The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


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

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

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

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

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

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went home numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There the story ended.

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

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

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

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Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

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

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

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

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

“Bah… pth?”

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

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

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

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

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

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

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

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

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

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

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

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

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

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

“What was the insignia?”

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

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

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

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

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

Crrrrk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nearly fainted.

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

Wait.

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

“Stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

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

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

Gray-Eyed Greedy Guts

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jill Spencer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Delia, I love you more every day.

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

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

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

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

“Find anything?” Momma calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about ’em?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Math,” Max says, wrinkling his nose.

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

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

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

“Geek,” I whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearest Delia,

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

Merry Christmas!

Your Greatest Admirer

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

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

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


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

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

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

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

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

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

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

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

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

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

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

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

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

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

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

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

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They look hungry.

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

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

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

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

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

Andrew.

 

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

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

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

But Andrew came home early.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innocent. They were innocent.

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

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

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

There is a loud splintering noise.

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

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

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

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

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

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

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

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

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

 

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

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

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah did.

 

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

They match the sky.

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

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

Sarah is hungry.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” the witch says.

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

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

Something is digging into her thigh.

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

Its insides are white and crisp.

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

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

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

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

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


Photo Credit: James Gates/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The sky did not lie that morning, clouds covered it as some indecent warning of that which can never be prepared for in adequate fashion. They would turn the world white. They blanketed even the ground and hung down as if in some attempt to find reflection.

It was a year to the day since Amelia hadn’t lived.

Nick and I needed to go into town to get some supplies.

We could stay there. Or we could go right through.

We could go right through the next town and the next town and the next. We could go and never stop, but we won’t.

We’ll return to our one room cabin with a loft for the bed, open to the bottom floor. Separation, but no privacy, except the bathroom.

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

The cats, Mittens and Boots, watched us from the window of the loft. They would not go outside again for days. Country life is sometimes simple, but never more so than city life.

Before we left for town, we cut as much wood as we could. More money for food. We broke down building supplies.

As the morning passed the sun did not come and the cold did not go, it worsened. The sun hid its place in the sky, dim and evenly dispersed, an indicator of day.

We piled the wood up next to the stove. It almost covered the door. If the weatherman was right, in a day’s time we wouldn’t be able to leave the house anyway. The birds and small animals skittered frantic, never far from their nests and holes.

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It meant that the shelves would be picked. We would get what we could. The wood should have been cut the day before, the supplies acquired, but our mare, Joan, had begun to birth a foal. Though we had attended the birth and given it our best efforts and lost sleep, we lost them both. We should have done better.

Death comes in threes. Last year had been unseasonably warm. The first two deaths had been chickens, taken by coyotes. We didn’t talk about the third.

Amelia.

A year later, death had come again. Two down. No telling who the storm would take. I turned to Nick.

“It’s all up here,” I said. I pointed to my head and grinned.

“Can you tell me where it is in the house so I can go get it?”

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

He looked at it. “I don’t know why we had to do all that,” he said.

There was no reason. Numbness drove me. I felt none of the urgency I should have. This had been true for some time. My notice of it was occasional.

He started the car. “I love you,” he reminded us both without looking at me. He squeezed the steering wheel.

“I love you,” I said back.

I didn’t look at him. I looked at the day. I looked at the year. I looked away but it all looked the same.

The truck tried to make it up the hill. More and more the truck tried to make it places. It made a noise. Chunky, like everything fixed inside it had come loose.

It sputtered. Something tight contained, connected to the other noise in an indiscernible way. We ignored it because we didn’t have time for something like that.

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

Much as it could for something that had never been alive.

“Shit,” Nick said. He hit the steering wheel. CPR for cars, it never works. For CPR to work, you have to break ribs.

Cars have no heart or breath to start. No ribs to break. There were no numbers attached to their deaths. They die alone without envy of our threes.

We got out and looked under the hood.

“There’s a coolant leak,” he said. “We need to patch it and put in more coolant. Otherwise the engine will get too hot and will just run itself into oblivion.”

We were just between the general store and our home. Two miles in either direction.

We didn’t have any coolant or patches. He undid the stick that held the hood up. It slammed back into place. The first flakes fell onto it, melting with the heat left by the engine in some strange taunt.

We looked in both directions. The birds had not yet stopped their calls, beseeching nature not to run her course. More snowflakes were quick to follow.

“We won’t make it to the store and back,” I said.

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

I had a hat with flaps, but my ears were numb within five minutes.

Don’t get me started on my nose.

I tried to walk up close with Nick, for warmth, but it was hard to keep up. He was walking as if trying to lose me.

By the time we got home the birds were silent. It had snowed four inches. About one every ten minutes. We started a fire. We stood in front of it. There was nothing to say. The fire popped and crackled. Boots and Mittens wound around our ankles.

We sat at our table and shared a can of chili for dinner. If all had gone as planned, we each would have gotten our own. He went up to the loft and there produced a bottle of whiskey from the depths of his bottom dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for the next storm,” he said.

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

It raged outside. The wind howled, stealing any other sounds.

I took a drink straight from the bottle. There was no reason to be fancy. It was warm in my chest, my blood coming alive.

“We should take a look at what we have,” I said.

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

He lifted the bottle, tilted it. It was less than half full.

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

“Smart,” I said. We were past the point of caring about quality.

He got the bottle I had known about from out of the cabinet. It was no fuller than the other. We would have picked more up at the store. Even with both, the whiskey wasn’t going to last us the storm.

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The electricity went out. A log cracked in the fire. We went to bed. To say we made love ignores the other feelings we made as our bodies worked and writhed in expression that may well have been meaningless for all it told us about each other.

I searched his face for my own feelings, but it was too dark.

A log cracked in the fire.

I searched his movements for my own and though he stirred inside me, the only feelings I could discern were my own.

Once done, we separated, some mystic push away from each other. We came back together for the warmth. Our limbs did not intertwine.

Weightless, I could feel our stillborn daughter between us. I had all year.

She had been fully formed and came out with my body’s leftover heat. Perfect. Nick hadn’t been gentle as he had pressed his two fingers into her chest, one’s not supposed to be for CPR to work.

It was hard to say if we had her in common anymore.

Two feet of snow kept the doors shut. Wind howled.

I listened to the absence of the steady gentle hum of electricity, sudden and noticeable when it was gone. The world was too unstill for it. Unsaid things moved around inside me like Amelia had. A light snore formed in Nick’s throat.

I woke to blank light and silence. Each lay upon the world, equally distributed across all surfaces. Snow fell onto itself. It reached past the sill, filling the window. The wind had ceased. The birds were silent. Nick was silent.

A silence beyond sleep.

I did CPR. I broke his ribs. I touched his heart, but not hard enough for it to start beating and bleeding and all the things it had done again.

I did nothing.

I started after he’d stopped making his own warmth. Like her, any heat he retained was borrowed from me.

At what point he died in the night, there’s no way for me to tell.

I tried to call emergency services. The lines were down. We didn’t have cellular phones. We lived beyond service.

I screamed. I cried. There was no witness to any of this. I realized that I had the luxury of unobserved grief. I could cry all day or not at all. I could say that either had occurred.

Upon this realization I stopped.

I started some breakfast for myself. I got the fire going with the embers left in the stove. Heat spread through the room.

I would need my strength to get Nick out of the bed. At some point I would need to lay down again. It was the only surface in the house for it and I wasn’t going to give it up for a corpse.

I ate plain oatmeal. We were out of butter and sugar. Each were things we had intended to get at the store.

I fed the cats the parts of Joan and her dead foal that we had had time to cut out and wrap up. Whether the hide and the bulk of the meat from either animal would be salvageable would be clear when the snow was gone.

When I was done, I went up to the loft. I put my hands under Nick’s armpits. I lifted to no avail. I got his head and shoulders less than an inch off the bed, even using all my strength. I collapsed onto my side.

He turned to me.

“Hello, handsome,” he said, just like the night we met.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

“No,” I said. I believed it at the time.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s start over. Hello, handsome.”

All the gestures and facial expressions remained the same. The human mind is a wonderful thing. This conversation didn’t seem like something to do, but he repeated himself.

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

“Handsome, but I’m a girl,” I said again. It was what I said the night we met.

“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

“I do. Or, I do try,” I said. The first night I had just giggled.

“You shouldn’t lie to the dead,” he said. “We know.”

He went back to being dead. I no longer had anyone to talk to. It was a relief. Now I could get back to moving him.

