I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


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

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

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SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com

A Pot of Tea

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: 約克夏飼主/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The first week of summer vacation, Olivia and her grandmother bake scones. Nelle sits her granddaughter down at the island in the middle of the kitchen, tosses her ingredients to measure and weigh.

“Lavender in the scones?”

“A girl after my own heart,” Nelle says. Nelle uses lavender for more than baking—her favorite thing is to add a teaspoon of it to a pot of Earl Grey tea. After they shape the scones and put them in the oven, Nelle gets hot water ready and measures out the tea.

“Mom never measures out the tea,” Olivia says, and Nelle laughs.

“Which is why mine is always better.”

But Olivia isn’t sure—her grandmother’s tea is consistent, and her mother’s isn’t. Sometimes it’s sharp and bitter, other times too pale in color, but once in a while it’s the best cup she’s ever had.

“She thinks hers is better,” Olivia says.

“You’ll think yours is better soon enough.”

The hot water boils with a sharp whistle. Nelle takes the kettle off the stove with a kitchen towel wrapped round the handle—they have an electric kettle, sitting in a corner, but Nelle refuses to use it.

Every morning, Olivia is awoken by the whistling sound of the kettle as her grandmother makes a morning pot of Earl Grey.

Nelle pours the water carefully, then carries the blue china teapot to the island in the middle of the kitchen where Olivia sits. “Get the cream and the butter, Olive,” she says, and goes to check on the scones again.

Within minutes they are sitting down to an afternoon feast of scones and tea. Olivia breaks open a scone, watches steam rise in great curls. She slathers it with butter in a rebellious sort of way—Nelle would never comment on it, but Olivia can just imagine the way her mother’s eyebrows would rise.

“I noticed you’ve been over at Angela’s a lot lately,” Nelle says. She pours Olivia a second cup of tea. Olivia stirs in one sugar cube and a bit of cream, taking a sip to get scone crumbs out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I have.” Angela is loud and she’s funny and she’s Spanish and her mother always smokes at the kitchen table during breakfast. Angela wears black nail polish and she even dyed her hair once. And she’s sixteen to Olivia’s fifteen—it’s only half a year difference in age, but it’s enough.

“Don’t listen to your mother about her,” Nelle says matter-of-factly, as if she disagrees with Olivia’s mother all the time. “The important thing with friends who are louder than you is to know what’s in here,” Nelle says, and she reaches over to tap Olivia’s chest, right where her heart is.

“I know what’s in there,” Olivia says, but Nelle’s words prick at her skin. Does she? She is only a few years a teenager and Angela is already sixteen, big and bold and beautiful and so very sure of herself.

“Have another scone,” Nelle says, and she puts two on Olivia’s plate.

When the pot of tea is about to run empty, Olivia knows without asking that it’s time to make another. Always two, Nelle says, three if we’re desperate.

 

“How did she die?” Angela asks, tucking her legs beneath her.

“Heart attack,” Olivia mutters. They are sitting on Olivia’s bedroom floor, a tub of cookies that a neighbor brought over between them. Olivia has eaten five of them and she’s nibbling on a sixth.

“I’m so sorry, Liv.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia keeps glancing over at the teapot, beautifully white with blue flowers curling around its sides. It was Nelle’s favorite teapot, and, after Olivia begged her mother, Diane let her have it. But it doesn’t feel right to use it without her grandmother there.

“If you ever want to feel her presence again, I know something we can do,” Angela says.

Olivia shoves the rest of the cookie into her mouth. She knows what Angela is talking about—magick. Angela is a proud Wiccan, and she’s always trying to give Olivia crystals to carry in her pocket, gifting her with candles and herbs. “Maybe,” Olivia says.

The next morning, there is no whistle of a teapot. Instead there is the gentle chime of the hot pot. It sounds like the noise a stone makes in an empty cave.

There is no dessert for a week, not until Olivia drags out Nelle’s favorite cookbook and puts a chocolate cake in the oven. She proudly serves a slice to her mother after dinner, careful to make sure it’s a small piece.

“Lovebug,” Diane says, eyeing the size of the slice Olivia cuts for herself, “I don’t think it’s good for our health to have sweets around the house all the time.”

At night, Olivia turns on Jeopardy, but it isn’t the same without Nelle’s voice shouting all the wrong answers. When she can’t sleep and her throat hurts from trying to cry quietly, when her nose keeps running and her bed is too hot, she slips down the hall and into Nelle’s room. Diane made the bed. It looks exactly the same, just quiet. Olivia lies on top of the covers, cool and soothing against her cheek.

The next day, she goes over to Angela’s.

 

“Ready?”

Olivia nods. Her stomach is a writhing pit of worms, and there is a hard rock of guilt in her throat. Nelle, who went to church every week, probably wouldn’t approve. But Olivia is desperate. So here she is, sitting on Angela’s bedroom floor, praying to a god, any god, that this will work.

Angela uses a stick of chalk to draw a circle around them, sets a black candle in the middle of the circle. Olivia takes the thyme she brought from Nelle’s garden and they twist it into a wreath, encircle the candle. Angela has Olivia light the candle with a match.

“We have to say it at the same time,” Angela says, “and think of Nelle when you say it.”

That won’t be hard, Olivia knows. They speak, haltingly, together: “You who lived yesterday, I’ll call you from my mind to yours, come back from the shadows into the light and show yourself here.”

Olivia waits. Her skin goosebumps. She thinks of Nelle and how she kneaded her bread by hand even though they had a mixer, how she thought there was something alien and magical about crop circles, how she liked to tell stories about Olivia’s early years (sometimes so fantastical Olivia suspected she was lying).

The candle’s flame flickers, and Angela’s face splits into a wide grin. “She’s here.” Angela whispers, “Can’t you feel her?”

When Olivia closes her eyes, she is sure that she can. It is almost as if her grandmother is right there, pressing a cheek against hers, as if there is a hand around her heart, squeezing softly.

“I think so,” she whispers back.

“Do you have any questions?” Angela asks.

“No,” Olivia says, keeping her eyes shut, afraid to open them—afraid to ruin whatever it is she feels, deep in her bones, warm and familiar. “Just… I miss you.” She stays there for a while, her heart pounding madly, her palms turned toward the ceiling. There is pressure on them, just a little, just enough for her to know.

“We should let her go,” Angela says after a while, and Olivia’s eyes flicker open. The candle between them has burnt down to half its size, and the room smells like thyme.

Olivia nods, and they speak together, “You who lived yesterday, thank you, now fly away from this earth and join the world of spirits.”

Angela blows out the candle.

 

Olivia builds herself an altar in her closet. She takes cardboard boxes and stacks them on each other, turning them to create little levels, little platforms, on the corners of the lower boxes. Draping scarves over the boxes, she lines them with little candles, herbs, a large abalone shell that she rests her smudge stick in. After looking up altars on the internet and finding websites with flashing icons and black backgrounds, she reads about the god candle and the goddess candle, a pentagon. She adds some of those things, but mostly she makes it her own. She steals one of the lighters kept in the kitchen, and Diane muses out loud once that she swore there were two of them and goes out to buy another.

She even buys a goblet when she is out at the mall with Angela, unsupervised and with two twenty dollar bills in her pocket. It is tarnished and embellished with curling Celtic knots, and it rests heavy in her hand. Angela coyly suggests she borrow some wine from Diane for a spell here or there.

And even though Olivia calls Angela up, asks her about this spell or that, she does not show Angela her altar. It is a thing for only her. Olivia takes Nelle’s teapot and sets it at the back. She chooses rose quartz down for love, hematite to fight negative energy, aquamarine for courage, blue tourmaline for healing and opening (sometimes she has trouble breathing).

When her lungs do close up, or when Diane is shouting about the mess in the living room, or when it’s so hot outside and her body aches like little fairies have been using it as a trampoline, Olivia will open her closet and slide the door closed, sit down in front of the quiet altar. There is a sliver of light from where the doors don’t quite meet, a line that comes down right across her lap. She lights her candles. If there is still a tablespoon of wine left from when she poured a bit into her ceremonial goblet after her mother had gone to bed, she will sip it carefully. She pretends she is a priestess and the wine a gift from the Goddess, and, in the dark of her closet, it doesn’t feel silly at all.

 

Angela’s mother goes away for the weekend and, after nagging at her mother for several days, Olivia is allowed to stay with Angela. On the first night, they read tarot and do a spell to ensure that they stay best friends forever. Angela jokes about how “middle school” it is, but both girls eagerly join hands in the circle, prick their fingers with needles and mix their blood.

The second night, they light a fire in the backyard. It’s a new moon, and the sky is clear, stars like little pinpricks in a black sheet held taut over the sun. In firelight, Angela strips down, tossing every bit of clothing behind her. Olivia, fingers shaking, follows suit, but she cannot help the way her hands slide to cover the softness of her stomach, the thickness of her thighs.

As they spin, dizzily about the fire, Olivia cannot stop looking at Angela—her dark hair falls down her back in wild waves, her skin alight. It is in this moment that Olivia finds herself believing in the truth of magick. She feels it deep in her gut, down to her toes, and when Angela pauses to smile at her, to take a hand in her own, Olivia forgets to worry that she is naked. She forgets to care about anything beyond the light the fire casts as they dance, together, in mad circles around the fire.

 

One morning, Olivia goes downstairs to make tea and finds that Nelle’s old kettle is gone from the stove. Rage and righteousness well up and out of her eyes.

Diane finds her in the garage, throwing rotten banana peels, papers covered in coffee grounds, and unidentifiable chunks from the garbage can and onto the floor.

“What are you doing!” Diane shouts, but Olivia is beyond words. She keeps going, her hands wet and stomach turning. Diane tries to grab her arm but Olivia has spotted the kettle. She wrenches away from her mother’s grip and yanks it out of the bin, holds it in the air like a trophy. Diane lets out a heavy sigh.

“Lovebug, we don’t need that anymore.”

“Yes, we do,” Olivia says, stalking into the house. Diane follows her, watches as her daughter washes the old kettle thoroughly in water so hot that her hands turn raw and pink.

Diane tucks an escaped strand of frizzy hair behind Olivia’s ear, rests her palm against her daughter’s cheek. “It might be good not to have so many things of hers lying around. It can make things harder.”

But Olivia just fills up the kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. She makes sure to glare at her mother. “It’s already hard.”

Diane leaves the kettle alone after that.

 

In early July, Diane’s ex-boyfriend brings over a bottle of vodka. Diane makes a face at it and chucks it into the trash without pouring it down the sink. (Diane has been throwing a lot of things away. Her own things, Nelle’s things, Olivia’s things. Olivia thinks it’s a phase.)

Thinking of Angela, Olivia makes her way back to the garbage sitting in the garage, digs it out from where it smells of rotting meat and other bottles Diane couldn’t be bothered to recycle. She rinses it in her bathroom sink, squinching up her nose, and drips lavender essential oil on the outside of the bottle to get rid of the clinging garbage stink.

It occurs to her that Nelle would disapprove.

She puts the vodka beneath her bed. It is a few weeks before she has the guts to get it out, to present it to Angela like the grandest gift she could get her.

“Oooh!” Angela squeals, and she breaks its seal, a scent not unlike rubbing alcohol drifting up. Olivia gets up off the bedroom floor to light incense.

“Let’s be careful though,” Angela adds, pouring out just a couple of glugs into a mug. She sips it, winces, and hands it back to Olivia, who does the same.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Angela asks when they are on their second mug of vodka. She is swaying a little to the music Olivia put on, her eyes half-closed and dreamy.

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, a couple boys, but they were all terrible.”

Olivia smiles down into the mug. “Well, of course they were.” She can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss a boy—she wants to kiss Angela, who is sitting across from her in a black dress, a Wiccan pentacle tied around her neck. Angela has lips that are a beautiful, plush pink.

“Because they were boys?”

“Duh!”

“You think you could do better?”

The vodka makes her bold. “I know I could,” Olivia says with a grin, leaning in just a little, just enough—

Angela moves forward onto her hands, presses warm lips against Olivia’s. Olivia’s chest is an empty cavern, striving for air. She tries to do what she’s seen in the movies, what she has practiced on pillows and on the back of her hand since she was eleven.

It’s over in a heartbeat. Angela leans back, picks up the mug again.

Olivia raises her eyebrows. “Well?”

“You were right.”

 

After several nights of quiet, furtive hands and lips, the girls grow bold. Angela slips a knee between Olivia’s thighs—Olivia lets her fingers graze lower than the soft rounding of a breast.

Angela leans against Olivia’s shoulder on the couch, watching TV with Diane. Olivia holds Angela’s hand at the mall. Diane comments on how close they’ve grown, and Olivia barely stammers when she replies with a “yes, very.”

Angela suggests that they perform a ritual for power, sitting across from each other. When they hold hands, Olivia’s entire body is electric. After the ritual, they wind up in Olivia’s bed, limbs a tangle, nearly caught by Diane bringing them lemonade.

When Olivia is alone after a particularly bold session with Angela, her fingers wander to her lips, red and swollen, and then there is something on her chest—like a mountain, like a clamp around her heart squeezing the blood right out of it.

She invokes the Goddess, but her voice shakes and the weight grows. Her lungs shrink. She does a spell for peace, leaping out of bed to light a blue candle, fanning sage above her head. But the panic is stubborn. Her mind is a slippery wine glass, like the one she dropped in the sink washing dishes the other day. No amount of chanting or candles can stop it from shattering.

She imagines Nelle, watching from heaven, thinks how disappointed she must be. Her granddaughter can’t keep herself together and now she’s turned to witchcraft despite all the times Nelle put her in Vacation Bible School as a kid.

Olivia tries to will her away, push the weight off her chest, but the altar in her closet feels less like safety and more like a lie.

It takes a couple glugs of the vodka beneath her bed to get the weight to ease. Her pillow remains soaked with tears and black mascara streaks, so she finds a dry corner and presses her face into it. She is an empty seashell. Hollow, but hold it up to your ear—

Can you hear something?

 

One day in late July, Olivia returns to her bedroom from a quick bathroom break, and finds Angela standing in front of her open closet, staring at her altar. Olivia’s cheeks run hot and she hurts like her ribs are curving inward.

“What’s this?” Angela asks, bending, her fingers skimming the blue-and-white china teapot.

“An altar. I made it a while ago,” she says, hoping her voice sounds dismissive. Olivia is all too aware of how different it looks in sharp midday light, all magick sucked away—a cardboard fantasy built by a stupid, naive little girl.

“Quaint,” Angela says, and Olivia does not—can not—miss the mocking in her voice.

Sharp anger hits her in the stomach. She steps forward, slams the closet doors closed. Angela touches Olivia’s arm, seeming to regret her words.

