two forefingers gently upon Elroy’s forehead.

“Ever weirder,” Elroy thought.

And then he heard a voice, a new voice that seemingly spoke within his head, with perfect clarity. “Elroy, I like you, and I want us all to be friends, even though Wil says we have to go away, and do you like lying in the sun and getting sleepy?”

Elroy started, hearing that voice in his head, because he knew whose voice it must be, and he guessed he must be going nuts.

Wil Deft spoke aloud: “Tobi judges people well.”

“Dogs don’t talk,” Elroy said, sounding to himself like an idiot.

Now another voice spoke in his head, a high, thin, dry voice: “You cannot smell, and so you fear what you should not, but not what you should.”

“That is Lal,” Wil Deft said, nodding toward the black cat sitting at his feet, staring at Elroy with eyes the azure of an iceberg.

He removed his fingers from Elroy’s temples. No more voices. Elroy felt this return to normalcy as a nearly imperceptible dimming.

“Now I wish you to remove the weapon you hid in your pocket, and shoot me,” Wil Deft said.

“That’s insane,” Elroy said, pulling the pistol from his pocket and staring at it.

“It is necessary,” Wil Deft said.

“I won’t shoot a man,” Elroy said, although he once did shoot a man.

“Then I will shoot myself,” Wil Deft said, and abruptly the pistol was in his own hand, although Elroy had not felt it grabbed away.

Staring at Elroy with those eyes faded almost to white, faintly smiling, Wil Deft held the gun at arm’s length, aimed at his own left ear, his fingers clenching the hilt and his thumb touching the trigger.

“You pull this lever?” he asked.

“For Pete’s sake!” Elroy said.

Wil Deft pulled the trigger.

A bang, and recoil—it threw the weapon from Deft’s inexperienced grip. Elroy watched the pistol thump onto the dock.

He looked up from the dock. Wil Deft still stood, looking calmly back at him. In the air, an inch from Deft’s left ear, the bullet levitated, immobile.

Elroy thought: “Newton…”

Invisible fingers released the bullet, and it plummeted to the dock. It bounced into the river.

Plop.

Elroy thought: some prestidigitational stunt? But it was his own pistol, which long ago killed that bandito in Uruguay. It worked just dandy. Hallucination? But the talking dog? And the high-and-mighty cat?

“If they find you, weapons will be useless,” Deft said. “Do you see that?”

Elroy felt himself moving in the direction of the ultimate bungee jump. “I’ll head back north,” he said. “I’ll leave the alarm system on, let the sheriff deal with the bad guys.”

Wil Deft shook his head. “If you go northward,” he said, “the corridor will follow—it’s you who make the corridor.”

Elroy blurted out, “I’m a geologist,” sounding to his own ears nuttier than the crabber, who merely shook his head and smiled wanly.

“If they come, do not resist them—they’ll slay you,” he said. “Take this.”

From inside his shirt he pulled a thong, suspended from his neck. A polished white pebble hung from the leather strand, engraved with what looked like an askew letter “z.” Wil Deft handed the thong to Elroy.

“Not quartz,” Elroy thought, looking at the pebble. “Not marble. Rhyolite? Pegmatite?”

“Hold this, if they pass into the corridor—think of me,” Wil Deft said.

“What happens then?” Elroy asked, still wondering what mineral he held.

“Then I’ll know,” Wil Deft said.

He climbed back into the skiff, followed by the cat. He unwound the rope from its cleat. With an oar, he shoved the skiff off. Then he dipped his oars, pulled. Elroy watched the skiff recede downstream toward the Gulf, where the setting sun turned the sky orange. It made the water seem metallic, like mercury. At the Snook Creek confluence, the river’s bend, the skiff—now a speck—disappeared.

(2)

“Strange.”

Every morning, for the next three, Elroy awoke thinking that.

While he weeded dahlias, he wrestled himself into viewing what happened scientifically—mini-stroke, trick of sun and shadow, swamp gas, whatever.

“Lame,” he thought.

On the fourth morning he got onto his Harley and drove up Manatee Marsh Road, rumbling past the Cootchicalla’s other north-bank mansions. His bike’s blat made his neighbors look up from polishing their Lexuses, and they frowned. That always tickled him. But today he had the crabber on his mind.

Abruptly, he braked.

He stood, helmeted, one foot braced on the street.

“It actually happened,” he told himself.

He knew it damned well. And thinking it out loud, he felt giddy with release.

“Besides,” he thought, “I’m just a half-baked, night-school-degree scientist anyway.”