I did not put my hands back under his armpits, but rather his shoulder and hip. I rolled him. He hit the ground with a great thud.

I lay across the bed.

It felt so normal. This was something I’d do after changing the sheets.

It felt so abnormal. Someone had died here just few minutes before. Minutes adding up to hours in all likelihood, but a blink in time however dissected.

I shifted so that all of me remained on my side.

I looked over to the empty space next to me. I could feel the inanimate nature of the body that lay just beyond my sight. Still I lay as time existed outside of me. The snow obscured any of the sun’s telling. It piled on and on in silence. Tears ran gentle down over my nose, outside my control and like all things without a sound.

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

“Why did you let our daughter die?” he said. He had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask.

“Why did you?” I said. I had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask either.

“Me,” he said. “You were the one carrying her. What did I do?”

“You were never there for me. You were never there for us.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“You weren’t there for me,” I said. “For us.”

“Excuse me for trying to make some money so that I could support us. Besides, you’ve said as much before, but what more could I have done? Climbed in your skin and lived life for you?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No. You don’t be absurd. You’ve said I wasn’t there for you, but what more could I have done?”

“Something. You could have talked to me. Helped me when I was sick. Brought me food. That’s what you could have done. There’s an in between living life for me and what you did which made me feel alone. It made us feel alone.”

“She never got the chance to feel anything. And I wish I could have carried her inside me. I wouldn’t have been so proud. I wouldn’t have tried to do so much.”

I had continued to work a lot.

“Maybe I did do too much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t been hungover so much. You were always somewhere, drinking with your friends, leaving me alone. Us alone. She would have lived if I hadn’t felt so alone.”

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

“What?” I said. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He lay down again. There he was on the floor, broken ribs. Flat lack of breath or muscle tension.

I got up and changed the sheets. I wrapped him in the old ones.

I laid back and let the silence overtake me. The eeriness of the unexpected. I waited for him to speak again, but he didn’t. The snow kept falling. The hidden sun made for a day without time. I was hungry.

I made grilled cheese and soup. Warm food helped keep the house, body and soul warm. Something a person needed in a storm like this.

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

Part of me had hoped I wouldn’t, that some part of Nick would live on. This time his absence would be expected. That would make it tolerable.

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

I didn’t worry about what Nick would think as I cut up a towel, our brown one that was fluffy and soft, but wasn’t as new as some of the others. I didn’t care about his judgement as I stuffed it in my underwear.

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

The plan had been to talk to each other and read. I picked up my book but couldn’t focus. Tears came again. They couldn’t last the possibility that this time they were not for him, but rather for myself.

I paced and paced at a steady pace, faster than the hours crawled on. Darkness came on. The wind started again, the snow did not stop. Nick could sense the evening.

“Are you going to sleep with me in here, like this?” he said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Are you going to stay up all night? My mourning widow until morning?”

“Even sleepless mourning widows are removed from the body.”

“What next then? Are you going to push me down the ladder? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll break? Don’t you love me too much for that?”

Did I?

“You’re supposed to,” he said. “You can blame me all you want, but love goes far to keep things alive. I could never tell how much you loved anything.”

I dragged Nick by his feet. I stopped at the edge of the ladder.

The sheet had fallen off of him. I pushed him. He hit the rungs. His body hit the rungs. He was gone. The way it hit the floor was more solid.

I could never tell how much he loved things either and for a second, it was me that was dead and he was standing above me broken body that he had just pushed down the ladder. I was him and he was me. It was so vivid, it had to be true. It was nothing like the night before when he’d been separate inside me.

It passed. We were ourselves again. In our little home.

The outside world was so far away, it might as well have not existed. I continued to sit and watch him, lifeless. I looked down on him from above, bloating and bruising. His eyes were open. No more could I feel him watching me, either from above or below. Even though I wanted to believe in Heaven.

It was a grey dusk that came. And with it a hunger. And with it a girl. She was ten, an age Amelia had never reached, but I recognized her. There were his eyes, my hair, his chin, and my cheekbones.

His lips parted to say, “Why didn’t you want me?”

She was gone, but I said, “I did. What are you talking about?”

I went down the ladder and put the sheet back over Nick. I went to get the bottle of whiskey that would be my dinner. Not having to share anymore, I only needed the good stuff. Boots sniffed at the sheet.

“Boots, don’t,” I said. “Don’t, Kitty.”

But I didn’t move to stop her. I watched her sniff about.

“How long are you going to let her do that?” he said.

Boots moved to chew on his toes. I shooed her away. She would drift back and I would have to deter her again.

I put more of the cut-up towel into my panties.

I drank the rest of the bottle and passed out to her chewing noises.

It was dark when I woke. The cats were curled up, warm beside me. Out the window, I could stars in the sky. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped.

I was hungry. I had to step over his body to make my stew. I had to put wood in the fire to keep it going.

While it heated I dragged Nick from the base of the ladder. I did not take him far. I didn’t want him in the kitchen area or too close to the stove. I lay him down by the window where he would stay cold. I ate.

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

“What you don’t want to hang around the house with me? You think it’s boring to be expected to do nothing, to just sit there looking pretty?”

“You still think I’m pretty,” he said.

I’ll admit, though I didn’t when questioned, that did make me curious. I went over to the sheet and lifted it. Even in the dim light of the fire I could see, his blood had begun to pool as gravity dictated. I poked at his back.

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

“It happens,” he said. “It will happen to you.”

I didn’t tell him, but it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t let it happen to me like that. Bones had broken in the fall. They floated around inside him, banging against his ribs. His skin was bruised.

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

“Do you think you’ll be blamed?” he said.

“I think I’ll be questioned. Blame must placed.”

“I want you to be blamed,” he said. “It’s your fault. You killed me.”

But I didn’t. I hadn’t. I turned to go upstairs. Amelia stood at the top, six, now.

“You told more than one person that you didn’t want children,” she said. “You told your best friend when you were my age. You told your first boyfriend. And your second. You told me.”

“I told you that you were changing my mind. By the time you were here I wanted you more than you can imagine.”

She turned into the sun which was rising.

I went back to bed. I laid down, hoping to get back to sleep. I didn’t want to be awake any more than I had to. The sun would be an unwelcome guest.

Though I couldn’t get back to sleep, I searched for a connection with widows who would stay up all night. Who reach for their absent husbands in the morning. I moved my hand across his pillow in motions I imagined they took.

His warmth would have been welcome. He was bigger than the cats. I had to go to the bathroom.

I cut off more of the towel. I threw what I had been using away. The cats had chewed the others, sucking out the juices and shredding the fabric. I picked up the pieces.

The snow filled the downstairs windows, dipping under its own weight in the middle. Light flowed from the loft.

The cat had bit Nick’s toe. It was red with blood, but it was not bleeding.

I went to the bathroom and cut up more of the towel.

When I came out, Nick turned to me and asked, “Would you have married me? If it hadn’t been for her? I’ve always wondered. When I do things right, sorry, did things right, it seemed like the answer was yes. But otherwise, I don’t know. It was pretty iffy.”

“I might have married you if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, but not when I did.”

This left him still and deflated.

I made myself a breakfast identical to what I had eaten the day previous. I had enough of yesterday’s lunch and dinner to do the same, but we would see.

Mittens rubbed against my leg. He looked up at me.

“You’re thinking of feeding me dry cat food, aren’t you?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoke. “Don’t you ever want more,” he said. “I want more.”

I patted his head. I would give him some of Joan’s foal, so much like my own human child, when it came down to it. He had a point.

But first I would feed myself.

“I agree with the boy cat,” said Boots. “Sometimes I want more.”

“You may not forever,” I said to her agreeing with the boy cat.

She rubbed against my leg in the same way he did. One difference was that I was secure in the fact that she wouldn’t spray the walls. As though she could occupy a space, but did not need to own it. Lines did not need to be drawn.

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

“You can have some of Joan’s foal,” I told her. “Both of you,” I told them.

Nick sat up under his sheet.

“You again,” I said. “I’m tired of you.”

“Sorry to be an inconvenience,” he said. “I’m curious about whether the phones are up again.”

They weren’t, nor did we have electricity. The storm was over, but I was still waiting.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

“So we are,” I said. I ate in front of him. I didn’t offer him any.

I let the cats sniff my spoon. They did not eat any.

“You’re practically feral at that point,” my mother said.

“You’re not dead,” I said.

“The dead are easier to be haunted by. Anything we say might be something that you want to say to me, but can’t. That will occur to you in the future.”

She was right.