“Olive, I’m sorry.”

But the use of Nelle’s pet name adds pain to her anger, and Olivia just snaps, “Don’t call me that.”

There is no kissing that day.

 

There are quiet apologies made, but the next time Olivia and Angela wind up naked in bed, there is something different. A recklessness that pushes them further. It’s a need. It’s power and control. It’s the same feeling Olivia had when she first did magick—nagging guilt, rush of pleasure, something deep in her blood urging her on.

Later, Diane invites her out to sunbathe on the porch, and Olivia feels like a different person. She thinks of the neediness of it all, watching a red sun through her eyelids—of the line crossed from fooling around into sex, of the detached loneliness that comes after a hard spike of pleasure.

 

Angela mentions that she knows a spell that could help them find true love. Olivia has known for a while that they are not each other’s, but the suggestion makes her body hurt like her friend just drop-kicked her across the room.

“Sure,” Olivia says. They have to write down who they want their true love to be, and they write at the same time. But Olivia finds that she can’t—there is a vivid pain across the bridge of her nose, and she just scribbles nonsensical words down after she sees that Angela has written “he.”

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday approaches, and she and Angela have stopped kissing. Olivia thinks Angela might have crossed a line she never planned. Kisses and touching were things girls just did sometimes, but they moved beyond that. Angela’s true love would be a man—Olivia’s would not.

Would Olivia have told Nelle everything? She always had, always inherently trusted her grandmother where her mother had to work for that trust. For the first time, Olivia wonders if Diane resented that. Not for the first time, Olivia wonders if she would have fallen for magick or for Angela if Nelle hadn’t died—where would Olivia be, then?

And would she give up Angela to have Nelle back? Would she give up her brief affair with magick, with control, with love? Would she give up her first time, tangled in sweaty limbs and sweet lips? She wonders if that’s how death works—how death gets you, keeps you submerged, how you lose the fight. But still.

She would give anything.

Later that day, Diane catches Olivia unable to breathe—Olivia has dropped Nelle’s teapot. The lid chipped, a sharp little nick on one side, and suddenly her lungs were empty and closing in like fake walls in a haunted house.

Diane names it—“Are you having a panic attack?”—presses her cool hand to Olivia’s forehead, instructs her how to breathe, holds her tight.

The following week, Olivia is prescribed a little jar of pills to take when her lungs are trying to kill her. They work much better than praying or magick or even vodka. She needs to take one after she and Angela go to the movies and Angela tells her she kissed a boy named Roberto.

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday party is loud and drunk. Olivia invites all of her friends and Diane invites all of hers. Diane decorates, stringing white lights all through the house, hanging red Chinese paper lanterns and star lamps in the corner of every room. Scarves and bejeweled pillows cushion every seat and chair—Olivia thinks it looks like the inside of one of those hippy dippy shops that always smells of musky incense.

In previous years, Nelle spent all day in the kitchen. Olivia remembers the way it smelled—of roses and sugar and sweet, moist cake. Olivia would poke her head around the corner, and Nelle would tell her to come taste, stick a frosting-covered finger in Olivia’s mouth. She always made the same cake for Olivia’s birthday: a honey cake frosted with rose and cardamom, covered in fresh, soft figs.

Olivia’s favorite thing about her birthday is the timing—fig season.

This year, though, Angela informed her that wasps and figs go hand in hand. The wasp crawls into the male fig, lays eggs, and dies. The babies emerge, and the cycle continues. Olivia finds it fitting—death and her favorite fruit.

When Nelle would have Olivia taste the frosting, Olivia would always tell her to add more cardamom.

This year, there is no honey cake. Olivia will turn sixteen without Nelle and without figs. But she does have her mother, who is kind despite how alien Olivia finds her, and she has Angela, who arrives to the party an hour early.

Olivia answers the door, and Angela stands there in all of her Wiccan glory, wearing a pentacle necklace and holding a box of beautiful figs.

“Happy birthday,” Angela says, and Olivia hugs her until she manages to blink the tears out of her eyes.

And then it’s almost seven o’ seven, the exact minute of her birth sixteen years ago. All of her mother’s friends are loud and drunk and all of her friends are loud and sober. Diane stands behind her daughter, finishing her toast, and Olivia holds a glass of punch.

Every face at the party is watching her. The clock clicks over to seven o’ seven, and Diane hurries—

“My daughter, my heart, how happy I am to know you. What a woman you will be.”

Cheers. Olivia sips her drink, and everyone congratulates her. It makes her feel a bit strange, a bit lost—all she has done is grow up, and she had no choice in that.

Her mother’s friends, dressed in bright colors, their cheeks flushed and lips loose, kiss her and wish her well. Olivia’s friends titter about how nice she looks, dressed in a pretty white sundress, her light brown curls wild and long. They lean on her shoulder and bring her punch.

Right when Olivia starts to feel tight in the chest, her fingers shaking, unable to say “thank you” to another person, Angela finds her. She pulls her into the bathroom, locks the door. The roar of the party quiets. A candle flickers across Angela’s dark features. Olivia breathes.

“Here,” Angela says, and out of her pocket she pulls a handful of figs.

“Oh, yes,” Olivia says with a moan. She eats them in seconds, licking her fingers. Then Angela hands her a glass—it is full of golden liquid.

“Cheers,” Angela says.

“What is it?”

“Tequila. The liquor is all very unguarded in the kitchen.”

Olivia takes a big sip. It burns but it also makes her insides feel lighter.

“Thank you,” Olivia says, handing her back the glass and sitting on the toilet lid.

Angela hovers over her, dark eyes sparkling. She takes a sip herself, winces, takes another sip. “Listen, Liv… if you don’t want to do Wicca anymore, it’s okay.”

Olivia’s chest feels tight. “I’ve lost the… truth of it,” she tries to explain. She’s lost the truth of the two of them, too, but she thinks maybe she found a new one. With friendship instead of kisses and a different kind of pleasure.

Angela touches her friend’s cheek, a gesture that sets Olivia’s heart on fire. “It was a summer love,” Angela says, and Olivia knows she isn’t just talking about the magick.

They finish the glass of tequila, brush their teeth to try to get the pervasive scent off their tongues. Olivia’s head is full of clouds as she turns to her friend, grinning widely. “Can you smell it on me?” she asks.

Angela leans over, presses warm lips against Olivia’s, a final offering. “Not at all,” she says. When they leave the bathroom, Angela offers Olivia her arm as if she is a gentleman and Olivia her lady, and they head, giggling, back into the party.

 

After the party has ended and Diane has collapsed in her bed, drunk and snoring, Olivia makes her way back downstairs, tiptoeing through streamers and party hats, into a kitchen whose counters are cluttered with glasses and plates and forks sticky with cake. She pulls out the teapot, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove—she waits.

She measures out Earl Gray, adds a teaspoon of lavender. She thinks of the saying “a watched pot never boils” but she also knows that it has to boil eventually, even if she never takes her eyes from it. At the first soft whistle she snatches it off the stove.

Then she thinks of her grandmother, the way she would pour so carefully. Olivia pours like she always does, nearly overfills it.

She hasn’t turned on a single light, and everything is awash in blue darkness. Olivia thinks that it suits the teapot very well, with its blue china flowers, the stark white of it dulled in the dark. When she pours the tea it feels as ritual as the spells she’s been doing all summer, and even though she knows it isn’t magick, there is something magical about it—tea at three in the morning, the dead quiet of a world asleep.

She adds a bit of cream, whiteness blooming within her teacup, settling into the perfect creaminess. It is perhaps the best pot of tea she has ever made, and there is an ache at the thought. She lets the ache sit there, lets it find a home in the hollow of her throat. After a while, the tea washes it away.

She gets up to make another pot.

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

The Formula for Skipping Stones

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
LS Bassen


Photo Credit: Owen Jones/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three-year-old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “Siddown goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

*

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tight-lipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, Massachusetts, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen-year-old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half-sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon nap time, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a…” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenaline. Stunned, I tread water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

*

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot-to-dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot-to-dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say goodbye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

*

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown-up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink-and-gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy–Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have—and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge—to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy–Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three-year-old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s Bed, Candles, Manger, Diamonds, Cat’s Eye, Fish in a Dish, Clock, and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position—also as firstborn and family genius—he eventually won a Nobel—kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on à assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the twentieth century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the fifties, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider.*

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the sixties. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of “Sweet Nothings.

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Website: lsbassen.com  Email: LSBASSEN[at]aol.com

Union

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Meredith Lindgren


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

It was the fourth day, three after Sadie reported George missing, that the note came in the mail. Talking to his memory helped her to feel sane during the lonely hours. The note was in his handwriting. She looked up to ask his memory what she held, but it wasn’t there.

The note smelled of paper, not him. It was sandwiched in its envelope between two back pages of different entertainment sections. Puzzles and horoscopes. The way his mom had wrapped money she sent in the mail to hide it.

There was his handwriting with all of its grace and superfluous curves, swirls and quirks. Lines that tapered and went nowhere. Letters written over one another or crossed out so that words would be spelled correctly.

It said:

My dearest Sadie,

It is you and only you, you are the one who I will miss. Our Union has meant the world to me. If ever I have met one who made the world a better place, it is you, my lovely Sadie. For that reason, a world without you, is the one thing which is unacceptable to me. I fear for your safety, so long as I am alive.

There is nowhere to go that could ensure your safety, so I take my final holiday beneath the waves. Let’s hope it is a tranquil one.

Those who are after me are nothing if not relentless. If only I had stolen anything besides other than knowledge I would simply give it back, such is a journalist’s life I suppose. I am not the only one in peril, by which of course I mean Finn and Heyduke. Now I suppose it is one down, two to go.

There is so much, it seems, left unsaid that you must be saying right now to yourself. I am at an advantage I suppose. I have but one. Except for knowing that the most important thing is that I love you, knowing that that is the one thing I should have said more often and wish I could say in a way where you could take it with you forever, the rest is a blank. You knew me better than anyone and that is why I have walked into the ocean, never to return to you or this life.

I would never leave, but for your safety. I love you always, so long as I can love. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but I did this for you. One time and a thousand times more, I love you.

Love,

George Goodsell

And that was it.

Like all lovers, they always meant, but never actually got around, to talking about everything. But once, in the whispering hours of an especially macabre morning, after a good friend’s close call and cry for help, he had told her that he couldn’t imagine anything driving him to suicide, but if he were to do it, he would freeze himself to death. She said that if she were to take herself out it would have been by walking into the sea or, as cliché as it was, driving into the Grand Canyon.

“What is this?” she said to her memory.

“A suicide note,” the glimmer of George in her mind said.

“But what does it mean?”

“Read it again. It might mean I killed myself.”

“I don’t need to read it again. Why couldn’t you just go to the police?”

“Maybe they were in on it. What do you think, did I do it?”

“If so you borrowed my suicide.”

She tried to see forever out the window, but snow reduced her view to a couple of feet. She tried to look past it, as if, for the first time ever she would be able to see either the Grand Canyon or the sea from their apartment in Denver. The second day, she had spent a lot of time crying; if she started again, it might make it true. George would be dead the minute she started crying.

He walked up behind her and she could feel the shape of his body against hers, at the same time feeling how much it wasn’t there. She tilted her mouth toward his but in his absence, she couldn’t lean into him without falling, so she didn’t reach.

“Where is it postmarked?” he said. She looked at the envelope again.

“San Francisco. Your least favorite Californian city.”

“If I didn’t want to, but had to kill myself, would I do it in San Francisco?”

“That night we talked about it you presented some pretty good reasons to freeze to death and the weather’s been good for it.”

“Plus, I didn’t want to drown at all.”

“You said it would hurt too much.”

“Sure.”

“So, I need to buy a ticket to San Francisco.”

“Assuming I sent this from there, would I stay?”

Questions like this made this apparition’s origins glaringly apparent. He might stay in San Francisco, he might go someplace else. He might have actually killed himself, but she didn’t believe it.

“Why did you have to leave me all alone?” She couldn’t help it, she cried. As she did so chanting, “He didn’t. He’s still alive,” to no one. Her memory of George watched silently and at a distance. She did this for some time. She woke the next morning from dreamless sleep, slipped into without intent, although gratefully.

His memory was there.

“I don’t want to talk to you. Not if you did it.”

“Yet, I’m still here.” He wavered.

There was a knock at the door. It was the police.

“Ma’am, I’m Officer Edwards and this is Officer Cooper. May we come in?”

“Yeah,” she said. She let them in.

“We have an update on your husband,” Officer Cooper said. “You might want to sit down.”

She sat down.

“His car was found abandoned in San Francisco. There was a note,” Officer Cooper reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a copy of an original suicide note. It was not the same as the one she had received in the mail.

It was unaddressed. It said:

I can’t take it anymore. This world is far crueler than it is kind. I have taken care of the disposal of my body by walking into the sea. Tell my wife I love her and hope she can forgive me.

That’s all. I have nothing more to say,

George Goodsell

George always had more to say. She put her hands with the note in it in her lap. “The coast guard is sweeping the bay for the body. All along the west coast folks are keeping a lookout,” Officer Edwards said.

Sadie nodded.

“Sadie, I know this is hard,” said Officer Cooper, “but you don’t happen to have a sample of George’s handwriting, for comparison’s sake, do you?”

“Uh, sure,” she said. She stood and walked to the bookshelf.

“The more recent, the better,” Edwards said.

The most recent thing he had handwritten was an anniversary card. Instead, she pulled out a grocery list and put the card to the side.

“Is this good enough?”

“That should do, although if you have anything more, it really would be helpful.”

“Let me look.”

She found some notes on what he was working on most recently for work. If he was dead, she should give them to the police. If not, she shouldn’t. She bypassed it for another notebook which she handed to Cooper.

“Can we take this? You’ll get it back,” said Edwards.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I have to ask, had you noticed any changes in George’s behavior,” said Cooper, “just before he disappeared?”

“No,” she said.

They nodded and asked her if she had anyone to call, to be with her during this difficult time. She called the electric company and pretended their phone tree was her brother. The officers offered to wait with her until he arrived. She declined, saying that it would be several minutes, not so long that they should worry, but long enough to keep them from their jobs.

She watched them go. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Even still, Sadie was going to take the lightrail.

George worked in the newspaper office downtown, the full length of the 16th Street Mall from Union Station. She couldn’t speak to him about it aloud, but two notes were not a thing. He was alive somewhere. She needed to talk to whoever he was working with, the others in danger, Finn and Heyduke. She needed to find out what he was working on.

