The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Mirage Lin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Gripping the phone tight between sweaty fingers, I close my eyes, breathe in the heavy air and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ My voice sounds thin and tinny.

The voice reassures me that he will be in touch again soon. He reels off the digits of his direct extension along with a helpline number. ‘In case you need to talk to anyone.’

It’s a while before I realise that I am still clinging to the phone, the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I try to picture the person belonging to the voice, wonder what he is doing, now he has ticked off this awkward task from his list.

I stand and stretch and head to the bathroom where I splash cold water over my face then stare into the chipped enamel sink. Slowly I raise my eyes and turn, catching the mirror only obliquely, passing a glance at the image which is never quite what I expect.

In the kitchen, I half trip over the curling lino. Sun streams through the glass; it bounces off metallic surfaces, blinding me and threatening to turn the strain behind my eyes into a full-blown headache. For weeks the heat has built with no relief, mirroring my inner tension, as if I’ve been half-expecting something to happen.

I make a cup of coffee, splash in some milk, then cradle the mug between my palms, warming my hands, which seem to have retained a sensory memory of that time outside time, those clock-stopped days.

I gear myself to call my parents, wishing I could postpone, knowing that nothing could excuse a delay of any kind. Relief battles with frustration when the answerphone kicks in. I cannot blurt out my message, so instead I stall: ‘I’ve got some news. Please ring me back.’ I picture them listening and knowing instantly, the way that I did.

Good news or bad? Dad always asks that. It is hard to say.

This all happened long ago and I have pressing things to do, working from home no excuse for slacking. I return to my home office and sit in front of my laptop and manage to spill my gone-cold coffee. I try to re-immerse myself in the figures which fill my screen, grounding myself in the present, filling the crevices of my brain with facts, trying to force out the voice pounding in my ears.

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

The shriek of the alarm sliced through my thumping head. Emma groaned. It would have been so easy to curl up and drift back down; I was determined not to. I rolled towards the kitchenette. Emma was doing her best to feign sleep and I nudged her with my foot. ‘Come on Ems. Rise and shine.’

She opened her eyes. Her face seemed to mirror my own, looking every bit as crap as I felt. ‘What time is it?’ she asked, the same question every morning.

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

We’d crashed on the pull-out sofabed four hours ago; it seemed better not to spell that out. ‘We need to get there early.’ Rising with the sun was worth it—surely—to enjoy the early morning quiet on the slopes. ‘This is our last chance.’ We’d been travelling for several weeks now. Time had slipped past and we’d arrived at our next to final day.

Released from exams, the two of us had one last summer of freedom ahead of being shackled to the confines of office life. Friends were heading for salt-white beaches. Lazing in the heat and avoiding sunburn held no appeal. ‘What about skiing?’ I’d said.

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

‘Sure. There are plenty of places where you can do that. It’s just a question of going up high enough.’

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

We plotted a train route, joining the dots between major European cities, stopping off at smaller places with hiking trails in between, but the highlight of the trip—literally—was Zermatt, the traffic-free town in the shadow of the Matterhorn, with ski lifts whizzing you from the alpine flowering meadows up to the glacier, snow covered twelve months a year.

Emma was unenthused about my insistence on up-with-the-lark starts. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be relaxing and enjoying ourselves?’ she said.

‘Come on. We can nap this afternoon. It’s never the same once the hordes get going.’ Plus the ski lifts closed at two, before the snow turned wet and heavy. I scooped generous measures of coffee into the pot, added water and put it on the stove. I started pulling on yesterday’s clothes, postponing till later the daily battle with the shower which cycled through from scalding hot to ice-cube cold. Emma finally stirred herself, giving in; she looked nine-tenths asleep as she took two steps to the bathroom, moving more slothfully than was necessary, a token protest. The rich aroma of coffee filled the apartment, promising wide-eyed alertness.

Outside, the air was sharp enough to cut lungs. I anticipated the usual progression whereby we experienced the four seasons in a single day. The ice of early morning would give way to two hours of a perfect spring, the sun warm on skin, the snow soft, exertion building up a sweat with fleecy layers needing to be discarded; later back at base the heat would build, the thin air strengthening the sunlight, so even though the temperatures were significantly lower than Geneva, we’d risk our fair skin burning if we weren’t careful; then though the evening would remain light, the warmth of the day faded quickly and it would feel more like autumn.

Freshly risen sun reflected off newly smoothed snow up above and dazzled my eyes. A brisk ten-minute walk would bring us to the lifts. My leg muscles were stiff from the accumulation of our daily exertions, first on the slopes and later on the dance floor. They’d soon loosen up. Neither of us had much to say, and we didn’t force it, content in our individual silences.

Approaching the chairs, we appended ourselves to a group of dour-faced people in luminously bright clothes, all speaking rapid German.

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

It was from Joel that I’d taken this idea of early starts. Our first evening here, he happened to be seated on a table next to ours in the cheapest eatery. Instantly, I had him sussed: young and single-minded, carelessly conscious of his athletic beauty, his sun-tinted unkempt hair and sun-kissed skin, wearing the right casual gear in a vibrant array of matching colour, a cool Aussie accent.

‘New Zealand actually,’ he corrected me. ‘Lots of people get that wrong. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

We slipped easily into casual conversation, with Joel keen to provide the insider tips for ski runs, eating places and nightlife, acting as if his hanging out here for several weeks made him some kind of expert. And though his easy chat could have been flirtatious, I knew it wasn’t, that I would never be his type.

He wasn’t my type either.

The following morning, I ensured we were at the chairlifts early. Sure enough, he was in place ahead of us and I hoped he didn’t imagine us being there was due to anything but the promise of clear slopes. He greeted me and Emma with a lazy ‘Hey,’ which I flipped back, feeling the rising flush, hating myself for the way he seemed to make me feel about fifteen.

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

This became the pattern. We’d exchange our itineraries and his always sounded vastly more thrilling. Emma and I had built up intermittent experience from childhood holidays, and we got up to speed on blue runs then progressed onto the reds. As the days went by, I was keen to go for black, wanting to press further, faster, pushing ourselves to our limits; Emma remained cautious. Each morning, Joel managed to convey how ordinary our ambitions were, in the nicest, yet most condescending way. He found the graded slopes too prescribed, too overused, too restrictive. Turned out he had skied all over the world and almost always headed off-piste. Not always harder, but certainly more satisfying, he said, his smile self-deprecating, seeming to imply the option was open to us too, if only we shared his spirit of adventure. Nothing like the pure expanse of the unknown. Even here, a popular area, often he could ski for hours and hardly see anyone. Just him alone in the mountains beneath the sky.

‘Awesome,’ he said, and I smiled tightly and mimicked the word sneeringly in my head. And just as he was getting into his swing, the chairlifts would come to life with a heavy clunk. He’d barely finish his sentence before turning, intent on claiming his place, focusing on what lay ahead, rather than lingering in timewaster chit-chat.

Out of sight, and Emma and I would disappear from his thoughts, while my mind still hummed with thoughts of him. And though the mornings passed well enough, I felt frustrated by the tameness of our chosen slopes, by the accrual of the middle-aged along with their precocious kids, all of them churning the snow up into criss-cross ruts. Today, I needed one last glorious morning to fix in memory, to help me through the dullness that was to come as I returned to England to embark on my fast-track civil service career.

Waiting in line, my mood was beginning to dip, exhaustion refusing to be shrugged off. I’d expected to see Joel and finally win some small measure of his respect. Instead, I had nothing but a conjured-up image of his supple limbs intertwined with those of the dark-haired woman I’d seen him with last night.

Not that it was any business of mine.