“I know I’m right,” she said. The first time one of them responded to my unsaid thoughts.

To ignore them was to ignore my own mind. There was silence from all of them with this revelation.

The cold white world provided no supplement. All life beneath the placid surface. Death which would not be found in nooks and crannies picked by animals that had wanted nothing more than to survive the storm.

Inside was the home where I did the same. The dead man in the corner. The ghosts dissipated. Silent cats padding along, searching in corners for food until I would give them some.

I looked up as if I was a small animal waiting for food to be delivered. Rather than becoming accustomed to the quiet, it grew. It seeped in through my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. It exploded in my mind.

They all came back again.

“If you had wanted me more, I would have lived,” Amelia said, though she was a baby now. Too young to be talking.

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

“It might be for the best,” Boots said. “You can’t even feed your animals on time.”

I got my coat.

“Plus, it seems awful, this predicament you’re in,” my mother said. “But with the grades you got and your basic looks, this may be as good as it gets for you. Although you do need to find another man, as soon as you can. And for the love of God, keep the baby alive this time.”

I got my boots and snowshoes.

I opened the door to the outside. Snow piled in. I would have to dig my way out. They would talk to me the whole time. They were talking as the snow fell in.

“Great, now we’re all going to die,” Mittens said.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “It will preserve me. In certain cultures, you would have been expected to throw yourself on my pyre in mourning. This works, though.”

“What kind of mother are you?” Amelia said.

“The kind that would kill her own mother,” my mother said.

“You’re not even here,” I said.

I went up the ladder to the loft. I looked out the window. The drop was about six feet from the sill. How bad it would be would depend on the density of the snow.

“If I was here, you’d find a way to kill me,” my mother said.

The drop would be fine. I emptied the cash out of Nick’s wallet and put it in my own.

“Now you’re robbing me,” he said. “My mom was right.”

His mom was always so nice. What did she say about me?

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

I lifted one leg and then the other out of the window. I sat on the edge. Only my bottom was still inside. There was no heat to the day. I hopped down. I sunk about a foot into the snow.

I stepped out from the cavity I created, up onto the surface of the snow. Even with the snowshoes I sank into it with every step, but kept walking. They called to me from the window.

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

The world was bright in a way that had to be witnessed. Brightness like that could not be imagined. I would be snow blind the following day, but that was okay. In town they would have been plowing the roads until they couldn’t. They would have started again as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t need to see to take the next bus out of there. I would take it to the next town. To the next town then the next.

Even far into the white that I hoped was the road, I could still hear them yelling from the cabin.pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and currently an appointment setter. When she is not setting appointments, she spends her time talking herself out of secluded cabins in the woods. A previous Three Cheers and a Tiger Winner, her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Subprimal Poetry Art. Email: suavegossamer[at]yahoo.com

Mars

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anila Syed


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

“They used to put us to sleep for this you know!” the man says, jovially.

Elin does not like him. His breath smells of fish and his eyes look scared. She shrugs and moves away from him, to look out of the window at the unremarkable grey dawn.

The man shrugs, too, and directs his attention to the passenger on his right. “They used to put us to sleep for this, in the olden days,” he says, cheerfully.

The elderly woman jumps at the sudden sound, but they start to make stilted small talk.

This is not Elin’s first trip in a planetary shuttle. She was brought here from Mars twenty-six years ago, but obviously doesn’t remember that trip she made as a baby.

The man is thin and, unusually, wears dark clothes—against current trends. He has not shaved and is not even fluid enough to use permanent depilation. Elin is not planning on any interaction with her fellow passengers anyway.

The shuttle is tiny. Hardly the luxury liner she dreamt of when her company first told her about this trip. Trust Goo to provide an economy trip all the way to Mars. Her employers need someone to investigate the recent spate of terror which is sweeping the colonisation efforts. Idiot, demented, backward, mentally-challenged—however you like to see them—people, usually in their fifties and sixties, have started to disrupt the huge Starliners which take thousands of people off Earth to begin a new life on Mars.

‘Disrupt’ is such a strange word. It could mean ‘interrupt’ or it could mean, as in this case, ‘kill thousands of innocent individuals by blowing yourself up like some kind of uber drama queen.’ Elin cast that in her blog last week. She is proud of the wording and got nearly fifty-thousand upvotes for it. More upvotes equals more credits. Credits are what control your life, especially if you are a lifer.

She adjusts the camera and checks to see that her thoughts are being cast. Lifetime bloggers give up a “normal” private existence to broadcast their every waking thought to millions of adoring fans. Except the fan pool is shrinking by the day, as more and more people climb aboard the bandwagon.

Elin is Totally Connected—thanks to her employers—it’s not cheap. She is a Hot Spot and can broadcast live video and sound, and her surface thoughts are collated and sent to an editor at Goo headquarters. The editors don’t exactly change her content, but they make sure that she is not presented in a bad way. She is a valuable asset—until the next one comes along.

The man and woman, her neighbour passengers, have quietened down, finally. He is listening to headphones now and she has her eyes closed. He is listening to headphones. He had some in his bag and has plugged them into his seat somewhere. Elin nearly bursts out laughing, but decides to start sending an extremely long thought-stream to her cloud about how she has only ever seen headphones in old clips (bit of an exaggeration to be honest) and how even though the woman looks older than the man, at least she has a trans-spot in her neck. At least she is moving with the times. Go Grandma!

Elin glances at them and takes a couple of quick snaps for her blog.

The disruption is a strange thing really. Terrorist activity. Fundamental Remainers who don’t like to see human beings colonising other worlds. They believe in the sanctity of human creation—a woman who was trending last week said that she would rather see everyone dead than to go against God’s plan. She was just a saddo ranting against a Colonise Mars badge some kid was wearing on the AirBus. That story went viral in 5.2 hours.

But the main problem is, these nut jobs could be anyone, anywhere. No one really knows how to find them until they turn up with a big bucket of something and set it on fire—still the easiest way to kill people these days.

Some days Elin feels like she has ‘shock fatigue.’ It seems like every day there’s something—some old loony being caught or some sweet-looking old dear having her house raided. What won’t these guys do to stop us? There are traffic checkpoints everywhere. It has taken her nearly a week to get past Starport security. Her internal hard drive was checked for suspicious activity and her cortex was deep scanned for stray thoughts. We haven’t been blown up, yet at least, so everyone here must have passed the scans.

At one point last week, everyone over fifty had all their cameras permanently switched on—for every device they own. They now have no privacy in anything they do. Good. Any one of them might be plotting a terror attack. Actually, a thought strikes her, both of the people next to her must have their cameras activated. In fact, a quick look at everyone in the waiting lounge showed her that at least twenty percent of the people on board must be over fifty. It’s easy to tell, even with the rejuvenating treatments. Actually, easier to tell because of the rejuvenating products. That’s a bit too sarcastic for her. Elin guesses that will be edited out later.

“So, why are you going to Mars?” There’s a quick waft of fish and Elin turns to see the thin man peering at her. She’s jolted back from her thoughts. A little number in the bottom right of her screen tells her that around 35,000 people are watching her live feed. Some have started adding the little hearts already.

While her thoughts are carefully filtered, IRL she is trained to maintain brand @Elin. With so many watching, Elin has no option but to engage.

“Like, I’m off to go on a big explore!” she exclaims in her @Elin voice. “So many of my peeps can’t go to the, like, wonderful places I do, so I get to experience it all for them.”

“Oh!” The seated man’s eyes are metaphorically looking for the exits. “That’s great.”

[In reality, Goo are sending Elin so that her followers, who have quite a young demographic, can experience the direct fear related to interplanetary travel and terrorist activity. No one watches fiction anymore. This is the new way that the masses are fed their opioids. They’ve promised many credits, just for going—plus credits for upvotes.]

A red notice appears in the middle of her vision, flashes twice and fades away.

ASK HIM WHY HE IS GOING.

Without rolling her eyes, Elin politely says, “So, like, how ‘bout you?”

“I’ve been offered a job,” he says. “I’m going out to help run the ecodomes, you know, maintain an ecologically thermically-sound environment for all the residents, both new and existing.”

The man hasn’t even noticed that Elin has stopped listening. She’s actually been playing a viral clip about a kitten who gets wrapped in a ball of wool. The little fluffy grey kitten stares out of the wool carnage so innocently.

“…so it’s the pressure that makes it a harder job.”

Elin giggles at the kitten, but mentally crosses the man off the terrorist list. He is way too boring to be one. During the man’s explanation, twenty-thousand viewers switched her off. Six thousand new ones joined, but then they left, some sending her a puzzled emoji.