The girl at the receptionist’s desk, Susanne, Susan, Suzette, some kind of Sue, recognized Sadie and escorted her back to George’s desk. Cubicle walls surrounded it. Sadie was encountered with a small pile of papers. In the trash, there was a hand-drawn crossword puzzle. As soon as the Sue left, Sadie pocketed the puzzle. She was looking through the papers on the desk when George’s boss approached.

“Sadie, what are you doing here?”

“George’s car was found abandoned. I need to talk to the people he was working with on his most recent article.”

“What people?”

“Finn and Heyduke.”

“You haven’t heard from George at all, have you?”

“No. His car was found abandoned in San Francisco,” she said.

He didn’t react.

“There was a suicide note.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

She sat in George’s chair.

“I’m not surprised,” his boss said.

She looked up at him. It was her turn not to react.

“We don’t have anyone here named Finn or Heyduke. Further, his work has been,” his boss paused. He did not want to say what came next. “Erratic.”

“Can I see?” she said.

“We need to clear out his desk, anyway. I just wasn’t going to rush it,” he said. “Take what you need.”

Sue was there with a box. Sadie hadn’t even seen her approach.

The boss started picking out papers and personal knickknacks from the desk, leaving office supplies that belonged to the newspaper. It was full when he handed it to Sadie.

“Sadie, maybe you should take it easy,” he said.

Sadie nodded.

“No, I mean… the things George was working on…” He was struggling. “He seemed fine, right up until the end, but the things he was writing, they’re not even disturbing as much as nonsensical. He kept doodling unsolvable crosswords and the like. Maybe you should rest.”

“I will,” she said. “I’ll just take this home and rest.”

Once in the apartment she ignored the box, fully expecting that it was indeed, filled with gibberish. He had not been different in the past several weeks, not in the way people seemed to expect. Not with her.

“Why did you make up Heyduke and Finn?” she said.

“Think,” the memory of George said. “Think.”

“You’re not dead. You can’t be.”

He was there, in her mind. “Have you looked at the crosswords yet?”

“What? No.”

And she pulled the discarded crossword out of her pocket. Her eyes were blurry from tears and staying up to talk to ghosts. Now that she had time to look at it she saw, it was incomplete and thus unsolvable.

The clue for nine across was “Doc Holliday’s final resting place.” That was Glenwood Springs, the place he had asked her to marry him.

He had put the word holiday in his note.

“Glenwood Springs,” she said. “You want me to go to Glenwood Springs.”

She was excitable and his memory didn’t answer. He just watched her go to the computer and make the reservations. The next train was leaving at eight the next morning. She packed.

“Of course you’re alive,” she said. “It makes so much sense.”

She found she was tired for the first time since he had been missing. But when she went to bed she couldn’t sleep. Half the time she was excited. Half the time she was wrong and he was dead.

When the alarm went off the next morning, she was unsure of how long she had slept, or if she had done so at all.

The train ride lasted a long time, almost six hours, and while at the start she had tried to read George’s work notes, by the end of it she was observed by other passengers talking to herself in half-conversations.

She got off the train and began to search the station for George’s face. People bumped into her or avoided her and she was left standing by herself on an empty platform. It was frigid and snowflakes with little substance blew around her, finding her face as pinpricks of cold.

“Where are you?” she said. “Where are you?”

And the loneliness was vast and surrounded her on all sides. Her efforts and failure heaved around her, a grim tide. The air was wet and took on weight. As she fell to her knees things began to dim. This is what it was like to drown. On the way down, she might see him.

 

George stood at Union Station in Chicago. Sadie should have the clues. They were lame. He had taken it for granted that he had more time. Once he realized that he was probably going to have to disappear, he had begun work on a crossword where the down clues were to read that he was in Chicago. One, “I think ___ I am”; two, “Inn, as an example”; three, “Three past nine down.” The solutions were meaningless for the most part.

He couldn’t tell whether it was too obvious or elusive and at the end he ran out of time, the senator’s men were driving him off the road. He’d left for San Francisco, the other end of the line and the best he’d been able to do was send her the note that should have told the police the same story as the one he left in the car, if she shared it with them, but tell her the truth. It was sandwiched between two crosswords called Chicago. Each with union as a solution.

He waited.

pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (under her previous name, Meredith Bateman) and Subprimal Poetry Art. Although she would not call herself a crossword aficionado, she does honor their right to exist. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

The Ginger Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
R.J. Snowberger


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

The five of us sat, ignoring each other. We didn’t know why we were there. The will had already been read, the inheritance dispersed. There was nothing left to do. So, why had we all been summoned?

I shifted in my thinly padded chair to keep my butt from going numb and passed furtive glances over my cousins. Alec and Dirk were playing games on their phones, while Julia had her nose in a romance novel, and Maria—bless her heart—balanced the spine of a coloring book against her knee, attempting to fill in an animated cat with a gel pen.

When I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually have a problem with Maria. The snobby, trust-fund triplets, yeah, but not Maria. We just hadn’t seen each other much since she had moved away when we were teenagers. We were merely out of touch. That was nothing to dislike anyone over.

I was considering going over to talk to Maria when the lawyer finally entered the room. He was a stocky fellow with brown hair that had been slicked back with so much gel, it lay flat against his scalp. His tucked-in, collared shirt was a little too tight and had a small stain in the middle that played peek-a-boo with his suit jacket as he moved.

“Hello, everyone. I am Peter Bradley, your grandmother’s lawyer,” he announced with a jovial smile. “I guess you’re all wondering why you’ve been invited here, today.” He looked like a clean-cut Hagrid, offering us a scholarship to Hogwarts. We were not amused.

His smile faltered and he continued. “So, when your grandmother died, she left most of her things to either the VA or your parents—”

“We already know that,” Alec interrupted. “It was in the will.”

“She left our mother a broach,” Julia added, face lowered and eyebrow lifted in disgust.

“Right, but what you don’t know, is that she left something for you, too,” Mr. Bradley replied with an ‘Ah, I’ve got you there’ expression. He then hesitated before correcting himself. “One of you, that is.”

“Which one of us?” Dirk asked.

“Well, that is to be determined by this.” Mr. Bradley held up a small stack of papers. After passing the pages out, he stepped back and watched as we scanned the document. He seemed amused by our bewilderment.

Maria was the first to speak. “A crossword puzzle?”

Even as an adult, her voice still had a high, squeaky pitch. When we were children, I used to tease her about it, calling her Maria Mouse. She would protest, retaliating with, “Yeah, well, you’re Piper Pepper” to which I would say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Then we’d both pout, and Grandma Pat would tell us to “get over it” while simultaneously giving us sweets.

I guess I unconsciously smiled at the memory, because next thing I knew, Mr. Bradley was saying, “See, Piper is excited about the puzzle.” How a smile translated to ‘excited’ I’m not sure, but I received a few smoldering glares from the triplets for it.

“Now, the instructions are quite straightforward,” the lawyer continued. “The first one to finish the crossword puzzle, discovering the hidden message in that center column there, receives the prize.”

“And what is the prize?” Alec asked. His tone implied he wanted to know whether or not the puzzle was worth his time.

“Unfortunately, only the one who receives it will find out the answer to that,” Mr. Bradley replied.

“So, you don’t even know?” Alec asked incredulously.

Mr. Bradley ignored him, continuing on with the instructions. “There is only one stipulation. The puzzle must be completed alone. You are forbidden to help each other, so no group sharing.” He passed us all a stern look, but it was obvious that he was referring to Alec, Dirk, and Julia.

“My number is at the bottom of the page,” he stated, drawing our eyes to the name and number printed below the clues. “Let me know when you’ve finished.” He left then, leaving the five of us sitting in uncomfortable chairs with nothing but a crossword puzzle and the hope of maybe receiving a mystery prize.

Maria was the first to react. She packed up her coloring book and gel pens, and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve got a job, a husband, and a very busy two-year-old. I loved Grandma Pat, and I’ll miss her, but I don’t have time for games. I wish you all the best.” She gave us a small smile before following in Mr. Bradley’s footsteps, leaving her copy of the puzzle behind in her chair.

“Weirdo,” Julia snorted as the door closed behind Maria.

I immediately felt the urge to slap her and shoved my hands under my legs to keep myself in check. So Maria was a little weird. She still had some good points. I may not have a husband or a kid, but I did have a job. A full-time job—one that paid the bills and provided money for food.

Even as those facts crossed my mind, however, I was still considering the possibility of taking some time off. Just a day or two. Plus, there was no way I could allow one of the triplets to win, right?

When I arrived back at my apartment, I decided to see how hard the puzzle was before making any work-related decisions. Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t be as time consuming as Maria had thought.

As far as games went, I hadn’t been all that surprised that Grandma Pat had chosen a crossword as her way to test us. She had always loved them, putting aside an hour or so every morning to fill out the one in the daily newspaper. She claimed they kept her sharp.

“Make sure you always find time to engage your brain in something that really tests you, Piper,” she would tell me. “You don’t want to become dimwitted.”

Upon first perusal of the clues, I experienced a brief moment of glee when I thought the puzzle might not be that difficult to complete. One, three, and five down, for instance, were simple: the clue “onion garden” obviously referred to chives, while “Grandpa Richard’s favorite game” was pool, and “The only type of tea” was loose-leaf.

As I filled in these squares, however, I noticed that none of the letters corresponded with the central column. The clues I’d answered were just distractions from the main point of the puzzle. I knew I shouldn’t have been shocked by this. Of course Grandma Pat wouldn’t make the clues to the main answer that easy.

Annoyed with myself, I found the clue for nine down—the middle column, mystery answer—and read it. It was about as vague as vague comes: “Where hope is kept.” What was that supposed to mean? The first words that came to me were ‘mind’ and ‘heart,’ but the answer had to be nine letters long.

Since columns six, eight, and ten across intersected with nine down, I switched my attention to them, hoping they would provide some letters for me to start with. Their clues, however, turned out to be just as vague: “Where love awaited,” “A memorial,” and “China.”

I decided it was time for some coffee.

While listening to my old coffeepot gurgle and slurp in its attempt to brew the nectar of life, I grabbed a Kit Kat bar from the freezer and pondered the clues I’d read so far. “Where love awaited” and “A memorial” were beyond me, but “China” struck a chord. I highly doubted that Grandma Pat was referring to the country, which meant it had to be a china set.

When we were five and six, Maria and I had been obsessed with tea parties. We each had our own little plastic sets, but sometimes on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Grandma Pat would bring out her white bone china set with the hand-painted, purple pansies, and we would have a real tea party. I could still remember her telling us, “You always need to have a set of four cups: one for yourself, two for your guests, and one for a surprise visitor.”

I froze for half a second, allowing the memory to wash over me, before snatching up the puzzle. To my delight, I found that the answer to column ten across only needed four letters. I wrote in F.O.U.R and stepped back, proud of myself for having figured out one of the hard clues.

Once my coffee was brewed, I mixed in some cream and sugar and then returned to the crossword. Deciding to save the main clues for later, I focused on some of the easier ones.

As I read over the clues, I found myself amazed at how a simple phrase or word could elicit such strong memories. Stories and funny instances that I had long forgotten came back to me in a flash, filling my mind with happier times. It was nice, but sad.

One thing I did notice, though, was that most of the memories had occurred when only Maria and I were present. The triplets wouldn’t have had any part in them, having grown up in Ohio instead of in the same town as our grandparents like Maria and I had. They wouldn’t know that Maria had once called Grandpa Richard’s eggplants purple squash, or how I had picked a leaf from their fig tree, exclaiming, “This was Adam and Eve’s clothes!”

So, why would Grandma Pat contrive a test that only either Maria or I could finish?

With the easy clues out of the way, I saw that a letter had been provided in the columns of the harder clues. From this—and some of the memories that had sprung up—I discovered that the answer to “Where love awaited” was hospital—because Grandma Pat had met Grandpa Richard when she was a nurse during Vietnam—and “a Memorial” referred to the azalea bush that Grandma Pat had planted in memory of her mother.

Now, all that remained was that center word.

The answer took me a while to figure out. However, with only the letters ‘I’, ‘E’, and ‘O’ and the phrase “Where hope is kept” to work with, I couldn’t fault myself too much. I could only remember Grandma Pat using the phrase a couple of times, and I had no idea what it meant. After all, how could hope be kept in a ginger box?

The ‘ginger box’ was a small silver-and-gold box that had sat on our grandparents’ mantle. It hadn’t seemed very special. My grandmother only used it to keep her ginger candies in. She had offered me a ginger candy once, but it had been too spicy, and I’d spit it out. Grandma Pat had laughed and said, “You get used to them,” but she never offered me another.

I learned later that she’d acquired the habit of sucking on them during her time as a nurse. She’d said they helped her ignore the stench. Afterwards, she’d carried them around when she was an activist in the late seventies and early eighties, standing up for women’s rights. “They gave me courage,” she’d explained.

The box of candies obviously held a special meaning to Grandma Pat. But why leave it to one of her grandchildren? And why create such a difficult puzzle in order to see who received it?

After typing in Mr. Bradley’s number, I pressed my cell phone up to my ear and waited. When he answered, I read him off the answers to the puzzle. I could hear a smile in the lawyer’s voice as he instructed me to meet him the next morning at his office.

Mr. Bradley only grinned as he pressed the ginger box into my hands. When I just stared awkwardly down at it, he added, “You’ll understand once you read the note.”

I decided to wait until I was in the security of my own home before I did anything. I don’t know why. It just seemed proper. So, while seated cross-legged on my brown, squishy couch, I opened the box. I half expected to find old ginger candies inside, but, instead, there was only a folded envelope. My heart hammered in my chest as I withdrew the crinkled letter and read its contents.

Dear Piper,

Yes, I knew it would be you reading these words. Though it was obvious that you would be the one receiving this gift, I only thought it fair to allow the others a crack at it.

I daresay, the triplets never stood a chance, but they needed to feel involved. They always did care more about physical possessions than life experiences. That left you and Maria. However, I’ve known for a while now that Maria is contented with where she is in life. She doesn’t want to relive the past, nor think of what could happen in the future. Which leaves you.

You’ve had it hard, Piper, and that’s okay. Life is never easy. This box can either financially stabilize you—for it is made of pure gold and silver—or inspire you to continue working towards a brighter future. It has been in the family since the early seventeenth century and has been my reminder that life goes on. It has also been somewhat of a good luck charm. I hope it will be the same for you no matter what you decide.

Love you, dear,

Grandma Pat

I blinked. She was handing me a choice between hope and riches. A smirk crept over my lips at the realization that I could be richer than the triplets.

I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, distracting me. I knew who it was without looking.

“How did you do it?” Julia’s voice exclaimed. “That puzzle is impossible.”

“Really? I didn’t think so.”