And not that I needed to see him. I had his ideas committed to memory, the most straightforward of the off-piste routes. No more difficult than many of the official ones. His claim echoed in my head.

This was our final chance.

The weather forecast was pinned up at the entrance to the ski lift: clouds bringing heavy snow were due to blow in from the West. Difficult to believe with the sky currently pale blue and clear, just as it had been all week. ‘Not looking good,’ Emma said.

I cut in fast. ‘Fine for now though. We’ll knock off early for lunch.’

It was almost time and I was muscle tense, waiting for the squeak and clank of well-oiled machinery, the passing moments before an officious Swiss official would open the gate barrier and bark at us and let us through. The group ahead took the first cable-cars. Close behind them, Emma and I moved forward towards the moving seats, choreographing things to settle ourselves and our paraphernalia of poles and skis and bags before the bars descended and locked us in, ensuring we could not slip out as we soared high above the soft cushion of white below, heading ever higher up into the mountains. I loved this. The stomach-drop moment of that initial swooshing upwards. The repeating stomach lurches whenever we bumped over one of the tall towers holding the whole thing up. I never fully acclimatised to the precarious feel of our high-flown transit, but that was part of the experience, the glorious aliveness which inhabited my body, fear mingling with exhilaration. Emma closed her eyes and tightened her fingers around the bar for the entire trip. She never managed to relax into it, or learned to enjoy the hammering of her heart.

The bars started to lift as we reached our destination and we jumped off. The Germans were still faffing around. I headed away from them and Emma tagged on behind.

I explained the route for the tenth time with Emma frowning at me; she never did have much of a sense of direction, choosing to rely on me, rather than putting the effort in herself.

‘And you’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ she asked.

‘Wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t.’ I tried to exude certainty, because confidence is a mind-trick, act it out and it’s there. ‘Just follow me.’

I adjusted my ski boots and checked the fastenings. I lowered my visor, positioned myself and then pushed away.

Images from the previous night kept flashing. Emma and me, dopey from afternoon snoozing, dressing for the evening in floaty cotton, taking turns in front of the cracked mirror as we applied make-up, intent on improving the canvas of youthful skin. Heading out to a cheap eatery and filling up on sizzling rösti washed down with wine. Moving onwards to a club, the hangout for youthful travelling types, and I’d never have admitted it to anyone, but part of me was on the lookout for Joel.

As always, he seemed surrounded by an adoring host of women. His fan club.

He came over, asked about our day, told us about his. Time slid by as we drank and laughed. Emma sipped the same beer for some kind of forever. Mid-evening and Joel drifted off, disappearing into the throng, and I allowed myself to coast with the crowd and anyone watching me would have figured that I was having amazing fun. But as I tripped the light fantastic out on the floor, unleashing an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition, inventing feverish dance moves amidst the swirl of coloured lights, despondency was taking hold. I caught passing glimpses as Joel paired up with a wispy looking girl with long dark hair and olive skin, the photo negative to my fairness, and though it was nothing to me, not really, somehow I minded. And the discontent lingered as we headed out into the snow that morning. I had no reason to believe that Joel would care, or even know about today, but I wanted to prove myself to him in the face of his casual dismissal, my mind forming the misconnection: I had lost out romantically; I was not going to miss out on adventure.

Slowly my mind cleared, unwelcome thoughts swallowed by the close-to-perfection scene. Unblemished white sparkling in soft early light. The thrill of the steep but manageable slope. My skill with the poles which had gained fluidity in the ten days we’d been here. I wouldn’t get far ahead, but I longed to immerse myself in the utter aloneness of the wild. To absorb myself in the pure tranquillity of the moment. A presentness untainted by past disappointments or future worries.

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

I felt the faintest pick up of the wind; a trickle of soft flakes melted on my lips and swirled in front of my eyes. Not enough to worry about. I heard nothing but the rustle of my clothes, the whish of skis slipping along the crust of snow, the whisper of my out-breath. Slowly the flakes built in size, in density, in churning momentum, building to form an encompassing cloud, casting a strange ethereal light, heightening my awareness of self, of existing within a time-stopped moment, a perfect harmonious dance of near-weightless body, mind and landscape.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped and looked behind me for Emma. How long I waited, my serenity turning to an irritated disguise for fear. How long before I pierced the silence to call her name, listening to the rustle of wind in trees and no reply, before I started to walk clumsily up the slope. How long before I began to panic. Before I realised how alone and helpless I was. Before the weather closed in deeper and I could barely see the back of my gloves. Before I decided the best, the only thing I could do was carry on down and get help, my mind frantically constructing a scenario in which she must either have overtaken me, or turned round and taken the chairlift. She’d be waiting anxiously for me at the bottom, of course she would, and over a boozy lunch somewhere warm, we would turn the events to anecdote, an amusing tale to retell our friends.

 

The screen full of figures glows at me, the data failing to order itself and divulge its meaning, my mind struggling to make sense of the story, those crucial aspects that I have always kept secret.

My sister died in a skiing accident. It is so long since I have seen the need to tell anyone this. She got lost in a suddenly descending snowstorm which forced the two of us apart, in an area where snow sometimes formed a thin layer over deep crevasses in the glacier. Her body remained unfound. None of this version of events—the version I told the police, the journalists, our parents, various therapists and the people I have met and tried to be close to since—is untrue, in the same way that a mirror neither hides nor reveals things fully. I tell people of the hot-cold panic of waiting, those unreal days of searching, of my struggle to describe the route we had taken, everything blurring as if seen through a blizzard.

‘Your sister has been found,’ the man on the phone said and for one heart-soar second I pictured her alive. ‘Some skiers discovered her body where the glacier has melted.’ Perfectly preserved, perfectly frozen, stuck in time. And needing someone to make arrangements for repatriation and burial.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Think it over. But yes, of course, if you want to.’

Time passes and outside the sun burns ever hotter, burning through the glass, scorching my skin. My screen has put itself to sleep. The phone rings, startling me from reverie and perhaps it is my parents, or possibly some journalist has got hold of the story. I make a move towards the phone and I catch my reflection in the blackened screen and imagine staring into a frozen mirror. Staring at the clock-stopped face which will stare back, the image of the self that was lost to me twenty years ago. The face of my much-loved twin. Youthful. Hopeful. Light still dancing in her eyes.

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter Magazine. She started her career as a theoretical physicist before moving into economics and policy advice. She and her husband live in Welwyn Garden City, UK. Twitter: @Sarah_mm_Evans

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


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

There was a gentle buzz as the phone screen lit up, but Bebe didn’t spare it a glance. She continued methodically shaving the onion into paper thin slices. Her husband looked over from his pile of haphazardly diced pepper.

“You know, there are filters for spam texts,” Dominic laughed. “Unless you want to check out prices for roof replacements in Ohio.”

The knife slipped across onion into flesh. “Ah!” Bebe hissed, dropping the blade and heading over to the sink.

“Are you ok?” He grabbed the little first aid box from the junk drawer.

She nodded. “It’s nothing, just a tiny cut.”

He frowned as he handed her the antibiotic ointment. “How many times have I said that you don’t need to cut the onion so fine? We aren’t cooking for Iron Chef, Bebe.”

“I like to follow the recipe instructions exactly, Dom, unlike you. Those diced peppers are a tragedy,” she muttered, her hand shaking slightly as she took the bandage.

He kissed the end of her nose. “I know you like doing everything perfectly. But you don’t have to try so hard; I already think you’re the best.”

“You’re sweet,” She rested her chin on his shoulder, but her gaze was focused on her phone. “You’re still re-doing the peppers, though.”

