Trapped in a Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Karen Davis


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

“Step right this way, sir! Win the little lady a stuffed animal of her choice!”

“Try your luck at the ring toss!

“Come see our two-headed cow, perfectly preserved for over fifty years!

“Come show your skills at the balloon dart throw! Everyone’s a winner!”

As the couple strolled down the midway, the sideshow barkers called to them with one attraction after another. The old man looked at his wife and smiled. After all these years, they still loved to people watch at one of the only surviving public events from their youth. They remembered going to carnivals together as kids, and it remained pretty much the same, even now. Freak shows, rigged games, mirrored houses, and rickety dizzying rides. It was a thrilling place to them, even though they knew there was a curtain that separated the magic of the place from the grim reality of the world.

There were crowds of young people walking along. A few of them were laughing, taking pictures of themselves together, and daring each other to try the various games and shows. The old man remembered what it was like, to be young and full of so much energy and enthusiasm. But many of the groups of people were trudging past the games without noticing, too busy looking down at their phones. The old man was sad for them. He was part of the last generation that had grown up without internet access, and he wished they could experience life the way he had. He sighed but then looked over at his wife and remembered the good life that he’d had with her.

As they were walking past one colorful attraction, he noticed a boy getting in line. It looked like he was trying to impress his young girlfriend by attempting to win the over-hyped contest.

“Test your powers of bravery and fortitude!” The man at the podium called to everyone walking by, while encouraging the boy to move forward to the front of the line. “Take a step back in time and see how you might survive the torture of the ages!”

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” the boy said with a mixed look of bravado and fear on his face.

“That’s a fearless young man!” the barker yelled to the crowd. And then he said quietly to the boy, “You sure you can handle it?”

The boy balked and then set his face to stone. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a joke, right? Of course I can handle it.”

“Fine. One ticket, please. You will remain inside the room until you ask three times to be let out. We will give you three chances so that you will be sure you want out. We wouldn’t want you to lose your chance just because you panicked.”

“Panic? Why would I do that? This is just a silly trick. There’s nothing in there that can scare me into wanting out.”

“Nothing, indeed, sir! I believe we may have our winner for tonight!” He gave a wide smile and a wink and gestured toward a small metal box that was built into the door. “Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The boy looked around with a smirk. “Why do I have to do that?”

“It’s for your own safety and for the integrity of the game, sir. Thank you very much!”

The boy emptied his pockets into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir.”

The boy looked at the phone in his hand and paused for a moment. He placed it in the box with his other items, and the man closed and locked it.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now just step inside the room of torture and see how you fare. Any man who can withstand this room is a brave soul, but the man who holds the record for the longest time in the room tonight will win free tickets to our main-stage show tomorrow night! Good luck to you, sir!”

With that, he closed the door behind the boy, who looked back one last time with confusion on his face as the door sealed shut.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this young man be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the boy’s friends looked at each other and smiled.

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“I want to come out now, please.”

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The young man has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

After another minute, there was another knock. “I really want out,” the boy called from inside the room.

“That’s two! Be brave, young man! We believe you can do it! Just another thirty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

At that point, there was a terrible commotion from inside the room. The boy was banging on the door and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! You’ve gotta let me out of here! I can’t stand it anymore!”

The man at the podium shook his head and opened the door.

The boy stumbled out of the room, looking disoriented. His face was flushed, and his hands were shaking.

His friends looked at him wide-eyed. “What was it? What was in there that was so scary? Is it another person? Did they hurt you? What? Tell us! What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he whispered as he quickly gathered his belongings from the small metal box.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? It’s just a gag, right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just… can we leave now?”

“Well, why were you screaming then?”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he yelled at his friends. He walked away, and his friends followed as they made their way toward the exit of the carnival.

The old man who had been watching turned to his wife and asked, “Should I try it? It can’t be that bad, right? He was just a kid. They probably spooked him with some flashing lights and fake monsters or something.”

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “That kid looked pretty freaked out. Do you think your body could take that kind of stress?”

He looked at his wife and frowned. With his recent health problems, a lot of the fun things in his life had been taken away. This would be just one more thing that he couldn’t enjoy like he used to.

As they were talking, another man walked up to the podium. He was in his thirties and was looking at his phone with an irritated expression until he stopped in front of the podium.

“One ticket, please,” the barker told him.

“What is this anyway?” the young man asked.

“A simple test of your manhood, sir! See if you can withstand—”

“Okay, okay. Whatever. Here’s my ticket. What do I do now?”

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

“Okay, let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” the barker scolded. “Don’t forget to put your cell phone in the box.”

The man dropped his phone in with a huff.

“Good luck, honey!” the young man’s girlfriend called from the line. She was laughing at him as he entered the room. “He hates this stuff,” she told the old man’s wife as they watched the door close for a second time.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the young man’s girlfriend looked at the older couple and smiled nervously. “He really does hate these types of things. I’m surprised he agreed to do it.”

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

The girlfriend spoke again. “I thought he would come out by now. He just wants to prove me wrong. I told him he wouldn’t last more than a minute.”

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Let me out,” the man called forcefully.

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The gentleman has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

Immediately, there was another knock. “Let me out, I said!” He sounded angry and fearful.

“That’s two! Be brave, sir! We believe you can do it! Just another sixty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

“Get me out of here, or I’m going to sue!” the man roared from inside the room.

The barker cleared his throat and opened the door, making sure to take a quick step back so the young man could rush out of the room. He was breathing heavily, gulping down the air as if he’d been deprived of it for the last couple of minutes.

“Where are my things?” he demanded.

He was shown the open box where he hastily grabbed his belongings and stomped off down the midway with his girlfriend following in a panic.

“Are you okay, honey? What happened? Did they suck all the air out of the room?”

“Of course not! Don’t be silly! Let’s just get out of this stupid place.”

“Don’t be mad at me, please! It was supposed to be funny! I’ll never make you do anything like that again!”

The young couple could be heard arguing until they were out of sight as they left the carnival.

The old man and his wife looked at each other in disbelief. What could possibly be so terrible in that room? The second person had been a grown man and was clearly disturbed when he left the room.

The old man’s wife shook her head. “I don’t think you should do it. I don’t want to take any chances. If these young people can’t withstand whatever is in that room, how will you do it? I don’t mean to insult you, but I also don’t want to risk your health.”

The old man looked at the small, colorful building and then back at his wife. He had a look of determination on his face. “I’m going to do it,” he declared to her.

After all, what was living if there were no risks to be taken. Plus, he was older and wiser than those other two. Surely, he would be able to see through the illusion of whatever scary thing was being done or seen in that room. He was smarter than those other two and was sure he could do it.

His wife begged him, “No, you don’t have to. I already know you’re brave. You’ve done so much over all these years. You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“But I can win,” he told her. “I’ve never been very good at games and contests, but I really do believe I can win this one.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“No, but it’s just a carnival game. How bad can it be?”

She looked at him and wished he would change his mind, but she knew there was nothing she could say now to make him do that. Once he got that look on his face, he was determined that he would succeed. She had learned over the years to trust him when he decided to do something. She knew that he wouldn’t do anything too dangerous. She knew that he would never do anything that could hurt him or her.

She felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, probably because of his recent health diagnosis. She had tried to shelter him so much more recently. She had tried to stop him from taking any risks that could damage his health. Maybe she had done too much to get in the way of his ability to live his life and to be the man he wanted to be. Maybe this would be a good chance to show him that she trusted him and that she believed in him.

“I’m going to do it,” he said again.

She smiled at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she said as she gave him a small kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. “I know you will.”

He turned confidently and walked up to the barker who was grinning at their overheard conversation. He put his face close to the old man’s ear and whispered, “That’s a good woman you have there. And I think she’s right. I think you can win this one. One ticket, please.”

The man gave him his ticket.

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The old man put his wallet, comb, and pocketknife into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir?”

“Phone? No, I didn’t bring it tonight. The only person I need to call is here with me.”

The barker gave him a strange smile and waved him into the room. As the door closed, the old man turned around to look at his wife, confused for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face.

He could hear the barker outside calling to the crowd, “The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes! Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

The man looked all around the room, which was dimly lit, to see if there was anything that might open to allow a “monster” to come into the room to scare him. He saw nothing. It was simply a white-painted metal room with no windows and no doors except the one he had come through. There was nothing.

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

But the the metal box in the door began to hum. It had the sound of a cell phone ringing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He hadn’t put anything electronic into the box, so he wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from.

After a minute, the barker called again, “Will this man be our winner tonight? Can he withstand the torture of this time-travelling room of the ages?”

The metal box vibrated again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

*What was that sound?*

Ninety seconds, and he could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. The noise of the people was muffled, but there were many voices of concern and fascination.

At two minutes, the man thought about the fact that there was nothing in the room. Nothing except that infernal buzzing. He wondered why on earth this would be tortuous to anyone.

At three minutes, he got bored and started daydreaming. He thought about the first carnival he ever went to. He had gone with his friends, and they had very little money between them. They had tried some of the contests on the midway and had lost every time. They hadn’t been told that so many of the games were rigged and that their money would have been better spent on spinning rides or cotton candy or popcorn. He had won one time—one of the easier games—and his prize was a plastic ring. He had given the ring to a girl at school who had blushed and run away.

At seven minutes, the man could hear the crowd growing larger and more agitated. The buzzing in the door continued, but he was able to ignore it as he thought again about times he had been to the carnival before. He had taken his wife to one when they were young and foolish, but he had learned some of the tricks of the contests and knew which ones he would lose and which ones he could win. She had come home with a giant smiling stuffed bear that night, and she had kissed him for the first time on her doorstep before she stepped inside, smiling back at him through the window in the door.

He smiled to himself now, thinking about how lovely she had looked that night, and how she was still that girl to him. He thought about her standing on the other side of this metal door and wondered if she was still proud of him today.

At twelve minutes, the barker yelled loudly, to draw more attention to “the marvel behind these walls, the man who could do the impossible!” He didn’t feel like he was doing anything spectacular, but if standing in this little room made him a hero to his wife, he would stay in as long as they would allow him to.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

It reminded him of a time, not so very long ago, when his phone sat buzzing on the kitchen table. When he had gotten the call from his doctor with that awful diagnosis. He hadn’t known that words could bring a man to his knees like that. He wasn’t worried for himself. He only cared about how it would affect his family.

He did everything the doctors suggested, every treatment that was available. Nothing seemed to work. He had resolved to die gracefully and without all the hysteria. But one day, he went to an appointment and his doctor said he was getting better. He said that the man might even be fine for a very long time. He had thought it was impossible, a miracle. It was unusual, but it did happen occasionally. His doctor told him, it was like winning the lottery. He had told his doctor that he’d never won anything like that in his life. And his doctor told him maybe he should try his luck more often.

At seventeen minutes, the man began to wonder how long he had been in that metal room. It didn’t seem like very long, but his mind had been wandering so he wasn’t sure.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He looked at the box and thought about the boy and the young man who had been in this room before him. They had been panicked, afraid, anxious to get back out into the world. To have their things in their pockets again. To get out of this dream world and back to their well-documented realities where they could escape almost anything at the touch of a button.

He had no need to escape. He was right where he wanted to be, in this strange little room with a buzzing metal box and a head full of memories. He was sad for those other two and also for the one who had set the three-and-a-half-minute record earlier in the evening—if he really did exist at all. He wished those others could have been comfortable in this place, locked in with themselves, but he guessed that was just too much to ask of some people. Or maybe of most people. He didn’t know because he had his small circle of people who concerned him, and the rest were of no consequence to his daily life. And he was of no consequence to theirs.

At eighteen minutes, there was a knock on the door. “How are you doing in there, sir? Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” The barker grinned at his clever techniques for getting the crowds riled up.

The old man’s wife had a worried look on her face, and she stepped forward to confront the barker.

“Let him out,” she told him forcefully.

“But he hasn’t called to be let out yet. I have to give him three opportunities—”

“You open that door this very minute!” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” he complied.

He opened the door to find the man standing in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. The crowd that had gathered gawked at him with their eyes wide and their mouths gaping.

The woman asked her husband, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call to be let out? I thought something terrible had happened to you.”

The man just looked at her and kept smiling. “I’m fine. You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been around long enough. I can handle pretty much anything.”

The barker seized the opportunity. “Come one! Come all! See the man who can endure the strangest and most debilitating torture our century of technology has ever cooked up! He stayed in this ancient room of torture for eighteen minutes! That’s, right, eighteen minutes! Do you think you can do better?! Come and see! Test your mettle in this impossibly horrific room! Who can do it? You, sir? Can you do it? Can you?”

As the old man and his wife walked away, he held his head high, proud to know that he was a man who would not be tortured by his own mind.

pencil

Karen Davis is a short story writer from Knoxville, TN. Email: davisflyer.karen[at]gmail.com

Gift of the Gods

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Caitlin Cacciatore


Photo Credit: Jurek D./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

the moon is speaking to me,
as the wolf speaks to it;
my heart is listening,
beating slow and steady in the twilight,
but it is my soul that hears.

*

The physicists on the holoscreen were having a conniption. “What happened last night just isn’t possible,” one of them was saying.

“Truly, an aberration,” agreed another.

“The laws of nature will not abide,” put forth the third as she gesticulated wildly.

Yet, last night had still happened. The physicists couldn’t change that, the United Parliament of the Nine Worlds couldn’t explain it, and the rest of the system couldn’t stop talking about it.

Winford was hardly an exception. In the right corner of his glasses, Avery was speaking, her sweet, round face bobbing up and down in the corner of his vision.

“I can’t believe it,” she was saying. “You are going to enter, won’t you?”

“Me?” Winford scoffed. “Of all people? You’d have better luck,” he said in a tone that implied just what he thought of her luck, which wasn’t much at the moment.

“But Winford, think about it.” Her voice was as dulcet as ever, yet it grated on him today.

“I have,” he snapped, betraying just how much he had, indeed, been thinking about it. Last night had been… transcendental wasn’t the word for it, but something had sparked within him at the sight of what everyone was calling ‘The Being.’ Something electric had fizzled to life inside of him, a string of lightning that, once lit, he’d struggled not to kindle. What hope did he have, after all, of winning? What did he have to his name? What gifts? What beauty? He had nothing—nothing save for his words, and his poetry, and his writing.

“You know,” Avery went on, “I think we should both enter. What do we have to lose?”

“Everything,” said Winford, before he could stop himself. “I mean…” He tried to backtrack. “There’s an entry fee, for one. ‘Something valuable,’ that’s what this Being wants. I don’t have a single thing of value. I pawned every beautiful thing I had on Earth to get to the colonies, and now…”

“I know,” she said, face crinkling in sympathy. “There are other things of value, too, though, you know.”

“Look, I’ve got to go,” Winford said, and with a wave of his hand, dismissed the call. It was the height of rudeness, and usually, he’d never do such a thing to his best friend, but something inexplicable had changed last night, when every holoscreen in the system had simultaneously broadcast the message from The Being. It simply wasn’t possible for a message to travel such a distance all at once; simultaneous broadcasts were a thing of the past, back in those halcyon days when Earth, cradle of life, was humanity’s only home.

Light only travels so fast. Everyone knew that, from the physicists on the screen to the youngest schoolchild in the colonies. A message from Earth took a little over an hour and a half to reach Titan. Yet, last night’s message had appeared at exactly the same time, on every single digital screen in the system.

Little was known about The Being other than what he had said in his broadcast. Already, he’d captivated the hearts of millions with his speech. An immortal being, he’d said he was, from another system. One who’d lost his lover, and his home, to a war that had been waged across a millennium. The Being had one request for the people of the Sol System, and it was to be decided through a battle of wills, a contest of sorts. “Make me fall in love again,” was all he’d asked. “I want to feel the light of a foreign heart smiling once more upon my own.”