She huffed in response. “Whatever. So, what was the prize?”

I looked down at the ginger box and smiled. “Hope,” I replied, and hung up.

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Email: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Edsel Little/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

I could smell my own breath—the distinctive waft of garlic and onions—as it crystallized, mid-sigh, in frigid, early morning air. Bits of poppy and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth. I ran my tongue along my gums, grimacing as I tried to work them free.

I should have stuck to my regular order.

Plain bagel, lightly toasted. Small coffee, black. No fuss, no mess. No lingering onion breath, nor visible evidence to clear away. My order took longer than usual today and by the time I was out the door, I’d missed my train.

I should have known.

Deviation from routine equals disruption, then distraction, which leads to mistakes, then to reorganization and, if all these warning signs go unheeded, demotion. Deviation from routine is how you find yourself alone on the platform in the freezing cold, digging bagel bits out of your teeth while you wait for the train to take you to a job you hate, in a life you never wanted.

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

I stomped my booted feet against the frozen tiled pavement and checked my watch for the tenth time in last two minutes. According to the blinking sign above the platform, not only had I missed my train, the next one was running late. Not that it really mattered; I could parade in naked to the call center, or stumble in drunk, and no one would so much as look up or bat an eye.

Of course I’ve never done that. Too conspicuous.

The whole point of my working there is to blend in and take up no more space in the pack of pathetic sad sacks who work there than necessary. I resign myself to that existence because I have no choice, but I would much rather arrive on my own terms. On time.

A long, exasperated exhale escaped. At least my breath was clearing up.

The train finally rumbled into the station, the blurred faces in its packed cars coming into focus as it slid to a jerky stop. The doors jutted open and a stream of passengers spilled out and mingled with those waiting. I joined the advancing swarm, expertly navigating around the elbows, briefcases and backpacks until I found a seat. I brightened slightly; I never get to sit on my regular train.

Cellphones, tablets, and the occasional book or newspapers appear in the hands of my fellow commuters, pulled from their various purses and pockets. Their eyes glaze over; their jaws go slack as they disappear into them, shielded from unsolicited small talk and awkward eye contact with the people planted much too close within their personal space.

This is why I hate having bad breath. I can’t control who breathes on me, but I can lead by example.

“Excuse me, Miss, can you think of an eight-letter word meaning ‘to cause to function or act?’” says the man sitting next to me. I jump at his voice and my eyes lock involuntarily with his for a second. He is a jovial, unassuming old man: round face, pointed nose, grey eyes peering out from behind thick glasses, wispy tufts of white hair poking out beneath a faded green cap. I glance away, but not fast enough to discourage further conversation.

“Starts with ‘A’?” he ventures, eyebrows raised hopefully. He gestures to the crossword puzzle on a tattered page of newspaper in his hand.

I’m caught. But I don’t have to play along. “Don’t know. Sorry,” I reply.

He looks crestfallen.

“Active?” The woman across the aisle pipes up. She puts down her knitting and shoots me the briefest of glares as the man counts the squares in the crossword grid. He shakes his head and sighs.

“Activate?” I offer. I wouldn’t normally get involved but the woman’s righteous glare shames me; she’s like the teacher who guilts you into partnering up with the fat kid with no friends.

The man resumes his counting—the word fits. He fills in the spaces carefully and looks up at us in triumph. “How about another? I need an eight letter word for ‘a stipulation, explicit or implied, in assurance of some particular in connection with a contract—‘”

The wording of the crossword clue stirs up a memory. A monotone voice, an odd instruction from the past:

Study these definitions; you’ll need them when someone asks for help with a crossword…

“Warranty,” I state before I’m aware of it. I feel a familiar unease stirring; old instincts aroused. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, my mind starts taking in and noting the smallest details: the knitting woman’s wool is baby blue, the person three seats down from me just spilled tea down his front, a child’s mitten is lying abandoned on the floor under the emergency buzzer…

It could be nothing… don’t read into it unnecessarily…

The old man smiles and nods his confirmation but I already knew it was the right word. My body grows tense in my seat. He busies himself with the puzzle but keeps his eyes trained on me. My gaze shifts towards the door, where I count the blinking lights above indicating the train’s route. Four more stops.

They’re supposed to ask for help three times… he’s only asked twice.

“One more—seven letters, means ‘an exceptional degree; particularly valued’…” The third question. He trails off and there’s a weight in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s knows that I know and he’s waiting.

“I really can’t help you—” I grope for my bag and try to stand up as the train starts its screeching deceleration. It’s not my stop but that doesn’t matter. I need to get off the train right now. The car rocks as it rounds a turn and the lights dim for just a second. Before I’m on my feet,a strong hand seizes my elbow and pulls me back into the seat.

“Oh, I think you can,” the man says, his voice low. His smile remains benign but his eyes darken ever so slightly. His hand is gripping my elbow, squeezing it so hard I almost wince.

“It starts with an ‘S’…” He hisses the letter and I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the gust of icy wind that rushes in when the doors fly open.

“Special…?” I whisper.

He nods again and releases my arm. I fight the urge to rub where his fingers dug in through the thick tweed of my coat. He gets up, touches the brim of his cap in a gesture of farewell to the woman across the aisle before he exits the train. He glances back at me for a moment while the door buzzer blares. The train jolts ahead and he’s gone.

I look down at the paper he placed on my lap and see it, intersected within the crossword puzzle, the signal from a former lifetime:

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

It’s an hour and seventeen minutes later when I walk into the half-empty diner. It’s next to the Specialty Electronic Shop on 10th Street, with an ‘Active Warranty’ sign in the window. The man from the train is waiting for me.

I move to sit in the booth behind him, with our backs to each other as is procedure, but he beckons me to sit opposite him instead, my back to the door.

I slide into the booth and bite back the sense of dread that creeps up from my gut. I need eyes on the door and I don’t have them. I catch a crude image of the door reflected in the dented metal napkin dispenser. It’s better than nothing.

“Did you forget how to interpret the signal?” He taps his watch at me in a ‘tsk, tsk’ gesture; all traces of the old-man joviality gone. He’s irritated, impatient.

I don’t apologize for being late; just as every other day, when I show up is one of the few cards I have to play.

The first words are critical… don’t rush them. You have all the time in the world…

I take my time getting settled: I pull my gloves off finger by finger, and then rub my cold hands together. I unwind my scarf in near slow motion.

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

I hear the bell above the door jangle every time someone enters. The early lunch crowd is arriving: the businessmen in their tailored suits, the old ladies shuffling in with their bulging shopping bags, the solo diners gravitating towards the counter. The noise level swells as the tables fill up.

I turn my attention back the man. His mouth twists itself into an irked half-smile as he takes a sip from his chipped tea cup.

“Terrible. Over-steeped.” He finally says, exasperated by my continued silence.

Good… Make him come to you.

“Would you like something? Coffee? A late breakfast?” He pushes a greasy laminated menu towards me.

I ignore it and clamp my eyes on his. “I already ate.”

“I can tell. You have something stuck in your teeth.” He smiles at my obvious annoyance. The bagel that put today in motion refuses to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” I ask. My voice is devoid of emotion, calm even, despite the sweat gathering under my arms and at the base of my neck. They trained me well.

“You can call me Carl,” he says, offering his hand which I refuse to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mathilda.”

“I go by Brenda now,” I counter before I can stop myself.

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

I gave him—‘Carl’exactly what he wanted: a noticeable reaction to my real name. I press my hands into the table and take a steadying breath.

Stay in control. You can do this.

“I know. Brenda Southland. 31 years old. Entry-level Customer Service Representative. Single. No children. No friends. Not even a cat,” he recites in a bored voice. He opens his jacket to reveal a thick manila envelope tucked inside. He taps it over his heart before zipping his jacket cheerily.

“What do you want?” I repeat, raising my voice a hair above normal.

Steady now… it’s a test… stay with him…

“I want to eat lunch. I’m starving. Then we’ll talk.” He snaps his fingers and a waitress, glaring haughtily at him, appears at our booth. “Two cheeseburgers, please.”

“As I was saying, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m aware of your current predicament—your demotion and subsequent relocation—and I want to help.” He removes his glasses, polishes them on a gleaming white handkerchief and puts them back on.

I open my mouth to respond but he cuts me off.

“Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t need my help. You were a good agent but you got sloppy. And now you’re stuck warming the bench. But you’re still valuable. I’m willing to put in a good word with The Administration. Get you back in the game.” He watches me draw in a breath. “What do you think, Mathilda?”

My real name sends me back to that last fateful mission:

I’m alone, crouched in a darkened motel corridor. I’m waiting for the ‘all-clear’ but something’s not right. My watch reads one minute past the specified drop time. I catch the faintest whiff of something in the air… cigarette smoke? No, gunpowder. I hold in a gasp as something dark and red oozes slowly under the door. Then I run.

I was training at the call center less than 48 hours later, or rather, ‘Brenda’ was…

I snap out of my memory. Carl is munching happily on his cheeseburger, waiting for my response.

“The Administration made it very clear the agents were killed because of my mistakes,” I tell him. “I don’t see them changing their minds so easily.”

He takes a long time to finish chewing as he considers what I said. He gestures for the ketchup, lobs a healthy dollop on his French fries and leans in closer. His voice is so faint, barely a whisper but there’s no mistaking his excitement:

“The Administration needs new intelligence. The easiest way to get it is to access a large communication network. Tell me, ‘Brenda’,” he says, a disgusting leer on his face. “What is it again that you do all day at the call center?”

Realization dawns, bright and clear, and a rush of goosebumps shiver up my arms. My pulse quickens. I just stare at him, unable to speak.

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

“What do they want me to do, exactly?” I ask, breathless. My knee jumps under the table so I reach down a hand to steady it. The bell rings as the diner door opens. In the napkin dispenser, I see the distorted reflection of two construction workers in bright orange vests enter.

“Plant the malware on the server. When the system backs itself up, a copy will automatically download to the district server. The Administration will have its access and you’ll have your life back.” He smiles and for the first time all day, so do I.

Suddenly, a raised voice startles the noisy restaurant into a stunned silence.

“FBI! Freeze! Put your hands where we can see them!”

It’s the voice of Special Agent Mathilda Hawthorne—me.

I’m on my feet, my one hand brandishing my badge, the other closed around my gun, which I retrieved from my boot in one swift motion. My dining companion never saw it coming. He cowers, arms over his head.

“Great work, Agent Hawthorne,” crackles the voice in my earpiece, my partner in the Bureau.

“Thanks. Let’s get him out of here,” I motion to the construction workers, my backup, and they haul him out of the booth and into the waiting van.

“Nice undercover work, Hawthorne.” says Agent Cole as he tightens the handcuffs on ‘Carl’. “But just so you know, there’s something stuck in your teeth.”

pencil

Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Helping Hands Retreat

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Red Lagoe


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

Clouds of dust lifted from the concrete and swirled in the red glow of Sarah’s tail lights as her car crept down the broken pavement leading to the retreat. After an entire day on the road, with a watchful eye on her rearview mirror, she was still not confident that Wade was not following her. Trees and thick shrubbery lined the narrowing road, and a deep ditch on each side made it too difficult to turn around to go back.

As her stomach grumbled and fear of being lost began to creep in, her headlights revealed a chain link fence stretched across the road. The gate was wide open for her to drive through, but she let the car roll to a stop. An aged plank board sign sat off the side of the road with white block letters that read: “Helping Hands Recovery Retreat.”

She released her breath in relief and drove through. The road became gravel and the trees and shrubbery cleared into an open field of weeds, so far as her headlights could see.

A clopping sound came from behind and Sarah pressed on the brake to come to an abrupt stop. It was the sound of galloping hooves. She twisted around in her seat and spotted the silhouette of a large man on horseback. He climbed off his steed and hurried to the gate to close it behind her.

Her heart sped up. She couldn’t see his face, but could feel the icy glare coming from the dark outline of the man as she pulled her car away from him toward the welcoming light of two houses.

As Sarah bounced her focus from the man behind her to the houses in front of her, a paunchy woman in a purple winter coat came from one of the rustic structures and walked up to her car. Sarah rolled down the window.

“Welcome to the Helping Hands Retreat, dear.” She oozed with kindness and gentility.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place—”

“Of course you are.” Her voice was sugar-sweet and comforting.

“I had a brochure for Helping Hands Retreat, but this doesn’t look like—”

“You need help,” the round-faced woman said. “A chance to get back on your feet. To start over, right?”

“Something like that—” Sarah was on guard and reluctant to trust this woman. She was reluctant to trust anyone.

“That’s what we do, dear. You’re in the right place. Come in. You just missed dinner, but we can get you a room for the night if that might help.” She interlaced her white-gloved fingers and held her hands near her heart.

Sarah, exhausted from an entire day on the road, and needing shelter from Wade for the evening, brushed her skepticism away and accepted the woman’s offer, whether she was in the right place or not. “That would be wonderful,” Sarah said.

“I’m Mary,” the woman smiled.

The premises were not as upscale as they appeared in the brochure, but Sarah didn’t care. Perhaps it looked better in the daylight. She followed the small waddling woman to the steps on a simple rectangular house. Each of the three steps crepitated beneath her feet as she climbed to the entrance.

There was no time to pack a bag when she left home that afternoon, so Sarah arrived at the retreat empty-handed. The cool mid-November air chilled her skin, and reminded her of the bruises that Wade left on her arms. He would find her soon. He always had a way of finding out where she was.

*

Mary left Sarah in room number four, gave her a key to the room, and a welcome package complete with a fresh towel, toothbrush, toiletries, and a set of hat and gloves to keep warm. The package gave her a feeling of indignity—like a homeless person—but that’s what she was now. Eight rooms stretched along one side of the hallway inside, similar to a hotel. On the opposite side of the hall was a shared bathroom and a common room, but all of the guests had retired for the evening. Strange to Sarah, considering it was only seven o’clock, but she was so thankful to be away, that she washed up and retreated to her room for the evening without any questions.

The room was drafty and cold, and the gentle sobbing of a woman could be heard through the wall.

The soft blue glow of moonlight seeped in from behind the curtain of her private room, exposing shadowy lines—bars on the windows. A further peer into the darkness outside the window revealed a large open field fully illuminated by the moon. It was at least thirty acres to the edge of the property where the fence laid. Plenty of room for the horseback riding that she had seen on the brochure.

As she dreamed about her potential new life, she felt it again—an icy stare. Eyes watching her. She tried to shrug it off as paranoia about Wade following her, but it persisted. She closed her curtains and walked barefoot across the creaking wooden floors and froze in the middle of the room. The feeling was still there. From under her right foot, she could feel a gentle upward pressure from underneath the floorboard, then a swift sound of scuffing below. Sarah gasped and jumped to her bed, staring down at the floorboards as the clunking, slithery sound from under her room waned. Her blood pumped through her veins so hard, she felt sick to her stomach.