When he got to Route 19, he pulled into the Fooducopia Supermarket’s sun-roasted parking lot. Maybe, he thought, he should tell Junior what happened. By the time he left Fooducopia with a plastic bag containing supper—Dijon mustard, a bottle of capers, a half pound of tilapia—he knew that idea was stupid.

Because Junior would figure he had brain itch. Then a platoon of nursemaids would take him prisoner. Inevitably, it would come to nursemaids anyway. Which was another reason he kept that pistol in his bedroom nightstand.

(3)

On the fifth morning after the crabber’s visit, Elroy awoke before dawn. Why he did not know. But his heart pounded. He sat up in bed. He wore Wil Deft’s leather thong slung around his neck, always did now, a talisman proving the visit. He pulled it up from under his pajamas, with its suspended mystery pebble. Sitting in his bed in the dark, heart racing, he fingered the still-unidentified bit of mineral.

A thump.

From down the hallway, toward the kitchen.

He knew, now, what woke him.

Footsteps. Slappy footsteps, coming up the corridor.

He opened his nightstand’s drawer. By feel he found his pistol, and a penlight. He aimed the light at the telephone and punched 911. “Intruder,” he whispered to the dispatcher. “I’m at 5238 Manatee Marsh Road, name’s Elroy Whitt. Better hustle.”

Then he hung up because the slappy footsteps approached his bedroom door. No time to wait for deputies.

He got out of bed, holding the pistol, suppressing a groan because lots of things hurt when he got up like this. At the bedroom’s open door he stopped, listening.

Feet slapped toward him in the dark.

He reached his hand around the doorframe and felt along the wall until he found the hallway light switch. But he didn’t flick it, unsure.

Maybe the intruder would walk past his bedroom and out.

He should have reset the alarm system. But armadillos on the patio sometimes set it off, or he might trigger it himself, shuffling half asleep in the wee hours with that golden-years need to frequently urinate.

Up the corridor, the footsteps stopped. Elroy sensed the intruder knew he stood there. Then the footsteps came on again.

Elroy held up the pistol, feeling his hand shake. But he felt angry, too.

He flipped the switch: sudden yellow light. He stepped through the doorway, aiming down the hall. Only, in the sudden light, he couldn’t see. He cursed himself for not thinking of that. He hoped the intruder couldn’t see either. If he heard the footsteps coming on, he’d shoot at the sound.

But the footsteps stopped. And he could see. And he yelled.

Frog.

Huge. Its hairless head up to Elroy’s chin. He could see wet prints of its webbed feet along the hallway back toward the kitchen.

It glared at him, green eyes lit. Not really a frog, but it looked like one. It wore a jacket and a little boy’s short pants. But that glare was knowing, malevolent.

“Get out of my house!” Elroy yelled.

It made a sound, “Gark!” Its tongue shot out, too fast to see. Elroy felt slipperiness on his hand. And the pistol left his grip. It clattered onto the floor’s tiles. Elroy thought: “Those tiles cost a bundle—hope it doesn’t break one.”

“Gark!”

It butted him. He felt its wet, hairless skin, its strength, its hate. He found himself lying on the floor, stunned, looking up at the thing.

“What an odd way to die,” he thought.

But the creature twisted around, looked behind it. It made a noise like “Bagrot!” Then it rushed down the hallway, webbed feet slapping. After a moment Elroy heard the patio door slam open.

“Good lord,” he thought, lying on his back. “What will I tell the police?”

His chest heaved. Heart attack? But after a moment the heaving stopped and he lay there.

He figured the frog, or whatever it was, had run down the ramp to the dock and jumped into the river.

Sirens would be coming.

He sat up.

Maybe he hallucinated. But wet footprints, already drying, marked the tile floor. Ignoring his aches, he limped out onto the patio, then down the ramp onto the dock.

Under a full moon, the river seemed black, touched with silver. Upstream, he saw a V in the water, and guessed the frog swam up toward the river’s head, a spring welling up from the limestone, near Route 19.

Somebody came out onto his patio. He thought it must be a sheriff’s deputy, responding to his 911 call. But then he saw it was not.

A woman stood in the moonlight. Blond hair, lank and wet. Her skin looked gray. A drowned woman, she seemed. In her left hand she carried something silver—a trident.

She walked down the dock towards him, peering left and right, as if she desperately sought a quarry. She wore a short gray tunic, dripping water. Beautiful, he thought, but so sad. Her eyes, colorless in the moonlight, glanced in every direction.

He guessed she hunted the frog.

She looked at Elroy, anguished. She said nothing, yet seemed to plead.

“Damned thing jumped in the river and swam upstream,” Elroy said, and pointed.