Winford had felt as though The Being had been looking straight into his soul as he’d said those words, and two things were for certain, one being that he had to enter the contest, lest he spend the rest of his mortal life wondering ‘what if,’ the other, that he hadn’t a shot in hell of winning.

*

somewhere further off,
in another place,
in a different time,
you, too,
are sitting under the light of the pagan moon.

*

Everything was going far too well. He’d sent out a burst of information through the System Wide Server to the spatiotemporal coordinates that he’d hastened to write down at the end of last night’s broadcast. As a poet, he was one of those rare few who still imported paper, a precious and expensive commodity, as trees did not grow well on the outer worlds.

Twenty minutes later, the SWS had informed him that his payment of a poem—unpublished, of course—was accepted as a form of ‘valuable’ currency. The Being had accepted it as an entry fee, and for that, Winford had been glad, but still, he’d had no hope of anything further.

Two days after that, he’d gotten an info burst stating that he was cordially invited to be amongst the first round of finalists to be beamed to a secret location on one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Fenrir, so named after the wolf that swallowed the sun in Ancient Norse Mythology.

Winford couldn’t believe his luck. He’d been waving off Avery’s calls since yesterday. Another simultaneous broadcast had announced him as one of the first waves of finalists. The physicists had another fit, at least, those remaining at their posts had a fit, most having quit their jobs in protest of the flagrant misuse and abuse of the laws of physics on behalf of The Being.

He had troubles other than the laws of physics at the moment, though. He had nothing to wear, and the finalists’ banquet was in an Earth week.

It was time to go to the marketplace.

*

there is no difference between us;
not much has changed
between the watcher
and the watched.
you, too, ache, and long, and lust
for the shores of another world.
the moon is shining through the cloud cover,
and she is speaking,
and something primal within us
flares and does not falter
as it turns its face towards the stars and howls.

*

The marketplace was bustling, yet it seemed that the ocean of people parted for him as the Red Sea had for Moses. There were stares and gawking, and many people were waving their arms to take photos with their hologlasses. It was a spectacle, to say the least, and Winford wanted none of it.

Hurrying into the closest shop selling the high-end robes he’d decided on wearing for the banquet, he stopped short when every eye in the store turned to him.

“You must be Winford,” the merchant said, hurrying towards him with a simpering smile.

Winford blushed. “That is my name, yes,” he said.

“You’ve been all over the SWS,” the merchant cooed. “I am so glad you deigned to come to this shop. We’ll treat you like royalty.”

As the merchant ushered Winford further into the shop, he had to wave away another call from Avery.

He was swept up in a whirlwind of colors and patterned robes beaded with pearls, imported directly from the seas of Earth. He had a moment of panic when he decided upon a deep burgundy robe with cloned Arctic fox fur at the cuffs and a simple yet elegant stitching pattern. How in all the moons would he pay for it?

“Didn’t you hear?” the merchant asked. “The Being has arranged for all of your expenses to be fully accounted for.”

Winford’s jaw worked, and his mind raced. Just who was this Being, and what knowledge did he have of Sol’s currency and bartering systems? Why was this new arrival, this stranger in a strange place, so powerful after such a short while? The physicists had been right; the laws of nature, nor of man, would not abide.

And above all else, why was Winford, of all people, on the fast track to winning, when mere days ago, he’d been just another voice in the fugue of the twenty billion Earthen descendants in the colonies alone. Another ten billion people lived on the homeworld, and out of everyone, from everywhere, it was he who had been chosen.

A storm was brewing. That much, he knew.

With a simper and a smile, Winford allowed the attendants to pack up his bags while the merchant made idle talk of the contest, and the announced contestants—if Winford had been listening, or, indeed, if he could hear anything over the fog of voices in his head, he’d have learned that eleven were women, five were men, and the other four identified beyond the binary. They ranged in age from 17 to 63, and most, if not all, were rumored to have some fabulous, eccentric ability to their name.

“And what, darling, is your claim to fame?”

“Oh, me?” Winford asked, shaking out of his reverie. “I’m just a poet.”

“Then you, my dear,” said the merchant, “must be the poet of the ages.”

*

the moon grows bright,
and the separation between you and me
and the endless waters of the soul of the sea
and the fruits of our youth,
hanging from the boughs of Eden in various states of tempestuousness—
you, wine-sweet and ready, you—green and new,
you—small and unsteady—
you, still discussing the details with the Devil,
you—in Eve’s brown hand,
poised on the precipice between the fallen and the fall,
you—newly defiled—
you, turning back into the Earth from whence thou cometh.

*

The banquet arrived all too quickly. The days passed in a blur, and there were no more holo-broadcasts from The Being. In what seemed to go by as a flickering of many-colored leaves falling from the autumnal trees, the week went by, leaving Winford reeling.

The banquet arrived, and Winford stood, feeling painfully plain in his burgundy robe with the golden stitching that had seemed to delicate and refined at the time, in a corner of the palace that had been erected for the purpose of this night, watching the other contestants wait and pace on the gilded floor for The Being to bless them with his presence.

A booming voice that resonated throughout Winford’s being spoke, voice cavernous and echoing the in high-ceilinged hall. “My name,” it said, “is Thaddeus. I was last on your world three-thousand years ago, in the company of another immortal.”

Gasps and whispers ricocheted through the room like bullets.

“Silence,” the voice said, more quietly than it had previously done so. The room fell still, and Thaddeus continued.

“I have brought you here, today, to share with you a gift that not many ever receive—that of eternity.”

A murmur rose again and fell like a tidal wave over the room.

“Silence,” the voice whispered, and all was once more calm.

“I will call you all by name. You will, one by one, step forward and into the adjacent room, where I will be waiting for you on the far side of the door,” Thaddeus spoke.

“And then, I will ask you a question, and your answer will determine your fate.” A long pause ensued, long enough that a voice or two raised in protest. Then, Thaddeus continued. “Most of you, in fact… all, save for one of you, will become Eternals. You will be scattered across the rivers of time, your memories tossed to the wind like seed, and I will not look to see where they land. Do not worry; my people will sing of you for ages to come. This is how we are able to live to see years untold; this is how we have become like Gods.”

This time, when Thaddeus finished speaking, an outraged roar thundered through the hall. Everyone, it seemed, was scattering already, frantically looking for a way out, but there was none.

“Do not run. Be unafraid,” said Thaddeus, and a hush fell over the room, as if everyone had accepted their fates at once.

“I will proceed to call you… now.”

Winford blinked. It was as if he had fallen out of a trance. “Wait,” he called out, in spite of himself.

“Yes?” Thaddeus sounded patient, and infinitely kind.

Winford wondered, desperately, whether that same electric spark that had been tugging at him ever since the broadcast was somehow connected to Thaddeus, if the other felt that same pulsing, vibrant, beating heart of beauty that he did.

“What happens to the one? Nineteen of us will be…” He hesitated. “…scattered, as you say, but what will happen to the one who remains?”

Winford could hear the smile in Thaddeus’s voice. “They will stand by my side until the end of time, and I will love and cherish them until the stars burn out. Now. Onwards and upwards, and on to greater things. Lucius, The Architect of the Future. Please step forward.”

The assembled contestants parted, and Lucius stepped forward. He gave a weak smile, and stepped into the adjacent room. After a few moments, a flash of light could be seen from the tiny gap where the door met the floor.

“Hayden, Thinker of Timeless Thoughts.” Hayden went forth, and this time, only moments passed before the blinding light came again.

And so it went. Elden, Healer of Time, was called, then Mar, Dreamer of Impossible Dreams.

Ralu, the Hunter of Yore. Tawi, Hero Who is Always Fain to Fight. After a while, the contestants passed in a blur of names and titles. Kiria, and a woman who was wearing a blood orange ombre ballgown. Durla, and a man who trembled and fumbled as he tried to open the door. Tra’Li, who tried to run before it seemed as though he was possessed by some incredible calm and practically floated through the doors. Amaranth, whose beauty rivaled the flower after which she was named. A few others whose names and titles Winford did not hear, so consumed was he by the fire of betrayal and the sting of deceit.

He’d had such hopes. Such dreams. It was a while before he realized that no names had been called in a few minutes, and he startled. Was he alone?

No; there was a woman left in the room with him. Where had the time gone? Perhaps that is what happens when one gets too close to eternity, Winford thought.

“I guess it’s just you and me, then,” she said, extending her hand for a shake. “May the best person win,” she spoke, though her voice was shaky, and her grip weak.

But Winford knew how she felt. He tried, and could not speak at all, so he just nodded, dumbly.

Thaddeus spoke. “Lovina, Far-Seer,” he said, and the woman smiled bravely and went into the other room.

Winford crumbled to the ground, half in relief, half in despair. Then, he waited.

*

time’s arrow only flies one way,
but tonight is eternal,
bright and blue and bare as the moon.
autumn is standing in the entryway,
knowing the inexorability of her arrival,
yet coyness keeps her features schooled
into an expression of indecision.
Do I stay, or do I go, she ponders,
yet we all know how this story ends.

*

After a long while—Winford was not sure just how long, as time seemed to pass like molasses, dark and slow and sticky, while he waited—Thaddeus spoke again. “Winford, Poet of the Ages.”

Slowly, Winford rose.

He opened the door, and entered the other room.

Thaddeus was seated in a throne, one leg crossed over the other.

“Well, my boy, well done,” he said.

Some previously untapped vein of fortitude welled up within Winford. “I believe you have a question for me,” he said, straightening his spine.

“My dear, we have all the time in the world. You are the final contestant to be left standing. What of pleasantries? What of the ebb and flow, the give and take, of polite discourse? I have missed that ever so much. I have been alone for too long. Breaking the speed of light may be child’s play for me, but eternity passes only so fast.”

“What do you want? I mean, really? You brought us all here under pretense—with the hope of fabulous riches, and an immortal lover. And now nineteen of us are dead, and you expect me to believe that I will stand by your throne for the rest of my life?” Yet, even as Winford spoke, some sort of hope bubbled up within him. Perhaps that was just what Thaddeus was offering him.

“No,” Thaddeus said after a long while. “I don’t expect you to believe anything. Faith… faith is overrated. And your fellow beings—what do you call yourselves?”

“Humans,” Winford bit out.

“Ah, yes. Your fellow humans are simply living a different kind of life. Surfing the cosmic winds as elemental particles, their souls freed from their mortal confines. As I said, this is how I and others of my kind have achieved a sort of immortality. I sacrificed them on the altar of my people. They should feel blessed to serve us, as we are like Gods.”

Winford didn’t speak. The courage he’d found earlier was quickly ebbing. He was next, wasn’t he?

“But I am different,” Thaddeus finally said when no answer was forthcoming. “I tire of immortality. The winner of this contest—the one who stands before me—Winford, Poet of the Ages—will not merely have a station beside my throne. He shall sit upon it.”

It took Winford a moment to process those words. “You mean—”

Thaddeus interrupted before he had a chance to finish that thought. “Yes, my dear. I mean you are to become like God, and take my place as an enteral being who shall die only when the last of the stars burn out, when the universe is dark and cold and empty and in her death throes.”

Winford paled. “No,” he whispered. “No. Just… No.” Everything was unraveling. He had wanted so desperately to win this contest when it had first been announced. Him, luckless and hapless and unsteady on his feet. He’d wanted to feel the love of an immortal, to be scattered across the sky when he died as King Jupiter scattered Ganymede, his cupbearer and young lover. He’d wanted a fantastic life, one filled with adventure and bonbons and fantasies beyond his wildest imaginings.

He’d never wanted to take Thaddeus’s place, never wanted the immortal he’d fallen in love with the instant the broadcast had cut off to die.

“Winford,” Thaddeus said, not unkindly, “I don’t think you have much choice in the matter.”

“But don’t you feel it?” Winford asked, eyes wild. “Tell me you feel it.” He could still feel it, that golden, electric thread connecting him to Thaddeus.

“I’ve lived too long,” Thaddeus explained. “I don’t feel anything, anymore.”

And with that, the very last of Winford’s hopes and dreams were crushed, scattered to the wind like seed, and he could not look to see where they landed.

A sense of resignation overcame him, and he was unsure if it was genuine or if Thaddeus was forcing him to feel it. It truly didn’t matter at this point. Here, on Fenrir, alone with Thaddeus and the lingering echoes of nineteen other sacrificed souls, no one would hear him scream.

“Fine,” he spat out. “I will take your place, coward though you are.”

Thaddeus smiled. “Yes, you shall.”

With that, he rose, slowly, bones creaking, chair shivering in his absence.

“Go on. Sit.”

Winford did, and at first, nothing much happened.

A moment later, Thaddeus burst into flames before him, and a moment after that, there was nothing but ash to show where he had been.

And as he closed his eyes, Winford, who had just witnessed every ounce of faith he’d ever had turn to dust, did not pray.

*

even the moon, beautiful though she may be,
cannot escape eternity.
she cannot flee from death
as desert merchants are wont to do,
and even if she did,
he’d still find her,
somewhere between Samara
and the constellation Sagittarius.

*

Winford, Poet of the Ages, immortal being, God who would not falter in his beauty or his strength until the stars burnt themselves out, sat upon his lonely throne and recounted his days—the day of the broadcast, the day at the marketplace, the day of the banquet, then every day after that, stacked on top of one another like the pages of a book.

Time passes, but only so fast. Eternity was a long while to wait.

Yet wait he would, traveling the winds of time and feasting on the souls of the vanquished, those valiant, noble creatures from the Sol system and other star systems across the galaxy, who had been sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s immortality.

Wait he would, watching the flickering of the stars like dusk to dawn, each hour an eternity, every eon an hour.

One by one, the stars went out. New ones burned bright in their place. Years passed, their numbers uncounted, untold.

Winford was so very alone, traveling from world to world in search of someone, anyone, who could ignite the flame that had long since died within him. Mortal lives are only so long, though, and flared and faded before he could even think to blink.

Lonely, lost, and far from home, Winford waited, reciting the lines of a poem that had been ancient when the stars were new.

no mortal hand can fashion eternity out of an hour,
and even the moon in her blue lace
grows older by the moment.

shhh—Lune, I shall keep thy secrets, if thou shalt keep mine.

tell only the watchers,
and even then, only whisper.pencil

Caitlin Cacciatore is a New York City-based poet and writer. She enjoys writing science fiction, space operas, and love poems. She finds beauty and elegance in the simple yet profound elements of life, and wishes to immortalize that beauty in her stories and poetry. Email: caitlin.cacciatore[at]macaulay.cuny.edu

Business as Usual

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Michelle LaValley & Jon Meaders


Photo Credit: Jan Fidler/Flickr (CC-by)

Alex Kessler darted through the main lobby doors of the place she worked and was greeted with a crisp female voice. “Welcome to the offices of Traditional Banking and Investment Technology Services, TBITS, the leader in financial services and technologies both home and abroad as rated by Universal Standards of Business Services, a proud TBITS subsidiary. If you are here for spectating the Frederick H. Martin Grant Competition, please have your QR Code ready before approaching a reception drone. If you need help…” The voice faded away.

Alex ignored the announcement, pausing only long enough to get a sense of her surroundings. It was unusual for her to enter the building this way, but she knew she needed an employee elevator as soon as possible. Of all the days to be late, she lamented to herself. Normally she was very punctual, but it was just one of those days where everything went wrong.

From the moment she had woken up that morning, she had taken great care with her appearance. On a typical day, she would not have bothered as much, but she had been preparing for this presentation for weeks. She was irked when all of her hard work was ruined by her morning coffee that had, of course, sloshed out of her cup and down her white blouse and jacket. It had taken more time to find a suitable alternative than she had realized which forced her to skip breakfast in order to make up for the lost time.