“What do you want?” Bebe’s voice was a whisper though she was a good twenty yards from her house.

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Well, hello, to you, too, sister.”

Bebe exhaled impatiently. “Cece, I don’t have time for games. I still have the kids’ lunches to pack, and I need to get at least five hours of sleep to function at work tomorrow.”

“Ouch! So, just because I’m not a control freak who plans out her life down to the second, I should have to take care of this by myself?” she asked angrily.

“I don’t even know what this is yet,” Bebe looked down at the daylilies, frowning. Gardening was not her favorite pastime, but everyone else in the neighborhood had lilies, and she didn’t like to stand out. She began furiously plucking off the dead blossoms. “What is going on?”

Cece didn’t reply. Bebe waited, bending to pull an emerging dandelion, grimacing at the dirt that gathered under her classic French tips. The silence stretched, and dread settled in her limbs. She sat down on the grass. “Well?”

“You need to come home. As soon as you can. Plan to stay least ten days,” Cece’s words came out rapidly, tripping over one another in a garbled mess that only a sister could decipher.

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

“Yes,” Cece cut the question off. “Look, I’ve got to go, and so do you. Just get there by Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Bebe replied, though the call had already disconnected. Chaos was creeping towards the edges of her carefully cultivated life. A wave of dizziness enveloped her, and she fell back on her manicured lawn, breathing in the humid Washington air creeping out of the woods bordering her backyard. It was an old, dark smell, too wild for her to enjoy. She rose, smoothing out both the creases in her pants and the panic in her chest before heading back to the kitchen.

“Sylvie, you need to clean your room before you watch any cartoons,” Bebe lifted her eyes from the laundry pile.

“Mom!” Sylvie pouted. “I just cleaned my room yesterday! What about Josh? His room is a bigger mess!”

“Then he can clean his room, too,” Bebe leaned over and took her son’s Nintendo Switch out of his hands. “I want your rooms in order before I leave tomorrow.”

“Nice throwing me under the bus, Sylvie,” he snapped. “Mom, seriously, you think our rooms are filthy if we have one sock on the floor.”

She ignored his comment and gave him a stack of neatly folded shirts. “It wouldn’t hurt either of you to have a little less screen time. Take a break and put these away.”

Josh started to pull the clothes from her hands, but she tugged back. “Not like that, Josh! I just folded them. You’re wrinkling them all over again.”

“Just because you’re going to a lame technology detox retreat in the woods doesn’t mean we should have to suffer, too,” Sylvie groaned. “I want to watch Netflix.”

Dominic entered from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “Breakfast is ready, guys. Laundry and clean rooms can wait. Let’s have a good last day together. No bickering.”

“Then tell Mom not to be a psycho about our rooms,” Josh grumbled.

Bebe flinched. “Having an organized living space creates an organized mind.”

The kids both rolled their eyes as they went toward the dining room. Dominic caught her arm.

“Don’t be upset. No kid likes to clean their room or put away laundry. It’s nothing personal, sweetie. They love you; they’re just grumpy that they’re going to be stuck with lame ol’ Dad for two weeks.”

She tried to shake the hurt. “What’s so awful about wanting a nice, orderly home?”

“Nothing,” he reassured her. “And trust me, a week from now, when Josh can’t find his tablet, Sylvie has lost her third pair of soccer pads, and they’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch instead of your gourmet fare, they will be begging me to fly to Maine and hike three hours to your wilderness retreat to get you.”

Bebe pulled back, looking up with worry on her face. “Will you be all right without me, really?”

“Not all right, but we’ll survive,” Dominic grinned, cupping her cheeks and kissing them both. With the air of man defusing a bomb, he eased the shirts from her grip and set them neatly on the coffee table.

He put an arm around her waist and led her to the dining room, pulling out her chair. “Seriously, hon, I think it’s a good idea. You haven’t had a vacation in forever. Though, I have to say the whole wilderness, no technology is a surprise. Are you sure you want to go to the middle of the woods and commune with nature in the middle of summer? You spray yourself down with repellent to walk to the mailbox.”

Bebe smiled tightly. “It wasn’t my first choice, either, but apparently my friend Vivian from college swears by it for ultimate relaxation. Honestly, it isn’t exactly roughing it. The place has plumbing and central air. It will be a good opportunity to re-connect. And being away from phones and computers and television for two weeks won’t kill me.”

“Mosquitoes might though,” Sylvie snarked as she poked at her food. “They carry Ebola or something.”

“Or ticks,” Josh added, his mouth full of oatmeal. “You could get that citrus disease.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bebe replied automatically, though her face blanched of its color. “And it’s Lyme Disease with a ‘y,’ not an ‘i.’”

“Stop harassing your mother, you two.” Dominic put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I already put three kinds of bug spray in your luggage.”

 

Sunny’s Diner had seen better days. The majority of its business had shifted three miles west to the travel plaza just off the newer and much better paved four-lane highway. Most of the remaining customers were older locals who preferred the winding two-lane country road, plain black coffee with no fancy flavors, and the crispy hash browns of John, the fry cook of thirty-five years.

Bebe parked her rental car and took a steadying breath. She stared at the peeling yellow paint on the bricks. The smiling sun logo was missing an eye. How like this tiny town, she thought, to be half-blind.

“Bebe Carter!” a booming voice greeted her the instant she walked through the door. “We never thought we’d see you again!”

She pasted a friendly, non-committal smile on her face. “Miss Maryanne,” she murmured, nodding her head respectfully at the waitress, noting that all the heads in the diner had turned her way.

“Table for one?” the older woman looked toward the parking lot. “No one with you? No husband?” her eyes locked onto the golden band on Bebe’s left hand.

“My husband couldn’t get time away from work,” Bebe answered. “But Cece is meeting me.”

“Heaven have mercy!” Maryanne’s grin faltered as she placed two laminated menus on the tan Formica table. “I was real sorry to hear about your mama.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

“Hmm,” Maryanne hummed as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. She placed them on the table, along with a small ramekin of milk. “You still take cream, right?”

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

Maryanne leaned down, her yellow uniform smelling of homemade buttermilk biscuits and bacon grease. She put an arm around Bebe’s shoulders, not noticing how she tensed at the touch. “I know she was a hard woman to love, but she was still your mama. It’s ok to cry.”

Bile and angry words rose in Bebe’s throat, but she was saved from exposing her bitterness by Cece’s entrance, grand as always. Her younger sister threw open the door, sending the bell above into a frenzy of jingling. Cece was wearing ripped acid-wash jean shorts, scuffed army boots, and a paint-stained Alice in Chains T-shirt. For a disorienting moment, Bebe worried she had traveled back in time to high school.

“Good Lord, child,” Maryanne had rushed over to Cece, crushing her to her chest. “You didn’t clean up at all in twenty years.” She ran a finger over the dried blue splotch on Cece’s shoulder. “Still messin’ around with paint? Didn’t you ever grow up, girl?”

“Cece is a successful muralist. Her work earns her an excellent living,” Bebe felt compelled to come to her defense, though she had made similar comments about her sister’s appearance.

Cece winked at Maryanne. “Hear that? I have Bebe’s seal of approval. I clearly must have grown up, because she is a serious adult.”

Maryanne’s broad bosom heaved with laughter. “Too grown up for blueberry pancakes and sausage links?”

“Never!” Cece sat down. “Give Bebe the same.”

“No, I don’t eat gluten,” Bebe called out, louder than she’d intended. Everyone turned to stare at her again. “Fine. A small stack,” she mumbled, her fingers tracing an ancient crack in the table top.