She looked where he pointed.

Abruptly she ran down the ramp to the dock. She dove in, making hardly a splash. After a while he saw her head surface, a long way upstream, and then she vanished again, beneath the water. He did not see her again.

Out in the driveway, a siren wailed.

Elroy sighed. He headed back toward the patio door to let them in.

It was two deputies, a gray-haired man, looking ready for retirement and fishing, and a younger fellow with a blond buzz cut and some slop around the belt line. In the younger deputy’s blue eyes he saw stupidity and excitement, and a wish to shoot someone.

“Embarrassing,” Elroy told them. “Must have been those damned armadillos.”

(4)

A week later a blue Dodge minivan pulled into Elroy’s circular driveway and parked by the front door. Elroy looked through the window—no car he knew.

He got his pistol out of its drawer, thinking, “I’ve got a constitutional right to be jumpy.” He pocketed the pistol and went to the door to see what this was all about.

“Don’t shoot a citizen,” he warned himself.

He’d had a new idea, which was schizophrenia. He thought the disorder came on only in younger people. And he still wore the stone on its thong around his neck. It seemed real. But giant bullfrogs didn’t look good. Neither did trident-toting mermaids, or chatty corgis and kitties, not to mention bullets stopped in mid-air. He meant to check out the county library branch over in Old Cootchicalla, or the internet, maybe, to see if people with Medicare cards ever started getting messages from angels up in laurel oaks, because he felt pretty freaked out.

He opened the front door, with his hand in his pocket, gripping the pistol, thinking he probably should tell someone about all this. But who? Besides, he’d always handled things his own way—flew solo, he liked to say—which caused a few personnel problems at Whitt Industries, not least with Junior. Evelyn nearly divorced him over it twice, that and other things.

When he looked out the door, he faintly smiled.

A dumpling of a fellow was getting out of the van. He looked at Elroy—weak greenish eyes—then looked away. He diffidently shuffled up to the stoop, a man even smaller than Elroy, but round instead of skinny, with a gray-shot reddish beard and no hair on top to speak of.

“Gosh, it’s hot,” said the man, producing an old-fashioned red-and-white handkerchief from his baggy jeans’ back pocket. He wiped his neck and his bald pate.

Elroy made out three others in the van, but not clearly, because of the green-tinted windows, to keep out the Florida sun. He thought maybe an old woman, sitting up in front, a young man in back, and maybe a fat kid.

“I’m Reverend George Grinn,” the man said. “From the Covenant of the Seekers? Over in Old Cootchicalla?”

Elroy thought, I don’t need religious tracts, even free ones. But he only raised his eyebrows, because saying what he thought might make this little man cry.

“Well, you wouldn’t have heard of us,” the Reverend Grinn said, apparently addressing his sneakers. “We’re new, and…” He wiped his neck with his bandana again.

Abruptly, he looked up.

“We believe messages are everywhere, like in… oh, even how a telephone works, or clouds, or… well, just anything, and you need to study things, read their messages, try anyway, and… I know I’m not being clear, but…” He looked at Elroy with pleading eyes.

“Anyway,” he said, “right now we’re studying buildings and…” He spread out his hands. “Well, your house is the only really modern one around here…”

“So what can I do for you?” Elroy asked.

Again, the little man looked at his sneakers. “Do you mind if we take a look at your house’s architecture, just a few minutes?” he said. “Of course, if it’s a bother we’ll…”

“Hey, Reverend,” Elroy said. “I’ll show you around myself.”

Because it relieved him, that his visitor came from just across the river instead of from another dimension. And because he made it a point to shake the little man’s hand, which felt dry and oddly cool. In that way he assured himself the hand did not belong to a schizophrenic hallucination. Also, what else did he have to do?

“Thank you,” the little man said. “You don’t know how much this means to us.”

He walked back to the car. He opened the door and put his head inside, to speak to the people sitting there. Out the front passenger-side door climbed a plumpish woman, no spring chicken, her hair dyed red. She gave Elroy a dithery smile.

From the back emerged a young man Elroy recognized from the Fooducopia Supermarket, out on Route 19, a bagger. He grinned, too brightly. “Hey, Boss,” he said to Elroy, and grinned even more brightly.

Not someone you’d pick for a religious fanatic, Elroy thought, looking at the wiry young man, who lacked one front tooth. More like a juvenile detention center graduate. But, these days, you never knew.

“What about the boy in the back seat?” Elroy asked, peering into the car. “He’s welcome to come, too.”

But the Reverend Grinn shut the door before Elroy could see the boy. “He’s retarded,” Grinn said, spreading his hands. “He’s better there.”