“Hey!” Sarah said toward the floor then leapt from the safety of her bed to run to the window. A shadow, consistent with the shape of a person, darted out of view around the side of the house.

“Did anyone see that?” Sarah said through the walls, but there was no reply.

Screaming began only a moment later. The deep, throaty voice of a man that sounded like it belonged to a giant, was crackling and crying out from somewhere outside the house.

Sarah shoved her feet into her shoes and left her room, then crept down the empty hallway to the outside door, and gripped the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“Hello?” She spoke with a firm voice, while she held the door knob within her shaking palm. She shook it harder, but it was locked from the outside.

Sarah backed away from the door as the realization of the surrounding danger kicked in. It was a familiar feeling. It was the feeling she got before Wade would go into a rampage. Her vision would tunnel, her heart would throb harder, and she would become still as she awaited his outburst. But nothing came.

She went back to her room, trembling with fear, and then climbed into the bed awaiting her fate.

*

In the morning, sideways light from the rising sun glared through her window and through the lattice woodwork on the crawlspace beneath the house. She peeked through the cracks of the floorboards to see the dusty brown earth below, and enough room down there for a grown man to crawl underneath.

“Coyotes,” Mary said when Sarah asked her about it, standing in the doorway of her room.

“I didn’t see any paw prints,” Sarah cut herself off from the argument, and jumped to her next concern, hoping to inquire without setting off any red flags. “Mary, is everyone here okay? I thought I heard someone screaming last night.”

“Honey,” she leaned in closer. “I’m not gonna lie. The people that come here have problems. They got demons to work out, and sometimes those demons get the best of them. That’s why we have bars on the windows and such.”

“So there are dangerous people here?” Sarah watched as those people passed by her to exit the house. Most kept their heads down and didn’t look, but one gray-haired woman peeked from under her silvery strands to give her a glance.

Mary continued. “Everyone that’s here has got their sins they gotta atone for.”

“I’m not here because I sinned.”

“You don’t sin?” Mary smiled.

“I…” Sarah was careful with her choice of words. “I’m here because I’m escaping an abusive relationship. I thought that’s what this place was.”

“I see.” Mary shifted her weight and tilted her head. “You poor dear.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Of course not. You see… you escaped a horrible man, didn’t you? But to do that, what did you have to do? You cleaned out the bank account maybe? Took his car?”

“But there was no other way. How did you know—?”

“It’s my job to know. Come now.” Mary guided Sarah outside into the cold dry air. Her tiny gloved hand pressed between Sarah’s shoulder blades to direct her to the next building.

“Where’s my car?” Sarah asked, crossing her bare arms to keep warm.

“Well that wasn’t your car, was it?” Mary smiled. “It was Wade’s car.”

Sarah’s blood turned cold at the sound of his name and her survival instincts kicked in with the new looming threat. Though she wasn’t sure what was going on, she knew how to protect herself from unpredictable people. Until she could figure out what to do, she would keep her head down and be compliant, like she had done with Wade for all those years.

She entered a cafeteria space with a wood stove in the corner that did not generate enough heat to keep the drafty old building warm. Five guests were already seated and eating at the two round tables. They were still wearing winter hats and mittens while they shoveled the food into their mouths without exchanging words. Sarah, with Mary still perched beside her, approached the breakfast bar and was scooped a meager pile of scrambled eggs by the gray-haired woman. She was wearing green latex-free gloves and a hair net. She looked to Mary, then back to Sarah.

“This is all part of it,” Mary said. “We all do our part to be helpful in our community. Helping hands…”

“Are clean hands,” the gray-haired woman muttered the words in a reflexive way.

“Thank you,” Sarah said and sat at a table with three others.

A man with spiky black hair poking out from under his hat and weeks’ worth of beard growth rocked in his seat across from her. He kept his hands tucked between his knees and his eyes on the pile of rubbery yellow eggs before him. His gaze broke from the eggs when Sarah sat down, and he stared at her pale and bruised hands.

“Sh-sh-she didn’t wash her hands!” He backed away from the table with his hands tucked into his armpits. He stood up, looking around the room in a panic, “She didn’t wash her hands!”

“I washed them,” Sarah insisted.

“Now, Jacob,” Mary approached him from behind.

“It’s not fair!” He yelled with spit strung between his lips.

Sarah looked around the room as the other guests stared at her. “I washed them—”

“Jacob!” Mary raised her voice and lowered it as soon as he took his seat. “Don’t worry about when she washes her hands. They’ll get washed after we do our chores for the day, because helping hands—”

“—are clean hands.” Six voices from around the room said it in consonance.

*

After breakfast, Sarah was given a thick flannel work shirt and a pair of heavy duty work gloves. “Come on, dear,” Mary said, and led her outside where the other six other guests of the retreat were pulling weeds along the entrance road.

A large man on the back of a brown-and-white horse sat near the entrance with his arms crossed and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. All of the guests were wearing the same black-and-red flannel that Sarah had on. She pulled weeds and piled them neatly into a wheelbarrow, and caught the gray-haired woman staring at her. Her large round eyes were backlit with urgency. Some warning hid in the intense glare, but her lips remained shut.

Sarah continued to keep her head down, pulling weeds with the others, hour after hour, wondering what was going on, and how she was going to get out of this place without incident.

Her nose turned pink, and her fingers numbed from the icy air, so Sarah removed her work gloves and rubbed her hands together. The motion caught the attention of the woman with gray hair, and she watched as Sarah blew warm, moist air onto her skin.

Mary was burying tulip bulbs into the earth near the buildings, when she broke the silence to cry out, “Tom!”

The man on the horse looked in her direction, squinting to see her pointing to the westward wall of perimeter fencing. A coyote was pacing at the fence line.

Tom nudged the horse with his heel and trotted off the gravel road, away from the open gate, and took aim at the coyote in the distance. It was too far, so he edged closer, and took aim again.

As he did, the man with the black spiky hair shifted his twitchy eyes back and forth, then darted toward the gate. Dust kicked up behind his boots as he sprinted along the gravel, unnoticed by Tom and Mary. They were both focused on the coyote, but the guests and Sarah swung their attention back and forth between the running black-haired man and the man with the gun. It seemed like a smart idea—to run—but Sarah knew better. There was nowhere to run to, not with a man on horseback and a gun nearby. She knelt down and went back to picking weeds, waiting for her opportunity, while the black-haired man escaped the open gate.

The shot gun fired, blasting up a chunk of dirt at the coyote’s feet, scaring the critter away.

“Damn,” Tom shouted, disappointed with his miss.

“Tom!” Mary yelled again, this time pointing toward the runner, and Tom spun his horse around to chase him down.

Everyone was staring as that horse closed in on his pursuit, but Mary redirected them.

“Come on folks,” Mary said, “I think that’s enough of that for today. Let’s go back to your rooms for a while.” She gestured for them to follow her as Tom chased the black-haired man into the woods outside the gates.

Sarah got in line with everyone else and walked back to her room, concealing the terror within. The gray-haired woman went into room three, next door, still with grave warning in her eyes.

Sarah paced her room until the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and a bullet cutting through the air, made her freeze mid-step. Her feet were heavy on the floor, like gravity could yank her through the wooden planks.

Sarah dropped to the floor to inspect the wood and the cracks between. They were old boards that bowed under the weight of her feet, and the rusty nails that held them in place were eroding in their holes. She pried on a board where it appeared to be weakest, and the edge lifted up.

Her fingers would not fit between the spaces to get enough torque on it, so Sarah dug into her welcome basket of supplies and used her toothbrush for some leverage. She wedged the board upward, and the nail came with it, wiggling out of place with minimal effort. She got to work on the second board—three would be enough for her frame to squeeze through. The boards came loose and she stuck her head into the space beneath the house. It was still too light outside to make a run for it. She needed to run under the cloak of nightfall.

She was sick to her stomach and her instincts told her to run—to get out, but she had to be smarter. It had to be the right time. She placed the boards back into position and waited impatiently on her bed as the daylight lingered. There was a knock at her door.

“Sarah, dear?” The soft voice was absorbed by the old wooden door of her room.

“Yes?” she asked, as casual as possible.

Mary opened her door and Sarah stood to greet her.

“What a day, huh?” Mary smiled and stepped one foot inside her door. “I want you to know that Mr. Lewis is alright now. Tom caught up with him and he’s resting in his room now.”

“I thought I heard—”

“The gunshot, right?” Mary rolled her eyes. “Coyote. There’s been some with rabies reported in these parts. Tom saw another one and took a shot. Poor Mr. Lewis could have been seriously hurt out there.”

“Mary, may I ask—” Sarah kept a kind, respectful voice.

She unclasped her white-gloved fingers and spread her arms apart as if she were an open book.

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go?”

“Mr. Lewis was a violent sex offender before he came here. We can’t let people wander off. They are in our care.”

“So, what about me?”

Mary took a step back and folded her hands back together. “You?”

“I’m not violent. I’m not a danger—”

“But you’re not perfect.” Mary’s voice lowered and her face dropped with an earnest message. “Everyone thinks they don’t sin.”

“I don’t think that,” Sarah argued, “but I don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“You don’t deserve…” she laughed. “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about cleansing our hands of our sins and becoming a better community in the process, because helping hands…” She paused and waited for Sarah to reply.

Sarah hesitated, but did as expected. “Are clean hands?”

“That’s right. Dinner is at six o’clock. Tom and I will stop by for hand-washing just before that.”

“Hand-washing?”

“Hush now. It’s been a long day.” Mary left.

The sun set at five o’clock and Sarah sat against the wall on her bed and waited for the sky to darken.

“Don’t worry,” a voice made its way through the wall from the adjoining room number three. It was the gray-haired woman.

Sarah got to her knees, palms and ear to the wall to listen.

“It hurts bad the first time, but you get used to it,” she said.

“What?”

“It hurts. It still hurts. Just don’t run and don’t fight.”

Don’t run. Don’t fight. Sarah had spent too many years enduring attacks from Wade. Fight or flight should be a natural instinct, but instead she cowered and stayed, for far too long. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was determined to run this time—or to fight if she had to.

“He watches us from under the house.” The gray-haired woman was solemn and desperate.

“Who?”

“Tom.” Her nervous breathing could be heard through the wall. “He comes after dinner and tries to watch us undress. When he gets caught, he gets his hands washed.”

While the gray-haired woman talked, Sarah knelt down to remove the loose planks from the floor. Twilight was darkening and the moon was rising in the east above the tree line. Heavy feet clomped on the stairs out front—two sets of feet—and Sarah lowered her body into the crawlspace with her only chance to run. She returned the planks to their position, haphazardly, and crawled toward the open latticed board at the edge of the house. The front door opened and Tom and Mary could be heard walking down the hall.

Sarah crawled out from under the house and crouched down to be sure to stay out of sight, but curiosity and the light from room number one, drew her to investigate. The curtains were almost shut, leaving a two-inch gap that allowed a strip of light to escape from the window and onto the ground. Sarah peeked inside, adjusting her position with precision over the gap to see part of Tom’s body standing in the room. A five-gallon bucket was placed on the floor and the guest in room one removed his work gloves to expose a set of raw, burned hands. They were pink and shriveled.

He trembled, with tears escaping his eyes, as Tom held his forearms and Mary placed a cloth in his mouth. He chomped down on the fabric as Tom forced his hands in. The bucket sizzled and bubbled while the man in room one screamed through the cloth between his teeth. The acid ripped through his flesh and splattered onto the floor, hissing. Sarah backed away from the window, and for a brief moment, she considered performing a heroic rescue—rushing inside and fighting them off, or perhaps she could find Tom’s gun and…

Instead, she ran. She sprinted across the blue moonlit field toward the entrance gate that was wide open. She would come back with help. The cold air sliced through her lungs as she made her way off the property and down the beaten old road. It was at least two miles to the next road, if she remembered correctly. Get help—she chanted under her breath, and with each step, she pushed harder and faster.

In the distance, there was a set of headlights, but the ephemeral beacon of hope vanished when Sarah considered that the driver of that vehicle may someone that couldn’t be trusted. She darted off the road, into the ditch, and took cover in the thorny brush, as a pickup truck blasted by, music thumping, heading toward the retreat.

Sarah had never been so terrified, not even when she was with Wade. Not even when he had held her by the throat, threatening her life. Sarah pressed forward, and after several minutes, her run slowed to a jog, and she wondered at what point she’d hear the sound of hooves galloping up behind her. But she never heard them.

 

The man in the pickup truck left his music blasting as he pulled through the gate of the Helping Hands Retreat.

“What the hell?” He said as a little woman shuffled out of the house toward his vehicle. Tom stood in the doorway, holding the five-gallon bucket, as moaning sounds of pain poured out behind him.

“Welcome!” she said.

“I’m looking for my wife.” The man scowled.

“Are you now? You must mean Sarah.” Mary smiled. “She’s inside. We’ve been taking good care of her.”

“Have you now?” His arrogance and belligerence was transparent. “Did you know she took off with my car?” Wade got out of the truck and put his hands in his pockets while Mary guided him toward the house.

“Come. You’re just in time for dinner. Let’s wash your hands.”

pencil

Red Lagoe graduated from Cazenovia College in 2001, but did not pursue her passion for writing until a decade later. In 2011, she gave up the nine-to-five life, and pursued her passion for writing by creating her first children’s book, Drips. Since then, her non-fiction article has appeared in the astronomy publication Reflector. When Red is not entertaining her kids, she can be found stargazing or writing. She is exploring a variety of genres including speculative fiction, horror, thriller—and even some romance—by writing novels and short stories. Email: redlagoe[at]gmail.com

The Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Catherine J. Link


Photo Credit: 一帆 尹/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

William Savage rode ahead of the covered wagon on his favorite stallion. He liked the way he looked on the back of the shiny black horse. Part Friesian, part Arabian, the horse was strong and tall. He had named him Destrier, and felt like one of the knights of old as he blazed trail. His fantasies kept him from getting bored and from getting discouraged.

He’d had a massive covered wagon built for his family. It had two stories. A lower section for storage of food, clothing, and valuables. An upper berth for sleeping, and a back porch where the servant could churn butter and prepare food on a sheet iron stove. The wagon was so heavy, it had to be pulled by four yoke of oxen.

The man who’d built the wagon for him had a reputation for being hot tempered and dangerous. His mother had come from the depths of the woods along the Rappahannock river. She was a witch, people said. The morning they left, she had come to cast a protective spell over the wagon. The sight of the hag frightened Savage’s wife, Mildred.