In the end, Alex was still able to reach the main floor of her apartment on time. She had not made it more than eight steps down the sidewalk when the heel to one of her favorite pumps broke, forcing an aggravating trip back up to her fourth-floor apartment barefoot. She was not surprised when she missed her bus, but she just about threw a fit when the live feed indicated the next available transit was delayed indefinitely due to closed lanes. Alex cursed those stubborn few who still drove; it was probably an accident of some sort. The only option left for her was to hail a cab. It should have been easy since she kept a premium subscription to the app just in case she needed an auto-taxi. However, Alex’s app kept hailing auto-taxis on the other side of the city. By the time Alex had reached the outer doors to TBITS, she was forty-five minutes late. Once there, she simply melded into the crowds entering through the front lobby.

She felt a brief sense of relief when the elevator doors finally closed. She selected floor five and thought to herself, I don’t even have time to prep the sim rooms. Diana’s probably speaking with the competitors already. Hopefully someone in DGMS saw the group text. Her moment of desperation imploded when she bolted out of the elevator and nearly bowled over Mr. Davidson, the Director of Operations. “I’m so sorry, sir!” she exclaimed.

The stern man began to shrug off the incident off and carry on with his business; unfortunately, it occurred to him who she was before they parted ways. “Ms. Kessler, you’re supposed to be at the contestant’s presentation,” he said. He watched Alex wilt as he continued, “Diana’s already in there with the competitors!”

“Yes, sir. I’m on my way to do the presentation with her right now,” Alex replied.

Mr. Davidson hummed and chewed his tongue. He sighed in frustration. “I hope you realize the importance of this project, Ms. Kessler! I can’t stress how much is riding on this event.”

“I do know,” Alex answered heatedly now that he was holding her up, “which is why I really have to go!” Before Mr. Davidson could say another word, she was halfway down the hall.

In record time, Alex found herself in front of the side doors of Auditorium Eight. She stopped only long enough to smooth her hair, which she hoped was not as frizzled as she felt, and entered the room. Thirty faces lined up in neat little rows turned to look at her.

Diana, the Head of Public Relations and lead on the grant project, glanced up from her notes on the podium screen and graciously introduced Alex as if nothing was amiss. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ms. Alex Kessler, the lead developer for the Dynamic Global Market Simulator used for this competition. She will be able to explain the technology in detail and answer any questions you may have about the DGMS system. Ms. Kessler, everyone.”

Alex forced a charming smile on her face and waved as she walked up to the stage to stand next to Diana. As Diana took her time changing the podium prompt, she covered the microphone with her hand before hissing, “What the heck, Alex?”

Alex flushed a little. “I’ll explain later,” she said through gritted teeth.

Alex took the podium and addressed the competitors. “Hello contestants. Thank you for being here for the first ever Franklin H. Martin Grant competition,” she opened briskly. The room of young men and women stared back at her intently. Normally, Alex would have been unnerved by the public speaking portion of this project. However after the morning she had, this was the first part of the day she was actually prepared for. She took a steadying breath as the opened her notes onto the podium feed. “The DGMS system, as Diana pointed out, stands for Dynamic Global Market Simulator. This technology has been designed for full immersion, as most modern simulators are. However, what makes the DGMS different is that it has been built from the ground up specifically to test how decision-making can affect global markets in real-time. As such, it uses real-time information from the TBITS Department of Data Analysis feed to provide immediate feedback projected from your own actions within the simulator. As each of you interact with your environment, the simulation will emulate the reactions across two-hundred-and-seventy different markets. This makes it both the most immediately accurate and dynamic market simulator to date.”

“Furthermore, as you make decisions and take action the program will record, react, and adapt to your methodologies and processes in order to feed this data back to the other competitors. This dynamic input of information is constantly altering and challenging the way in which each participant within the DGMS must make decisions and react, much like many of the video games of today. Also, the program stores all pertinent data from all players in the core system in order to provide the most comprehensive resource against each of your competitors. This technology is intended to be used in conjunction with real market analysis to measure the competency of major actions by TBITS and its clients—and be used to determine the competency of the participants relative to TBITS’s general practice standards.”

“That is where all of you come in! While this technology has been used and tested in-house extensively by business leaders, financial analysts, and technicians such as myself, this will be the first public operation of the DGMS system. For its maiden voyage, we have invited you all here in order to filter TBITS’s prospects for hiring the best of tomorrow’s business leaders today.”

Alex had to pause as the audience began applauding, much to her confusion. She watched as thirty of the most successful business students within TBITS jurisdiction looked up and clapped. She saw Mr. Davidson step into the room as her eyes tracked back down to the screen. Alex began again, “The Frederick H. Martin Grant Competition is not just an opportunity of a lifetime for you as promising candidates and future leaders; it is also an opportunity for us at TBITS to test some of our most advanced market algorithms against the greatest minds of the next generation and gives us an opportunity to seek out the newest talent in our rapidly evolving world. Therefore, DGMS technology promises to bring great opportunity to all of us as we combine the brightest thinkers of today into the learning experience of a lifetime. If any of you have any questions about the DGMS technology or the technical elements of the competition, feel free to ask your questions now.”

Immediately, about five hands shot up into the air. Alex pointed to a young man in the second row.

“Right, but, what are we actually supposed to do?”

The rest of the audience laughed mildly.

“Right…” Alex said as the young adults laughed again. “No, it’s a fair question. After the privacy conflicts back when you all were in diapers, some of the more invasive technologies aren’t used as much as they should be. If you haven’t used full-immersion simulation before, basically you get into a chair in a room. By thinking, you prompt the simulator to present on the wall any information or coding it determines to be relevant so that you may interact with it using your thoughts. Your first thought should be to visualize the current prices of stocks or commodities you want to invest in, or a map projection of any territories globally that you may trade with or within. From there, the whole interaction should feel rather intuitive. For the sake of the competition, TBITS’s published assets will be divided among the thirty competitors. If you ever get confused on how to proceed, looking up to the ceiling will manifest any keywords based on your recent thoughts.”

The audience sat quietly. Alex waited a moment before asking for more questions. She pointed to hand in the back row.

The young business student from the audience asked, “You mentioned several global markets. Will the interface feed data on all markets through a conscious mental feed or HUD?”

Alex quickly confirmed the data could be fed consciously and pointed to a young woman sitting near the door.

“How long is the competition expected to last based on in-house testing?”

Alex murmured a vague answer about no more than six hours then pointed to a serious looking man in the middle of the audience.

“You mentioned dynamically-fed data. Supposing a competitor made decisions with the intent to help another competitor, could the system detect these actions?”

Alex gave a short response of how these actions are anticipated, and making deals was the very point of the competition, but considering pro-social behavior as exploits was out of the purview of the DGMS since the pool of potential hires had been filtered so much already. Alex answered a few more basic questions before passing the podium back to Diana.

Alex acknowledged Mr. Davidson’s presence with a small nod before exiting the room and heading toward the elevator. The DGMS labs were just one floor down.

If Alex had any illusions that her team could function in her absence, she would have been a bit disappointed. She did find a few of the thirty simulation rooms prepared though. She gave her colleagues a short greeting before helping them complete the work, and she was pleased to see preparations go smoothly. After all, the last thing Alex needed was Mr. Davidson finding a problem with the DGMS on the company’s big day. Once that was done, Alex did a manual check of the critical systems and common faults. It was a rush job, but she was sure it was fine since the system was checked nightly. Full diagnostics were the last thing she ran last night.

As Alex headed to the DGMS break room, she noted that, despite everything, things were going alright. It was just she was walking past the elevator that Alex decided to go up and see if Diana would join her on a short break. She really wanted explain to Diana why she was so late. Alex thought, she has been all right while we’ve been working on this project together, and my absence must have put her in a terrible position.

It was just as Alex was passing an empty office that she heard Mr. Davidson talking within the room. Alex was not one to engage in office gossip or politics, but knowing his mood may prevent a formal reprimand. Alex pulled up her phone and pretended to check messages while she eavesdropped on the boss she had already irked once today.

“And the others too?” Mr. Davidson asked.

“Yes, sir,” a familiar male voice answered. “Everything has been set up, checked, and rechecked! I had plenty of time, thanks to you.”

Mr. Davidson let out a small chuckle, “Yeah, I don’t like calling in favors, but that woman is stubborn and resourceful. Having her run late was the best bet. Shame that we have to let her go after what she built.”

The other man scoffed. “HR insists there’s no way if we’re going to realize the potential of the DGMS. We don’t need her anymore, anyway. She has very limited range.”

Chilled, Alex turned back towards the elevator. The men’s voices started to emerge from the office. She walked as quickly as she could without sprinting. Just then, Alex saw Diana emerge from the ladies’ room. Alex ran to her friend and linked an arm through Diana’s. “Alex!” Diana exclaimed.

Alex gave Diana a nervous glance. “Please, just act like I’ve been with you,” she begged. The two walked in the direction Alex had just sprinted from.

Diana had only enough time to smile before Mr. Davidson and a serious-looking man came into the hallway. “Hello, Mr. Davidson!” Diana said. “I had not expected to see you until I had the mid-afternoon update.” Diana looked at the other man. “Oh, I didn’t know the two of you were acquaintances. Aren’t you one of the grant contestants?”

Both men smiled back. “What are you two ladies up to?” Mr. Davidson asked.

Diana turned at Alex before answering with a smile, “We were just headed to the break room and catching up.”

Mr. Davidson nodded. “Is that right? I was just looking for Ms. Kessler, and the employee app said that she was on this floor,” he said. He watched Alex for a moment before continuing. “Oh, this young man is Mr. Leonard. He is one of the grant candidates. He had a question about the DGMS.”

Alex was stunned that this man lied so easily. Alex tried to shake off her unease and introduce herself to the man who would probably be taking over her project by the end of the day. She attempted to smile and feign interest in his question, but it felt more like a grimace to her.

Mr. Leonard cleared his voice and gave a glance to Mr. Davidson. “Augment Implants, Ms. Kessler. I was wondering if the simulator was rated for them.”

Alex took a second to gather her thoughts. “Augment Implants? You mean AMIs?” she asked. She wondered if someone so young could still get augment implants. “Oh, yes, of course,” she replied. “Even though AMIs have fallen out of favor, and some break humanitarian and privacy laws in some sovereigns, all products TBITS produce for regular use are rated AMI-compatible as a safety precaution.”

“Ah, of course,” Mr. Davidson interjected. “Lucky for us that we ran into you here.” With that, Mr. Davidson bid farewell, claiming that they had to return to the brunch that was being held for the contestants.

When the two men left in the elevator, Diana was no longer in any mood for this. “What in the world was that, Alex? Davidson has AMIs, so how could he not know? What did you do to them?” she asked in a flurry.

Alex struggled to not burst into tears as she told Diana the entire chain of events starting from when she woke up this morning and ending with the conversation she had just heard.

Diana listened to whole story without an emotion crossing her face. Diana mumbled mostly to herself. “Leonard… Leonard… I know that name from somewhere. I believe it is the Department Head from Data Collection. Why would they want to keep you out of your office?”

Alex thought hard about the situation. “The only place I ever really spend any time is in the DGMS module! It is just a gaming program. I don’t see why I would be any kind of threat.”

Diana shrugged, unable to provide Alex with an answer. “Whatever it is, my advice to you is to mind your own business and keep your head down if you want to keep your job here.”

Alex nodded absently, still feeling bewildered. “Thanks for covering for me,” she said. “I was coming to apologize to you before all of that happened. I hope my tardiness didn’t put you in an awkward position.”

Diana smiled warmly and said to Alex teasingly, “Not at all! I’m glad that nothing worse happened to you. The weirdest things happen to problematic employees!”

Alex was troubled by that last statement. “With that in mind, I’m going to head back down to the DGMS lab to ensure that everything is still running smoothly. I don’t want any more problems today.”

Diana chuckled. “That sounds like a great plan!”

Slowly, Alex made her way back to the simulator lab as she tried to process everything. The cold, concrete walls could not contain the energy of the crowds of businessmen, entrepreneurs, and spectators who came to watch the competition on the direct feeds. The cheers and competition above echoed throughout the DGMS floor, but Alex was distracted. She knew that she had assured Diana that she would stay out of trouble, but despite the fact that she knew it was in her best interest, she could not leave it alone.

Alex sat at her station monitoring the progress of the grant contestants. Many were hovering right around the range that they should be at this point the competition. However, there was one just soaring above the rest by about sixty percent. “We have a shooting star,” she mused to herself whimsically. Her amusement only catalyzed the worries in the back of her mind though. We don’t need her anymore, anyway. She has a very limited range, she recalled. Before she even knew what she was doing, Alex was launching in-depth system checks, searching for some sign of unauthorized entry or tampering, but she found nothing. Everything was TBITS authorized and verified. Frustrated, she sighed. “There has to be a reason,” she muttered to herself.

It was then that she noticed something strange. The grant candidate in Room 12 would accumulate a large number of points at once, but rather than climbing to the lead the program kept averaging his points with all the other candidates keeping dead in the center of the rankings. When she thought about the alteration it was neither nefarious nor complicated. All that was really required was a slight change to the scoring codes in the program of that particular room. Tentatively, she clicked it to see if it was something she could easily correct. However, she was not surprised when her username and password were denied. “Leonard,” she growled softly to herself.

She knew this was the answer to everything, and her curiosity was piqued. As calmly as possible, she rose from her chair and made her way down the hall as if she was heading to the restroom, since Room 12 was in that direction. She casually strolled past the room glancing through the doorway as she turned into the restroom, and sure enough, Leonard was the occupant. He was most definitely immersed in the simulation. She washed her hands in case anyone was watching while she mulled over these knew revelations. What could they be up to? she asked herself.

Again, she passed the room on her way back to her lab. It was then that she remembered Leonard’s question about AMIs. The technology had long since been abandoned, so a question about AMI compatibility from someone below the age of forty was definitely strange. If Leonard had an AMI then he could be running any program that he wanted from his room, and she would have no way of figuring out exactly what that program did from her end. However, what she could do was eject Leonard from the simulation until she had a better idea of what the two men were doing. She picked up her pace as she made her back to her to her lab. She hesitated for only a moment while she thought about what Diana had said about inconvenient employees. She remembered that she was probably going to be fired either way. She could dress it up as an integrity issue within the scoring system explaining that she had noticed an error.

With a reckless abandon, she opened the details to the Room 12 simulation by way of a backdoor that she kept in all of her programs in case she found that her files had been tampered with. She let out a hiss in annoyance when she saw that her entry had tripped an alarm. She had to admit that Leonard was frustratingly good; not only had he managed to get into her system and alter her program without leaving a trace, he had also left a baited back entrance in case she figured out too much. She figured she could probably guess who had received that alert but she thought she had enough time to finish the task before she had company and some explaining to do.

Unfortunately, her calculations were off by a few seconds. She was just about to hit the enter key when Mr. Davidson and three security guards casually strolled into the room. “Good afternoon, Ms. Kessler! Hard at work I see?”

Alex tried to hide her unease, “I have some bad news, sir! It seems as if the scoring program in Room 12 has some sort of glitch in it.”

“Come now, Ms. Kessler, we both know that Mr. Leonard is in that room running a test on his own project. He is not harming the competition.”

Alex paused considering the admission before replying, “No, I wasn’t aware, Mr. Davidson! But perhaps I should have been, then I would not have been seconds from removing him from the simulation. What kind of project is he testing exactly?”

Mr. Davidson eyed her thoughtfully, “Mr. Leonard was been working on an algorithm that collects, learns, and projects creative thinking and problem solving probabilities for a couple of years now. He thinks he has finally worked out the program’s kinks, and he is currently using your program to gather the data necessary to test the latest version of the algorithm over the course of a long-term study.”