“Anyway, you can see this house is made from a girder frame, glassed in to make cubes,” Elroy said. “Come on in, so you can see how it’s all put together.”

He led them into the house, meaning to give them a look at the brackets the architect designed to attach the glass walls to the metal girders. But, once they got inside, the Reverend Grinn seemed uninterested in the construction.

He gazed into the living room. “Not there,” he muttered.

“What’s not there?” Elroy said, suddenly wary.

“This way,” Grinn said. He strode toward the kitchen.

“Hey,” Elroy said.

Now the woman followed Grinn. “Dear, dear,” she said to the young man.

“We’re cooking now!” the young man told her.

Elroy followed after them, wondering if he should get out his pistol.

Grinn passed the kitchen, then stopped at the pantry. He stood looking through the door, then turned.

He no longer seemed the diffident little man he did at first. His eyes now flashed. They seemed emerald now, and as if lit from within. His expression seemed oddly mixed, triumph and wrath.

“It’s sealed!” he told Elroy. “So you’re in with them? You thought this would stop us?”

“Get out,” Elroy said. “Out of my house.”

“Hey, Boss,” the young man told Elroy. “Let’s keep it polite, huh?” He gave Elroy another of his smiles, manipulative and menacing.

Elroy pulled his pistol from his pocket. He aimed at Grinn’s head. “Leave,” he said. “Now.”

Grinn looked at the gun. He continued looking at it, his gaze intensifying. Elroy felt a tingling in his hand.

The pistol fell apart.

Pieces of it—screws, the barrel, cartridges, the walnut hilt—fell from Elroy’s hand, clattered onto the floor.

Elroy stared at the pieces strewn on the tiles. Abruptly, he strode—limping—out the front door. He remembered: Grinn left the keys in his car. Elroy thought to get it going, run for help. But when he opened the door, he stood frozen.

In the back seat sat the frog.

It glared at him, malevolent. And Elroy saw a terrifying thing: on the floor, discarded, lay a silver trident.

“I wouldn’t rile him,” said Grinn’s voice from behind him. “You wouldn’t like it.”

Grinn looked at the frog, which abruptly threw open the car’s back door and climbed out.

“Gark,” it said.

Elroy shuddered, remembering that long tongue, its slipperiness wrapping around his hand that night, pulling away the pistol. But this time, as if responding to an order Elroy did not hear, the frog grabbed him by his shoulders, a painful grip.

Grinn looked at the frog, jerked his chin toward the house. Then they all filed back inside. Last came the frog, walking Elroy ahead of him, with that iron grip on his shoulders. Pushed by the frog, Elroy followed Grinn and the dithery old lady and the supermarket bagger to his pantry.

“I don’t care what happens to you,” Grinn told Elroy. “Don’t interfere and you can go on with your life. Otherwise…”

He turned, stared at the pantry wall. Elroy could see only the back of the man’s head, but he guessed he mouthed words. He extended his arms and seemed to do something with his hands that Elroy could not see.

Once again Elroy saw his pantry wall shimmer: that circular patch, large enough to walk through.

Grinn stared at the patch, satisfied. Elroy saw the wiry youth gazing at it excited, as if he had just won the lottery.

“Goodness,” the old woman said.

Elroy saw her look at the Reverend Grinn, adoring.

“Well, I almost forgot,” Grinn said. He walked back to the front door and stood in the opening. Elroy could see the blue van through the doorway. And then the van vanished.

Grinn walked back to the pantry.

“Tell anyone you want,” Grinn said to Elroy. “They’ll put you away as an addled geezer, or just forget all this—you’ll be better off.”

He looked at his three companions. “Shall we go?” he said. Then he turned and walked to the shimmering patch on the wall, and through it, and disappeared.

Under his breath, the wiry young man muttered, “Wow—it’s happening!” He too walked to the wall. For a moment, he hesitated, then walked into the shimmer. He, too, vanished.

“My goodness,” the old woman told Elroy. “Isn’t this exciting?” She walked to the shimmer and stopped. She stretched out a hand, tentatively, and touched the shimmer. Her hand disappeared to the wrist. “Oh, my,” she said. She glanced back at Elroy, an expression all at once frightened and excited and triumphant. Then, straightening her shoulders, she walked through the shimmer and vanished.

“Gark!” the frog said.

Elroy felt himself thrown onto the floor tiles. Over him, he saw the frog looking down. And he knew the frog wished to crush him, for the pleasure.

“Gark!”

Abruptly the creature turned and hurried through the shimmer and vanished.