After Maryanne had entered the kitchen, she turned to her sister. “This was a horrible place to meet.”

“What? You weren’t feeling nostalgic?” Cece took the milk, pouring the whole container into her cup.

“Hey! Some of that was for me,” she protested.

Cece shrugged. “Too bad, so sad, my Bad Bitch,” she taunted.

“You know I hate that nickname,” Bebe grimaced.

“With a name like Bebe, I couldn’t not give you an awesome nickname, sis. You’re just jealous you never came up with a good one for Cece, because you don’t have any imagination, just like our mother.”

That stung, and she was suddenly twelve again. “I do so, you… Cackling Chicken!”

Cece made a choking sound and slapped the table. “Oh my god! How long were you holding on to that one? It was even lamer than I imagined!”

“I was wrong, you didn’t grow up at all,” Bebe used her napkin to wipe up the few drops of milk that dripped from the ramekin, then began the futile task of scrubbing at a stain worn deeply into the table’s surface.

You were wrong?” Cece said in a tone of faux shock, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “I should have recorded that.”

Bebe’s temples began to throb. She wrapped her hands around the mug to keep herself from cleaning the entire table. “How long will this take?”

A serious expression settled on Cece’s face. It looked out of place. “Apparently, she pre-planned her funeral years ago, right after Dad died. So, most of that is handled. She has a plot next to his, and they’ll have everything ready for the burial tomorrow. I put a notice in the paper yesterday.”

“How many people do you think will come?” She put her spoon in her black coffee, stirring vigorously and aimlessly all at once.

“Hard to tell,” Cece chewed her lower lip. “On one hand, our mother alienated just about everyone in town at some point in her life. On the other, she was the main source of entertainment before streaming video.”

“So, you think the only people who will come are gossips and the ones who want to spit on her grave?” She tried to make a mental count and gave up.

Cece’s laugh was a mix of camaraderie and mockery. “I know—that’s half the town, right?”

To Bebe’s relief, the turnout was closer to twenty people. The guess about their motivations was spot-on, though. A dozen or so were faces she recognized from long-standing feuds with her mother, while the remaining mourners included the local conspiracy theorist and a woman who papered her study with obituary notices.

Bebe had never loved her sister more than when Cece announced loudly that there would be no reception after the burial. Bebe didn’t even mind the normally unbearable looks of judgment from those assembled. Cece put an arm around her, and she leaned in without hesitation, grateful to use the body language of grief to convince others to leave her alone. They stood side by side as if frozen in the summer heat, silently staring at the open grave as the cheapest coffin was lowered slowly into a cleanly cut rectangle. Time passed, all the cars pulled away, and finally, a backhoe began to fill in large clumps of earth.

“I forgot to throw in my rose,” her voice broke as she glanced down at the flower in her hand. All its thorns were gone, and putting a flower without defenses on her mother’s grave seemed cruel.

“Me too, except I didn’t forget,” Cece tugged on her sleeve, moving her a few steps over. “Dad would appreciate the flowers.” She bent down and placed the roses on the slate gray tombstone.

“Do we have to go there?” Bebe asked quietly. “Can’t we just pay someone to burn it down?”

Cece laughed bitterly. “I’m seriously impressed that you suggested that, but if she had been worth going to prison for, I would have poisoned her vodka twenty years ago.” She glanced over and grinned. “Speaking of vodka, I stopped at the liquor store. Want to go back to our crappy motel and get plastered?”

“No,” Bebe said tiredly. “Between the red eye flight and the time change, I just want to go back and sleep.”

“Fine, but stop by my room in the morning for an Irish coffee—I think you’ll need a shot of something before heading out.”

Bebe settled for the motel lobby coffee, which was foul and terribly weak. She wasn’t sure how anyone could make what was basically water taste burnt, but the Good Rest Inn had managed the feat. An inquiry about the room cleaning and linen replacement schedule had revealed that those services were only provided every other day, for the good of the environment. Fighting back nausea at the thought that the room she’d slept in hadn’t actually been properly sanitized, she sat down in the tiny breakfast nook and forced down a dry serving of corn flakes because there was no milk. Cece came in a few minutes later, holding a large silver thermos. Her face was mostly covered by large, reflective aviator sunglasses. She was wearing old, stained clothes, a red bandana over her hair, and a grumpy expression.

“Here,” she held out another bandana. “You are definitely going to want to cover that three-hundred-dollar blow-out.”

“It was only one hundred,” Bebe replied defensively. “And I was going to my mother’s funeral. I needed to—”

“Look perfect?” Cece cut her off. “I’m well aware of your compulsive need for projecting a perfect image. You’re going to regret wearing that perfect little yoga outfit, though. I have a feeling you’ve never actually sweat in it before. Come on, we need all the daylight we can get.”

During the short drive from the motel, Bebe tried to prepare herself. Nothing worked, though, and her chest filled with a deep ache as Cece turned beside a clump of poison oak that obscured all of the mailbox save the little rusted red flag. The winding drive was more purple coneflowers and goldenrod than gravel, and even the light sound of long grass brushing against the side of the Jeep was torturous to Bebe’s already frayed nerves. Cece steered toward a pile of wood and stone that had once been a stand-alone garage and parked.

Bebe stared in horror through the windshield at the structure. As unlivable as it had been during their childhood, this was worse. Part of the roof was sagging dangerously, and a mantle of ivy, moss, and algae had covered most of the siding. A front step was missing, as were several porch supports. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been condemned?”

“The county inspector was terrified of our mother, just like everyone else. I think she threatened to set him on fire once.” Cece pulled a large sack from the back of her Jeep. “Look, no local company will come to clean while there are biohazardous materials inside. We just need to deal with a few areas, and then we can make plans for other people to clean and fix up the rest. Then we can sell it and never worry about it again.”

“Is it really worth fixing?” Bebe asked doubtfully. She watched Cece reach back again and pull out a large blade. “Is that a machete?”

“Yep,” Cece replied. “Don’t give me that dirty look. I’m not going to hack you to pieces. The police trampled down a few spots, but we still need to cut a path. Unless you want to wade through a sea of weeds and a million chiggers to get to the front door.”

“What’s left of the front door,” Bebe could see from fifty feet away that the main door was missing a quarter panel in the lower left corner and tilting at an odd angle. She tried to disregard the mention of chiggers, but her fingernails began to spontaneously scratch at her arms.

Cece handed her a bucket with a roll of heavy trash bags, cleaning spray, paper towels, a packet of latex gloves, and a giant pump container of hand sanitizer. “You’ll need this. Follow me.”

“Wait!” Bebe grabbed a can of bug repellent out of her purse and sprayed it all over her body, then offered it to her sister, who took it without hesitation.

“Do you have a spray to protect against a breakout of childhood trauma?” Cece joked, but neither woman laughed.

Even though Cece thought she had no imagination, Bebe’s brain was excellent at self-harm, and by the time they had reached the front door, it already had convinced her that she was covered by thousands of tiny bugs despite the spray. She fidgeted nervously as Cece set down her things and lifted the door sideways.

“It was off the hinges?” Bebe asked. “Why?”

Cece groaned at the weight of the door, and Bebe rushed to help her. They propped it against the siding, waiting to see how far into the moss it slipped. “The police took it off when they came out to do the welfare check.”

“How long was she—” Bebe swallowed, taking the latex gloves out of the bucket and pulling them on with a snap.

“The coroner’s report said a few weeks,” Cece reached down and put a pair on as well, then stepped through into the dark hallway. “You’d better get your phone out and use the flashlight.”

Bebe hovered at the threshold. “I didn’t bring my phone.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bring your phone? Who doesn’t carry their phone these days?” Cece griped.