Alex pondered the implications of what her boss was telling her. “So, wait, you’re using my virtual reality game to gauge how these kids think and reason so that you can plug that information into an algorithm to see if you can accurately predict what they will do throughout their careers?” Alex blinked as she processed the information. “Why? I thought we wanted to ensure that the grant money reached the right hands so that future leaders could have an advantage to reach their goals.”

Mr. Davidson laughed a little to himself, “Diana is gifted with public relations, but no! I do not want to read about the successes of future leaders as our company falls behind. I want to be strategically ahead of them. This grant program will ensure that we have everything we need, and in a few years, it will be one of the most prestigious awards in the country, and the virtual simulation that you created will have graduate students lining up for a chance to compete with each other!”

Alex could not hide the look of disgust on her face, “That is creepily invasive and tortious interference!”

Mr. Davidson shook his head in disagreement. “We aren’t interfering in anything. We are simply beating our competition to the punch, so to speak!”

Alex crossed her arms across her chest and shook her head defiantly.

Mr. Davidson gave her a bemused look, “I can see we are not going to see eye to eye on this, Ms. Kessler, but that is of no consequence. As of today, TBITS will no longer require your particular expertise.” He turned to the security guards who had been standing idly by until that moment. “Please help Ms. Kessler collect her things and escort her from the building.”

Alex thought about putting up a struggle. Just simply leaning over and hitting the enter button, and ruining Leonard’s research. However, it was at that very moment that the simulator began to beep loudly. It was too late. The first winner of the Franklin H. Martin Grant had already won first prize. Feeling that the damage was already done, she followed the guards out of the room without making a fuss.

It had not been even fifteen minutes when she found herself back out on the sidewalk as the doors slammed closed behind her. She stood staring up at that building for a while, trying to decide on a proper course of action. She had never before noticed how intimidating the building looked from the sidewalk. It was just as she was about to take what she knew to the police, or the press, or anyone who would listen that her phone let out a couple of soft pings. The first was an alert about a money transfer to her account of $500,000. The second was an email.

She clicked it open and a brief video of her attacking Mr. Davidson as he tried to stop her from tearing apart the DGMS room flashed across the screen. The image was followed by a message that read:

To Ms. Alex Kessler:

This is email is to inform you that you are not longer an employee with Traditional Banking and Investment Technology Services. The company has wired you a severance package in the amount of $500,000. Please remember that upon your hire you signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Please be advised: Failure to honor this agreement will lead to aggressive prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

Thank you so much for your services and good luck in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Meredith Blossom

Head of Human Resources with TBITS

Alex opened and closed the email a few times, but the video feed did not reappear. However, she understood the message. Angrily, she threw her phone into the street where it was promptly run over by an automated taxi. Despondently, she turned away from the building and began the long trek home.

pencil

Michelle LaValley is thirty-two years old, and resides in a small town in Western Massachusetts. She lives with her boyfriend, Richard, and their two cats, Jack and Keenan. Email: Spigglez4[at]yahoo.com

Jon Meaders is twenty-nine, and lives in a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. He lives with his brothers, niece, parents, and their dog and cat, Chopper and G. Email: joncmeaders[at]gmail.com

Derecho

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Pat Gaines/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Mile 1, Elise, Metro 295, Morning Dove Coffee

One of the new hybrids, sparkling and quiet, pulls into Transit Center Bay 4. It is early dawn and already hot, rather, still hot. There is a pneumatic puff as the doors open and cold air from the bus tumbles out, lost to the heat wave outside. Woven scents of soaps from all the morning showers descend and hang in the air as students bound for the community college, office workers, laborers, and nightlifers step down off the bus.

Elise rolls her bike to the curb and waves at the driver. He gives her the thumbs up. She rolls it off the curb, lowers the bike rack, loads her bike on the front section, secures the support arm over the front wheel and moves into the queue, bus pass ready to scan.

She smooths the back of her skirt as she settles on one of the higher seats at the back of the first section of the articulated bus. She pulls out her iPad and balances it on the backpack in her lap. She leaves the seat next to her open anticipating a full commute into the university district, Pill Hill, then the downtown core. The pneumatic puff repeats as the doors close and the bus pulls away like a quiet dragon. The air conditioning works double-time to make up for the heat that boarded the bus like another passenger.

The deep blue sky is full of towers of cumulus clouds doing a quickstep march. They are positioned exactly where one of the local hot air balloon festivals takes place. She watches them sail quickly toward her. Her attention shifts as the kids bound for early university classes settle in with their energy bars, Odwalla drinks, and bloodshot eyes. A few pull out texts or tablets; most look hopeful for a few more winks. One is already curled up in a fetal position, her checkered canvas sneakers tucked on the seat, jungle red nails at the ends of her small delicate fingers cup her ankles. Her black knit watch cap implores “Love Me.” She has a little pout painted red.

Back outside, the sky on the horizon has turned from deep blue to dark gray-green and the cumulus clouds, racing in her direction bump into each other, flare out flat, and connect at the top. She hears something slide as the bus rounds a corner and brakes for the next stop. She looks down to see a bright pink toothbrush with green bristles slide out from under a seat. A woman’s cane crashes to the floor. Across from her an Asian girl in black watch plaid skinny jeans and four-inch suede peach stilettos picks up the woman’s cane for her. A wraith thin woman with a fever sheen to her face climbs on with heavy luggage. Elise wonders that she could lift it. She sits and a big shiver wracks her body. She digs out her cell phone and throws one leg atop her bag.

A woman sits down next to Elise. Her benchmate’s feet with celeste blue toenails swing freely in white leather flip-flops. A flash of departing morning sun lights the chin of a passenger in a dragon tee and the forehead of another across the aisle with his Beats and his music. Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones. The crackle of a couple of good old-fashioned newspapers, books. Watchers with smiles, with arms crossed bleary-eyed, with straight-ahead stares. The articulated center of the bus, the last seats to be filled, hosts a lanky boy with baggy trousers and a ball cap pulled down low.

There comes a changing of the guard at the transit center. The new benchmate sits down on the flare of Elise’s skirt. Thumbs still poised over his phone, one man sleeps through it all. Beats person reads the newspaper over another man’s shoulder and the bus is now at standing room only. Elise watches the lake turn serious gunmetal gray-green, reflecting the color of the horizon. Sunlight no longer makes its way past the bank of clouds which have formed an arched shelf. Low, dark, and menacing.

The couple across from Elise release hands as the man gets up for his stop. The woman, smiling a private smile, now holds her own hands on her lap as they pass into the dark of the tunnel.

The bus emerges from the tunnel to amplified crackling and an alarming jagged light. Another, followed by two enormous booms, reverberates Elise’s insides. The clouds now form a ceiling, like the low dark roof of a sports dome, crack, crack, crack—a series of lightning bolts is followed by the bellowing thunder.

In the seat in front of Elise little hands hang on the window sill. A child’s face, freckles pressed against the glass, head turning, laughing, pointing, smiling with joy, and speaking his own special language. His world goes by the window of the 295 and it is wonderful. His fellow passengers show mixed feelings, few share his enthusiasm, most of them have never seen a sky like this, some hope this means the end of the heat wave.

As Elise puts her iPad away and readies for her stop, the deluge begins, driven almost horizontal by the wind. Great! She’s early for her meeting. She shrugs her shoulders. Oh well. As she waits in line to get off the bus she spots a place of refuge from the storm, Morning Dove Coffee, named after the Mourning Dove, but the proprietor feared the word mourning might steer some people clear of the premises. She isn’t the only passenger planning a dash for the Morning Dove. She taps her bicycle helmet at the driver and he gives her a nod and thumbs up. She removes her bike from the rack, lifts the rack back into place in record time. Soaked, she runs head down against the driving rain with her bike across the street and locks it on the bike rack near the entrance. She is not alone taking refuge in Morning Dove Coffee. It is packed with bedraggled folk, pools of rainwater are already gathering on the floor. Streaks of lightning crackle and thunder booms.

The screen over the baristas that usually displays album art and info about the current song has been tuned to a news channel. A news anchor is interviewing a NOAA spokesperson who is standing in front of storm cloud diagrams. “…and can you explain why the extent of this thunderstorm, this, um, derecho, was not predicted?”

“While typical thunderstorms are reasonably well-forecast, the complexity of a derecho-producing storm system is not yet fully understood and observation networks…”

Elise orders a quad, no room.

Mile 325, Exit 18, Peg’s, “Homemade Pies, Fresh Coffee All Day”

Peg carries the round tray full of plates of food as though it is an extension of her left arm. The coffee pot in her right hand, likewise, seems like part of her anatomy. Skinny as a rail, tough as they come.

“Ha ha ha, what Lucy don’t know won’t hurt ya, Dan’l, fresh out of the oven this morning. Peach, loaded with cinnamon the way you like.” Peg’s smoker’s voice can be heard from one end of the little crossroads café to the other.

“Come on, go for it, Dan’l, you know we’re not squealers.” Jolene, Daniel’s cousin, chimes in from the center of the café.

An impromptu barbershop quartet from the back corner starts up:

I dream of pie with the light brown crust
Baked by Peggy, with loving care
I dream of fresh peaches baked within
That crust of care and cinnamon

“All right already you clowns, but if Lucy finds out about this…” Daniel growls.

Peg, who knows her customers, already has Daniel’s pie on her serving tray. She triumphantly places it in front of him. “There you go, Dan’l, I think this is one of my best yet, but you tell me.” She sets the coffee pot down and puts her right hand on her cocked hip, waiting for his first bite.

He cuts his first piece from the point, closes his eyes, and makes a wish as he chews—a childhood habit. He chews dramatically slowly. “Hmmm, mmumph.” He nods, opens his eyes, swallows and reaches his arm around Peg’s waist. “Darlin’, they’ll be serving this up in heaven.”

She nods, satisfied, picks up the coffee pot, tops his mug off and continues her rounds.

“Gettin’ dark in here, Peg, did ya pay the light bill?” Jeff asks from the counter where he likes to sit, the first stool but one.

Peg dips at the waist a little and peeks out a window. “Say, would ya look at that sky? Ain’t seen a sky like that, since, nope, well, never like that… dark like that, but not that big… damn if it don’t look like an alien spaceship dominating the sky like that. Well, folks, hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Peg’s.”

“I could think a worse places. Peg, top off all our coffees, and how about pie all around since Dan’l says its good enough for heaven! Oh, and make it on the house. Har har har har.”

“Now I just might to spite ya, Levi, you old coot!”

The door opens and bangs and bounces as a gust pulls it out of the new customer’s hand. The couple are probably travelers, no one knows them, but they are just as welcome as the regulars. Peg, still busy with serving, says over her shoulder, “Sit anyplace you like, well except Johnie’s table over there.” She points with her chin at a table in the corner window. It has a single place setting, a poppy in a vase, a photo of a boy in uniform and a display of medals. Sitting on one of the window sills is a US flag folded and displayed in a triangle.

“Say, what is this storm you’ve brought in folks?”

“We feel like it’s been chasing us!” the woman says as she heads for a table toward the back. “Davey tells me not to worry so, of course, now I’m really scared.”

Everyone in Peg’s chuckles.

Davey grins, as he pulls out a chair for his wife. “Aw, now, Lois. Well, everybody, I don’t believe I can take credit for this one. The radio is saying it is what’s called a derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders. Not very common especially this far west. From what I can gather we are maybe about in the middle of the thing. I guess over 250 miles is not uncommon. They say the North American record holder covered 1,300 miles. Yah, Minnesota, into southern Canada then headed out off the coast of Maine.”

“Never heard of one. You, Nosey?” Peg pours Clement “Nosey” Gray another cup.

“Not I, not I, Peg. Cheers!” Nosey lifts his now-full cup, nods at Peg, then downs the hot brew in short order.

Outside the windows it looks like nighttime until a bolt of cloud-to-ground lighting lights up the sky and the café followed by a rolling thunder. Another streak of bright electric light reaches from above the clouds to the ground and rebounds back. Its thunder roar takes less time to reach them. It feels like Peg’s little café actually shakes. Crack-crack, double-strike, and a roaring rolling boom prompts sounds not dissimilar to the sounds made by crowds watching fireworks.

The lights flicker.

“Oh oh, get out yer Zippos, boys and gals, we’re about to go down, glad we got the gas going in the kitchen already!”

The regulars pull out lighters or matches, lift the little glass globes from the candles in the center of their tables, light the candles like it is common practice here. Davey and his partner Lois, non-smokers, look around. Jolene, at the adjacent table, passes them her lighter and Davey lights the candle. “Much obliged.”

Mile 815, Holly, Code J45.901, Mostly Caff Café

Holly, a long-time barista at Mostly Caff, is now also interning as a pulmonologist at Mercy, the nearby university hospital. Very near—across the street actually. Many of the customers at the Mostly Caff Café are in scrubs. She was advised to quit her day job as soon as her internship started but she is young and energetic and has her eye on an elite racing bicycle. Everyone told her she’d be consumed by exhaustion, but she decided to wait and see.

She likes working the café. There is something familiar and comforting about it. Even crowded. Somehow the blending of multiple, low conversations sounds like a loft full of messenger pigeons coo-coo cooo, coo-coo cooo. Then there are the regulars, many of them fellow students. She likes the contact.

She and Hank are an efficient duo with the shift change crowd. It is especially busy today with regulars and non-regulars. Today is a guest day. Easy to spot, the first group huddles rather than queues. Five of them all wearing visitor badges around their upper arms like blood-draw Cobans. They are talking amongst themselves; she pegs them for the type that chat constantly as the line moves forward. She is right. They form a block oblivious to the people just trying to maneuver through the café. When it is their turn they look almost shocked, the clump disperses as they peer into the cases of food and crane their necks to read the drink offerings. She smiles, right every time. Her eyes make contact with one of her regulars behind the group; they both shrug their shoulders, amused. “What are ya gonna do?”

Holly has not seen the sky since arriving for work. Everyone coming in is describing it differently, but all agree it is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Fast-moving, a solid bank of low cumulus-like stuff, dark and menacing and heading their way. One person likens it to Birnam Wood’s assault on Dunsinane. All she knows is that, her ears, particularly sensitive to pressure changes, are bothering her. Suddenly the already dim Mostly Caff becomes even darker, like blackout curtains dropped, they way they do in the classroom prior to a video lesson. Just as sharply, darkness is broken as strobes, brilliant and revealing—almost blinding—flash brightly and give the room the feel of an old Gothic mansion in a bad horror film.

Soon a deluge is audible on the roof. More people pour into the already crowded café. Many, just off work, decide to wait out the thunderstorm before catching their bus home. None of the bus shelters are adequate to the task of shielding people from this thing.

Pitched above the cracks of lightning and the rumbling of thunder comes the sound of aid cars. It is not unusual to hear sirens since the ER is just across the street, but it is unusual to hear so many so close together. Suddenly beepers, phones, and watch alerts are capturing the attention of almost everyone in the place, including Holly. She glances down at her watch and asks one of her co-workers who was about to leave, “Hey Rhond, can you, um, not leave? I have an emergency call, I gotta run over to Mercy.”

Rhonda looks at her, shrugs back into her work apron by way of answer and mutters, “I won’t say it…”

“Thanks, Rhond, I owe ya.”

Over at Mercy, Holly is startled by the array of ambulances and aid cars. Inside, she finds chaos instead of what is usually a well-oiled machine of efficiency. She recognizes at least three triage nurses with their hands full with so many patients looking “life threatening” or at least “urgent.” She races through gurneys with people clearly in distress, many with intubations, and makeshift stations with oxygen bottles. She makes it to the locker area to jump into her scrubs. The locker room is more crowded than she’s ever seen it.

“What’s up, Bec?”

“Just up your alley, Holly, severe asthma attacks, some folks who’ve never experienced it before. The numbers… crazy. Almost like a fast-moving epidemic.”