“You’re gonna need this magic,” she’d said to him. She was ancient, nearly bald, wrinkled, with no teeth, and she smelled of some kind of strange herbs. “You’re a fool. No one takes his family west this time of year. You’re gonna need protection more than most.”

Savage shoved her away from the wagon, causing her to fall in the dirt. “I’d be a fool if I believed in your hocus pocus. Get the hell away from here.”

Her son charged at Savage, ready to kill him, but his mother pushed him along down the street. “Never you mind, boy,” she said. “I’ll handle this.” She gave the wagon the evil eye and spit on it.

“We won’t be seeing them no more.” Then she cackled, sounding completely insane.

Savage didn’t want to go west. He had to. He’d gambled his fortune away, and part of his wife’s, and now he was running from unpaid debts. After paying the wagon builder, nearly all the money was gone. He had to leave town before someone killed him, and before his wife found out what he had done.

Keeping the over-burdened wagon in sight behind him, Savage blazed the trail in front. It was hard going, and the weather had thwarted him every step of the way. He often lost sight of the trail, especially when parts of it were obscured by blankets of snow. He had studied the map so often, he should have memorized it by now, but he didn’t and so edges of the map were starting to tear, even dissolve, in his hands.

There had been too many delays. He wanted to be in California before the dead of winter, but it did not happen. They were moving slowly, plagued by one disaster after another. Broken wheels, collapsed springs, sick animals, and then Millie had the baby early. She nearly died, and needed a doctor’s care for several weeks.

At least we’re moving now, he thought, but when he looked behind him again, the wagon was at a standstill once more.

“Damn it all, Ben. What the hell is wrong now?”

Ben FitzJarrell was his hired hand. He sat next to William’s young wife. She looked miserable in the wind driven snow. Mildred was embarrassed by her husband’s habitual rudeness.

“Don’t shout at Ben. It’s not his fault we’re lost,” she said.

“I never said we was lost, Mr. Savage. It’s the oxen. They don’t pull together,” Ben said. “Who ever trained these here animals for ya’ll didn’t know what they was doing.”

“Mr. Parker and I trained these animals,” he said smugly. “What, in your illustrious opinion, is wrong with them?”

“They don’t seem to understand commands, and they don’t pull together. A couple of ’em wanna go their own way instead of following behind.”

“It’s not them, it’s you,” William said. “You need to shout so they hear you. Let them know you’re the boss. Lay into the goad if you have to.”

“Being mean ain’t the same thing as being boss,” Ben muttered under his breath.

“We’ll be coming to a small town up ahead. Copper Ridge,” William told his driver. “We can spend the night there, and continue on in the morning.”

“Good,” Mildred said, sounding hopeful. “You can ask if we’re going in the right direction.”

The snow got worse before evening. By the time they made it to the shabby mining town, Mildred’s hands and face were nearly frozen. She wept silently, clutching their month-old son to her breasts, trying to keep him warm. Ben’s wife, Lollie, was hunkered down in the back under a layer of blankets, weak from a miscarriage. Mildred’s father, Quilla Parker, was staring off into space, hardly breathing.

“Are you all right, Papa?” Mildred asked him. He grunted once, letting her know he was still alive. Since his stroke a few weeks back, all he could do was grunt.

They pulled up to a building that looked like a stiff wind could knock over. It had a sign in one small filthy window, barely visible behind grime and ice. “Boarding House.”

William ran up to the door, and knocked. A wrinkled old woman smoking a pipe answered. They chatted for a moment and he came back with a smile. “Hot food and a warm bed for the night,” he said. “Mildred, you and Lollie go in. Papa, Ben, and I will take care of the team.”

When they entered the drab house, warmth enveloped them like a hot westerly wind. It was wonderful, but it hurt all the same. It stung nerves that had been frozen into numbness. Lollie was barely able to stand.

“Let’s get this young ‘un to a bed,” the old woman said. She looked at the infant in Mildred’s arms. “That her baby?”

“This is my son, Sampson,” Mildred said. “She lost hers. How did you know?”

“I wasn’t always this old,” the woman replied sharply. “I had some babies in my time. Lost a few, too. I know what it looks like, having seen it on my own face.”

Mildred took Lollie into a sparsely furnished room and made her get into bed. She laid Sampson in the bed with her. She went into the bedroom she would share with her husband and laid out some night clothes. She looked around at the crude furniture, the whitewashed walls, the uncarpeted floor, wondering where the baby would sleep.

“No fancy cradles this town,” the old woman said in what seemed like a rebuke. She was carrying hot soup and sandwiches on a tray. “You’ll have to tuck him in a dresser drawer like everyone else in Copper Ridge does. We’re not very refined in these here parts.”

“A drawer will be fine,” Mildred said.

She crawled into bed and waited for her husband. A few minutes later Savage entered the room, dripping melted snow.

“We found a livery stable just down the road. Papa’s staying there with the team.”

“He should have a bed, and some warm food,” Mildred said angrily. “You shouldn’t have left him there.”

“Someone has to stay with the animals and our belongings,” he said to her, defensive. “I’ve been in the saddle all day. Besides, he wanted to do it. His way of paying for the free ride.”

“He’s my father,” Mildred said sharply, “He does not not have to pay for anything. Remember that, William. I brought a fortune and a respected family name into this marriage.”

“Of course my dear. I simply meant that you dote on him too much, Millie,” Savage said. “He’s old, and he won’t be around much longer. I don’t want to see you hurt when that happens.”

He bent to kiss her lips. She turned away from him.

“Get Sampson out of that thing,” Savage said, venting his anger elsewhere. “No son of mine sleeps in a drawer.”

The morning came and they were on the road again. Mildred was furious with her husband.

“Ask for directions,” she’d told him while they were still at the boarding house. “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”

“See this,” he’d held the slowly melting map directly in her face, nearly hitting her nose with it. “This is a map made by Hastings himself. I watched him draw it. It goes from the Midwest to California. I don’t need to ask for directions.”

“Ask for directions,” she said insistently, knocking the map away from her. “The next time you shove that in my face, I’ll rip it to shreds.”

Lollie came out of the house carrying Sampson.

“I’ll take him,” Mildred said.

“I’d like to hold him a while,” Lollie said weakly. “It feels good to hold him.”

“Of course, dear,” Mildred said. “You can sit up on the seat with Ben and me. There’s plenty of room for three.”

The snow had stopped. There was a bright sun out this morning. The wind was cold, but the sun brought a much needed cheerfulness to their trip.

Nearly four miles from town, Mildred noticed Savage looking confused. He studied the map drawn by Lansford Hastings, then rode his black horse away from the trail to the left. Then he rode to the right. He looked at the sun, scanned a small book, The Emigrant’s Guide to California, also written by Hastings, then he looked at the map again.

He rode back to the wagon.

“We are going to turn here,” he said. “Hastings wrote that this road is an acceptable detour during winter. The snow is minimal along this part of the state and the Indians don’t bother emigrants.”

Ben had a doubting look on his face. “I don’t know, Mr. Savage…”

“I do know, and we are turning here,” he said stubbornly.

“Did you ask for directions?” Mildred asked him.

“See this map, this book?”

“Just answer my question,” Mildred said. “Did you ask for directions?”

“No, I did not. I’ve never gotten us lost before, and I won’t this time,” he replied. “Would you please learn to trust me.”

Savage rode up ahead, leading the way.

“Don’t fret, Mrs. Savage. It don’t matter much which way we go,” Lollie said.

“It matters very much,” Mildred said. “A wrong turn and we’ll be lost.”

“It don’t matter,” Lollie said, holding little Sampson on her lap, staring at his small face and balled up fists. She played with his fingers.

“Why do you say that?”

“We’re in the hands of fate. Your baby is alive, mine is dead. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, or who will still be alive to see it. We all have our fates to suffer.”

Weeks later they found themselves in the mountains. One day seemed very much like the next.

They lost the sun about midday. The clouds darkened and rain began to fall. Soon the rain turned to snow and wind made the snow dance in flurries. Savage was in a panic. He could no longer find the trail; landmarks on Hastings’ map were no where to be seen. The mountains were getting steeper and it was getting colder by the minute. He rode back to the wagon.

“Are we lost?” Mildred called to him.

“We’re stuck in a snow storm,” he said. “We should wait it out. Let’s make camp.”

“Where we gonna camp, Mr. Savage?” Ben asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “Ain’t no good shelter around here.”

“True,” he said, looking around at the terrain. “Let’s go on till we find a good campsite.”

The snow fell in a thick sheet of white. It was almost impossible to see where they were going. William Savage tied his stallion to the wagon, and he rode now on the seat next to Ben. He had his wife take the baby in the back and crawl beneath the blankets, sharing body heat with her father and Lollie.

“I think we’re lost, Mr. Savage,” Ben said.

“We are not lost, goddamn it!” Savage yelled.

Suddenly, something charged the wagon. Obscured by the heavy snowfall, and the gloom of dusk, it was hard to see. It stood on its hind legs, taking a swipe at the lead oxen. The injured animal groaned with pain and fought the yoke, trying to flee. Ben shouted for the team to turn, “Haw! Haw!”

Then the creature attacked the wagon, roaring loudly and taking swipes at Ben with one huge paw. Claws raked down the man’s leg, opening him from knee to ankle. He screamed in agony. Savage shot at the creature with his pistol. It was so close, he could not have missed. It ran off toward the tree line.

“What was that?” Ben asked.

“It must have been a grizzly bear,” Savage replied. “You’re bleeding badly.”

“That was no bear like I ever saw before,” Ben said. “Did you see its eyes? They glowed like hot coals.”

Savage did not answer. He turned the wagon and headed for some boulders. It was a windbreak, and would have to do for the night. They made a fire in the small stove in the back of the wagon. Savage made Ben lay down as he examined the leg. It was sliced open down to the bone.

“He needs a doctor, Mr. Savage,” Lollie said.

“Papa can sew him up,” Mildred said. “He’s done it before.”

“We can wrap some bandages around it to slow the bleeding, then we can head out again at first light,” Savage added.

It was impossible to sleep. Cold tortured them mercilessly. Ben shivered with pain and chills, while the women huddled around the wailing babe, trying in vain to keep him warm. The old man stared at his son-in-law with hatred in his eyes. Savage stared back at him, knowing that the old man knew why he’d needed to run, and that he was to blame for them being here, lost in the mountains.

Savage had managed to doze off sometime in the night, but then a roar filled his ears. Something was right outside the wagon, only a thickness of the canvas away from his head. He grabbed his rifle and opened the front flap.

The bear had returned. Was it a bear? He wondered at what he saw. It stood on its hind legs, walking like a man. Its eyes glowed red in the night; its sharp teeth flashed like a demon smiling and it screamed in fury as it attacked the oxen. It clawed at one, relentlessly hacking at its hind quarters. It ripped off a leg and a haunch, and stood up in a victorious pose, holding the meat above its head. Then it ran off, leaving a trail of gore on the ground.

“Shut up!” he yelled at the screaming women, and when they hushed, he could hear a roar from somewhere in the darkness.

Ben bled to death in the night. The ground was too hard to dig, so they made a cairn for him out of stones, using the sheets he had bled in for his shroud.

“I wish we could do more, Lollie,” Mildred said.

“He’d still be dead, so what good would it do?” Lollie replied.

Savage and Parker rearranged the oxen in the yoke, replacing the lead animal. When they went to cut meat from the mutilated carcass, they found almost nothing of the animal left. It had been taken in the night.

They traveled west for a few hours, and, finding an area where the oxen could graze, they decided to stop. The under-fed animals needed rest and food.

“This is a pretty spot,” Mildred said. “Where are we?”

Savage studied the map, trying to make sense out of the landmarks, but the truth was he had no idea where they were. This river wasn’t even on Hastings’ map.

“Looking at these mountains, we must be in California, and probably have been for a long time,” he said.

“Are we going over more mountains, Mr. Savage?” Lollie asked.

“Yes, we just follow the map,” he said with confidence that he did not feel. “And if we don’t get snow tonight, then we should have an easy day tomorrow.”

Lollie awoke just before sun up and crawled out of the wagon.

Her screams cut through the silence, jolting Savage awake. He grabbed his rifle and leaped from the wagon.

“What is it?” he asked, “What do you see?”

All Lollie could do was scream and point. There on a large rock was the head of her dead husband. It had been torn from his body. Strewn around the boulder was shredded clothing and bones. His bones. The meat had been gnawed away and the larger bones had been cracked and sucked dry of marrow.

The women cried in horror and his father-in-law stared in terrified silence.

“The bear did this,” Savage said, knowing that was a lie. He looked at Parker, who was slowly shaking his head. “Yes, the bear did this. Let’s get him re-buried.”

“Leave him where he lay,” Lollie said. “They’d just do it again.”

“They?” Mildred asked. “Who do you think did this?”

“Demons,” Lollie answered, almost matter-of-factly. “The old witch gave us the evil eye. That’s an invitation for demons to come.”

They headed away from the river, traveling as fast as the oxen could go. They put in a full day of travel, and camped in a canyon, out of the winter wind. The sky threatened rain, but so far they remained dry and able to enjoy an enormous campfire.

“This should keep animals away from us,” Savage said.

He saw Parker scratching in the dirt and went to look.

Traveling in circle. Passed this same canyon before. Savage kicked the message with his boots, not wanting Mildred to see it. “Don’t be absurd,” he said to the old man. He wondered if the Parker was right.

Morning came and two of the oxen were gone. Gigantic footprints told a story of more than one creature having entered camp. Almost like a challenge, a large bone was tethered to one of the yokes. It looked like it might have been a human bone. Savage wondered if it had been another piece of Ben.

“Nnn brrrrs.” A strange sound came out of Parker’s mouth. “Nnnnn brrrrs!”

“Now is not a good time for you to start talking, old man,” Savage said heartlessly, “I know it’s not a bear, but should we scare the women? It’s probably Indians toying with us.”

“No!” Parker said clearly, shaking his head.

“What do you think? Evil spirits, or some other crap?” he asked angrily. “Only men do this kind of thing. So be on your guard. If you see what looks like man or beast, kill it before it kills us.”

The mountains were steeper and the snow more relentless. Day after day went by when they could not find a trail. They suffered from the cold, a lack of sleep, and only the meager fires they made out of damp green wood gave them any relief at all. They kept moving, but at a terrible price.

Lollie did not wake one morning. Two weeks after the death of her husband, she lay dead in the same bed. We’re in the hands of fate, Mildred heard her say. We all have our fates to suffer.