Elroy lay on the tiles, alone in his glass house. “What now?” he thought.

He remembered the thong around his neck and pulled up the stone from beneath his shirt. “Okay,” he thought. “Wil Deft—I’m thinking about you.”

And he thought: “What now?”

How he would spend the rest of the day mystified him. Or the day after.

He got up, groaning, for he hurt in several places. He saw the pantry wall’s shimmer beginning to fade. He knew, somehow, this would end it, that none of them would trouble him again.

He sighed.

He walked to the shimmer, staring at it, nothing on his mind at all.

“See you, Junior,” he thought.

He walked through. And he was gone.
pencil

“I’m a long-time contributor of articles and essays to major national magazines (Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, Playboy, National Geographic and a number of others). My writing has received several awards, ranging from the Clarion Award to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Distinguished Science Writing in Magazines. But I’ve recently turned to a long-time interest, fiction. I currently have a science fiction story in the internet magazine MindFlights and a fantasy set to published in the forthcoming issue of another internet magazine, Reflection’s Edge.” Website. Email: authors[at]richardjoycewolkomir.net

Posted in Uncategorized

It Killed To Be Kind

Boots’s Pick
Krystal Columna


The cemetery outside of Memorial, Georgia has nothing against killers. It accommodates a young one, caressing him in its cool, earthy bosom just like everyone else who’s dead. The headstones, as close together as wildflowers and some almost intertwined, belong to dead citizens of Memorial and other nearby small towns. They cast death’s remains out of their little towns, keeping them close enough to visit on holidays.

The houses in this area are like toadstools after a summer rain shower. Clusters of them are sprinkled sparsely about the green expanse that dips into the earth and rises again into uneven grassy mounds. A slow river curves like a vine beside the cemetery grounds, eventually pouring into the Gulf of Mexico—an exchange that began long before killer Tony Wildes was planted among that garden of headstones by the river, and long before his birth. The river will continue its steady amble past the cemetery where Tony and many others stay rooted, unless something catastrophic happens, like the nature of Tony’s death. When he was fourteen, Tony Wildes killed three people—about a month after getting a pit bull who wagged her tail a lot. His dad was the second down, and Tony was third after he shot himself in an abandoned house.

Tony’s very last Christmas Day began as listless and empty as the one before it—the one where his mother went out for cigarettes and never returned, which was no big deal. His dad watched TV while burning a turkey and getting drunk—he prided himself as a great cook, and he was when he was sober, this aptitude earned from many years cooking in several southern restaurants. It ended when he began drawing disability checks for being too “depressed” to work.

Tony sat in the dingy recliner next to his, much smaller and laden with stiff springs. There were cigarette burns and tears in the cloth. It was the one his mother sat in, where she smoked many Pall Mall cigarettes and rocked him when he was a baby. When he was a little kid, his gloom and fear bravely showed, and she rocked him then, too. As he grew older, his emotions began to recede behind scrunched-up, bushy brows and an angry frown.

He could remember being rocked by her at age seven, and she had sung to him, over and over in her scratchy voice, that his life was precious, that he was special. The drunken, uninhibited words his father said, though, would always override her naïve pity: Son, when you get older, you’ll see you’re just a number. Another star in the sky. How many of ’em do you know by name? You’re born, which costs somebody. For you, it’s me and your ma. Then, you pay for livin’ while your livin’, then you die, ha, the big payment. The check to God. You pay all kinds of ways while you’re livin’, taxes is one. And this whippin’ I’m about to give you is another.

All the windows were raised in the single-wide trailer so that the hazy stench of burnt turkey and smoke could escape, and the outside air was pleasant, only warranting a windbreaker. Georgia’s undecided weather bothered Tony because the day before, when he was helping his dad pump air out of the Dodge Ram’s brake line, the icy gusts of wind made his breath look like fine white powder and froze his fingertips. Hawaii sounded nice, like Heaven.

Tony felt the cool breeze from outside as it billowed through the curtains that his mother had hung years before. They were pale yellow and as delicate as her hands were when she placed them on his forehead to feel for fever. He watched Ralphie getting kicked down the slide by Santa, on TV. He looked at his drunken father, who gave an amused grunt and smirked at the television. His eyes were two red, dying stars with still a small twinkle evident in these rare instances of delight. Tony watched his dad tilt a beer bottle to his mouth, his smile funneling around the tip as he gulped. Afterwards, he rested the bottle on the worn brown carpet beside the chair and stared, as if focusing past the TV—gazing far into a plane Tony couldn’t see.