“An outbreak of asthma attacks? Sure it isn’t some demented terrorist chemical attack?”

“Here? You watch too much news, kid. Hey Zack! They called you in too?”

Sandy, still in scrubs, who works in the office of the Unit Secretary, pops in just to drop off his backpack and interjects, “Yep, they even called me back. I guess they’ll want me pre-filling intake and charge forms. I already have it memorized. Code J45.901—asthma, unspecified, acute exacerbation.”

“I think they are calling everyone in. I saw this when I was a paramedic in Melbourne.” Zack is a resident. “Thunderstorm asthma. Lots of work done on this in Australia.”

Holly, Bec, and Zack, now into their scrubs, continue their conversation as they rush down the hall to see where they are most needed.

“Come on Zack, this is no time for one of your down-under stories.”

Zack continues. “No, straight. Lots of research done after several events including deaths. Theory is the violent activity of a thunderstorm breaks pollen grains into even finer particles than usual. The fragments or particles are so small they pass through the body’s natural defenses and get into the lungs. That’s why it gets some people who’ve never had asthma before and really does a number on asthma sufferers.”

The charge nurse puts Holly on preparing salbutamol and adrenaline syringes, some for the ER, some to go out with the aid cars. Bec is sent to help set up more resuscitation beds. Zack is given his first patient, a terrified boy. Already intubated, eyes wide, he clings to Zach’s outstretched hand.

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes “Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement” (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams,” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Lou Nell and her husband, Klee, live in Ashland, Oregon with three cats, her muses, Little Bear, Louie, and Valè. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

10 O’Clock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mike Wang


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

The summer of 1978 was meteorologically insignificant in Western New York. By all accounts, it was business-as-usual for the weathermen of Buffalo, but for me July of 1978 was a strange season of contrasts: days of pure bliss and nights of unadulterated terror.

My grandfather had died that spring: heart attack while driving that led to a tragic collision with a bridge abutment. I was only nine, but I remembered him well. At least, I thought I did. Today his memory is mostly a mélange of impressions: the smell of pipe tobacco, the proud look in his eyes when he introduced my siblings and me around at their country club. The summer before, in 1977, we had all made the long trek from England to their house in East Aurora. We were living overseas because my father was a pilot in the Air Force.

That first summer, at the tender age of eight, I thought I was pretty brave, but I had never met a thunderstorm. Living in England, we rarely had summer days topping 80 degrees, let alone generating enough heat and humidity to spawn anything like the gargantuan monsters that blew off Lake Erie every evening. That summer, I had quickly learned to hate bedtime because I knew what nightfall had in store for me.

It was diabolical. While every morning the sky would be clear and flawless, I learned not to be fooled. We would come down from our beds in the converted attic room that served as my grandparents’ office to the smiling faces of its owners. As we ate breakfast: juice and toast with homemade currant jam, an occasional egg, we’d plan the adventures for the day. We’d shop, we’d go to the local pool, get ice cream at Chet’s, maybe go into Buffalo proper to see a museum. Some evenings we’d go to the country club for dinner. As each day wore on, I would nervously note the small, puffy clouds building into cumulus. By the time we were back at the house, playing in their enormous unfenced backyard, I could see the towering fortresses of terror glowering at me from the stratosphere. Invariably, by dinner time, the muted roll of distant thunder asserted itself like a physical presence, making me nervous as a hare. My mother could see the anxiety building behind my eyes. She’d pat my leg and reassure me, but it never worked. I was terrified of thunderstorms.

As if to add emphasis and some tactile sense to my unease, one of the nights that summer we were all sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching a program on their enormous oak console TV. Certainly nothing could go wrong there. My grandfather and my father were in the room. All us kids were bathed and dressed in our PJs for bed. We were safe.

I remember being curled up on the sofa next to my father when an unearthly blue-white light filled the windows on three sides of the room. Not an instant later, the boom, no, the crash, no, the deafening roar of the thunder seemed to crush me down into the plush of the upholstery. My mother screamed at the same instant that the TV went black with an emphatic “Zot” and a wisp of smoke curled over the back of the set. Lightning had struck the antenna… which was bolted to the outside of the attic room where the kids slept.

The next day I loitered in the living room while the TV repairman (they came to your house back then) opened the vault-like back of the TV, revealing its intricate innards. When he removed the panel you could still smell the acrid aroma of burnt electronics. Pushing his cap back on his head, he said, “Whew! Never seen that before.”

Reaching into the guts of the set, he pulled out something that looked like a thick pencil lead, about half an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he poked it with a finger and it squished down into a powdery smear. “That’s a one million volt resistor,” he explained, holding out his hand to my grandfather. “It’s part of the lightning protection circuitry in this set. Good thing, too, or you’d have yourself a new coffee table. I’ll have you back up in a jiffy.”

At eight years old, I didn’t know much about lightning, but I knew that a million volts was a lot and that whatever a resistor was it had given its life to protect the TV. And, more importantly, I knew that the attic didn’t have any resistors and neither did my squishy little body.

So here we were again: new summer, old problem. This time the reassuring presence of my grandfather was gone and my father had stayed in England because he had to fly in some exercise so he couldn’t get time off. I was the man of the house. My little brother was useless, as they usually are. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time around the coffee table, speaking in low tones and abruptly changing the topic when any of the four kids strayed too close. There was an innate sadness the two ladies shared, sort of like a gray patina over both of them. We did a lot less adventuring that summer. Mostly stayed around the house and did things in Grandma’s little town of East Aurora.

I spent a lot of time in the basement. It was cool and dark and surprisingly dry. My grandfather’s tools and hobby equipment lived down there. I don’t think my grandmother was able to clear it out, not yet anyway. So my nine-year-old self spent many of those summer hours down amidst his train sets and golf clubs. I’d tinker at his work bench and look out the windows, high up in the cinder block foundation, watching the clouds build through the dirt and spider webs.

As evening approached, I’d get more anxious and taciturn. This summer my mother didn’t have the emotional reserves to spare for  me, so I’d work on comforting myself as night fell and atmospheric battle commenced outside. Eventually, the dreaded call of “bedtime” would ring out and all of us would trail upstairs to get in bed.

The attic was paneled and painted, but it had the strange ceiling contours of the inside of the roof, angled 45 degrees. Four twin beds took up the space where there was usually a small sitting area, while the desk and filing cabinets stood against the end of the room. There was one round window high up in the angle of the roof. Because of the shape of the ceiling, the acoustics of the room made it sound like my siblings across the aisle were right beside me. One by one, I could hear them drift into sleep and settle into a deep, regular breathing. As for me, I would lay there with the sheets pulled up to my nose, my eyes darting to the high window, waiting for each lighting flash and counting the seconds before the timpani of thunder reached me.

When the storm got close, the wind would increase and send the weathervane spinning in wild, rustily-shrieking circles. Rain would lash the window and pound on the roof tiles above my head. Then all I could do was curl into the fetal position and grit my teeth, clenching the covers over my head. Through my eyelids, each flashbulb pop of lightning registered as a pink haze. It was exhausting.

Eventually, the heat of the day would give up all its energy to the storm gods and the thunderstorms would wear themselves out. When they went to sleep, so would I, sweaty in my sheets and worn thin. That’s how every night passed. Slowly, so slowly, in a mindless terror. No one bothered to weigh me, but I’m sure I lost a couple pounds that summer. I stumbled around hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived most days.

But I started this missive speaking of blissful days. What of them? In actuality, there were only about three weeks of bliss. We had been there a fortnight and had 21 days to go, when on one of our trips to the public pool, I saw her. Beauty personified. To a nine-year-old, she was angelic. It wasn’t physical, really. I mean, she was nine as well. Her hips were straight and her chest was flat as mine. If it wasn’t for social convention, she could have pinned her hair tight and worn my swim trunks; no one would have seen a difference between us… though, that’s not exactly true.

She had an air, a certain carriage of the head and shoulders that set us apart. She seemed to float where I plodded. She dove into the deep end with the lithe grace of a naiad, pointed toes and hands reaching, long and lean. I plopped in like a baby duck.

We had been to the pool in the previous two weeks that summer, but I hadn’t seen her. Later she’d tell me that her family was visiting her aunt in Albuquerque (wherever that was). But the first day I saw her, it was like she singled me out. Across the pool, she nimbly lifted herself onto the edge and grabbed a towel, careful with the glasses that were wrapped in it. As she dried her face and put the glasses on, she turned and looked straight at me, smiling. I remember turning to look over my shoulder; certainly there must be someone she knew behind me. When I looked back and discovered it was me she was focusing on, her smile became a cascade of good-natured laughter. She had a strangely deep alto laugh for such a young girl. It had a tripping, almost singing quality that made people around her laugh along. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t talk to her that first day at the pool, nor at Chet’s where we usually went for ice cream after swimming.

Her family pulled up two slots down in the parking lot while we stood at the window and ordered Chet’s famous peanut butter ice cream. I looked away and pretended not to notice her while my family shuffled over to a concrete table under the corrugated metal awning. It was a thin pretense since my young psyche was constantly and acutely aware of her. It was like she was a magnet that made the compass needle in my mind follow her every move. We didn’t speak, but she caught my eye as we piled into the back of my grandmother’s Plymouth. She waved: a tiny but graceful motion of her still-raisiny hand. Somehow, I forced myself to wave back and added a wan smile.

That night, I gritted and sweated my way through another tortuous bout of thunderstorms, but it was somehow a little easier, a little less tortuous. I thought of her, out there somewhere, lying in her little bed, probably sleeping the sleep of the blessed, and it comforted me. In retrospect, it was strange that where both my mother and grandmother were so smothered by grief to lend me aid, an unknown little wisp of a girl could do just that. At the time, I couldn’t process that idea. All I knew was that thinking about her helped me weather the storm. As I drifted off to sleep, the thunder still echoing outside, I resolved that I would talk to her the next day at the pool.

But, it didn’t happen. At least not the next day. “It’s not fair!” I raged. “Why can’t we go to the pool?”

My mother was a little taken back by the outburst and my uncharacteristic vehemence. “Samuel, you know why.” She used my full name. “We’re going over to the Edmondses’ for lunch. Your grandmother wants to show you off,” she said, smiling. “Now be a good boy and get your shirt on.”

You can’t fight city hall. We drove off for lunch and then spent the afternoon playing in the Edmondses’ backyard while the adults spoke in the same muted tones that pervaded Grandma’s house. As it turned out, that little pause probably steeled my resolve to talk to the girl the next day. Now I was determined.

Sometimes temporary insanity masquerades as resolve. That next day, I was certainly mad, but full of resolution to speak to her. As soon as we got to the pool, I threw my stuff down and walked right up to her. She and her friends were quietly chatting on some chaise lounges at the far end of the pool. Socially inept as I was, I broke in without a pause in their conversation. Her friends awkwardly ended their confab in mid-sentence. I was vaguely aware of their puzzled censorious faces turning towards mine, but hers was smiling and open.

“I’m Samuel,” I blurted.

“Hi Sam-O,” she smirked back.

I wasn’t sure she had heard me, what with all the splashing and kids yelling behind me. “No. It’s Samuel.”

“Yeah, I heard you, Sam-O.” Now her friends were smiling too, but not in the same friendly way that she did. “You don’t mind if I call you Sam-O, do you?”

How could I mind? I mumbled something about, “No… fine with me,” as I looked at my bare feet, suddenly self-conscious about how dirty they looked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Helen,” she replied, blue eyes dancing behind her large frame glasses. In later years I would have called the color of her eyes heliotrope, but at that point I only knew that they were blue. Bluer than anything I had ever actually seen in person. The centers of the irises were slightly lighter than the purplish rim around each. “Captivating” is the word.

As if to exhibit my learned character, I said, “Helen. That’s name of a lady who launched a hundred ships.”

She laughed. That beautiful sound of falling water. It wasn’t a wicked retort, just an amused acknowledgement of my small mistake. “I think you mean she had a face that launched a thousand ships,” she giggled.

Now I was really confused. I contemplated my dirty feet again and murmured that maybe I wasn’t so good at math. That little comment brought forth another little gush of laughter, this time joined by the tittering of her friends. Aware that I had accidentally said something funny, I looked up and smiled back. Helen invited me to sit down and the circle opened to admit me. That was how it started: an awkward interruption, an instant nickname, a botched reference to The Iliad, and some good-natured laughter. Oh, that more of my lasting relationships were so easy to break into.

From then on, we seemed to be inseparable. Every day followed the same basic pattern: a quick breakfast and then a sprint into my grandma’s backyard. It turned out that Helen’s folks lived in a house that backed up to Grandma’s just a few doors down. No one had fences, so all the huge yards flowed together to make one giant park for the neighborhood kids to play in. We’d meet at the junction of the yards at the base of an ancient elm tree. Most times my pesky younger brother tagged along, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Other kids from the neighborhood knew that there was a daily meeting of the minds under the big tree, so it usually turned into an opportunity for hide-and-seek or tag or red rover. Sometimes we’d play kickball until lunch when the whole gaggle would pack into someone’s kitchen for baloney sandwiches and then it was off to the pool. After swimming, Chet’s was the order of the day, and then we’d chase fireflies in the falling light while the thunderheads built overhead. Eventually, all the moms signaled dinner time, and we would reluctantly retire for the evening. Helen and I were usually the last to trail inside; we’d stall and dawdle and look at each other over a widening expanse of grass until the elm tree blotted out our view.

The thunderstorms still raged every night, joining battle over Lake Erie, but somehow I didn’t care so much. It wasn’t that I was “cured” or anything, just that the space where the fear had rooted in my soul was slowly getting filled with the warm feeling of fellowship, kindred spirit, dare I say it? Love? I couldn’t articulate it then and I wouldn’t call it love today: it was both more and less than that. It was a call and answer. The recognition of “likeness” in another that was new to me then. I’ve felt it since, with my best friend, Bill, and with my wife; I can put words with concepts today, but then it was merely the awareness of a resonance between Helen and me.

It was as if that resonance served as a frequency that offset and canceled out the terror that had once vibrated through my heart at the first muffled sound of distant thunder. I still avoided bedtime. I still hated the darkness and the sudden stabbing white-hot light that filled the little window in our room, followed by the madly bellowing thunder. The weather vane shrieked and I still cowered under the covers for a time, but with less conviction, less urgency, less fear. I usually fell asleep early in the storm cycle of the evening and rose refreshed, ready to meet under the elm tree again that day.

Of course, it couldn’t last. We were going to be heading back to England in a week or so. My father finally joined us, done with his flying exercise. He’d watch me, puzzled, then shoot meaningful looks at my mother as I wolfed down my breakfast and bolted out the back door, screen door slamming. She’d sigh and smile and shrug her shoulders as they watched me running across the grass towards the big tree. I think she was happy to have my father, her man, in the house again, and I also think she saw the budding of joy returning to the family as well.

But, that summer, joy was working on a time limit. The spate of perfect days couldn’t go on forever. I tried to ignore it, but the paradox of time was, and is, that the very passage of each wonderful day with Helen brought the end of those days closer. I felt it. We both did.

As the day of our departure drew nearer, Helen and I would look for opportunities to break away from the rest of the kids. We’d find a tree and sit on opposite sides with our backs to the bark and just talk. We didn’t need to see each other. We didn’t need to touch each other. In fact, I had never purposely touched her except when we were playing tag, or handing the kick ball back and forth. There was no romantic physical yearning, or anything so poetic, though had it been a couple of years later, there might have been. There was only an acknowledgement, a settled agreement between our two souls.

The things we talked about were inconsequential. What do nine-year-olds have to talk about, really? It was the act of communicating, of “communing,” in truth, that we were interested in. All the more as that last day of August crept closer.