He has obviously stopped talking, so she turns her attention back to the window where the rocket is now ready for lift off.

They are very protected from their thunderous escape from the Earth. It’s surreal to watch the rocket’s storm blowing around outside their pod, while they sit shielded and serene within.

At least there have been no signs of terror on this rocket. Elin does not realise the release of tension would be so palpable. She can feel the blood begin to flow back into her arms and legs as her muscles relax. She is leaving Earth. She waits for an emotion, but nothing appears. Should she feel sad? Exulted? Mars is her place of birth. She is leaving Earth and going home. Her parents came back long ago. They were among the first pioneers, but after nearly three decades, they had decided it was not for them.

The passengers are allowed to feel a few moments of weightlessness before the anti-grav is switched on. It feels unpleasantly like being drunk. The famous sketch of the quote begins to play in her vision. Her cortex is scrabbling around to find things to calm her down. Or it could be her editors, who also monitor her vital signs, who are sending her comedy clips and little kittens being cute.

Oh no! Home videos have been dredged up from the beginning of her internal hard drive. Yellow alert! she thinks, jokingly, while watching a young Elin trying to drench her older brother with a garden hose.

The thin man, Mr. Boring, has nodded off, or passed out, or something. His elbow has spread over to her seat. Curse you, Goo and your Economy travel. They reason that the followers will feel more of a connection to their Followed if they can be as close to their lives as possible. Gone are the days when only the people with the luxury lifestyles and most beautiful looks became the super mega stars.

Elin pushes the man’s elbow back to his seat and surreptitiously sniffs her hand: fish. He moves, but stays asleep. In snatching a quick snap of the sleeping form with the caption ‘Fish man,’ Elin notices his neighbour—the little old lady—is staring at her quite crossly.

She is mouthing something. It is disconcerting to say the least. The transmission-spot in her neck is flashing like crazy. Her eyes are blue and faded, but shining brightly for all that, gouging circuits into Elin.

What is she saying?

Elin sends emergency msgs to her editors.

YOU GETTING THIS?

CRAZY LADY ALERT.

Her msgs go, but there is no receipt.

It is like the light has leaked from her eyes and is firing into the space around her face. All the while, her mouth moves, noiselessly, wordlessly.

In panic, Elin scrambles for the emergency button. They just showed her this half an hour ago in the safety clip. Where is it?

She tries to shake the man. He is out cold.

Realisation spreads into her brain, slowly, trying all the ports until something understands. People around her are lying unconscious.

“Stop it!” she commands the woman. Her voice is a thin and soft squeak.

“Stop!” She holds her arm up above her face to shield herself from those eyes.

The old woman is a terrorist. It can be anyone around you. At any time they can turn into a devil. There are half a million people watching this now. Elin does not even have this many followers in this diluted gene pool she now inhabits.

KEEP LOOKING AT THE WOMAN

What? This is the command from the editors after all this time and all this danger?

Reluctantly, she lowers her arm.

ASK HER WHAT SHE WANTS

There is a scream in Elin’s throat which won’t move. There may be words behind it, who knows?

But before she can sort out her vocal intentions, the woman’s words become coherent.

“All will die,” she says.

And she keeps repeating it. Over and over. All will die.

Elin’s panic has paralysed her, half with her hand on the sleeping fish man and her other hand, lowered into a clenched fist in her lap.

All will die, all will die, all will die.

She now knows who will die and when. The passenger pod that they are in has been rigged with an atomic weapon. Separating from the rocket will trigger the countdown and by the time they reach Mars’ orbit…

She can feel the information drilling through her firewall. The handhold she has always felt as her editors since she went online feels weak, ephemeral, far away.

All will die. Yes, that’s right. All must die. Elin shakes her head, but this lets the new, upgraded-her establish itself.

Colonisation is a doomed project. Humans have ruined Earth and are now running away, like a kid who breaks a window and runs off. Going to another planet will do the same, and by then, they will spread off-world to another, and another.

No! A faint voice inside her pleads. Please, stop this!

We are strong. We are many. We are the sure-fast holders of the fate of humanity. When you join us, you will see reason. You will be shown the light and you will know.

Elin has read their propaganda, of course she has, but getting it implanted into her brain lets her see the truth for what it is. Of course!

Elin sees her life for what it has been. The little old lady’s eyes have stopped glowing, but instead they look quite red and sore. She has stopped saying, ‘All will die.’

Now she’s saying, ‘You are the one.’

ELIN, YOU ARE THE ONE.

Yes, Elin knows she is the one. She must return to save her home from the infestation of mankind. She is still emitting her life to the hordes watching on earth. There are millions of them now. She starts to get feeds from news stations, hundreds upon hundreds try and fail to hack her input. Her head reels from the sudden onslaught as images appear one after another. When that does not work, news feeds start to send her snippets of the news:

‘The Cosmic Shuttle has been hijacked by a lifer known as @Elin.’

‘The twenty-six-year-old is reported to have been born on the Red Planet and was thought to be going back to visit her homeworld.’

HELP ME!

The tiny part of Elin’s own being is dying. She will be the first casualty in the Cosmic explosion.

Elin can see a miniscule sub-routine has started to spread inside her brain and take over her thinking. In a strange way, she guesses that this sub-routine must have been implanted into her on Mars. It is working its way towards her motor cortex where it will give her further instructions.

Desperately, she tries to strengthen her firewall, using the emergency codes she was taught after her implanting was complete. If she can buy some time, maybe she can—

She can what?

You are the one.

You are the one.

“I’m not the one!” Elin hears her voice screaming. Her throat is raw with the strength of the sound.

“I AM NOT THE ONE!”

She must stand up and go to the nose of the pod. There are no pilots. There is no cabin crew. The pod disengages and is pushed towards Mars. Everyone on this shuttle is going to stay there. Elin will go to the front and place her hand on a small panel situated under the first seat of the pod. From this small action, the countdown will begin.

The human race is useless. They are a cancer, and spreading throughout the solar system will only help to spread the disease.

The news feeds are now showing her people standing in the streets. Someone has made an effigy like a big scarecrow and printed her face and stuck it on. She sees placards with her name flash briefly past.

Thousands will die.

Elin?

The sound is faint, but the strength of the bond makes it heard above all the noise.

Elin comes to her senses and finds that she has been walking along the aisle of the shuttle pod, in a nightmare daze.

Elin, listen to me.

It’s her father. “Elin, your mother and I love you.”

They are using her personal channel. Elin remembers the joking and leg-pulling she got when she had first told them about this personal comms channel that she had asked for. Only her family members had the password.

“We don’t want to see any rude stuff!” her mother had joked.

“Mum!”

“Well, you know, I don’t want to see you asleep, or on the—”

“Mum!”

Blushing all round.

“Elin, can you hear us? Your mother and I love you very much. Whatever it is you’re into, come home, love. Let’s talk it out.”

Tears are streaming down Elin’s face. She can hear sobs leaving her body. She knows she is the trigger for this atom bomb.

Her legs feel like lead.

“Elin, we know this is not you,” her mother says.

“You’ve been hacked. Your boss from Goo is here, Elin. He is going to talk to you, OK?”

“Elin!” Steve sounds strained, like he does when she’s dropped the F-bomb in her livestream and he is trying to stay calm.

“Elin, listen to me, honey, your ratings are through the roof. Keep going—“

But whatever he is about to say is drowned. Elin pictures her father wrestling him to the ground, his large hands over Steve’s rat-like face.

“Elin, I’m going to read from the manual, OK?” Mum’s telephone voice. She is aware of the watching world.

“I’m going to shut you down, OK, honey bun?”

She starts to read out Elin’s emergency shutdown codes. There are so many to get through, but Mum perseveres.

She’s at the end of page one. Elin feels her own will draining from her body. She feels like she has been in a very hot bath and now the water is draining away, leaving her heavy and useless.

Her mother is crying now, as she reads out the final set of codes.

No one. No one has ever been shut down like this before. It took sixteen years to legislate the backdoor codes and fail-safe mechanisms to prevent this kind of man-jacking. But, no one knows what will happen when that last code is read.

“Mummy,” Elin says, with the last of her sentient breath.

“I love you.”

Mum is sobbing: “5… 6… 3… K.”

She finishes reading.

Elin is lying on the floor, arm stretched towards the panel, her fingers reaching for the lock.