Tony wanted to tell him “Merry Christmas” and maybe even offer a hug, though the sour smell of Old Milwaukee sweated through his dad’s pores and hung on his clothes like fabric softener. His dad’s glassy eyes abandoned that far-away place beyond the television for a moment, and dangerously homed in on Tony’s misty eyes.

“What the hell do you want, why are you lookin’ at me all needy? I’m cooking a turkey for Christ’s sake. We’re watching a Christmas special, like families do. Damn boy, you’re like your mama, just sitting there starin’ at me like I’m a mind-reader.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.” Tony’s chin quivered and his eyes retreated to the TV screen, away from his dad’s glower.

“Guess that means, ‘Give me Christmas money.’ Here,” his dad lifted his rear slightly from the seat and pulled forth a warped wallet. He extended his arm across the short expanse between them, handing Tony a fifty dollar bill between two fingers, along with an order for him to quit whining, or else.

After his father dozed off, Tony turned off the oven, wondering how many other kids were like him, nothing, not important. He left the turkey inside so it would stay warm—without eating a single bite. He meandered about the woods behind the trailer; leaves crunched under his feet and a dove or a quail, he didn’t care which, delivered coos of sympathy.

He fished out a pint of whiskey from his windbreaker, filled from his dad’s jug. He squinted his eyes and swigged two scorching cheekfulls. With grateful appreciation, he pulled a bottle of Coke from his other pocket, like a trick rabbit. He took a few soothing swallows, washing his revolted tongue and fiery throat.

He thought he was alone, except for the bird. Then he reached the old rotted house that had sat neglected for years—nothing much to it anymore—and saw what looked like a reddish-colored dog dart underneath the porch, with heavy udders swaying back and forth, which had probably nursed many hungry mouths. Two bone-dry bowls lay on the ground.

He crouched on all fours so he could look under the house. A taut rope pulled to the back of the shady lair, and his eyes met those of a shivering pit bull.

“Here, puppy puppy puppy!” Tony called, half-heartedly. She tried to scoot further away. He gruffly grabbed the rope and tried to pull her to him, but she grunted and choked, sounding like a person trying to hack up mucus.

“Screw it, you don’t want help, ugly bony-ass dog,” Tony muttered and headed home.

His dad was asleep in his recliner when Tony showed up. He headed to the kitchen, and on the way did a stupid little skip for the hell of it. His dad had already hacked into the turkey, burnt on the outside. The inside was moist, and he ate the meat, so hot that steam seeped out of his mouth.

The face of the dog, the empty bowls on Christmas Day, flashed in front of his mind’s eye and unsettled his contented stomach. He couldn’t believe he cared. With quick fingers, he began peeling off the hot, burnt outside of the turkey into a large container. He broke off a drumstick, wolfed down the meat, then added the bone to the treat. He filled up a canteen with water, and lit out for the woods.

First, he poured the turkey. He emptied water into the other bowl, then got on all fours again and looked at the dog. The aroma was tickling her twitching nose, and her head was wavering. Tony hid behind a tree, and like a freed criminal, the dog charged from under the house. She ate all the turkey in three noisy bites, gulping and grunting. Then, she started lapping up the water, for ten minutes it seemed. She disappeared back under the house.

 

Tony lay on his twin bed, as the humdrum Christmas day tapered off into a humdrum winter night. He kept pushing thoughts of the dog away.

“What in the hell are you layin’ on that bed for? Clean up the mess in the kitchen,” his dad growled, standing in Tony’s doorway.

Tony put on the same yellow rubber gloves his mom used to wear as the water slowly flowed from the sink’s faucet. His dad would never fix it for her, beat Tony for trying to. As he scrubbed the turkey dish, the thought of the dog popped into his head, again.

“Boy, why you’s just standin’ there for, didn’t I say to clean up?” His dad roared the last two words. Tony went back to scrubbing with a trembling chin and red face.

“What’s the matter with you. Gave ya Christmas money. Whatchu swelled up about?” his dad demanded. Tony didn’t know whether to say, “I miss Mama,” though her disappearance was really no big deal, or tell him about the dog, and how she ate the burnt turkey in three mighty gulps.

“Did you ever have a dog, Dad?”

“So that’s it. Yeah, but you don’t need no dog. They’re trouble, and sneaky, too. Lick ya in the face, dance all around, then, when you’re not lookin’, piss all over your clothes. Dogs are too much like people. Get the idea of a dog out yer head.”

“I found a pit bull in the woods today,” Tony said, hoping the fact she was a pit would add “value” to her, make him want to help her.

“A pit, huh? Female?” his dad inquired with a twinkle in his eye.