The fact of our impending separation stalked us, tracked us, and eventually moved in for the kill. My family was leaving the next day.  Mom could see the strained sadness on my face, but she was too involved with the logistics of getting her four kids and husband ready for a transatlantic flight to give me much solace. My dad was no help either. He was hustling around the house at the direction of my grandma, trying to finish all the little chores that had been neglected for almost six months now.

That last day, we went to the pool, of course, but it was an awkward interlude. Helen and I were both filled with a sense of impending loss that was tough for kids to identify. We talked softly and swam a little bit. As we dried off and sat in the sun to warm up, we chatted, averting our eyes from one another. I mumbled and bumbled and tried to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let me. We were desolate.

At Chet’s she got progressively quieter. I could read her mood. There was a deep contemplation raging behind her eyes. She was forming a plan, coming to some resolution. Right before we left for the evening, she whispered to me, “Meet me at the elm tree at ten.”

I nodded.

Our families were saying their goodbyes. We would be leaving for the airport early, so we wouldn’t see them tomorrow. Amidst that confusion of handshakes and back slaps and promises to “see you next summer,” I caught Helen’s eye and nodded again.

Dinner at home. Baths. The final packing that needed to be done. It all drug along with the somnolent sluggishness of a bad dream. In the back of my mind I heard the distant rolling thunder, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had promised to meet Helen outside at night when the storms were sure to be raging. For a moment, just an instant, my courage wavered. But then the look of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the totality of our summer together, crystallized my resolved to be there, under that tree, no matter what.

My father had given me a watch that year, one of his old ones. It was too big for me, so I hardly ever wore it, but that night I had it strapped to my skinny wrist. I hid under the covers so my siblings wouldn’t see the glowing hands on the watch face as they inched towards ten o’clock. Far away, faintly, thunder cracked and rolled across the lake. The lightning flickered, but at a distance. I held out hope that the storms would peter out before they got to us tonight. Maybe they would just march in another direction. Not to be. By eight-thirty, the rain was pelting the roof, the wind was busy pummeling the weather vane, and I was balled up under the covers steeling myself for what I knew had to come.

By 9:55, the storm was raging, but it was time. I slipped out of bed, momentarily caught in the strobe light of a flash of lightning. I saw, frozen on my retinas, the images of my brother and sisters sleeping. Then it was black again as the thunder pounded my eardrums. I was terrified. I took advantage of the noise that the thunder made to open the door and step out onto the creaky landing. The light from my parents’ room made a bar on the carpet in the hallway. I could hear their voices, muffled by the partially-closed door. My mother’s shadow passed over the light and I froze, but she was just walking to their closet. Downstairs the house was already dark.

I glanced at my watch. Just a few minutes to our meeting. I had better hurry. I slipped down the stairs and out the kitchen door, this time holding the screen so it wouldn’t slam closed. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressive. The bulk of the house sheltered me there on the stoop, but even so the wind was whipping the tree tops into a frenzy, blowing sheets of water that had already made a quagmire of the backyard. Lightning flashed, outlining the elm tree in black and white. The thunder tore the sky, louder than I had ever heard it.

I almost turned back, almost just went back into the house, but then I saw her. Across the vast expanse of the yard, I could just make out a white smudge, a blur, moving towards the tree. I instantly started moving too. Within moments, I was soaked to the bone, but not cold. Those summer storms had a sweet, warm quality to the rain. As I splashed across the yard, lightning cracked the sky again, followed very closely by the crash and peal of the thunder. She beat me to the tree. Underneath it was drier but still blustery.

She was in her pajamas too, a lightly ethereal, diaphanous white night gown. Our eyes met in the gloom, slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was smiling. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” I admitted, forlorn.

“Yeah, but you did,” she smiled again.

“This probably isn’t safe,” I had to nearly shout over a peal of thunder.

“I know,” she replied, the corners of her lips curled up.

“I think I love you, Helen,” I said, looking into her eyes.

“I know,” she answered.

“When will we see each other again?” I quested, a little frantic about the answer.

“We see each other now, don’t we?” she laughed and took my left hand in hers.

“I’m serious. Will you come to England?” I had to shout. The lightning and thunder were beating the sky overhead almost continuously, cascading in an avalanche of light and sound. Wind and rain buffeted us under the elm and I could hear branches snapping close by.

“Probably not.” She answered matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford that. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Much later.” She took a long look up into the branches overhead. “But I think we’ll always be… special to each other. You’ll always know me; I’ll know you.”

At that moment, she stepped back towards the trunk of the ancient elm. I clung to her left hand with mine. At that instant the air was filled with blue light, it flashed and froze the raindrops in mid-air. The thunder was so loud, so immanent, I felt it rather than heard it. Even today, in my mind, I see the ropey lightning, as if in slow motion, twining down through the crown of the tree, burning bark and leaves as it comes. Helen’s eyes were fixed on mine as the bolt flew out of the trunk behind her, passing through her night gown just to the left of her sternum, and then down her left arm into mine. We flew apart like a landmine had gone off between us.

Raindrops. My face is wet. Something smells like ozone and burning wood. As I opened my eyes, the scene came back to me. I was dazed. All I knew was that the old elm was a wreck, split from crown to root, and smoldering in the wind and rain. Helen? Where was she? I sat bolt upright off the wet grass. There she was lying on her back amidst the wreckage of the tree. I ran to her, a deep throbbing pain in my left hand slowly registering. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face was dewy from the rain; it held a serene half smile. The only thing that looked out of place was a small burn mark over her heart.

I touched her face. I sat looking at her then I started to cry. A moment later, my father was next to me, along with several of the neighbors. They had seen the old tree take a hammering, seen the destruction, and come out to investigate. If they were surprised to start with, imagine their astonishment when they found a little dead girl and a little boy with one of the fingers on his left hand nearly burned off.

Naturally, our plans changed. We couldn’t leave the next morning. There was the funeral, of course. A specialist had to remove the ring finger from my left hand and sew up the gap. He said he was giving me a “Mickey Mouse” hand. I think he was trying to connect with his pediatric patient and be funny at the same time. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but my parents didn’t see the humor in it. In any case, it was a week before he would let me fly back.

Eventually, we did go back. Life went on. Almost returned to normal. I never worried about thunderstorms after that. My hand healed and I got along just fine without that finger. I’m right handed after all, but it did affect me in one way later in life. I couldn’t wear a wedding ring. My wife understood. She knew about my accident when I was nine. I never told her about Helen.

pencil

“My name is Mike Wang (pronounced like “Long”). I know, Vera pronounces it like “Bang.” I’ve never talked to her about it, but I think she changed the pronunciation because it’s just easier in business. I get it, but if I ever do get a chance to talk to her, I’ll have to mention how difficult her choice has made my life! Anyhow, I’m a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls, 12 and 9. Been married for 28 years to the same great lady, Kris. I grew up in an Air Force family and I flew fighters in the Air Force for 21 years. Now I fly 737s for Southwest Airlines. We’ve lived in Phoenix for the last 19 years and I think we’re officially anchored here for the long haul. I’m not an author and I’ve never had anything published, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. This is a first step into a new world.” Email: mnkwang[at]aol.com

Seven Disconnected Facts about the Human Heart

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Patrick B/Flickr (CC-by)

1. The heart beats 115,000 times a day

The sky darkens and my heart beats uncomfortably fast.

I put the phone down and try to absorb the information, letting it pass from ear to brain. This is it. A possible match. Please get here as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.

For weeks the heat has built; for months I have waited for this call. Now it is here, I’m not ready; I long to return to balmy warmth and postponement. I look down at my list of shakily scribbled instructions. Nil by mouth. Not a problem now nausea has taken hold. Bring all current medication.

My rapid pulse is not good; it is important to remain relaxed and calm, to steer clear of all strong emotion, avoiding undue stress on a damaged organ. The wind has picked up, setting the windows rattling. The rattling of my heart feels like terror; perhaps it is also something else.

I breathe in slowly and slowly out, inhaling the smell of dusty heat through the open window.

I think how this is my once in a lifetime chance to regain my life.

I think how the operation has risks.

I think how someone has died, someone who most likely got up this morning expecting a perfectly ordinary day.

A car accident. An operation gone awry.

A murder.

A suicide.

A bolt out of the blue.

I won’t be told the details, not now. It is morbid to speculate, impossible not to be curious about the stranger whose heart is still beating, the heart which will become mine. Afterwards I will be given the opportunity to write a letter to the grieving family. Thank you for my gift of a heart from someone you loved and lost.

Presupposing that I am still around.

2. The heart is the size of a fist

Lightning flashes across the sky. I don’t want to do this: the thought sparks up hard and fast and I fist my fingers, reason battling against instinct. I stare at the veins on the back of my hand, their bifurcating pattern.

Operative mortality—death within thirty days—is between five and ten percent. Toss a coin four times, all are heads, fail to wake up, or wake up only to succumb to septicaemia. Is the former any worse than the latter? Is dying from the operation worse than dying from this natural but unlucky defect? There are no satisfactory answers.

I have little time left, but am unlikely to die today, not if I stay here safely at home. This is not the way I should be thinking.

The decision is made, my consent given when I agreed to my name being put on the waiting list. No amount of prior discussion—calm and rational—with doctors and my daughter, settles the matter within this instant. But the call has created an obligation. I owe a debt to unknown people—the person who died, the family who have said yes, the one who was next after me on the waiting list—to seize this chance. Even though, right now, every ounce, every minute of here and now life seems so much more precious than my nine in ten chance of a future.

Thunder cracks. I relax my hand. I stand and drive myself forward through the procedures. I retrieve my already packed bag, essentials pared down, keeping things light. I sweep up my cornucopia of pills. I make the single call I need to, leaving a message when Amanda fails to pick up. ‘It’s Mum. They’ve found a match. I’m making my way to the hospital now.’

She knows the score. She has been waiting for this phone call too. I know what she would say if she was here, all the reassuring words she thinks are good for me to hear, reinforcing all that the doctors have already said.

I am doing this for you, I think. So my adult daughter will not be orphaned, so her future children will know their grandmother.

This is my final call for an added decade.

3. The heart beats to an electrically controlled rhythm.

Lightning again, electricity discharging chaotically, then thunder, the gap between them shorter, the storm moving closer, a scattering of rain across the windows. I ring a taxi and try to still the waver in my tone. The woman’s voice—laid back, indifferent—does not provide confidence that this booking is being taken sufficiently seriously, the details properly marked down. ‘It’s urgent,’ I say, and I repeat my address.

‘We’ll be there soon as.’ She sounds annoyed at my pushiness, at my inflection of doubt.

And now there is nothing to do but pull on comfortable shoes and check I have my keys for the umpteenth time. To wander round my flat and double-check all the windows are closed. I confirm the battery level on my mobile phone and go in search of my charger and list the possible ways this will go.

Option 1: I will be in hospital for four weeks. Option 2: I will be sent home immediately, the match not confirmed, or tests revealing an infection, or a deterioration in my health. Option 3: I am not going to think about that.

If sent home, would relief or disappointment gain the upper hand? Best not to ask unanswerable questions. The rain builds; it clatters and runs down the windows in all directions.

4. The heart pumps 2,000 gallons of blood every day

I operate on autopilot, heading out into the deluge of rain to the taxi, suppressing the instinct to make a quick dash for it. Raindrops bounce off the tarmac; they course down the windscreen and I watch the smear of colourful umbrellas, grey buildings, and greenery outside. The trees with their summer leaves, which I hope to see turn to autumn reds and gold. Roses on the turn. Scorched grass. The people I don’t know, all of them precious, I hope, to someone.

Water drips from the ends of my hair. Shivering, I place my hand over my damp clothing above my poorly functioning heart, which is giving out in the summer of my life. I have no reason to feel attached to this, yet it has been with me from the beginning and I feel reluctant to let it go. I picture how the donor—the person, the body—will be scalpelled and then sawed open, the lungs still inflating, the organ still beating as it is cut free. The same process will be enacted on me, and then the reversal. I will receive a secondhand heart, be sewn back up and brought round. The details provoke a swell of nausea, my brain dwelling on the blood and guts details I’d prefer not to know.

At the hospital I am taken though to a small room whose closed window looks out onto the expanse of low-lying cloud. Someone will be with you soon. I have forgotten to bring anything to read. Unlikely I’d be able to concentrate, but I miss the page turning distraction. Minutes pass slowly and I ought to appreciate every one; instead I feel a fidgety anxiousness, and I try to mute my emotions down while, beyond the glass, light continues to flash and thunder rumbles distantly. I long for the cool freshness of the outside air; I am trapped here amidst the suffocating stuffiness.

The nurse arrives, briskly cheerful and I wish she wouldn’t be. ‘How are we today?’

How would anyone feel before such a major operation?

She takes my pulse and blood pressure, and then a blood sample. I’ve had this done so many times and you’d imagine I’d be used to it by now. Still, I manage to dislike the whole procedure. The application of the tourniquet, the prod and prick as she tries to find a vein. I close my eyes tight and try not to think about the pumping red flow. I have always been squeamish and it’s an unfortunate thing to be, given how much time I spend in hospitals.

5. A disconnected heart continues beating

I stand under the warm downpour of the shower and close my eyes. I wash thoroughly using plenty of soap, mud-brown and smelling of iodine. Dried, I pull on the hospital gown and draw a sterile dressing gown round tight. The doctor turns up, the man who I have seen regularly for months now. He runs through the practical details which I already know. ‘Have you any questions?’

His smile is forced, yet not unkind. I wonder how he feels. Trepidation, knowing what is at stake? The excitement of imminent performance?

I ask if the other heart has arrived yet.

The surgeon looks me in the eye in that disconcerting way he has and I picture this being part of his training. Always make eye contact. Don’t avoid awkward answers. Be honest.

Honesty is not a well-defined thing.

‘Not yet, but it will be by the time we need it.’

‘You won’t remove the old one until the new one arrives though?’

He lets his silence speak.

I have become an expert in this operation. The maelstrom of medical activity involved in cutting me open and severing my heart cannot be done in a hurry. The longer the other heart is on ice, the poorer the chances of success. Timing is everything. The logistical chain is complex. The heart might be in a hospital far away and a team from here will need to travel there for the process of harvesting. Harvest. It’s an uncomfortable term. I don’t know what word I might prefer, but not this one, conjuring picturesque farms abundant with fruits and grains.

What ifs pound in my head. What if the storm means the plane cannot take off or the courier car crashes in the wet? What if the icepack fails? I picture myself lying prone and opened out, my defective organ set aside and still beating, and the finger tapping wait for the new one to arrive. At what point would they put the old one back and what sort of chance would it have?

‘Trust me,’ the doctor says. ‘We’re not going to leave you high and dry without a heart.’

Trust is the hardest of things.

6. Laughter is good for your heart.

Time ticks by and I try to exist outside these moments, to rest suspended, in a state beyond thought. My last moments may thus be unarticulated ones.

The rain against the window starts to ease. My phone rumbles, interrupting my quasi-meditative state. I jolt alert in a wholly unpleasant way, heart beating fast. I pick up.

‘Mum.’

I feel reluctant to take this call, lacking the energy to adopt my usual role of not wanting to worry her. Nurturing, that’s how a mother should be; not needy. Yet now that her voice speaks in my ear, I discover how desperately I need to hear it. Neither of us will refer to the possibility of this being our last ever call, but we are unusually tender with one another. She makes a joke about my heart-age becoming younger than hers and we both laugh and I feel the tension ease. Rays of sun peak out from the leaden sky, the rain reducing to a few heavy drips.

‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ she says, though very obviously she cannot be sure, not beyond the ninety-percent-plus success rate of at least getting through the first thirty days.

‘It had better be,’ I say.