Again, they built a cairn of stone, unable to cut into the earth. Mildred wondered if Lollie would be left to her rest, or would she, too, suffer desecration.

She had her answer the next day when they came out of the wagon in the morning to find Lollie’s head laying among the ashes of the campfire. Huge foot prints circled the camp and bones that had been gnawed and cracked were tossed around carelessly.

“Cover it up, please,” Mildred begged.

“There’s no time,” Savage said. “We’ve got to move as quickly as we can. Get in the wagon.”

Leaving Lollie’s bones strewn around the campsite, they headed west. Savage yelled at the oxen, goaded them, and even took a whip to them to get them pulling as hard and fast as they could. Weak from little food, the animals struggled in the deep snow.

The oxen finally stopped, unable to go any farther. Snow came down heavily. The family gathered in the back of the wagon. There was a small fire in the stove, but not enough to fight the freezing temperatures. Morning found the group passed out in a deep slumber, the kind you don’t wake up from.

Before midday, the child died. The old man died. Mildred was nearly gone. Savage alone was in and out of consciousness. He opened his eyes but saw nothing but white. He felt hands on him, carrying him out of the wagon.

“Praise God,” he said.

He awoke to a cup at his lips. Something warm was being poured into his mouth. He started to gulp greedily.

“Take it easy, son,” a man’s voice said. “You’re gonna be alright.”

He opened his eyes and saw that he was in a small dirty cabin. It seemed to be filled with people. There was a warm fire blazing in the hearth, and a pot of something that smelled wonderful was being stirred.

“Who are you?” Savage asked.

“That’s what I was just about to ask you,” a man said. The man looked very thin and weak. “Are you from Sutter’s Fort?”

“No,” he said. I was taking my family to California, from the east,” he replied.

“Hastings’ map, again,” someone else in the room said. “Another mouth to feed.”

“Why did you even bring him in here?” a woman asked. “Now you know what’s gotta be done. Makes it that much harder to do.”

“We had to know for sure,” a male voice said. “Besides there’s no real hurry. We’ve got the cattle and the others.”

Savage sat up and looked around. He saw children with swollen bellies and sunken eyes sitting on a rug in front of the fire. It was a bear skin rug, complete with head and claws. Its dead eyes glowed red in the firelight. He saw enormous hand woven snowshoes hanging from pegs on the wall. Knives and machetes hung from hooks over the hearth, still dripping blood.

Old people as thin as skeletons, and adults looking half-starved all stared at the black cast iron caldron, watching it boil, sniffing the air as a woman stirred the contents. The woman was Mildred, and she had her back to Savage.

“Millie,” he called to her, and the woman turned. It was not Mildred. It was another woman, wearing her dress.

“Who are you people?” he asked, starting to panic. “Where are my wife and son?”

“You are the last alive,” a man said to him, patting him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. We’re gonna take real good care of you. I’m Lewis Keseberg,” the man replied. “And we’re what’s left of the Donner Party.”

*

“That was a terrible story for you to tell the kids,” Katie said as they went into their tent. “How are they supposed to get to sleep now?”

“We’re on vacation. They’re not supposed to sleep after a good campfire story,” Joel said. “It’s tradition.”

Katie crawled into their sleeping bag fully clothed. She was freezing. “Is it also tradition to go camping in the dead of winter in Colorado?”

“No, but we can make it one,” he replied, crawling into the bag next to her, naked. “Why are you still dressed?”

“Never mind that, just tell me that you asked for directions at the Ranger’s Station. I want us to be able to find our way out of here in the morning.”

“I did not, but I’ve never gotten us lost before. Trust me.”

pencil

Catherine J. Link is an artist: painting, sketching, photography and writing. She teaches art out of her studio at home, and mentors students, judging during the Visual Art Scholastic Events every spring. She has loved writing since she was a kid, and has written poems, short stories, and a couple of books, but she has never attempted to have anything published. She does it for fun. Email: kajalink[at]embarqmail.com

The Hands of Fate

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ellis Sinclair


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

A black Volkswagen Jetta sped along Country Road 47, an isolated two-lane road that ran parallel to the interstate, after two hours wasted on the highway. Devin and Jenna were traveling from Athens to spend Christmas week at a cabin he rented in the country. Devin drove with furious glee since taking the ignored exit and Jenna, with a book in her lap, watched the barren pines pass like rows of gray frozen skeletons.

“This is so much nicer than the highway,” she said.

Devin laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing sixty on an open road. Suckers!”

“Be safe. I don’t want to crash on some backwoods road where a family of deranged hillbillies will rape and eat our corpses.”

“What the hell kind of book are you reading?”

“It’s hard to read when everything’s so beautiful.”

Pine trees transformed into apple orchards stretched across a clear and ice-covered landscape. Sunlight reflected through the snow in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors: blues, yellows, reds, oranges. An aged wooden sign covered in frost caught Jenna’s attention.

Welcome to Arcadia

They passed an abandoned chapel with a cemetery at the base of a hill. The tops of random headstones littered graveyard, peering above the snow cover. The town was an island surrounded by an ancient wood.

“Talk about an antique,” Devin said. “This place is set in amber.”

Jenna pressed her nose against her window. She watched a house rise above the woods and homes around it.

“Drive slower,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

They stopped at the intersection of Main and Polk Street.

“Turn this way.”

“We need to get to the cabin. I don’t want to lose our deposit.”

“We have until six and it’s not even one yet. Turn here. I want to see something.”

Devin huffed but knew he had to satisfy her curiosity or the rest of the trip would degrade into a bitter fight. “Fine, but after this we hit the road.”

Jenna became more excited as they coasted toward the large house. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Devin parked in front of the aging home.

“I can’t fucking believe it!”

Jenna grabbed the book from her lap and opened the cover. The inner-fold of the dust jacket had the author’s bio, but instead of the author’s photo was the picture of the home.

“This is it!” she said. “This is the house!

“Yeah?”

“It’s the house,” she said.

“So?”

“Abraham Grabowski is a complete hermit. He doesn’t do book signings or anything. He never leaves. There aren’t even pictures of him. His publisher doesn’t even know what he looks like.”

“That’s stupid.”

Jenna shook her head and grabbed her phone. “I need this for my blog.”

She jumped out of the car into the snow.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“This is obviously a sign I was meant to come here.”

“We can do this on the way home!”

“I’m not risking it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

She shot a video with the home behind her. She meant to post it to Snapchat, but she didn’t have any service. She recorded anyway and figured she’d upload it at the cabin.

“Hey, horror bookworms. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog at all, you should recognize the house behind me. That’s right my nerdy little nasties—it’s the home of the one and only Abraham Grabowski. I’m going to see if anyone’s home. Hopefully, I’ll have some more footage to come. Your Ghastly Girly signing out!”

Devin turned the car off and trudged up the lawn. “This might be the house, but it doesn’t mean he lives here. Hell, the guy might not even exist.”

“It’s worth a shot. Look around, everything in his books is here. This is the town he writes about. This is where all his stories come from. This is the epicenter.”

“This is crazy.”

The front door to the home opened and a young woman stepped out. “Excuse me,” Wendy said.

“Sorry, if she disturbed you,” Devin said. “We’re leaving.”

However, Jenna bolted up the stairs.

Devin followed.

“This is it, isn’t it?” she said.

“Jenna!”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. Don’t say that. This is it. This is the house. You know who lives here. Who are you?”

“Jen, you’re acting crazy.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You should be going.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Devin said. He took Jenna’s arm.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can go in a minute. Just tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” Jenna noticed the sound of a door closing inside. She hopped to look over Wendy’s head and saw an older woman standing beside a staircase.

“Wendy, who’s at the door?”

“Nobody, Miss Catherine.”

“Nonsense. Nobody’s nobody at Christmastime. Let them in.”

Jenna glanced to Devin with her eyes wide open and a grin stretched across her face. Catherine greeted them in the foyer. The hypnotic rhythm of typewriter keys tapped through the floorboards.

“I apologize for our assistant,” Catherine said. “We like our privacy and Wendy does a good job.”

Jenna couldn’t speak. Her senses were choked—soaking in the details of the home. “This is it,” she muttered. “It’s all here. Everything from every book!”

“I can see you’re a fan,” Catherine said.

“More than that,” she said. “I actually write book reviews and Mr. Grabowski’s books are one of my favorite topics.”

“Oh, a journalist.”

“So, this is the place she thinks it is?” Devin asked.

“That and so much more.”

Catherine asked Wendy to make some tea and returned her attention to her guests.

“We can sit in the study. I do enjoy company.”

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with leather-bound manuscripts and wooden boxes. Devin and Jenna shared a loveseat while Catherine sat in the armchair.

“Do you help Abraham with his books?” Jenna asked.

“Abraham’s the writer, as you can hear.”

The clack of the typewriter hadn’t stopped since they entered. Catherine held her bony and withered hands up.

“And, these hands create the death scenes,” she explained.

“Death scenes?”

Wendy returned to the study with a tea service.

“Wendy, my dear. Bring one of the displays to show our guests.”

“Certainly, Miss Catherine.”

She brought one of the boxes to Catherine. She opened the lid to reveal an intricate diorama.

“Oh, my God,” Jenna said. “That’s Marlon from A Cry in the Night. That’s amazing.”

“Very good,” Catherine said.

“She’s read every book,” Devin added.

“I’m actually finishing Babylon right now. How long have you two been working together?”

Wendy returned the diorama to the shelf.

“Since the beginning. I’m convinced that fate brought us together.”

“Is it possible for me to meet him?”

“Anything’s possible if Abraham ever comes out of that basement. These winter months are when he’s most productive. Once you hear the typewriter going, it rarely stops.”

Catherine sipped her tea, undisturbed by the mechanical keystrokes firing away like a machine gun from the depths.

*

Devin insisted on leaving after one cup of tea. On the trek back to the car Jenna stopped to take a few more photos of outside the home. When she was content, she jumped in.

“Why don’t you have the car running?” she asked. “Get the heat on, I’m freezing.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got in here?”

Devin checked his phone for the time. “It’s three o’clock. My phone’s not getting any service. Can you call the cabin and see if they’ll hold our deposit?”

“No service for me, either. It hasn’t worked since we got here.”

“Damn it!”

He slammed his hands into the steering wheel.

“Don’t get mad. Try and see what’s wrong with the engine. I’ll see if they’ll let us use their phone.”

Devin popped the hood and Jenna ran up to the home. Wendy answered.

“Hi again,” Jenna said. “Can we use your phone? Something’s wrong with our car and I’m not getting any service.”

Wendy led Jenna to the kitchen.

“Wow, a landline. I haven’t seen one of those since I would visit my grandmother’s house.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but we rarely leave the city.” Jenna let out a humiliated and exhausted sigh. She took the phone from the receiver, but there was no dial tone. She pressed down the cradle three times, but nothing. “Does your phone not work?” she asked.

“It goes in and out around here.”

“Damn.”

“It’s pretty dead in the winter around here.”

“Do you have a car? Maybe you can drive us to the next town so we can find a phone?”

“We don’t have a car and anyone with a car has already left for the winter.”

“I was gonna ask if other people lived here, because we haven’t seen a sign of life.”

“Anyone that hasn’t left just digs in.”

The basement door opened and closed. Catherine entered the kitchen.

“Why, Jenna, I thought you and Devin left.”

“I know. I’m sorry. For some reason our car won’t start. I wanted to use your phone.”

“Ha! Good luck. We basically live on a frozen island.”

“Man, Devin’s going to be pissed.”

“Why should he be upset? We aren’t that bad of company.”

“No, it’s not you. We rented a cabin and if we don’t contact them before six we’re going to lose our deposit and I feel like it’s all my fault.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. One day you’ll learn that some events are out of our hands. If you can’t get your car started, I insist you stay here the night. We don’t mind.”

Devin came inside. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” he shouted. “Any luck on the phone?”

“Phone’s dead.”

“Damn it.”

“Devin,” Catherine said. “Jenna told me about your plans and I feel awful that you stopped here and now can’t go. Let Wendy know how much the deposit was for the cabin. We’ll pay for it. We have plenty of money.”

Catherine looked back to Jenna.

“Perhaps the phone will be working tomorrow,” she continued. “It goes in and out all the time. Wendy, get the guest bedroom livable. I’m going downstairs for a little while longer.”

*

Catherine returned to the basement. Jenna explored the study with Wendy following her like a doe-eyed lost child, brushing against her softly and asking endless questions. Devin struggled in the frigid temperature with the car, but was lost with mechanics. When nightfall descended, he returned inside with their bags. Wendy and Jenna were in the kitchen chatting, laughing. The scent and warmth from a well-used kitchen filled the home.

“What’s for dinner, ladies?”

Wendy hovered over a cooking pot, stirring the contents. Jenna glanced at Devin with a playful grin. An open bottle of wine rest on the table next to her.

“We’re having sausages with boiled cabbage,” Wendy said.

“I hope you were taking notes,” Devin said.

“The recipe’s a secret,” Jenna answered.

*

The white noise of the typewriter filled the pauses between the conversation.

“He really never stops,” Devin said.

“When a story grabs him, it becomes his obsession.”

“Is there any way you could tell me what the book is about?” Jenna asked.

“I don’t even know if he knows, yet. He says it depends on what the characters do. I mean he knows what the end result will be but he never knows exactly how they’ll get there.”

Dinner ended with empty plates, followed by dessert.

“Wendy, dear. Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”

“Thank you, Miss Catherine. I just follow the recipes you give me.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s the subtleties that transform food into cuisine, just like the nuances that augment words into prose.”

Catherine paused.

“It was very good,” Jenna said. “Wasn’t it, Devin.”

“Oh, yeah. The best sausage and cabbage I’ve ever eaten.”

“My dear, you are more than a cook, you are a chef de cuisine.”

Wendy nodded in thanks and Catherine let out a satisfied sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go to bed,” she continued. “Wendy, make sure our guests see their room.”

“Of course, Miss Catherine.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Jenna added.

Catherine retired upstairs, followed shortly after by Wendy, Devin, and Jenna. Wendy stopped at the first door by the stairs.

“This is where Miss Catherine sleeps,” she said.

“Just Catherine?” Jenna whispered.

“Her and Abe don’t sleep in the same bedroom?” Devin added.

Wendy shook her head. The next room had an open door. It was cramped with a large bed, a mirrored dresser by the door and a chair by the window.

“This is my room,” she continued. “If you need anything, come see me.”

Ahead of them was a third room with two windows that gazed across the archipelago of little shingled roofs.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping tonight,” Wendy said.

“Do you hear that?” Devin mentioned.

Wendy and Jenna turned to him standing in the doorway. They waited for him to answer his question.

“It stopped,” he continued.