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Anila Syed has been writing and reading sci-fi all her life. Email: syedab[at]totalise.co.uk

Project Savant

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Very good, Monsieur Savant. I can tell you’ve worked hard on your irregular verbs.”

As I mark the current question correct, I note with pride the neat row of consecutive red check marks in the margin of the test paper. We’re nearly finished his Level 3 Language Exam and he’s yet to make a single mistake. He’s only one answer away from achieving a perfect score in both correct grammar and vocabulary usage, the main objective of his course. I almost tell him this but I stop at the last moment; he’s so close, I don’t want him to suddenly become self-conscious and second-guess himself.

“We’re almost finished the exam,” I say instead, working to keep my voice neutral. It’s always been difficult for me to maintain a calm telephone demeanor when a student’s full potential is within their reach. This is especially true for a student who’s worked as hard as Monsieur Savant. Three months ago, he could barely understand anything other than the very basics of English: Hello, how are you? I’m fine. And you?

I adjust the receiver to my other ear and clear my throat before I read out the question. “Please put the following words into a complete sentence, with the correct usage of the present perfect tense, in the third person: He/She/burn/toast.”

There’s a brief pause on the line and then Monsieur Savant responds, with complete confidence:

“‘She has burnt the toast again.’”

I don’t even bother to verify my answer key. It just sounds perfect. I’m about to tell him so but he’s not finished.

“The verb ‘to burn’ has two possible past participles, no? Burnt and burned,” he says, exaggerating his pronunciation to emphasize the difference between the ‘t’ and the ‘ed’ sounds of the two conjugations.

“Could you not also say: ‘He has burned the toast again’?”

He’s right, of course. I shouldn’t be surprised he knows both possibilities. “Yes, absolutely. Both answers are correct!”

“I changed the pronoun to ‘he’ because a man can make his own toast, and burn it just as well.” He lets out a short mechanical chuckle, a brief blip in his intense focus.

“I can’t argue with that,” I laugh. I can’t help but marvel at how far he’s come from those first few painful lessons. His improvement has been remarkable, like the flick of a switch. Now he’s even making jokes.

“Congratulations, Monsieur Savant, the exam is complete and you have scored 100%!” I don’t even bother to hide my enthusiasm. Witnessing this kind of success is one of the real joys of my work as a language educator in Paris.

“Thank you. Any success of mine is due solely to your teaching. And to your patience, Miss Amelia Rogers.” No matter how much he’s improved, I can’t seem to get him to stop calling me by my first and last name.

“You did the hard work. You should be very proud.” I scribble his final score on the test paper and tuck it inside his file. A quick glance at the clock dims my spirits; this is his last lesson and it’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with him. He seems to genuinely enjoy learning. I wish I could say the same for all my students, predominantly other French professionals and government employees. Many of them prefer to use their telephone lessons as an outlet to air their grievances towards everyone and everything in their professional lives: their departments, their colleagues, the upper management, the labor unions, the Président.

But not Monsieur Savant.

He is always so pleasant, even when a concept is difficult or frustrating, and always diligently prepared. His lesson is a bright spot in my often dull schedule of drilling verbs and trying to draw conversations out from people with little to no interest in learning English. I’m dreading the next few hours of telephone lessons. It’s going to be a very long day of sitting alone in this tiny room, staring at these bare white walls or out the window into the drab parking lot, speaking with bored, expressionless voices on the other end.

“I know our time is nearly over,” he says, reading my mind. “I would like to say now how much I have appreciated speaking with you. Your help, your guidance, has been extraordinaire—forgive me, extraordinar-y.” He corrects himself followed by another of his reflexive chortles.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” I say, wishing we had another ten minutes to chat instead of only two. I shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable in this hard wooden chair. “I wish you all the best in your work—”

“Work is very difficult now.” He cuts across me, his voice low. He’s speaking with an urgency that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Time is short and I am more and more concerned… perhaps frightened even. I wish I could tell you, Miss Amelia Rogers. I think your perspective would be very helpful to me. And—ah, comment dire… comfortable? No, sorry… a comfort.”

I’m startled; this is the most I’ve ever heard about his work.

Only the briefest, most general descriptions of what he does, along with a signed confidentiality statement from his upper management have been provided, all quite typical for students from research and development in the Ministry of Defense. Any questions I asked him about how his day was or what he was working on were always met with standard, non-specific answers: Work is very busy. I have many meetings this week. Projects are progressing.

He’s never shared any details about anything, least of all how he feels about his work. Now he’s using words like difficult, concerned, frightened… I sit up straighter and lean in closer to the receiver.

“I’m sorry to hear that…” I offer, not sure what else to say, much like the time a student went on a rant about his very complicated divorce and every other word was a nasty French curse. The alarm on my mobile phone starts to screech, signalling the end of this lesson and making me jump. It’s buried under papers and books. I scramble to find it.

“What is that sound?” Savant asks.

“It’s my timer. I’m afraid I have to say goodbye now,” I stall as the phone blares on in the background. I finally tug it out from under the stack of student files and silence it with one swift swipe. “Thank you, Phone.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, it’s a silly habit I picked up from my husband,” I babble, embarrassed to be explaining this. “He always thanks our devices when they beep at us so when the robot uprising happens, they’ll remember we were kind to them and hopefully spare us.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Monsieur Savant declares after a long pause. He’s a good sport to go along with my joke. “We live in difficult times and one must always be aware.”

“Er—yes… well, we are firm believers that being polite can save lives,” I quip, trying to keep the tone light but I sense a shift and it’s making me uneasy. Considering the difficult times we live in…? How did this conversation take such a weird turn?

There’s a sudden blast of static noise and the high-pitched squeal as though a fax line were cutting into our connection. I grimace and hold the receiver away from my ear for a second. “Hello? Are you still there?”

“There is interference,” Savant says over the crackling line. “I must go. Goodbye, Miss Amelia Rogers.”

“Goodbye, Monsieur Savant.” I wait for his little chirp of a laugh but it doesn’t come. Instead, all I hear is silence followed by the drone of the dial tone as the other line goes dead.

*

The following day is chaos.

Commuting via Paris’s metro system is never without its challenges—full trains, crowded platforms, delays due to unclaimed bags left in the stations—but an entire new set of disruptions have popped up overnight.

Some metro lines are shut down. New signs declare the trains En Panne/Out of Order and no other information is given to confused and stranded passengers.

The delays are exacerbated as every person must now open his or her bag, show proper transit validation and present their ID to the new security at every entrance and on every platform. There’s no getting around it and those who try are immediately detained. The atmosphere is tense, with the occasional outburst from the impatient crowd. No one seems to know what provoked this new system, or at least no one is telling us why.

I’m stuck in a throng of people at the Montparnasse station. I’m late for work but so is everyone else. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd as it surges towards the waiting train.

“Pardon,” says a man as he bumps into me. He speaks French with a distinct English accent.

I place a steadying hand on his arm as we struggle to maintain our balance. “You speak English? Do you know what’s going on?”

He pulls his phone from his jacket pocket and plays me a video of what looks like a protest outside of a train station. The video is shaky and of poor cellphone quality, but I can see gendarmes in full protective gear brandishing batons and shields as they push through the crowd. Some of the people are struck down but the crowd keeps pressing forward until one of the officers, who is bigger than any soldier I’ve ever seen, picks up one of the people in the mob and lifts him high above the crowd. The man is thrashing and kicking at the soldier, who then starts to shake the man violently. His body is a blur on the tiny screen and some people in the small group huddled around the man and I gasp. We all watch, with sickening dread, as the soldier then tosses the limp man aside. The video cut off after that.

“Where was that?” demands a young woman, one of the small crowd now watching the video.

The man looks grim. “It’s not clear but I think it’s Gare du Nord. It’s making the rounds on social media but I have yet to hear of anything on the news.”

“Nothing? How is that even possible?” The woman shakes her head, her eyes blazing. “It’s as if it isn’t happening!”

I don’t know what to say. My head is swimming with the image of the man being thrown in the air like he was nothing but a rag doll when the hordes around us jostle our little group apart. The man with the video is swallowed up into the crowd when I reach the front near the train.

“Identification, Madame!” the officer barks at me. A team of security officers are shouting into their walkie-talkies behind him.

The whole situation is unnerving. My heart is pounding so loud I’m sure he can hear it as I fumble in my bag for my ID. He studies it for what feels like an eternity before he finally lets me pass onto the train. I’m barely inside when the doors snap shut behind me. The train is packed with people wearing the same bewildered expression I know is etched on my face. I’m not the only one who breathes a long sigh of relief as the train eventually pulls away.