“I told Dominic I was on a technology detox retreat in Maine. I’m supposed to not have a phone,” she confessed, waiting for her sister’s scoffing censure.

But Cece only turned on her own flashlight app. “Just stay near me,” she muttered.

Bebe still hesitated, unable to force her feet into the house. Fear was spreading upwards from the soles of her feet, burrowing into her skin like chiggers, releasing the toxins of a thousand bad memories.

Cece’s hand snaked out, grabbing her and pulling her forward. “Don’t give her any more power, Bad Bitch. She’s dead.”

“It still smells like,” Bebe gasped as she stumbled against her sister, breathing through her mouth, not wanting to complete her thought.

“I know. We should’ve brought Vick’s and face masks,” Cece shone the light forward, revealing the precariously towering stacks of newspapers, cardboard, clothing, empty food containers, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous junk cemented together with cobwebs and twenty-five years of dust, grime, and cigarette smoke. “Do you remember the way through to the living room?”

Bebe closed her eyes against both the acrid smell and the memories rushing toward her. “Straight until the Dennis the Menace doll with the missing arm. Turn right, then left at the baby gate covered in broken Christmas lights. Don’t forget to duck by the stack of Good Housekeeping—there’s always a spider web there.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cece nodded, her voice low and shaky. She coughed, then continued, her normal sarcastic tone back in full-force, “Who could forget Dennis? That little shit has given me a lifetime of nightmares.”

They walked slowly through the winding path, turning sideways at times, crouching at others. Bebe had always compared going through her mother’s house with playing a giant game of Twister in which it was entirely possible to break a leg or worse with the wrong step. The last time she had been here, the day she’d packed her bag for college ten states away, she’d cut herself on a broken ceramic Precious Moments angel figurine, the jagged edge of its praying hands catching her thigh as she’d hurried past to the waiting cab. At the school health clinic, she’d gotten a booster for her tetanus shot, but her clumsy attempt to use butterfly tape to close the wound had resulted in a raised, silvery scar. When Dom had run his gentle fingers over it, she told him she’d gotten it by slipping against an open locker after swimming in the college pool, the first of many lies she had told him.

In the living room, the light was a little better. The windows had curtains, but they were in tatters, and the piles of debris hadn’t made it fully up to the top of the casement. There were only two spaces cleared. One was in front of the hulking television set purchased in 1990 where about forty grimy cigarette cartons balanced like filthy Jenga blocks. The other was a small area around the dry-rotted recliner, heaped with blankets, a stack of empty popcorn canisters depicting happy Boy Scout faces propping up the broken left armrest. The blankets were soaked in a black, slimy sludge that made Bebe think of a toxic oil spill. It smelled terrible; the stench intensified with the heat.

“Is that where she was when they found her?” She looked away quickly.

Cece nodded in reply, putting down her bucket and pocketing her phone. She opened one of the heavy-duty trash bags and handed it to Bebe. “Hold this steady.”

Her sister had always been the brave one, Bebe knew, but the amount of fortitude needed for this job seemed impossible. Cece grabbed the top blanket, folding the edges inward to lift it. Her arms strained, and she grunted. “God, that’s heavy.”

She dropped the bundle into the bag, and Bebe clutched at the plastic as it slipped out of fingers from the weight. A blend of fetid cigarette ash and death rose to her nostrils and she gagged, her burned coffee water emptying into the trash bag.

Cece snorted. “You just threw up on Mom.”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her gloved hand, Bebe lifted her chin defiantly. “And I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Excellent,” she hefted the next blanket. “That’s the attitude we need to get through this.”

 

As soon as they got back to the motel, Bebe took the bucket of cleaning supplies into her room and scrubbed every surface, including the walls. She stripped the bedding and took her rental car down to the local laundromat, which was across the road from the liquor store. Generally, her limit was two glasses of white wine, but today was exceptional in every awful way. The clerk raised his eyebrows at the five bottles.

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

“A pity party,” she answered with uncharacteristic honesty. He was a stranger she would never see again, and she had to tell at least one person the truth or her moral compass might rot away completely.

Unfazed, he bagged her purchases. “Right on. You might want to add some solo cups for easy clean up.”

She retrieved the clean linens and stopped by a gas station to get air fresheners. It was beginning to concern her that she would never stop smelling her mother’s liquid remains. After hanging the cardboard pine trees from the wall lamps and doorknobs, she remade the bed and took a scalding shower, using up her entire bottle of peach-scented exfoliating scrub. Her skin felt raw, but marginally cleaner. The clothes she had worn earlier went into one of the black trash bags.

There was no chance of her trusting the water quality of the motel’s ice maker, so she mixed herself a room-temperature margarita. She was sipping on her third when there was a knock on her door. Cece came in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes downcast. Bebe was reminded of how her little sister had once made a secret path between their rooms, a tunnel too low and dark for their mother to notice, their own little battle trench in the world war that was their home.

“I saw a roach in my room,” her voice was hardly audible. She glanced around. “All your cleaning probably scared it out of hiding.”

Bebe handed her the cup she was holding. “You can sleep here. I made margaritas.”

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

By the time the bottle of mixer was gone, and they had started on straight shots, the normal, abrasive Cece had returned. “I thought I was the bad child. I still can’t believe you told everyone at college that our mother was dead.”

“I was just so sick of people asking if I was going home for the Thanksgiving break. It came out, and then I couldn’t take it back.” Her words came out in a belligerent slur, then dipped into a mournful sound. “I promised myself I would never step foot in that house again.”

“Yeah,” Cece threw her head back to take another shot. Her bleary eyes met Bebe’s accusingly. “You left me behind in that shit show for two years alone.”

There was nothing she had done that pained Bebe more. Tears immediately began to stream down her face. “I know,” she leaned toward Cece, her body flopping sideways as she tried to hug her. “I’m so sorry, my little Cackling Chicken.”

“Whatever,” Cece said gruffly, but she moved into the hug. “Pain makes for good art.”

“Then you are definitely a world-class muralist,” Bebe murmured, her face hidden in her sister’s hair. It smelled like the overly floral motel shampoo, with an underlayer of ever-present turpentine.

“Did you tell them I was dead, too?” Cece asked in a whisper, her own cheeks wet now.

She shook her head so hard the room began to spin. “No. I put up every piece of art you sent me. Dominic and the kids are always asking when you will come out to visit, but I know you’re really busy.”

“How old are they now, your kids?” Cece wiped at her face with her T-shirt.

“Sylvie’s twelve, and Josh is ten,” Bebe answered, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose. “They’re good kids.”

“You dodged a bullet for them by never subjecting them to our mother,” Cece grinned, then added, “I bet you make them clean their rooms every day.”

Bebe opened her mouth to protest, but Cece raised a hand. “I’m joking. Well, like forty percent joking.” The smile left her face, her voice beginning to waver again. “I don’t doubt at all that you are a great mother, Bad Bitch. You were a great mother to me, even when you were just a kid.”

Bebe began to cry harder, her shoulders shaking. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t take good enough care of you—I left you behind.”

“Hey!” Cece grabbed her by the shoulders. “You mastered the art of making macaroni and cheese on a camping grill when you were seven. You cleaned my clothes in the creek, even in the winter. You stole baby wipes and washed my hair so I wouldn’t smell bad at school.”

“I should have taken you with me,” Bebe sobbed, snot mixing with her tears.

“No. You had a chance to get out, a scholarship; you had to take it. I got my chance, too, just a little later,” Cece murmured, handing her another tissue. “And I’m going to visit this Thanksgiving, on the condition that you don’t make me clean my room while I’m there.”