“Yeah! Chained up to that old rickety house. Can I have her?” Tony’s eyes widened like the quarters his mom used to scrape up for him so he could play Gauntlet Legends.

“Does she bite?” he asked Tony in a voice of acceptance.

“Nah, she won’t even come to people. She just shakes.”

“Say, your Uncle Delmus has a good-lookin’ male pit. What color was she?”

“Reddish-orange”

“Really, she’s a red-nose then. That’s what Delmus’s dog is, a red-nose. We’ll see if she looks full-blooded.”

Tony finished the dishes and wiped down the counters, and wondered if the dog would follow him in the woods, walk by his side like a friend. He wondered if she’d slice his dad’s throat when she witnessed the beatings. He wondered if she was wishing he’d come back to look at her again.

At nightfall, Tony and his dad stood in front of the dilapidated house, grasping flashlights and wearing heavy jackets since the weather was finally behaving like winter. Tony looked up and saw a shooting star, dying unnoticed to all the world but him. A fleeting one among billions more that no one cared about or even acknowledged.

Tony told him that the dog stayed far under the house, and that pulling the rope choked her.

“I think she’s already pretty messed up, and starved. I’ll try to coax her out instead of pulling her,” Tony offered.

“Watch this,” his dad said with a half-smile. Holding his flashlight, he grabbed the rope one-handed and pulled with an angry force.

“Come on, you bitch” he said as he yanked her out. She made the choking sounds again and Tony cringed. He walked over to look at the skeletal pit that was at his dad’s mercy. She was wheezing and panting in the flashlight’s glare, but thumped the ground with her wagging tail harder than Tony had ever seen a dog wag.

Mr. Wildes shook his head, then spoke. “What a shame. She’s got mangled legs. Looks like the left one’s broke. But she’s got a huge head.”

“Yeah, she’ll make a good breeder,” Tony said, feeling nausea rise with his words. He wondered if she’d trust him around her puppies.

“True. That’s the only reason I’m lettin’ you keep her. You’re gone hafta carry her home,” he told Tony, who couldn’t stop smiling.

“Quit grinning like a raccoon eatin’ shit, and get the mutt. Let’s go, it’s cold.”

The three headed back to the house. Tony felt like hugging his dad and saying “thanks” for the first time in years. He’d never felt so proud to carry something. Someone.

Back home, Mr. Wildes tied the end of the rope around a thin tree.”Now, you’re gonna hafta watch out. She’s got a swivel on her neck, but she can still wrap ’round this tree and be hell to unwind,” he told his son, who shook his head yes.

Tony applied antibiotic ointment to the deep wound on her left leg, and made a splint for it. He administered left-over amoxicillin to her three times a day, just like the doctor ordered for him when he had bronchitis. By the second day, the dog trusted him. It seemed that Mr. Wildes’s heart softened for a moment, because he tried to pet Petunia, too. As quickly as fleas leap from a dead dog’s corpse, he was mean again, cussing at the dog. He spat beside her. “Worthless,” he snarled.

After three days, the swelling had gone down on the broken leg considerably, and she began half-walking on the leg on day six. After two weeks, she filled out. Tony had built her a doghouse the day after her rescue, digging the best pieces of wood from an old pile in the backyard. His dad had even helped hold pieces together as Tony hammered. A few times, he’d even tried to take over. Every day, Tony brushed her coat of scars and lumps.

When she met her health’s potential, Mr. Wildes told his son that it was time to breed her. They walked outside and looked at her. She was muscular, stocky and broad. Her head was massive. Her tail never ceased its wagging, though her legs bowed like a cartoon cowboy’s and caused a pained limp. Once again, Mr. Wildes tried petting her. This time, he was drunk. She retracted quickly and retreated to the dog house.

“Come here, mutt!” he screamed at the dog, and she started shaking. He reached his hand into the dog house and grabbed her by the snout. She violently shook her body back and forth and made a high-pitched squeal deep in her throat.

“Boy, if you don’t call the got-damn pound, I’m gonna shoot this son-of-a-bitch.” His lips turned white around the edges when they curled over his yellow teeth.

Tony felt like his body was in the air. It was like going upside down on a roller coaster. His dad’s glaring blue eyes were a stab in the gut. He envisioned Petunia shaking in the concrete gas chamber along with callused animals from horrific homes, making the choking sounds for one last time. She’d die with the stench of exhaust on her shiny orange hide he brushed and washed.

“I’ll shoot her,” Tony interjected coolly. He face didn’t redden, nor did his chin quiver.

“I told you that you can call the pound,” Mr. Wildes said with sympathy in his voice as rare as a solar eclipse. That was the calmest and softest he had ever spoken since he told Tony his granny was dead.