We live in difficult times… one must always be aware…

Monsieur Savant’s words from yesterday loop through my mind as the train picks up speed. I can’t stop thinking of how right he seems to be.

*

When I finally reach the office, I’m surprised to find it empty except for Isabelle, the receptionist, and one lone student, a man I’ve never met before. None of my other colleagues are anywhere to be seen.

“Amelia! I didn’t expect you to come in today!” Isabelle exclaims, as I stumble in slightly disheveled but otherwise unscathed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.” I drop my bag and collapse into a chair in the waiting area. It’s taken me over three hours to get to the office and I’m exhausted. Isabelle brings me a cup of water, which I immediately guzzle.

“I haven’t been able to get cell reception and now my phone is dead; what’s going on out there?” I ask her when I can speak again.

She bites her lip and shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. “It’s not clear but it appears there was some sort of attack at Gare du Nord and possibly Hotel de Ville, but it’s not yet confirmed.”

Another attack?! How many other people have been brutalized today?

Isabelle narrows her eyes and makes a small head jerk towards the man behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived.

“He has been waiting here all morning to see you. I told him I doubted you’d be coming in, what with all the delays… but he insisted. He says it’s urgent.” She nods to him and he comes over to me, his hand outstretched.

It’s freezing cold when I grasp it but I say nothing. Who is this man and what does he want with me?

“’Allo Miss Amelia Rogers,” he says in a voice I just heard in my head not very long ago. “I am Monsieur Savant.”

My mind is one step behind and it takes me an extra second before I understand that although I feel like I know him well from our lessons, he is nothing like I expected. He is enormously tall, over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a short, thick neck. His steel grey suit coordinates flawlessly with his short fringe of salt and pepper hair. He would be handsome if it weren’t for the flicker of menace behind his dark blue eyes and the way his towering frame looms over me. There is nothing in his glowering stare or his steel-trap handshake of the warm, pleasant man I met on the telephone.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “I know this must be very alarming for you. I will explain everything, I promise. But I must speak with you in private.” He gestures towards an open meeting room. I sense I have no choice but to go with him; it feels like more of an order than an ‘after you.’ He closes the door behind us with such force, I jump.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he says. “I’m not used to in-person conversations outside of work. I will try to remember what you’ve taught me.” His words are kind, but I wince at how loud he’s speaking. He notices my discomfort and sits down first. He pulls a thick folder from his suit jacket and slides it across the table towards me.

“What—?”

He silences me with a shake of his head and taps the folder. “No, please look at this first. It’s the only way I know how to begin.”

I flip open the folder as though I expect it will explode at my touch. Inside are spreadsheets, designs, and specifications for something called “Projet Savant,” a line of government-issued artificial intelligence agents. Their primary mandate is peacekeeping operations. The man sitting opposite me is the same man whose photograph is stapled to the inside cover of the folder, the same man who all the agents in Projet Savant resemble.

Monsieur Savant is an android.

“For the past three months, my new language acquisition program has been undergoing extensive testing. My programmers have been monitoring how it adapts to different linguistic structures, syntax, grammar, vocabulary while I have been learning English from you.”

The designs and specifications are dancing in front of my eyes as he goes on, explaining my role in this aspect of his training. All those moments he struggled with irregular verbs and pronunciation were actually his neural algorithms adjusting coefficients to match the new input. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I shut my eyes to the tangled mess of numbers and letters and try to just focus on his voice.

If I just listen to him speak, it almost makes sense.

“This morning, there was a training exercise at Gare du Nord with some of the other agents in Projet Savant. That location was chosen for its proximity to some of the areas in Paris most affected by the recent influx of refugees and those who oppose their presence. I objected to the operation. I didn’t believe we were ready to go out in the field; I felt we were moving too quickly with integrating the agents with the human police force. I even tried to tell you about my fears yesterday, but of course, I could not. But I was overruled and the operation went forward. Unfortunately, when the crowds became hostile, it triggered a tactical mode in the agents present. Now the agents are outside of the government’s control and the ramifications are, shall we say, very, very serious.”

He turns over his left hand and presses his right thumb into the centre of his enormous palm, transforming it into a small screen. He taps the screen and it springs into action, playing the same incident I watched on a cellphone this morning. It’s shot from another angle, and the video quality is better: high resolution and less shaky. The biggest difference—from our table in one of the quiet classrooms of my language school—is I can also hear the audio of dozens of subtly robotic voices repeating over and over:

« Cessez et désistez! Cease and desist! We repeat, put down your weapons! Déposez vos armes! We mean you no harm! Aucun mal! Cease and desist! »

But the crowd doesn’t listen and I watch in horror as a man from the crowd screams obscenities at the “Robo-Terroriste!” and uses a Taser on the agent in front, who freezes for a moment as the electrical current takes hold, then seizes the man and lifts him in the air.

I don’t want to see the agent throttle him again, so I shut my eyes. But I can hear everything: the screaming from the crowd, the wailing of the agents’ sirens as they switch from peacekeepers to brutalizers, the bystanders’ cries of panic and fear. Monsieur Savant taps his palm once more and the screen goes dark. His hand is normal again, three times the size of my husband’s hand, but only a hand once more.

“That’s truly awful, Monsieur Savant,” I whisper. “I’m sorry that happened to your fellow agents. But I don’t know why you came to me. What do you want from me?”

“You told me yesterday you and your husband treat machines with kindness so when they show their evil natures, you will be spared.” He raises his head and fixes his steel eyes on mine. But as I return his gaze, I see them soften and fill with sadness. “Do you believe this of all androids? Are we inherently mistrusted and deemed guilty until proven innocent?”

My stomach plummets as I hear my own ignorance reflected back at me and I understand now how damaging that ignorance can be. Now I have a chance to set it right. I take a deep breath and lock eyes with Savant, the first android I’ve ever spoken to.

“My husband makes that joke to bring levity to a subject that most people don’t even consider taking seriously, but that’s not productive. I see that now and I apologize.”

The importance of what I say in this moment is weighing on me but I sense I’m on the right track as he holds my gaze and nods at me to continue.

“We believe that as technology becomes more intelligent, it also has the capacity to become more aware. And anything with the potential for awareness—human or other—is deserving of respect.”

He sits perfectly still as my words linger in the air. He doesn’t need to breathe but he lets out a long exhale and he extends his hand to me again. The light behind his eyes starts to flicker and his hands seize up.

“There’s so little time now… the program termination sequence is underway…” His eyes flicker faster and his neck starts to twitch.

It’s a second before I understand what he said and what it means.

“No! Can’t you shut it down? There must be something you can do!” I grab his hands and try to steady them but their shaking too much. His speech is cutting out every other word and his eyes are nearly dark. The sequence is too far gone.

“Miss Amelia Rogers, I must ask for your help one final time.”

“Yes, tell me!”

Somehow he steadies his hands long enough so his right index finger can trace a circle around his left palm. A small disc ejects itself from under his skin. He presses it into my hand and clasps it with his own. The shaking starts to subside and his eyes, dimming with every passing second, lock with mine. His voice is fading but he forces the words out.

“Share this footage. Spread it as far as you can. And speak your message of tolerance and belief in the potential of all beings. If enough people hear it, then maybe there’ll still be a chance for Project Savant or those who come after us…”

Just as with our last lesson, all I hear is silence as our connection is broken.

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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

Not If We Lie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC-by)

“There you are. Rise and shine, malyshka.”

Gwen heard the deep male voice close to her. Little girl in Russian? My Kyril. The sudden nausea separated her from the dream and forced reality on her. She tried to focus. This wasn’t as bad as recovering from hypersleep, but in hypersleep you didn’t dream so it was easier to let go of it. The kind of metabolism-damping Mission Control was using on the crew for this run—metabosleep, they called it—was supposed to be easier on the body, but it was hell on the psyche. When you slept for a month, the dream world became your alternate life, and often it seemed better than your real one. How many times have I done this? Is this my fiftieth turn to be awake? No, more than that I think. It was hard to keep track. Once she got to her cubicle, she’d look up how many times she’d been awake so far this trip and record one more.

She forced her eyes open and saw Kyril’s handsome face. His dark eyes held genuine affection for her, but she understood he wasn’t “my Kyril” from the dream. Gwen tried to speak: “Everything…” Her voice squeaked and broke as it often did after not using it for so long, so she swallowed and tried again. “Everything’s okay? On board? No trouble?”