Bebe’s laughter was a wet sound, but happy. “How about you have to make your bed, but I’ll do your laundry?”

“Deal,” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the death of mom and the rebirth of our sisterhood.”

“Here’s to Bad Bitch and Cackling Chicken,” Bebe smiled, bumping her cup. “May their reinvented past clear the way for a brighter future.”

pencil

Amberdawn Collier is an adjunct professor of English at Ohio University. She earned an M.A. in English Education at City College, CUNY. She loves story-telling in all its forms and enjoys the challenge of writing prompt-driven stories that push her creativity in new directions. Email: acollier00[at]gmail.com

Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

pencil

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com

99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


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

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


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

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in 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. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

The Grave of Samuel Seymore James

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
M. Luke Yoder


Photo Credit: denisbin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Preservation of the dead. That’s why I take grave rubbings.

Isn’t preservation the reason we created gravestones in the first place? To preserve the proof of the people we care about?

I imagine the first burial marker was the turned earth that hid the body. But the earth is ever changing, and humans are ever sentimental, so we needed more permanent signs of death. Mountains. Landmarks. Rocks. At first, it was a small pile of stones that wind and water wouldn’t wash away. As we evolved, those piles became pyramids and monuments and henges for the great; for the mediocre, short words of remembrance etched on small granite or limestone or marble slabs: name, date, epitaph. I think it’s sad that the mediocre, the most common human lives, are the first to vanish, eroded and effaced by weather or vandals or lack of care. We will forever know where the memories of our Pharos, Presidents, and Poets are housed, but the proof of Samuel Seymore James of Huger, South Carolina, 1781-1806, Beloved Husband & Faithful Fisherman, might moulder to obscurity if not for rubbers like me. In a way, I keep the dead alive.

But many cemeteries and plantations and old properties with old graves no longer allow rubbings. They argue rubbing hastens the decay or someone may break fragile stones even with best intentions. And I understand: gravesites are solemn places for the safeguarding of our past and the one true promise of our future. They are as concerned for preservation as I am. We need archival proofs, however. In time, those cold carved letters on stones and marble slabs will be erased and return to mere rock, and those names will vanish from the earth. Without archival proof, those weathered words may as well be written on the dirt and the rain. So I continue to rub, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Some cemeteries still allow rubbing from anyone, but I’m not concerned for those graves: they have their archivists and plenty of them. I seek lonelier treasures.

Which is why Samuel Seymore James’ grave is so important to me. It’s the loneliest thing I have ever seen.

For fifteen years, I’ve taken rubbings from countless sites. Piles of archival boxes and hard plastic document tubes rise from the floor of my apartment. I’ve rubbed stones and revealed names and dates indecipherable to the eye from weathering. I’ve recorded hopeful goodbyes inscribed on crumbled white obelisks tucked away in a decaying cemetery corner. I’ve taken rubbings from a collapsing antebellum family complex marking the death of a dozen children, each vulnerable to the diseases that plague mankind. I’ve found and documented our names and fears and hopes of death before nature or man could erase them, and I’ve brought them home with me on paper and cloth rubbed with colored wax. I’ve seen it all. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James haunts me to this day.

While visiting cemeteries in the area one steamy summer, I pried a story from old Huger locals. Deep in the wilderness, there is a small grave site, unknown to any from off. It was, as they said, a local legend, preserved by a vengeful magical creature, as if the stones were erected that very morning rather than centuries ago. They would not take me—one visit was enough for each of them—but they told me about hidden markers along the way and gave me detailed directions, the same they’d pried from their grandparents when they were younger and bolder. They admonished me to return as soon as I could.

I hiked seven hellish hours to the grave, prepared to camp for the night. The paths often took me through flooded lands and cypress swamps. Snakes rattled at me. Alligators slid from logs to follow me. Tall pines and sweetgums and shade oaks drenched in Spanish moss gave me no relief from the close heat. I was ripped at by piercing thorns and hounded by insects that thirsted for blood. It was brutal. I understood why those locals refused to accompany me.

I stumbled to the grave site at dusk in a putrid film of sweat, covered in welts from the giant mosquitoes that arose in those stagnant, humid lands. My clothes were torn and bloody from long briars, my hair was matted from grime; I imagine I looked like some filthy being borne from those wild swamps that nature allowed to live. What a contrast I was to the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

Tucked beneath an ancient sprawling live oak with heavy branches drooping to the ground, I saw two gleaming white stones rising out of the leaf litter like incisors. It was as if nature decided against decay and allowed the markers to remain as unblemished as the day they were set. A pair of alabaster hands, one from each stone, stretched and clasped one another through space, binding the graves. When I looked closer at the hands, I could see words etched on the back of each, in a perfect Gothic font: Together in Eternity.

The left marker bore Samuel’s name and date of death. The edge of each letter was sharp and crisp, without hint of moss or mold, so pristine I thought it a wonder I didn’t hear the pinging of hammer on chisel as I approached earlier. I was amazed a grave so old and isolated could be so clean and free of weathering.

The right marker, just as pure, bore a name as well: Edith Anne James. Unlike Samuel’s grave, there was no epitaph or date of death: 1785–. Samuel was buried here alone, forever.

A loneliness I’d never felt before, or have experienced since, rolled over me in an instant and settled on my bones. In the fading light, I stood at Samuel Seymore James’s grave and I wanted to weep. The grave was so far removed from everything else in space and time and companionship that I was struck with the grandeur and sadness of it all. Buried alone, here, in a place so far removed it’s a wonder it exists at all. I took the rubbings of the stones and the clasped hands binding them among the crying crickets and flickering fireflies long after the sun disappeared.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In the fitful heat of my tent, I imagined I could hear Edith Anne wailing, wandering outside my tent, seeking her beloved Samuel and her rightful final resting place beside him. I could not dissuade myself that this grave was the loneliest on earth, hidden from the eyes of others, and destined to remain hidden until nature, if it was within its power, did away with it.

I returned home feeling I’d taken my most important rubbings. I placed them in an archival box and continued my work for years, knowing that no grave would need more proof of existence than Samuel Seymore James’s. I’d trekked through hell to take those rubbings. I could say that if I should die tomorrow, I’d die happy having brought Samuel Seymore James out of the wilderness, returned to life, and having captured the spectre of his beloved Edith Anne and her unfulfilled promise to him as well. Despite the terrible hike, I was satisfied my passion for preservation drove me to his grave and gave me such a sad, haunting story as that of two lovers long dead and separated for eternity.

But now I have to go back through that hell once again.

I received a call last week and I’ve been digging through my archives ever since. Thousands of rolls and sheets and I cannot locate the rubbings for Samuel Seymore James: not with the other Huger rubbings nor in the archive box for Charleston and Surrounding Area.

The call was from the American Institute for the Preservation of the Dead. They are a historical advocacy group that insists rubbings are a vital method for safeguarding the burials of the past. They won a grant from the Smithsonian and want to take their message on a tour to raise awareness for rubbings and the importance of preservation. The representative who contacted me knew of my work through other rubbers and mutual friends. The Institute would be thrilled for me to submit my most important rubbing for approval. The award for the twenty-five works chosen would be a one-year gallery tour throughout the country for advocacy and a prize of one thousand dollars. I told the representative I knew the exact rubbing I would submit and that I would send it soon.

That was six days ago. I’m now convinced, after having exhumed nearly all of my past work, against all odds I misplaced the rubbings of Samuel Seymore James. There is no reason I should believe I committed such a crime, but there it is. They are nowhere to be found.