“What stopped?” Jenna said.

“The typing.”

Jenna paused and glanced to Wendy. “Does this mean we might get to see Abraham?”

“No,” Wendy answered. “Abraham stays downstairs when he’s writing and he’s always writing.”

Wendy left them alone. Jenna and Devin gazed across their room.

“Separate beds,” he said. “Not quite the romantic getaway I planned.”

“Welcome to a simpler time.”

“You wanna push them together?”

“Their house, their rules.”

“Do you think it’s weird they don’t sleep in the same room?”

“Yeah, but my grandparents lived in separate rooms for the last twenty years of their marriage. Look, as long as Abraham keeps putting out books, I don’t care where he sleeps.”

“Well, I’m going to use the little boy’s room. Did she give you the money for the deposit?”

“Really, you’re going to ask that now?”

“Hey, she offered. I was just curious.”

“No, she hasn’t.”

“Let’s find out how far the next town is tomorrow. If we can get there maybe we can use a phone and maybe the cabin hasn’t been rented so we can still have a vacation where we can share the same bed.”

Devin took a change of clothes and meandered down the hall. Jenna gazed down to the street. Devin’s car was parked beneath the streetlamp. She undressed away from the window, facing the wall. After removing her top, the door opened. Jenna turned but was startled to see Wendy.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry?”

“We should leave tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I have a car,” Wendy continued.

“I asked if you had a car earlier.”

“I couldn’t say anything. It’s parked on the edge of the woods. The keys are inside. Gather your things. We can leave, right now.”

Jenna sighed. “I’m tired and it’s too late to go anywhere tonight. We can leave tomorrow.

Devin entered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. Wendy was just making sure we had everything we needed.”

Wendy nodded slowly and exited.

“What was that all about? She seemed a little into you.”

“I still got it.”

“Okay, we can stay an extra night, but only if I can watch?”

“You’re an absolute pig. You’re just lucky I love bacon.”

*

Jenna awoke to a chill that swept across her body. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping alone and slid out of bed to join Devin. However, he wasn’t in bed and the mattress was cold.

“Devin?” she whispered.

The home was silent, even the mechanical chug of Abraham’s typewriter was quiet. Jenna glanced out the window and saw the car was no longer on the side of the road.

“What the hell?”

Jenna crept along the hall. Wendy’s door was open and her bed was empty. From out of the silence of the home, the cellar door closed. Jenna peered over the banister but found no one. “Damn it, Devin,” she said.

Jenna rushed downstairs and pressed her ear against the basement door. She struggled with what to do: knock, enter, yell. She chose to enter. A banker’s lamp illuminated the underbelly of the home. An unmade bed below rested the steps. Flush with the far wall was a workbench with small intricate tools, fabric, boxes, wood, and clay. With her final steps, she discovered a writing desk with a typewriter and a stack of paper next to it. One sheet was clamped into the carriage half-typed.

“Devin,” she said. “Are you down here?”

Before escaping the basement, Jenna decided to investigate the upcoming book. She looked over the two dioramas Catherine left on the bench. The first appeared to be the study upstairs, intricately designed down to the tiniest detail, but with the figure of a man dressed like Devin, hanging by his feet from the ceiling. A bucket rested below him to collect the blood that coursed from his gaping throat. The next box looked like the front of the home and the edge of the street. Across the snow-covered ground, drag marks and a trail of blood led to the street, but it was unfinished, the body was missing.

The slide, crash, and ding of the typewriter shifting to the next paragraph. Typing soon followed. She read along as each letter was hammered into the page:

*

Jenna gasped for air as the prisoner spirit cried out to her, “Run.”

*

Jenna clambered up the stair and fled the basement in the desperate hope of finding escape. She stopped at the door as the typewriter continued to tell its tale. A slow-moving shadow in the study coaxed her attention. Light from the street lamp sprinkled through the front room. Devin’s body hung from his feet in the center of the study. An occasional drop fell from his gaping throat as the gentle motion of the home swung his body from side-to-side over a cooking pot.

Jenna burst from the home but a bloody trail of drag marks led from the steps across the lawn. In the middle of the street Wendy’s corpse lay slumped and twisted in the street. The word DISLOYAL was written with blood in the snow. Jenna ran back through the house to the door in the kitchen that led to back of the home. She could find the car Wendy had mentioned.

She stomped through the snow mounds toward the woods. Her feet and body were frozen to the point that she no longer felt cold. Frozen moonlight blanketed the world. The bony arms of the trees reached out to her in waiting and wanting. When a flash of light from a torch appeared from within the shadows, followed by another and another. From the darkness, robed figures emerged, their faces obscured.

“Winters are long but our homes remain strong by feasting upon the body and the blood!”

A collective voice followed.

“The body and the blood!”

“We must feed the spirit!”

“And, the spirit will feed us,” the group countered.

A light feathery snow began to fall.

“Don’t cry, my dear. This was meant to happen; our lives are forever guided by the hands of fate.”

*

A knock rattled on the front door of the old home. The winter continued its frozen onslaught. Parked in the street was a red 1998 Toyota Corolla. A cheery-eyed dark-haired girl hopped in glee when the door opened. She looked back to her friend, Ally.

“I know this may sound strange, but is this the home of Abraham Grabowski?”

“You have the wrong house.”

Catherine descended the stairs.

“Who’s at the door?” she asked.

“No one. I was just telling them to leave.”

“Nonsense, Jenna. No one is no one. Let them in. You know I love guests.”

pencil

Ellis Sinclair is a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. As a freshman in high school, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. This event and a series of bizarre experiences guided him to writing. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. He worked overnight at a gas station which allowed him to read and write as much as he wanted. He has a wide range of interests with writing and some of his favorite writers have been: Hemingway, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Steinbeck, and Philip K. Dick. Email: ellissinclair[at]outlook.com

The Error in Desire

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
R.J. Snowberger


Photo Credit: Charlotte Godfrey/Flickr (CC-by)

“But, Mommy, I want to stay with you.”

Grace tried not to look too closely at her daughter’s sad, imploring face. She knew that one peek at Maddie’s droopy blue eyes, flushed cheeks, and wisps of sweaty blonde hair stuck to her forehead would set off the motherly instincts that she was trying her best to bury. Maddie was sick, and she would continue to be sick until Grace could find the money to pay for medical treatment. She kept this knowledge in her mind as she unclipped Maddie’s car seat.

“I know you do, baby girl, but mommy has a test she needs to take, and I can’t take you with me. Don’t worry. You’re going to have lots of fun with Uncle Harry and Uncle Mason.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I know,” Grace replied, lifting the four-year-old from the seat. Maddie immediately buried her face into the crook of Grace’s neck, her fingers clutching at Grace’s shirt collar.

Mason opened the door to greet them before they had even walked halfway down the driveway. He looked like an Italian model: his tall, slim, muscular build enhanced by his choice of a fitted gray shirt and blue jeans. With his undercut styled jet black hair, chocolate-colored eyes under bushy eyebrows, and an olive complexion, Mason was the complete opposite of Grace’s blonde, blue-eyed brother Harry. But then, people did say, “opposites attract.”

“How are my two favorite ladies?” he called out with a bright smile on his face.

Grace shook her head, and Mason’s smile faded into tender-eyed sympathy.

“Not feeling good today, sweetie?” he asked, rubbing Maddie’s back lightly. “I might have something to fix that.” He held up a DVD that he had been hiding behind his back. “Want to watch some Princess Sofia with me?” he asked, and then leaned forward and added in a whisper, “And I’ve got a super-secret, special snack for once your mom leaves, too. What d’ya say?”

Maddie tried to hide her smile, but it was obvious that she was hooked.

“I knew I’d win you over,” Mason chuckled, motioning toward the house. “Harry got a work call and had to pop out for a bit, but he’ll be back soon.”

“That’s fine,” Grace replied as she carried Maddie towards the spacious living room just to the left of the main entryway. “He warned me that he might get called away.”

While Grace situated Maddie on the couch, Mason got the TV set up for their movie watching experience. By the time Grace was kissing her daughter goodbye, Maddie was snuggled up in blankets and ready for her mother to leave so she could enjoy her show and find out what the super-secret treat was.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Grace smiled, tapping Maddie on the nose. She waited for her daughter to nod and then headed for the door. Before she reached it, however, Mason had wedged himself in front of her, blocking her exit.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Little late for this conversation, don’t you think?” Grace replied, not looking Mason in the eye. She couldn’t afford to let him change her mind. “It’s safe. It will get me the money I need to help Maddie. I’m doing it.”

“Grace…”

“Please move.”

Mason sighed but stepped out of the way, allowing Grace the escape she’d asked for.

*

The first hour was nothing but paperwork. “…and sign here. Please initial that we have explained and you comprehend the…” blah, blah, blah “…concerning this procedure.” Grace couldn’t understand why they were making such a big deal about the test. Virtual reality had been around for years. Why did it matter whether or not you were asleep while you experienced it?

Next, they asked her about her personal life. Nothing too specific, just questions about her family: what her daughter was like, her parents, her brother, Mason. They asked her if she was married, dating, if she had eyes set on anyone. She answered vaguely, “Who doesn’t see a cute guy every now and again?”

Finally, they had her change into a blue cloth gown and led her to a room containing only a single hospital bed and a bunch of monitors. They inserted an IV into her left arm. Grace had never been good with needles, but after having watched Maddie get multiple pricks and sticks, she felt stupid freaking out herself.

“Now, like we’ve said, this machine is programed to give you the perfect dream,” a lab technician explained as he attached little electrodes to her forehead. “You’ve got the easy job. All you have to do is sleep while we watch your vital signs on the monitors.” He smiled as if he’d made some sort of joke, but Grace didn’t get it.

He cleared his throat. “Are you ready?” When she nodded, he plunged a serum into her IV catheter. “Sweet dreams.”

*

It took a moment for Grace to realize that the water was still running in the sink. She had been watching Maddie out of the window as the happy child played with a small Labrador puppy in the backyard. The two were running around aimlessly, Maddie shrieking with laughter as the puppy chased after her, nipping at her heels anytime the four-year-old slowed down enough for it to catch up.

“Everything all right?”

Grace turned to see Mason entering the room. He was dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans, his black hair was short and combed neatly to one side. For a moment, Grace thought he looked a little different than usual, but the moment passed, and she smiled. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I was just watching Maddie and got distracted, I guess.” She turned off the sink and turned towards Mason who was stepping forward to wrap her in a hug. She fit perfectly in his arms, felt safe there.

“I think that puppy was a good idea,” Mason said, as they both gazed out the window. “I know Maddie is young, but it’s never too early to begin teaching responsibility. This way, she can have a little fun as well.”

“Mhmm,” Grace grunted in agreement.

“And speaking of responsibility,” Mason began. “Your brother is going to be a little late to dinner tonight. He has a situation at work that’s going to keep him longer than expected.”

“What else is new?” Grace sighed, falling out of Mason’s embrace. She turned back towards the sink but couldn’t remember what she had been doing there in the first place.

“He is bringing his new boy-toy, though,” Mason announced. “So at least he got back to us on that.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”

“I wouldn’t have to call them that if he would stick with one long enough for the guy to be considered anything else.”

“He just hasn’t found the right person yet,” Grace countered. “Not everyone can get it right the first time,” she added, smiling up into Mason’s deep brown eyes. How she loved those eyes.

“Yes, well,” Mason muttered, leaning forward to give Grace a kiss. It was a full kiss, a deep kiss that made Grace hunger for more.

“Mom!”

Grace and Mason broke apart to see a muddy puppy scrambling down the hall, leaving a splatter of footprints in his wake as Maddie charged full speed after him.

Maddie paused long enough in the doorway to screech out, “Dodger got inside!” before continuing her chase after the rampaging puppy.

“I’ve got it,” Mason announced, “but we’ll finish this later,” he added, passing her a sensual look.

As Mason cleaned up the mud, Grace prepared dinner, and by the time six-thirty rolled around, everything was as good as it was going to get. Grace’s parents arrived first, her father as loud and jovial as always while her mother stood quietly by his side, smiling politely when necessary. Mason’s father was next to arrive, his mother having declined the invitation. Ever since their divorce it was always either one or the other. This left only Harry and his date who, surprisingly, appeared only a mere half-hour late.

“This is Brian,” Harry introduced, and Grace was surprised to see that Brian looked a whole hell of a lot like Mason.

Who knew we had the same taste, she thought as she herded everyone into the kitchen to make up plates.

The meal was basically finished when Mason turned bright-eyed towards her, the corners of his mouth turned up in anticipation. “Are you ready to make the announcement?”

Grace smiled back, the warmth of his loving expression filling her up. “You do it.”

“Okay.” He picked up his fork and began tapping the side of his water glass. It was corny, but cute, and managed to get everyone’s attention. “Hey, everyone, we actually invited you all over for dinner tonight because we have a special announcement.”

He paused then, at which time Maddie popped up in her seat and cried, “Mommy’s having a baby!”

Grace never got to hear her family’s reaction. A moment later, she found herself lying on a hospital bed, staring up at a blinking monitor.

“You did really well,” a lab technician said as he began unhooking her from the machine. “We got excellent readings. All that is left now is for you to fill out a little questionnaire and you’re free to go.”

Grace nodded, but she hadn’t really been paying attention to what the man had said. Her hand was on her stomach, right over the baby. She was pregnant, but not by Mason, or even someone like Mason—not like it should be. Derek wouldn’t want this baby, just like he hadn’t wanted Maddie. He merely wanted the sex, content to jump in and out of her life like a yo-yo. There would be no family dinner where the announcement was made followed by congratulatory smiles. In fact, she hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone yet because she knew the kind of looks she would receive.

The dream had shown her what she wanted, all right. Maddie healthy and running around was no secret, but she’d thought the crush on her brother’s husband had been locked away deep in the depths of her soul. How did the computer know about that just by a few questions concerning her everyday life? She felt dirty now—secrets exposed, her true feeling laid bare even if it was only in her own mind.

She wished she’d never had that dream and yet… if she could trade it for the life she had now, she would. That machine was dangerous. Sure, it might keep nightmares away, which was supposedly its purpose, but who would want to live in the real world when they could have the one they always imagined while they slept?

Once Grace was unhooked from the machines, she was taken back to her changing room. She ripped off the gown, flinging it away from her before scrambling back into her own clothes as if they would somehow vanquish the grimy feeling left behind from the test. When she opened the door of the changing room, she startled as she found herself face to face with the lab technician.

He handed her a clipboard. “If you could just fill out this questionnaire before you leave. And also, for further reference, would you be interested in repeating this test if the designers thought it useful in the future?”

“Yes,” Grace replied without thinking.

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