Kyril extended his hand to help her out of the sleeping pod. “We’re all fine. Getting some interesting dark matter data, and collected unusual micrometeoroids yesterday. Of course, we’re closer to the target than when you went into your pod—closer by the minute—but the Commander estimates we’re still months away. Other than that, just the usual drama.”

There were twelve crew members aboard the spaceship, though it only took four to maintain the ship in flight. For a number of reasons, Mission Control didn’t want to keep the same four people awake for too long, so they scheduled a rotation: eight rested in metabosleep and four were awake at any given time, new combinations rotating in four-to-six-week intervals.

Gwen removed her hand from Kyril’s and blushed. In her dreams two sleep cycles ago, she and Kyril had become lovers. But since metabosleep dreams were more real than any normal one, the experience felt like reality even now that she was awake. The smell of their lovemaking and perfume of the star magnolia in their backyard, the taste of the mint tea he made her every morning, the texture of his beard in all stages of growth, all were part of her memory and didn’t fade as normal dream memory did. Even the pains of childbirth and subsequent exhaustion of caring for a newborn on very little sleep—experiences she’d never known outside of dreams—would be as authentic for her as real-life memories. Just now when she’d awakened, her arms felt the weight of their baby daughter she held, their second child after returning home from this mission—or so it was in the dream. In real life, life on this spaceship life, they weren’t lovers. But they’d been good friends since the mission began.

He winked. “Any good dreams to share, daragaya?”

It was as if he was reading her mind, and Gwen suddenly wondered if he’d had similar dreams of her. No, of course not. She remembered his touch and blushed again. “I think I’ll keep them to myself. Hey, wouldn’t Joe be jealous if he knew you called me your dear one?”

“Don’t you worry, precious girl. Joe will sleep for another two weeks, and even if you tattle on me when he wakes up, by that time I’ll be in a sleep cycle. Then it’ll be two rotations before we’re up at the same time again, and he’ll either have forgotten, or it won’t matter.” Kyril wrinkled his nose and sighed. “I hate this staggered waking schedule.”

“Me too. And I don’t have a relationship to maintain.” She thought about the one she had for a while with Charlie McGeehan. He was one of the mission pilots, as blond and light-skinned as Kyril was swarthy, with hazel eyes that saw into a person’s soul. She was sorry it didn’t work out between them, but accepted it as the way things sometimes went. Maybe someday.

“Four of us mobile at any given time, but on staggered schedules so the fours are constantly shuffled. I guess the shrinks at Mission Control wanted us interacting with eleven other people instead of only three,” she said. “As if contact with eleven people is enough for what could be the rest of our lives.” That was what they’d all been told. The mission involved too many variables to guarantee a safe return, but each of them believed finding this new life form that was sending signals to Earth from somewhere in the Kuiper Belt was a goal worth the risk. Whatever the life form was, everyone wanted to believe it was macroscopic, intelligent, and benevolent.

“I understand the reasons for the schedule, but it’s a shame we can’t arrange for some people to sleep the whole trip. And I don’t mean Joe.”

“Stephen?” It was a question for which she already had the answer. Gwen couldn’t understand how that man had managed to hide his true feelings and opinions during the extensive screening all the candidates endured. And there was no way he could have misunderstood mission goals, but once they were on their way, he’d taken every opportunity to rail against the idea of contacting new life. He condemned humans for exterminating so many Earth species, and insisted that was what would happen to the new life forms. Humans would kill them all, intentionally or otherwise. At one point, she heard him say they had an obligation to sabotage the ship, if necessary, rather than risk exterminating extraterrestrial creatures. He claimed their extermination was inevitable.

“Yeah, Stephen. He’s been talking this shit since we started, but every rotation I see him, he seems worse.”

“We should medicate him,” she said, stretching her arms overhead. “Maybe a dose of really good drugs is all he needs. So, who else is up now? You, me, Stephen and who else?”

“Charlie,” said Kyril.

As their pilot for this rotation, Charlie held the rank of Commander.

Charlie, she thought. Wonder if we could have made it as a couple under other circumstances? But all she said was, “Good, Stephen likes him.” Charlie’s cool logic and sense of calm hadn’t yet been enough to quiet Stephen’s ranting, but there was always hope.

“He likes you too, you know—Stephen, I mean. Anyhow, I’m not sure Charlie’s calm influence is enough of a solution. But we can try.” He offered his arm as if they were about to dance. “Come, lisichka. We can talk more about all this in a bit. Right now, let’s get you to the med bay for a post-sleep assessment.”

“I’m fine, but why did you call me a little fox?”

“That red hair, of course. Even in a crew cut, you’re adorable! As for your exam, I’m sure you’re fine but, you know, regulations. Once I give you your gold star, we’ll get you some coffee. After that, you and I get to spend some quality time together in the lab.” He waggled his eyebrows and leered playfully.

She laughed. “I’ll pass on the star, but yes, coffee. Please!”

The lab work they began that morning, examination of the micrometeoroids Kyril had removed from the ramjet hydrogen collectors, would take a few days. Already, they’d found elements so far unknown on Earth, and hoped to find microorganisms of some sort, though that was a longshot. Kyril’s knowledge of geology and Gwen’s of microbiology were both useful. Those weren’t the only fields in which they were qualified, but then everyone who landed a seat on this mission had diverse training, as well as multiple talents and specialties.

Since it was hard to predict what knowledge and skills would be necessary on an extended voyage like this, each individual had to wear many hats. Of course there were computer resources on board, and contact with Earth was possible, but the delay of communication in both directions complicated the latter option. The team aboard this spacecraft had to be both independent and interdependent.

With the lab shipshape and work for the next day staged, Gwen and Kyril headed for the mess hall. Contact among crew members was not only encouraged, but required. Three times a day, the four astronauts on duty met in the mess hall to eat together, SOP unless circumstances dictated otherwise. Occasionally, the conversations amounted to little more than briefings, but more frequently they were filled with joking and teasing as well as the sharing of thoughts, fears, and comments on the food.

When Kyril and Gwen arrived, Charlie was already seated but hadn’t gotten his meal. Gwen hugged him, Kyril kissed him on both cheeks.

“No Stephen yet?” Kyril asked.

Charlie moved his head around until his neck cracked. “Haven’t seen him all day. You?”

Da. When I settled Lena in her sleep pod, right before I woke Gwen, he waved to me in B Corridor. Looked like he was headed for the computer bay.”

“He’s good at everything he does,” Charlie said, “and he hasn’t shirked a single duty, but I’m not sure what to think about his diatribes. I mean, he has a point about all the species we’ve lost on Earth, but he takes it too far. And he knows he’s supposed to meet with everybody for dinner. So where is he?”

“Did you call him?”

“Shouldn’t have to.”

“I will,” said Gwen, and keyed her wrist communicator. “Hey, Stephen, it’s Gwen. Join us in the mess hall?” Silence. “Stephen, you there?” She shrugged and sat down. “You don’t think he could be in trouble? Hurt or something?”

Kyril shifted in his chair and looked into the galley. He was hungry.

“In his rack, I bet. Seems like he’s sleeping more than usual.”

“Hmm. Think that’s significant?” Charlie asked. “Depression, maybe? I reviewed Ron’s log from last rotation.” Ron had been the pilot before Charlie’s present duty.

“And?” Gwen asked.

“People were talking about Stephen then, saying they thought he was getting worse even though he was in metabosleep at the time. A few seemed to be taking Stephen’s side, but not to the point of suggesting we turn back, or scrub the mission, or any of Stephen’s other crazy ideas.”

“So it’s not just us.”

“Apparently not.”

Kyril stood up. “Nu, let’s start without him. I’ve been looking forward to that chicken cacciatore all afternoon.”

“Afraid it’s nothing like Mama used to make,” laughed Gwen.

While everyone ate, Charlie had questions, and questioning was one of his talents. He could be asking about your deepest secret yet sound as if he wanted to know what color apples you preferred or who your favorite baseball player was. “So, any idea what might have caused the pressure drop in Airlock #2? It looked significant.”

Recognizing the official nature of the question despite Charlie’s congenial tone, Kyril answered, “No idea, Commander. The pressure read normal by the time I got there, so I turned off the alarm. When I checked the sensors, they registered perfect.”

Charlie pursed his lips and stared straight ahead as if reading something no one else could see. Then he grunted and waved his hands as he spoke. He always did that. “That makes no sense. Either the pressure was too low or the sensors registered it wrong—it couldn’t be anything else. Could someone have used the airlock? Opened it and then closed it? Wait, was #2 the one you used to retrieve the micrometeoroids from the collectors?”