She tells me that she is going to get a train later this evening and should be here for when I wake in the morning. I try to picture opening my eyes, feeling groggy and crap, yet alive, knowing this thing is over. I picture placing my hand on my bandaged chest and feeling a heart beating inside me, one which is not mine, one which has the capability to keep on going. I focus on the image of my daughter being there and the sun shining once more through the window. I am doing this for her.

We are out of things to say and we spend a moment listening to the imagined sound of the other’s breathing, and of their heartbeat. ‘I love you,’ I say and wait for the returning echo.

The door opens. ‘The nurse is here,’ I say. ‘I have to go.’

7. The beating sound is caused by the valves of the heart opening and closing.

The room is windowless, cocooning me from the outside world. I have always hated submitting to anaesthetic, that feeling of drifting away. As a child in the dentist chair, gas mask placed over my mouth, I kicked out, tried to fight the dentist off, before consciousness was switched off and I woke in an eye-blink to a painful, bloody mouth. In bed, sometimes, I catch myself on the very verge of sleep and the thought jerks me awake. The terror of the void. Of not emerging from it. Even though, once I am there, it will not be terrifying at all.

The anaesthetist has a carefully practised manner. She chats about everyday things, things which have no importance within the scheme of facing death. She wouldn’t talk about tomorrow’s weather—the calm after the storm—unless she thought I’d survive, would she?

What would she talk about?

The odds of my coming round are better than nine in ten. The odds will shortly turn binary: life or death.

A person has died; I ought to get my shot at living as cosmic compensation. But there is no ought to this.

The prick of the needle hurts. The woman apologises. Just my luck that she’s less than competent, or having a bad day. I dislike the thought of the cannula, of this opening into my vein. I cannot bear to think of what will happen once I go under. I long to rip the needle out, to shout and scream, to claw and fight my way out of here, to run carefree through the rain-washed world, inhaling the scent of green, to flee my only hope of living.

I don’t. I breathe in the scent of hospital and try to relax. ‘Count down from ten,’ the woman says. And dutifully I do.

Ten…

— I feel the steady beating of my heart —

…nine…

— I fist and relax my free hand —

…eight…

— I imagine the lightning jolt which will kick-start my new heart —

…seven…

— blood courses through my veins, carrying the drip feed of drugs to my brain and adding a mugginess to my thoughts —

…six…

— I picture my heart, disconnected, still beating —

…five…

— I hear the rumble of children’s laughter, my daughter long ago, the grandchildren who might one day come —

…four…

— I feel myself sinking, can hear nothing but the opening and closing of valves, the closing of one chapter, the opening of another —

…three…

…two…

…one…

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Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher Prize, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Best New Writing, and Shooter. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York. Twitter: @sarah_mm_evans

The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


Photo Credit: Joel Montes de Oca/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Abuelito Tzoc was a quiet but imposing man. His short stocky body declared his Mayan ancestry. But it was his deep-set black eyes carved into brown-speckled-granite face which warned people. Rumors surrounded him: fearsome histories whispered from drunken lips in darkened corners of his cantina. The murmurs would stop whenever he looked up from cleaning his glassware. He would grunt and serve the next man.

This was the man the public knew and feared, not the man I thought I knew. I never heard what secrets the whispers held.

Abuelito Tzoc never smiled in public. One day, soon after I came to live with him, I passed his bedroom and the door was open; he was sitting on his bed staring at an open book. I cleared my throat and asked him why he never smiled.

Hijita.” His low baritone voice made me feel safe, it was full of strength and promise to overcome. He quickly tied a leather strap around the book and pushed it under his leg. “Smiles are precious gifts reserved for those we love. The people of this town don’t deserve such a gift. But you, Teresa, are mi corazon, my heart. I give you my smile and much more.” His lips would stretch out, showing yellow teeth long grounded into stumps from years of eating maize kernels. He scooped me up to embrace me in a loving hug.

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

I was sitting at our kitchen table taking a break from college homework. Abuelito Tzoc was drinking his nightly cafecito con leche while eating a concha. He made sure to be home by midnight every night, closing the cantina down exactly at 11:30.

Ever since I was eight years old, I’d set a pot to boil at 11:15 and put out a few sweet pastries. I would pour milk halfway into two white metal cups. I added brown sugar then poured in the coffee. I took our cups to the table. He would smile.

He would wait a few minutes, letting me have first pick. I knew conchas were his favorite, so I always picked a semita or an empanada. He would nod his head, and reached for his treasured pan dulce. His fingers would then pinch the surface of the coffee to pull out the thin skin formed from the cooling milk—la nata—and his smile grew as he raised it quickly to his mouth and swallowed it steaming hot.

I’d been staying with Abuelito when my parents died. My parents went to La Frontera to find a way to cross the border so they could find work and send for me. A few weeks passed when a couple came to visit. Their eyes didn’t look up as they told us my parents hired a coyote to take them through the desert. The patroya found them; they escaped. But not from the desert’s hungry hot grasp. I cried. Abuelito thanked them and they left. He hugged me and cried with me. I haven’t seen him cry since, but I have heard soft sobbing from his closed bedroom door often. I always wanted to run to him, hold him, tell him it’s okay.

After he ate his last piece of pan, and drank the last drops of cafecito, he smiled and thanked me.

Mija Teresa, mucha gracias. It was the best pan and cafe I’ve had. I’m so glad you’re here with me. I love you. My old bones scream for rest and my eyes itch to be closed. I go to bed now. Please don’t stay up too long. You need your rest too.”

“I won’t Abuelito. I will finish up soon. Duerma con los angeles.”

He not only slept with the angels but joined their ranks soon after. I found him in his bed, two hours after his normal waking time, when the smell of cooking eggs and bacon didn’t rouse him. He was asleep on his back with an honest and joyful smile. I knew he’d left me. For the second time of my life I cried in his arms. The first time they were warm and welcoming, this time they were cold and stiff. But I still found comfort.

Not many people came to the funeral mass, mostly my friends to express their condolences to me. There was a couple who showed up claiming to be related to me. I never knew them. I politely accepted their empty words, awkward kisses, and hugs and stared at them as they made their way to the coffin to pay their respects. Anger burst in my chest as I thought about how they never made themselves known by visiting Abuelito and me. The fact they were smiling when talking to me, had me clenching my fist. Were they happy he was gone?

Gratefully, my temper was stilled by a few of his cantina customers, asking if I was planning to sell the cantina or keep it open. I answered I haven’t decided. They murmured some words and joined the line to the coffin.

No one came to the burial except those who needed to be there: Father Torres, the pallbearers he provided for me, and the gravediggers. I was happy my relatives decided not to show.

I went home numb.

I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table, with my tablet on. I didn’t move. When thirst called me out of my trance, I drank cool stone-filtered water. The house felt wrong. It was missing the energy my Abuelo infused into it. The air sucked at my skin like a vacuum, trying to pull out of me whatever I had of his. I shivered.

I walked into his bedroom. His scent surrounded me. His bedclothes were saturated by it. It filled my lungs, sending shooting pain to my heart, forcing racking sobs. I saw him in his bed with his smile looking at me, trying to comfort me. But he wasn’t there.

I decided then it was time for me to tidy up his belongings. I never was allowed in his room, even when he left the door open. Usually he was sitting on his bed reading his book. It was his sanctuary. I didn’t know what secrets he hid from me. Curiosity pushed me forward.

I opened his nightstand drawer. I found what I expected—a bible, a pack of stationery, a pen, and a flashlight. Underneath was a leather book, with a leather strap around it.

It smelled sweet. My fingers trembling, I tugged at the thin, hard, leather strip. I unwound the strap from the book, noticing the stiffness of the leather and the contrast of its darkness and the light brown line it left in its wake on the surface of the cover. The contrast reminded me of Abuelito Tzoc’s wrinkles. It took several deep inhales and teeth clenching to stop me from crying.

Composing myself, I ran my fingers along the cover’s edge. In fancy cursive on the first page—“Diario“. In even prettier cursive underneath—“Teresa”.

My Abuelita. My father said she died when he was eight. I was named after her. Her death was a tragic one and he promised to tell me all when I was older. But he never did.

I flipped the page and began reading. The beautiful writing told a story of a young girl of sixteen meeting a dashing young man at a village dance. He charmed her with his beckoning smile and welcoming personality. They talked mostly, both too timid to dance. He promised to meet her at mass the following Sunday. A week of entries spoke of her excitement, anxiety, and fears of being close to him again.

My heart pounded faster as I felt what my grandmother felt from her words, her excitement became mine. When I arrived to the fateful day, I paused before turning the page. The sweet aroma became stronger and there was a dark-brown shadowing on the page. An outline of a flower? I turned the page. There were no words written there, instead was a pressed rose darkened by dryness and age, but still releasing its perfume. Its beauty in age spoke of its beauty when it was fresh and alive.

I turned the page, careful not to damage the rose. I was rewarded. There was her story of meeting with the boy who I knew as Abuelito. He showed up at mass with a single rose which was the most beautiful she had ever seen. They sat next to each other in the pew keeping a respectable distance apart. After the mass they walked around the town’s plaza for hours, joining other young and older couples in a waltz of romance and hopes.

After two years of courtship and many walks, the young Tzoc asked her to marry him. She agreed. He built this house for them. They had a son—my father. Tzoc built his cantina next to his home so he could be close to his family if they needed him. She stayed home and made a few pesos by selling cures.

Abuela Teresa was a healer from a long line of healing women. People came to her from neighboring towns for her medicines. She wrote of some people fearing her, spreading rumors of her being a witch and her son being Satan’s child. She scoffed and ridiculed them with a few sharp sentences.

As their son grew, try as they did, they were not blessed with any more children. They accepted this and focused on loving each other. When my father reached eight years old, Abuelo Tzoc took him to help bring back supplies from the city a day’s ride away.

After this point, her beautiful writing was replaced with a shaky print. There was a list of eight names, six of which were crossed out. I found another page with a dried carnation—a funeral flower. I realized what this meant. Flipping to the next page, the shaky print told the story I dreaded.

When Abuelo Tzoc returned to an empty house, he ran through the streets, banging on neighbor doors looking for his beloved. No one saw her. Eventually his search led him to the cemetery. He smelt the acrid scent of burnt flesh and hair. He raced through the grounds to find a burnt cross with his Teresa’s blackened body tied to it. People had burnt her as a witch.

Anger flared through me, such as I never had felt before. I kept reading. Abuelito found out the culprits through lips pried open with free tequila. He wrote the names down. Over the years, people who were named on the list disappeared one by one.

There was one more page. It looked newer than the rest. Abuelito Tzoc’s writing was shakier than before. There was a smudge of ink which looked like it could have been caused by a teardrop. His words were directed to me.

Mija Teresa. You have given love and hope to a bitter old man full of despair and hate. You are so much like your Abuelita. You have a kind, gentle heart. I make this confession to you, the people who took her away from me, from you, they have paid dearly. I made sure of it. Only two escaped me. They have hidden themselves when they realized what I was doing. They have avoided my justice… they escaped. I know I will die tonight. I feel Muerte approaching to take me home. Live your life well. Everything I have is yours now. Be happy. I love you.”

There the story ended.

I went back to the list and studied the last two names. Something was familiar about them.

The people who claimed to be my relatives, the ones at the funeral mass I didn’t know! They had told me what town they lived in. I didn’t intend to do so when they asked, but the ember of anger towards them was fed by the need for justice for my Abuelita and fueled by my love for Abuelito.

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

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Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

Future Me will be fine with this, I’m sure.

There I was, perusing Indeed.com while my élèves ate chips and scrolled on their phones—swipe right for yes, swipe left for no, swipe down perpetually to pass the hours along till you die.

Ugh. There had to be more to these kids than just… this.

“Aie, euh, Baptiste,” I started. “What is it you want to do after Brevet de Technicien Supérieur?”

“Bah… pth?”

Pth isn’t an acronym. It’s not a word either, but it is French. It’s a noise, like a little fart sound, meaning “I dunno.”

“Uh huh.” What did these kids think about? Sometimes the simplest questions were the hardest ones to translate though. I dumped the following bowl of word soup on Aurélien: “De quoi tu, euh… bréf, tu penses à quoi maintenant?”

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

“I know,” I looked around the nearly empty classroom. “A lot of people didn’t show up today.”

“No, not to this class. To school. She didn’t come to any of our regular classes.”

Ok, ouch, I thought, this is still a regular class, you knob. I started turning my thoughts inward again.

“Regard.” Aurélien shoved his phone in my face, jolting me from my reverie. Irked by the distraction, I dismissively read:

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

The article, published yesterday, chronicled the kidnapping of four girls from town over the past two months. Huh, I thought, that’s definitely worrying, Aurélien… but before I could follow up, the bell rang.

“Bonne journée, bon weekend,” I sighed, the boys offering passing good weekends and bye-byes as they bullrushed the door. It was always a mixed bag with these classes: half the time I left feeling fulfilled, and other times it sort of felt like I’d failed my anglophone identity. This BTS class was definitely the latter.

Tant pis, I told myself, it’s the weekend now, and I was meeting my boyfriend, Rémi, for a hike in the woods near Pons. Outside the classroom, kids were already lining up and I had to scoot through the masses before beelining for the stairs.

En route, I passed a girl reading by the window. Then it struck me just how rarely I saw anyone reading in the halls around here—I’d already taken the first step down the stairs before curiosity won over and I turned back.

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

Which was an archaeological text, she explained, as controversial as it was perplexing. It claimed that the oldest book, if you consider metal plates and clay blocks books, wasn’t the 2,500-year-old Etruscan Gold Book, but rather a Neolithic Era clay tablet found in Saint-Léger’s Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. Supposedly, a wandering troglodyte had pressed flowers into the clay slabs, creating a volume that included not only regional flora, but species they’d collected along their travels.

There was a photo of the slab, with its five impressions, the biggest by far a fat, five-petaled capucine in the center.

The controversy was that while archaeologists suspected that the single surviving slab came from a greater body of slabs, the other slabs had since disappeared. Obviously, the Bulgarian National Museum of History wasn’t keen on challengers to their golden book and dismissed the claim entirely.

The mystery was how the troglodyte had come to press a capucine, a flower indigenous to Latin America. Scientists considered it impossible that a European nomad, no matter how nomadic, could’ve crossed that species.

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. In English, too, which I didn’t usually speak with Rémi, but sometimes surprise trumps habit, “Pardon, it’s just a weird coincidence.”

“How’s that?”

We were in Rémi’s shoebox car barreling down the D137 towards Bordeaux. He’d mentioned we’d be hiking around the Forêt de Pons, but I never really knew where that was. My regional geography was still a C- at best.

“Well, I saw this girl earlier today, reading a book…” I trailed off not long after, realizing the coincidence was more meaningful in my head. Out loud it sounded, well, quite ordinary.

Rémi shrugged amicably. He was lovely that way: no matter how lazy my French was, he was never cross with me.

“La Grotte de Bois-Bertaud? I know where that is. We’ll check it out.”

*

The first thing we came across on our hike was a grotto called the Rock Woman.

La Roche Madame opened up like a giant maw, and when I passed through it, I entered the belly of a giant frog. We crawled through the arms, the legs, and then ran screaming back out—this frog had eaten a colony of bats!

Beyond La Roche Madame lay the wood. A path cut through the bramble and felled trees, bounding merrily through the twilight forest.

The wood broke wide open. A hunting box lay to our left and we moved down the line, skirting the side of the clearing till we picked up the trail through the stumps and long grass. On the other side, a lumberyard tumbled down into the valley.

Walking through the lumberyard, deserted as it was, felt like we were crossing a tree cemetery. A shiver ran down my back.

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

A gendarme was approaching from the foot of the valley. We weren’t arrested, but we were questioned. Someone had killed a girl in the lumberyard, dragged her body down into the valley, and marked the grave with a muddy insignia.

“What was the insignia?”

A fat, five-petaled flower, the girl’s namesake: Capucine.