I thought about submitting others. I have a beautiful rubbing from Boston I did on cream cloth and purple wax with a date of 1713 and a tearful poem yearning for positive judgment on a life lived. But it wasn’t the same. I know what I’d had with Samuel’s grave. I cannot bring myself to submit another sample in its place. I am certain I am, in all of Creation, the only human to have taken a rubbing of that grave, and the importance of its preservation is undebatable. The rest of my rubbings can burn for all I care.

I’m sure I can find the grave once again.

I live three hours from Huger. It’s winter now and the drive should be easy. Winter in the South is different than most people expect. They expect it to be mild, but not cold. They are wrong. It doesn’t snow much in Huger, but there are countless days from December to March when the cold is as close and heavy as a hide blanket and the clouds press down upon your shoulders with weight. You can’t help but hug yourself to hold on to the heat being pulled from your chest. And when it rains, the damp lasts for weeks beneath the feeble sunlight that manages to filter from the heavens. Darkness falls early on those days and the dawns are slow to return. It’s one of those looming mornings as I drive through Huger.

I think about the story of Samuel Seymore James often. Every grave I’ve visited since has evoked the memory: I see him kissing Edith Anne goodbye that late August morning and heading into the forest to find a secret fishing hole. I see the hurricane clouds and flooding winds, the oak branch that fell on him after he lost the path home in the darkness and rain. Edith finds his body herself. She buries him beneath the oak and spends everything she has on the gravestones. The few people who trekked into the wilderness to witness the ceremony said Edith refused to leave with them. She sat on the ground at her own gravestone, silent, tracing patterns on the smooth surface with her finger. She was broken, they said. So some stayed with her. But Edith Anne never got better. They built her a shelter and found her food and soon she was alone.

When one couple took it upon themselves to return from guilt, Edith Anne was gone. Two days later, the couple died in a house fire. A man traveling through the forest to Jamestown noticed small piles of stones which lead him to the grave; he camped at the site on the way up but he never returned home. His body was found beneath the oak. Just twenty years ago a Ranger found two Wiccan lovers dead on Edith’s grave. Visiting the grave now is a dare that few local children still rise to. But no one ever goes back twice.

And so the locals told me the story of Edith Anne James, alive still in that wilderness, caring for the gravestones and punishing those who leave her.

The locals told the story with such conviction that when I first stumbled to the site that long ago summer, I wanted to believe it as well, seeing those stones absolutely unaffected by the very same nature that attacked me every step I took toward the grave. There Samuel lies, below two shining white beacons of stone that defy degradation and decay. Edith Anne is there, too, somewhere, the magical source of that defiance. I wanted to believe that wave of loneliness crashing over me in my sweaty exhaustion was Samuel’s and Edith’s. I wanted to believe it all. But while that abject feeling of loneliness is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced since, my reverence for the story has waned. Evidence soon proved otherwise.

I found many examples in the literature of gravestones in near-perfect condition after over one hundred years, stones that nature just doesn’t touch, due to differences in material or local conditions or a variety of other rational variables. Despite decades and centuries of heat and floods and droughts and deep chills, despite the enduring press of nature upon all things in this world, there are exceptions immune to that press. There are things in existence that resist the inevitable laws of nature, and the grave of Samuel Seymore James appears to me to be one of those special examples. I’ve found other examples on every continent and within every other climate. There is evidence in this world our markers can endure those laws to which all other things must succumb. And isn’t that why we created gravestones in the first place? Preservation! Isn’t that wonderful enough in itself to justify returning through hell for a rubbing, despite a local legend and the natural part of me that still wants to believe that legend is true?

I think it is. I thought it was the moment I was contacted about the award and I still do as I see signs for the Wadboo Trail a few miles north of Huger.

The Wadboo Trail is an old horse path that meanders through the forest for fifty miles. It was cut out before the Revolution and farmers, travelers, and enthusiasts have been using it ever since. This is the main passage I will follow to reach the first pile of stones.

I park in the small gravel lot at the head of the trail, empty as last time. I sit basking in the final warmth I’ll have until the campfire I build tonight. The head of the trail is wide and paved in pine straw, but it soon narrows and becomes ribbed in places with exposed roots and fallen branches. Despite the hellish heat of my last trek, I enjoyed a brisk pace and admired the scenery until I left the trail at the first pile of stones, a rough footpath that’s noticeable if you know where to look. But after are the swamps and muck that pulled down on me like I was wading through hell with little hope of reaching the grave. Swamps tend to ebb in the winter, and I hope this is true today. From there, the land rises to dry and is choked with greenbriers and thickets to the grave site.

I’m going to camp through the night. There’s not enough sunlight in the day now to avoid it and hiking in the dark is unthinkable. I can reach the grave site well before dusk but I’ll return in the morning. I have two battery lanterns that will give me enough light to work in the dark, but with the fire I plan on building to stay warm, I may not need them.

I tug my hat over my ears and open the car door to pull on my stuffed backpack. The cold slaps my face. I can see my breath. The sound of crunching gravel radiates a few feet and dies close in the heavy air. There is no wind, but wind would be a mercy if it lifted these pressing clouds from my shoulders. I feel like I’m in a cold, grey box stuffed with cotton spun from the dampness. A mist seeps from the sodden ground. It’s as quiet as a fallen blizzard. I stand up straight, shrug my backpack right, and pass between the two short wooden rail fences that mark the cold beginning of the trail.

I can’t see the tops of the pines for the low clouds. The mist is so thick I can just make out a few magnolias scattered about the edges of the trail. All I can hear are my winter clothes swishing with my steps, my boots crunching the pine straw and dead leaves on the trail, and my heaving breath. I walk to the rhythm of these sounds and it takes my mind off the depressing conditions: I plan on making quick pace to the first marker. This will give me more time to navigate the swamp waters and will also keep my temperature up besides. I still shudder when I think about this hike in that hellish heat in the past, but I suspect this gross day will do its best to beat it.

In quick time, the first marker appears just as it was before. I find the footpath, but it’s more crooked and rugged than I remember.

The trees are older and closer together here. More oak and sweetgum. Spanish moss hangs like curtains from the branches; dank green moss and gray lichens grow between the bark. If I didn’t know those swamps still awaited I’d take my time to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle to breaking. But those swamps do await. So I do my best to follow the winding trail and keep the pace. My cheeks are numb and my lungs sting from the cold.

I am alone with my marching sounds. Swish, crunch, breath. Swish, crunch, breath. Now at the edge of my hearing, softer but higher pitched than my cadence, I can hear a pinging. As if someone struck a bright cymbal or triangle. I don’t know what is, but I incorporate the sound into my march. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. I fall into the rhythm and quicken my pace.

I trip on an exposed root. I grab a branch to steady myself, but it snaps off and I land on my hands and knees. One nub on the branch punctures the palm of my hand. It hurts like hell. I scream and the sound dies close, smothered by the mist and clouds. When I raise my hand to examine it, I leave a bloody handprint on the detritus and exposed roots.

The wound is deep. I wrap a bandage around my wrist to stave the blood. I clean the wound with water. A large splinter of the nub is still stuck. I yank it out and scream again. Soon, the bleeding slows and I dress the wound. It may not be enough, but I’m not stopping. The grave is too important. I start the hike once more.

I’m lost in the swamp. My wound has broken open. I’ve also twisted my knee. I don’t have time to stop now, not with dusk already settling in. Winter dusk is not like summer dusk. Especially on cold, disheartening days like today. In the summer, the colors dusk throws into the sky are brilliant: purples and reds and yellows tossed from below to bloom on the belly of the slow, darkening heavens. In the winter, dusk is more like closing your eyes to die; the light slowly fades in the gray until there is nothing left to see. And when the darkness finally comes, it comes quick. I should not rest, but I must. This hike has been far worse than my first.