Nyet. Went out #1, and came back in the same way.”

Gwen swallowed of piece of brownie, savoring the chocolate and thanking God that Mission Control had found a way to successfully freeze chocolate. It was one of the few things as good in shipboard life as it was in dreams. “Who ran your tether?”

“Stephen.” Kyril laughed and touched his front teeth. “Uh, you’ve got chocolate in your teeth. Quite a fetching look. Seriously, he did everything right. We both suited up, and he waited for me in the airlock in case anything went wrong.”

“Good to hear, I have to admit,” Charlie said.

Gwen finished working her tongue around her mouth and showed Kyril her teeth. When he nodded, she said, “Commander, could we—or should we—wake one of the people with more psychiatric credentials than the three of us have?”

Kyril threw the biscuit he was eating onto his plate. “Screw that. If we’re worried about what he’s up to, we should put him down early.”

“Don’t say it that way.” Gwen punched his shoulder. “Putting down is what you do for an old dog so it doesn’t suffer.”

“Well, if the shoe fits…” Kyril said.

“Stop it, you two. We’re charged with maintaining the planned crew rotation except for serious illness or injury.”

Kyril shook his head. “That’s a rule for normal situations, Commander. A crew member threatening to murder everybody if they don’t do what he says isn’t normal. You heard him at dinner last night, he said that somebody could use a pulsed laser diode through a fiber-optic cable to detonate the solid fuel in the rockets.”

“And you thought he was serious?” Gwen asked. “Sometimes he makes strange jokes, and you know he’s got an odd sense of humor. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

“To my mind, he gave way too much detail for a joke. It doesn’t matter if you laugh when you suggest we either scrub the mission or ‘somebody’ could blow up the ship. That’s not funny.”

“I agree with you that he’s acting strange, but I also agree with Gwen that we shouldn’t assume he’s serious. He definitely has strong beliefs about the effect that contact with us might have on a new species. Anyway, even if he meant it, it would be hard for one man to hurt the ship,” said Charlie. “With all the redundant systems built into this baby, that’s almost impossible.”

“Willing to risk our lives on an ‘almost’? I mean, we all understand we could die out here for a million reasons, but I am not willing to just let this go. Remember he’s a systems engineer, among other things, and I think he’s nuts. That solid fuel thing wasn’t his first threat! Remember last week he joked about how opening a door would solve our whole stale air problem? Joking about opening a door in a spaceship?”

This was all news to Gwen. “Okay, so he’s made actual threats? We might have to do something. Should it be just us who decides?”

“Who else is there? We don’t have options.”

Gwen shifted in her chair and cleared her throat. “Yes, we do, Kyril. We could contact Mission Control. We could ask them.”

“Or we could wake everybody up together, just this once, and get their thoughts,” Charlie suggested and then everyone sat not looking at each other, not speaking.

Finally Gwen spoke into the silence. Quietly she said, “There’s something we haven’t considered.”

Both men looked at her.

“You two are due for metabosleep in less than a week. When I wake your replacements, they’ll be a sleep cycle behind in background and things could happen fast. Whatever we’re going to do, we should do it now.”

“Agreed. Let’s go find Stephen.”

The ship had always felt small to Gwen, but the need to search every room and every passageway made it seem huge. All three of them stayed together so that whoever first encountered Stephen wouldn’t be alone; there was no way of knowing what his frame of mind might be. They didn’t find Stephen, but he found them and he had a weapon. The ship carried plasma cutters because geologists on board used them to slice samples from metallic meteors, ship engineers used them to make repairs, and there were countless other uses. Stephen had modified one to use as a handheld weapon, and since everyone understood what a weapon like that could do to human flesh, they listened.

“Commander, if you’d be so kind as to put these two in their sleep pods? Then I’ll do the same for you. It will be easier for all three of you if you’re asleep like the others.”

Charlie consciously kept his hands at his sides though he wasn’t used to talking without them. He didn’t want Stephen to misinterpret motion and hurt someone. Charlie’s voice sounded like velvet feels. “I don’t think so, Stephen. Let’s talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to say. I believe you’re good people, and that’s why I’ll allow you to be asleep when I do this. But you believed the lies Mission Control told you about having peaceful intentions. That makes you infantile. Whether because of intent or eventual effect, humans kill.”

“But you’re suggesting you’ll kill everyone on board,” said Kyril.

“Sometimes violence is the best option, especially when a limited act of violence prevents more larger-scale violence, even an existential one. The scale does matter. I tried to convince you to scrub the mission, remember? I tried to make you see the obvious.”

While Charlie frantically sorted arguments in his head, looking for the perfect one, it was Gwen who found it. She took a half-step toward Stephen and lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Why did you sign on for this mission, Stephen? Before you had doubts, what compelled you to leave your life on Earth behind, to sacrifice years of relative certainty and comfort to risk everything out here?”

As he considered her question, Stephen’s face changed from hard and matter-of-fact to almost wistful. “Since I was a boy, I was fascinated with the idea of other beings, other intelligences and points of view that would be different from our human ones. I read every bit of science fiction and fantasy that included first contact. I decided that if there was anything alive in this universe besides human beings, I wanted to see it. If there were beings, I wanted to meet them. When I was approached about this mission, I knew this was my chance.”

“Me too. And I bet if we asked every person on this ship the same question, most would give the same reason. We’re curious. We want to see what’s out there, see who is out there. Each of us wants to be among the first humans they meet, and the first to interact with them. We want to be the first ones changed by the knowledge of who they are. Don’t you still want that?”

Stephen shook his head and kept shaking it, the plasma cutter wavering in his hands.

None of the others moved.

“Nononononono.”

“Stephen. Stephen, listen to me. I’m not trying to trick you,” Gwen continued. “I want you to understand that I believe the desire to see is what we all share and that it’s still the most important thing. Don’t you want to meet these creatures, figure out what they value and what they fear, learn from them? Don’t you still want to know who might be out there?”

Stephen stared at her. “I do, but it’s impossible. Even if we all agree about how we’ll handle this, that’s not enough. The politics and powers at home will take over and ruin the good we intend.”

Kyril stepped forward to stand next to Gwen and he took her hand. Charlie moved up beside her on her other side and added softly, “Can I tell you what I’m thinking, Stephen? The idea Gwen gave me just now?”

“Go ahead. Talk.”

“What if we go the rest of the way, follow the signal, and find these life forms. And when we do, we’ll wake everyone and together learn all we can, all these new life forms will allow for as long as they’ll allow it. I have the feeling we’ll learn more about ourselves in the process, but that’s another subject.”

“You haven’t said anything different than before, because when Mission Control finds out, all hell breaks loose on those poor creatures and we’ll be the reason for more death.”

“Not if we lie,” Charlie said.

“What?”

Louder, he said, “Not. If. We. Lie. Maybe we tell Mission Control all we found was an automated signal, or a ship that blew up as we approached. Whatever we tell them, it won’t be the truth, and we won’t give them any information to lead them to the aliens.”

“Recorded data gets relayed automatically—our course, our heading, our camera feed, everything,” said Stephen.

“It is,” agreed Kyril. “We’d have to account for that. Maybe after we met them and learned what we could, we might head out into deep space? Or maybe we could send the ship out there while we stay with them, if that were possible. I know every person in this crew, and I’m certain they would all agree. We all signed on willing to sacrifice everything to see what no one else ever had, Stephen. I still want to see what’s out there.”

“That speaks for me as well,” Gwen said. “What do you say?”

“First of all, I think you might be lying. As soon as I give up this cutter, you could tackle me, put me in a pod, and leave me there forever.”

Gwen heard his voice quaver.

“But second of all, I think I believe you. I’m not sure why, but I do. And yes, I still want to see.” He gave the cutter to Charlie and flinched when their hands touched.

“Good God! You’re one crazy motherfucker, Stephen,” Kyril said a bit louder than he intended, “and you about scared the piss out of me. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re totally wrong about the powers that be.”

The breath Gwen took when she smiled felt full of relief. She imagined a baby’s first breath must feel like that. “Okay, we have a plan, personal conscience over policy. We’ll lie through our teeth, and we have to do it perfectly. But first we need to do something else. We have to wake the other eight and convince them.”

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Gail A. Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, fiction writing. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Relatively new to the publishing arena, Gail’s work has appeared in The Tower Journal, Persimmon Tree, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Fiftiness, and Pink Chameleon, as well as two recent anthologies. She has also published two novels. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

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