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

There had been others as well: Iris, Lily, Daphné—all women named after flowers. All strangled to death. The gendarme turned us away with only a warning once we explained we’d only been looking for the grotto.

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

“What?” Back at the car, I was scraping the mud off my trainers, but I stopped just long enough to throw him an incredulous glance. “T’es sérieux?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s a cave. It’s gonna be dark regardless.”

“It’s not that,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Obviously. But what if there’s—”

“A little troglodyte?” Rémi laughed, “Doubt it.”

*

We did return that night: past the giant frog, along the bounding trail—the woods were really something else after nightfall. I know Hansel & Gretel were born a door over, but I could well envision a witch pitching a tent somewhere behind these walls of moonlight, hidden in the thorny brush.

A final bump in the trail before the clearing, the hunting box, the long grass and…

…a shard of light struck her body, resting in middle of the lumberyard. Below her naval gleamed a white rose, oneiric in the lunar glow.

Rémi moved to get a closer look before I grasped his arm—there was a figure hovering over the girl. Veiled behind the celestial drape, the specter towered rigidly over the night, only distinguishable by the twin twinkles reflected in his eyes.

We should run, I thought, we should definitely run. But the specter beat us to the punch, bolting into the wood.

“We should—” Both of us were standing somewhere between what was possibly right and what was definitely smart. I took the lead, advancing toward the girl, Rémi following close behind.

Rosa. Even bleached by death and moonlight, I recognized her, wearing the same leather jacket she’d had on in class a week ago. Dazed, I sunk low, crouching beside her. I leaned forward, plucked the flower…

This was a crime scene. We were in the middle of a crime scene, and I was holding the evidence.

Aie! Don’t move!” A beam of yellow light cut through the clearing—the gendarme from before was approaching from down in the valley.

“What are you kids doing back here, what…” His voiced trailed off as his eyes settled on the body at my feet and the flower in my hands.

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

“Officer.” Remi and I were both panicking, and Remi’s words came out in shaky fragments. “Someone else is in the woods, the assassin…”

Crrrrk.

All three of us pivoted at the snapping of a branch down in the valley.

“I can’t leave you two here. Follow me and stay close.”

We gave chase. Against our own footfalls, the murderer’s steps were scantly heard, but we kept the trail all the same, taking us to the opening of the Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. With no choice but to follow him in, we all clambered down the narrow entryway, into the cavern below.

Intermittent echoes traveled back to us. Over the din of our own labored breathing, we overheard some very guttural woofing sounds as he fled, always a bend ahead of our torchlight. Finally, rounding the last rocky corner, the gendarme’s light struck the man as he was shimmying frantically through a crevice. For the first time, we got a good look at the murderer and what we saw was— a caveman? He was short, hairy, and, well, naked. Nothing like the looming shadow we’d glimpsed over the girl’s body. It was enough to give me pause, but Rémi and the gendarme plowed on regardless, scooting through the crack in hot pursuit.

From the other side, I watched their bodies contract, like they were being flattened by mighty stone jaws. I gasped, stifling a cry as they suddenly vanished before my eyes, pulled through a wormhole…

No questions now, I didn’t have a choice. I wriggled between the rocks, and just as the claustrophobia set in, I felt my body being stretched, pulled and then spat out onto the muddy floor on the other side of the cavern.

The lads had caught up with the time-traveling troglodyte. The gendarme was pushing his hairy visage deep into the clay floor with the nose of his rifle while Rémi had his arms pinned behind his back, fighting to keep him down. Desperate as the scene before me was, I still spared a look for the surrounding cave.

I nearly fainted.

My face flushed, burning red-hot, and I looked through tears along at the gallery of clay tablets lining the cave wall. Each block held five flower prints—there must have been about ten in total. Violets and tulips, jasmine flowers, a whole menagerie of flora and—

Wait.

“Espèce de gros con,” growled the officer. “You killed those innocent—”

“Stop!”

Silence fell quick and heavy, like darkness in a cave.

“I don’t think he killed them. There’s no iris. No lily or daffodil either…”

I was standing in front of the last, unfinished slab. There was only one print, right smack-dab in the middle: the fat, five-petaled capucine. Pulling the white rose from my jacket pocket, I pressed it into the clay below its sister impression.

“He dragged the bodies down from the lumberyard into the valley and buried them. He was paying respect to them.”

I looked down the line at all the murders that hadn’t happened… yet.

“It’s some sort of time catapult?” I paced the length of the gallery. “With diminishing returns it looks like— I think the cave is launching him through time with less and less force whenever he goes through it.”

“Ok, but that still doesn’t tell us who killed these girls.”

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

“Five thousand years of history. Five thousand years of people coming in and out of this cave and never finding the other slabs.”

Rémi caught on before the gendarme. “Oh, putain…”

“I don’t understand,” said the gendarme, now agitated. “How does that solve the case?”

“I dunno, but,” Rémi explained, “you can’t find what doesn’t exist. Once we go back through that hole, these tablets never happen, our friend here never finds their flowers. Because the case will be solved.”

We watched realization spread over the gendarme’s face. Oh…

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

“We run, are you kidding me?” I said, already back to the portal. “He’s still a f—king caveman and we just assaulted him. Allons-y!”

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Zachary Turner graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2017 with a degree in French Literature and now writes on his site, American-Fables.com. Email: snowturnerz[at]gmail.com

Gray-Eyed Greedy Guts

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jill Spencer


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

“I don’t know,” Momma says. She has just gotten home from work and is busy cooking dinner. Bread from a tube and something noodly with tomatoes and ground beef. It smells good. “Maybe there’s something you can use in the stuff from Grandma’s.”

She motions towards the laundry room where there are several boxes, leftovers from when Grandma moved into a nursing home. A big spoon covered in melty yellow cheese is in her hand, and I think, Later, when I clean the kitchen, I’m gonna lick that big spoon clean.

“You think Grandma kept newspapers?” I’m pretty sure old people read them. Maybe she saved some. “I could use newspapers.”

My friend Janetta plans to use wax paper to dry her leaf collection, but Momma says that’s a waste and I agree. Wax paper is for cookies. Period. Besides, think how much you’d need for thirty leaves! It would cost a fortune, which I don’t have, unlike Janetta, who has a Mom and a Dad, her own bedroom, and an allowance way bigger than poor ol’ me.

“I wish we had some old books or magazines,” Momma says. “That’s how we pressed leaves in my day.”

“Or maybe dinosaur feet and stone tablets,” I mutter.

Momma laughs and swats my behind. “I heard that! But serious, there probably are newspapers in there.” She points the spoon at me. “Just don’t use anything without asking first, okay?”

“Aye, aye, mon capitaine!” I do a goofy salute like I saw in a movie on TCM, then snag a gooey glob of noodles from the pot and pop it in my mouth. Oh my god, is it hot. “Whoo!” I hoot, waving my hands.

“Just what you deserve!” Momma shouts as I race to the toilet.

I spit the noodles in the commode, and I swear they hiss when they hit the water. Then I rinse my mouth. My tongue feels like it’s coated in fur, and as I head into the laundry room, I’m certain I’ve permanently damaged my taste buds.

The laundry room is cooler than the rest of the apartment, but underneath the bleach and detergent there’s a warm, musty smell. Probably from Grandma’s boxes, which are stacked beside the dryer.

Momma keeps saying she’ll go through them and sort the keepsakes out, but she never gets around to it. As I take the top box down, I wonder if this is her way of getting me to do it. It’d be just like her. She’s a crackerjack—that’s what Grandma says, which I’m pretty sure means tricky in a fun way.

Grandma has nicknames for all of us. Max, my little brother, is a pistol for the same reason Mama’s a crackerjack. And me, I’m Greedy Guts.

It sounds awful, I know, but actually it’s a compliment that means I’m hungry all the time—for food, for knowledge, for drama. For life.

“Gray-eyed Greedy Guts, try to eat the whole world up,” Grandma says, quoting some old poem she knows by heart.

Then there’s Daddy, who left years ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Boy, does Grandma have a nickname for him! Only I’m not allowed to repeat it, even if he is the reason we live in a one-bedroom walk-up and have to watch every penny so we can’t afford even two rolls of wax paper when we need them.

The box is filled with knickknacks from Grandma’s old apartment—porcelain dogs and crystal vases and flowerpots shaped like lambs and cooing doves. They’re wrapped in newspaper, only it’s super rumply. Will that work? It seems to me the paper should be flat so it leeches moisture evenly from the leaves, but I’m not sure honestly and decide to ask Mr. Akins, my science teacher.

Shoving the knickknacks aside, I dig deeper and discover a pile of kitchen gadget manuals. The paper feels like newsprint, just what I need. I pull a handful out. Yes! There’s enough for thirty leaves, easy.

It’s only when I start flipping through that I realize they’ve already been used for pressing flowers. Every single one has papery purple violets between the pages. Notes, too.

Dear Delia, I love you more every day.

Dearest Delia, My love for you is hotter than the sun.

My Dear Delia, You are the Sunshine of my Life.

Each is addressed to Delia, which is Grandma’s name, and each is signed the same: “With Love from Your Greatest Admirer.”

The dates on the booklets are from the sixties and seventies when Grandpa was alive.

“Find anything?” Momma calls.

“Not yet,” I answer, shoving the booklets back into the box.

At dinner I can hardly eat. Momma thinks it’s because of my tongue, but the truth is I have a sicky, reely feeling deep inside, like when you hit your head so hard it makes your stomach hurt.

I can’t stop thinking about those trashy TV shows I’m not supposed to watch but do anyway when Momma’s at work—Cheaters, Mistresses, Divorce Court, Real Housewives. Is Grandma like the people on those shows? Was she a cheater? A mistress? And if she was, if she’s not the little lady I thought I knew, then who am I? And who are Max and Momma? Are they still Pistol and Crackerjack? Am I still Greedy Guts?

The next day is a Saturday. After cleaning the apartment, we visit Grandma at the nursing home as usual, but I can hardly look at her. Instead I look at her bedspread, her curtains, the china clock on her nightstand. The pictures on the walls. Everywhere there are violets. There’s even a pot of them on her windowsill.

In the car I ask Momma, “What’s with all the violets in Grandma’s room anyway?”

She looks at me, surprised. After all, it’s not like they’re new. I’ve seen them before. We all have.

“What about ’em?”

“I don’t know. It’s just— she has a lot of them.”

Momma shrugs. “They’re her favorite flower.”

I have never heard this before and think on it the rest of the trip home. Were violets always her favorite? Did she tell him they were? Is that why he gave them to her? Or are they her favorite because he gave them to her?

And then I think about Grandpa, and although I never knew him, I feel bad for him.

That night, after Mom and Max are asleep, I get the flashlight and go into the laundry room. In the second box, I find another stack of manuals. Like the others, they have papery violets pressed between the pages and messages of love from “Your Greatest Admirer.”

There are at least twenty-five and I think, How could Grandpa not have known? Their kitchen must have been littered with electric apple corers and salad spinners and knives that cut through pipes. And then I think, Momma must have known too, and as I crawl back into bed, my heart feels like my stomach, all reely and sick.

The next day after school, I am still feeling yucky as I get Max started on his homework at the kitchen table in Momma’s room. The table used to be Grandma’s, but she gave it to Momma when she moved into the home.

“Get your books out while I get your snack, okay?” I tell Max, edging my way from the room.

The table is too big and, along with the bed, takes up almost all the floor. Momma says that’s okay though since it gives us a place to study. It also keeps the living room from getting cluttered, which is hard since that’s where Max and I sleep, me on the sofa bed, Max on his cot.

In the kitchen I press my hand to my wobbly stomach and stare at the bananas Momma left on the counter. No way can I keep a banana down, I think, and pour myself a glass of milk, even though it means I’ll probably have to eat dry cereal for breakfast Friday.

“Two bananas today,” I tell Max, setting them at elbow. He has removed the books from his backpack and has opened his day planner.

“Better start with math,” I say, skimming the list of homework he has written down in big round sloppy letters. Math’s always been his greatest challenge. “If you need me I’ll be in the laundry working on my leaf project.”

He gives me a funny look but doesn’t ask, and before I’m out the door, he’s deep into the world of fractions.

The whole family is like that—me, Momma, Max. Grandma too, I guess. Once we start on something, we give it our all.

Two hours later Momma, home from work, sidles into the bedroom for a change of clothes. Max and I are at the table.

“Hard at it, I see,” she says, sounding pleased as she wriggles into the space between the closet and the bed.

“Math,” Max says, wrinkling his nose.

Momma slides the closet door open and looks over her shoulder at me. “How’s he doing?”

“Pretty good,” I say, wrinkling my nose, too, but for a different reason. The closet is a mess. In addition to her clothes, mine are in there. And Max’s. “He’s only missed two so far.”

“But I’m correcting them,” Max chimes in, so proudly I pinch him when Momma turns her back.

“Geek,” I whisper.

“That’s the ticket!” Momma says, her voice muffled as she fishes sweatpants and a T-shirt from the shelf. “That’s how you learn. From your mistakes.”

As I watch, a pile of clothes falls on her head then to the floor, and she has to back into the bed to get them, the space is so small. It makes me so angry my stomach twists.

“Let’s get rid of this stupid table, Momma,” I say. “Get TV trays or tables from the thrift shop and do our homework in the living room. We’re taking all your space!”

Momma shakes her head. “You know why the table’s here.”

“But it’s not right! You should have some room for yourself!” I slam my fist down on the tabletop, surprising us all, then feel the tears start, although I never cry. I never cry. It’s just— I’m so angry. About how we live. And why. About Grandma.

“Good heavens, girl!” Momma wraps her arms around me. “What’s got into you?”

“I hate this table, that’s all. It’s too big!”

“It’s the right size to me. Just big enough for my two babies to do their homework on.”

I roll my eyes. “We’re not babies,” I say, wiping my cheeks. “And it is too big. You don’t have any room!”

“That may be, but I don’t mind. Besides, I’d never get rid of this table. I remember when Daddy gave it to your grandma. He put it by the Christmas tree with a ginormous bow on top. Momma was so happy she cried. He was always doing nice things for her, getting her little presents. Love gifts, he called them.”

Momma smiles, a faraway look on her face, and I wonder if she’s remembering or wishing she had someone like that.

“So stop fussing!” She gives me a little shake then scoops her clothes up and heads for the door. “I’m gonna change and then, dinner! With my family.”

Like it’s the most exciting thing in the world.

Late that night I get the flashlight again and pad into the laundry. One box is left. I tear it open and get to work, an hour later finding what I’m looking for, a red envelope with “For Delia” scrawled across the front. Inside is an old-fashioned Christmas card.

With shaking hands, I open it, sandy glitter roughing my fingertips. The handwriting is the same as in the notes.

Dearest Delia,

Here’s the kitchen table you wanted. It’s just like you. Round in all the right places, strong enough to love for a lifetime, and beautiful.

Merry Christmas!

Your Greatest Admirer

I press the card against my chest, so happy. Grandma is a little lady. And Momma’s a crackerjack, and Max is a pistol. And me? I’m Greedy Guts, and sometimes a dumb one.

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Jill Spencer lives and works in Southern Maryland. In 2014, she won the Three Cheers and a Tiger fall contest. Email: spencer.jill[at]yahoo.com

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


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

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

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

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

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

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

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

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

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

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

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

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

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

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

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

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

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They look hungry.

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

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

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

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

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

Andrew.

 

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

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

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

But Andrew came home early.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innocent. They were innocent.

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

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

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

There is a loud splintering noise.

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

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

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

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

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

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

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

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

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

 

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

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

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah did.

 

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

They match the sky.

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

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

Sarah is hungry.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” the witch says.

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

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

Something is digging into her thigh.

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

Its insides are white and crisp.

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

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

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

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