It’s as if nature redoubled its efforts from long ago to prevent me reaching the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

The land rose and sank in places I could not remember. The footpath twisted through the dense woods in an unimaginable and illogical way, turning back upon itself and forking madly. It was more maze than trail. I could still find piles of stone markers, but there were fewer than I remembered and I found them at odd intervals. At one point I thought I saw someone sneaking in the mist. They didn’t answer my calls; I twisted my knee when I left the path to find them. Branches scratched at me and roots stubbed my feet. I finally stumbled to the edge of the swamp. And still, I could hear that ping, out there somewhere, hidden within the mist and clouds that enveloped everything.

I was exhausted. I forced myself deeper into the swamp. I couldn’t find the next stone marker. There was nothing but cypress trees and vines and that damned mist obscuring it all. I tried to find the source of the ping, but it was difficult to know the direction beneath those dampening clouds. I’ve been unable to find my way out of the swamp since, and now I don’t think I ever will.

I’ve torn something in my knee. Blood runs down my wrist, soaking the tourniquet. It drips from my fingers into the water when I rest my arm by my side. I can’t keep warm, no matter how hard I hug myself. I redress the wound in the dying light, but it won’t help. The bleeding won’t stop. And the pinging won’t either.

I rest on a small dry area between two cypress trees. I think of my favorite rubbings: the one from Boston; an eighteenth-century angel fighting Satan in Louisiana; a severe slab of marble from Boise, 1896-1945, with a tasteless joke and an etching to match. These were all fine examples, examples that need to be preserved, and any one of them or countless others were good enough to win one of those awards. I could’ve submitted any of them and won. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James called to me, and for that I am lost.

What would my gravestone look like, if someone should chance upon my body? I imagine aspects of each of those rubbings coalescing into my own gravestone, erected in my name, here. I’d have a witty epitaph. Something to make people laugh. Above my name, a quote on preservation and the innate need for humans to create things that remind us of those we miss the most. I imagine sculpted adornments and effects that would make anyone who stumbled upon it ask themselves: who the hell was bold enough to die out here? And, at moments, I imagine Edith Anne visiting my grave to keep the unrelenting weathering forces of nature and time at bay, as she did for her beloved these last two centuries.

I imagine these things and it makes me smile. But I know the truth. The only things that will mark my grave are my possessions and the small portion of my bones that don’t get carried off by alligators and other scavengers. Those things will mark my grave for a time, but nature will claim those, too, with hurricanes and floods and larger tides. I imagine this tiny island I lie on now will be gone in five years, and my bones and belongings will fall to the swamp, carried away to wherever nature wishes. Soon, there will be no trace I lived and died. There will be nothing to stop the weathering of my grave and no one near enough to preserve my existence.

This is why we build monuments to the dead, in hopes that we can defeat nature and, in a way, live forever. But that won’t happen for me. I die as we died before, when nature hid us from the universe as soon as it could and we didn’t know enough to do anything about it. Before henges and pyramids, before piles of stone.

There is little light left. The pinging is as fast as it’s ever been. My eyes are heavy. It’s no shame, to die like this. In the name of preservation, I tried. I look to the dusk horizon, as close as it is, and I hope to see a color. Any color but gray. Purple. Red. Yellow. Something. But all I see is that damned mist and those awful clouds above. I can’t tell if darkness is here or my eyes are finally closing. I’ve lost a lot of blood. The pinging stops. As the last bit of light leaves, I see something strange.

I fumble for my light and flick it on: it’s a white tube that wasn’t there before, propped against a nearby cypress.

I slide back into the cold water. My knee screams and I almost sink. I manage to hold the light on the object and I splash to it. It’s a plastic document tube. Written along its length, in black Gothic letters: Preservation of the Dead.

I carry it back to my island and set the light on the ground. I unscrew the cap. I pull the rolled cloth from the tube. It’s the rubbing of Samuel’s grave.

It’s my rubbing. My cloth, my color of wax, and my signature; Samuel’s name, date, and epitaph. It’s mine, except for a message written in the margin, in the same letters as on the tube: This is Your Award.

I’m not alone. I shine the light about. The clouds are lower. The mist swallows the light and spits it back at me. I hear a splash behind. I swing the light around; a figure wades into the mist. I shout, but it’s pointless; it doesn’t look back. I chase as fast as I can.

I can’t keep up and they won’t slow. My leg feels like it’s going to snap. I’m dizzy from losing blood. I keep the light enough to spot glimpses of the figure through the mist. I can’t scream anymore. I can barely breathe. If I falter, I won’t have the strength to continue.

The ground starts to rise. I claw my way onto land. There’s another document tube. Beyond, the figure stops. I crawl to the tube and twist it open. This time, I see the impression of two hands clasped, rubbed in red wax: Together in Eternity. In the margin, again: This is Your Award.

I beg for the figure to stop and to help me. Instead, it disappears into the mist. I roll over onto my back and try to scream at the clouds. My voice dies in my throat. I can’t tell if this is real or an irrational dream; I’m not certain I want to know. The ping starts once more. Clearer. Closer. I shine the light in the direction I know it’s coming from and I see a familiar pile of stones.

The grave isn’t far, now.

I force myself to my feet, but my leg gives and I fall. I crawl forward on my hands and knees. I hit snaking vines of greenbrier and deep thicket. The thorns catch my clothing and pierce to my skin. I can feel blood dripping from my head and ears. Vines wrap around my ankles, denying my efforts to continue. I pull myself, digging my hands in the soil and using roots like ladders. I hold fast to the light and I see a clearing. More vines seem to reach out at once to bar my way; they tangle my limbs and twist me around. A thorn stabs my throat. I am being torn apart. I bellow loud and pull as hard as I can. I squirt out onto the leaf-littered ground beneath the oak like I was pushed.

I crawl to the grave site. My body is throbbing. I imagine I look like some pathetic creature, spewed from nature like excrement from disgust. A thing that has no choice but to go where drawn. A mindless maggot seeking by instinct.

I shine the light at the grave.

The figure is hunched over Edith’s marker, striking the stone ping ping ping ping ping! Just behind it, on the ground, another document tube. A wave of absurd terror rolls over me and I want to weep. I know what awaits. I know, and still, I must see. I find a stick to prop myself to my feet and limp to my fate.

Ping ping ping ping ping!

The white cloth inside this tube isn’t mine, but I wish it were. As illogical as that seems, I wish it were.

There are words written once more: For Loving Samuel as much as I do. But above the epitaph, an image of my own face, as if the cloth was placed over my sleeping eyes and rubbed with some ethereal red wax while I dreamed impermanent things.

The pinging stops. The figure stands and turns. My light shines through it now, a spectre transparent like a fine mist rising from the ground. I cannot see if the creature is man or woman from the pulsating shimmer that springs up in a halo around it like dawn. But I know. In my bones, I know. It unleashes a sound of happiness so pure I wonder how it is that I was ever frightened of dying out here in the first place; my doubts of returning to the grave vanish in the flood. The rubbing was worth it. For Samuel, it was worth it.

And then Edith Anne reaches out and pierces my chest with an incorporeal hand. My heart seizes and I can’t breathe. I drop the light and fall to my knees as she screams in delight.

The last thing I see is my gravestone, pure white, next to Samuel’s. Name, date, epitaph: Dedicated Preservationist.

I wonder, will it weather?

pencil

M. Luke Yoder is a writer from Charleston, SC. Email: mlukeyoder[at]gmail.com

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.

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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.

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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