“I want to shoot her with your nine millimeter,” Tony said.

The drunken man shrugged, and walked back into the house. Before he did, he looked at Tony. “You just leave her alone, she ain’t never hurt nobody. She don’t like me. That pisses me off, ya know.”

Tony watched the dog for a few minutes. He didn’t figure she was much good, didn’t even bark when a stranger came into the yard, much less crunch his dad’s jugular vein. She cowered at his sight! All the bark had been beat out of her. Her fur was sparse, too, because hair didn’t grow where the scars were. And those legs. They were comically contorted, gnarled like oak roots. They’d probably been broken several times.

He peeked into the living room at his dad, who had been watching TV, but his head was slumped over in sleep. After grabbing the nine millimeter from the top of the fridge, he buttoned the holster around his belt. He found a thin rope, about two feet long, and walked outside to Petunia.

“We’re back where we met,” Tony said, standing with Petunia in front of the decrepit house in the woods. She’d followed him without a struggle. He tied her up. She was wagging her tail, and her eyes followed him as he pulled the nine millimeter from its holster. He put the gun to her head and she wagged her tail wildly, trying to lick the gun. He quickly pulled the trigger and a loud pop resounded, along with the gunshot. She dropped immediately, and her mouth moved a little, as if she were trying to bark. Just nerves, Tony had said aloud. Her tail wagged a little more, then stopped. She was sprawled out on the ground, with some blood trickling from the side of her head. That was all; it was no big deal.

“Well, she’s not suffering anymore. Don’t have to worry about arthritis in the legs, or being chained up, or being hassled by a drunk,” Tony mused, heading back to the house for a Hefty bag and a shovel. He was hungry, and thirsty. There wasn’t a soda in the house, and he decided he wanted to walk to the Jiffy Mart before digging a hole for Petunia. He needed to process things.

He walked by the living room, and told his dad he was walking to the store and would be back. His dad grunted in acknowledgement and continued to snore. Tony almost put the gun back, but he liked the weight of it on him. It was powerful, and made things permanently better. Nothing else did, not even money.

On the way to the store, he passed a lonesome bridge. This was a place you’d be sorry to be if you needed to use a phone for an emergency; there weren’t any houses for a mile either way. He needed to pee, so he walked down the steep slope to go under the bridge. He smelled smoke as he walked closer.

Under the shady bridge was a steel drum that held scorched sticks smoldering into glowing orange coals. A wrinkled white man with no teeth appeared from the shade of the bridge.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” said the old man, clutching a dented aluminum bat with raw-boned fingers. “Go away from here!”

Tony looked at him, and smiled.

The hobo shot him a contemptuous look and his bottom jaw involuntarily wobbled, as if he were still talking. “What in the hell are you grinnin’ for? Get gone!”

Tony looked at the disheveled old man with scars on his arms and a few on his face. He was toothless with ratty, shaggy gray hair, and dirty clothes. “What are you livin’ for?” Tony asked.

The old man stared at him, one eye looking at the sky. “I said, get the hell out of here!”

“I think you’re miserable. Are you miserable?” Tony asked. He figured he was, but at least he could ask him. He was never able to ask Petunia.

“What the hell do you think? I’m old, nobody will hire me or help me, and I go without a meal for days. The soup kitchen ain’t open every day. And when I do eat, I can only eat mush or soup. I have to walk everywhere I go and look at how old I am! Nobody will help me.”

“I will,” Tony said, reaching for his nine millimeter.

Tony walked up the steep hill back up the road, thinking about the old man lying under the bridge and feeling good about helping someone else again. He only hoped nobody would go under the bridge until he made it home. The body would probably stay there until it started to reek, and be discovered when someone realized it wasn’t the stench of a dead animal.

After he paid for his soda and hot dog, he asked for the clerk for quarters.

“Hey Dad,” Tony said, holding the receiver to the pay phone.

“Where are you calling from, and where’s the dog?”

“Oh, I’m at the Jiffy Mart, and I called to let you know I killed her.”

“Dammit, I didn’t want you to do that shit. I wanted to breed her. I had already told Delmus. You need your ass wore out. You better stay gone a while so I can cool down, if you know what’s good for you.”

“No, Dad. I want to come back now. We’re not going to have anymore worries when I get back.”

“What the hell are you talking about now? Did you hit the jackpot or something?”

“Sort of. You’ll see when I get home.”
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Krystal is a 23-year-old mother of two, and a junior at Valdosta State University majoring in English. E-mail: krcolumna[at]valdosta.edu

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