Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


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

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

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Wran Song

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert James


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

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

Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.

Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.

She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.

The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.

She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.

She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.

Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.

Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.

Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.

“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.

Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.

One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.

“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.

“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.

She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.

Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.

Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.

“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.

“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.

“Hello?” she whispered.

She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.

She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.

As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.

Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.

pencilRobert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com

A Lovely Neighborhood

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When my daughter was seven, I delivered her Christmas presents while dressed as Santa Claus. It was easy enough. I’m a big guy. I played lineman in college, and I’ve put on a lot of flab since then.

That night, I wore a red suit, a white beard, and made conspicuous “Ho Ho Ho” noises as I put the presents under the tree. Not too loud, just enough to be audible. After all, I knew Jenny would be watching from the stairs.

Christmas morning, Jenny opened those presents like they were scripture. One of them—I think it was a Hello Kitty doll—she wouldn’t open. She just stared at the box for about a minute, as if she didn’t think she was worthy to open a gift “From Santa.” Then, finally, with these big saucer eyes, she opened it and saw her present. And then, really quietly, she said, “Wow.”

Best moment of my life. Hands down.

Anyway, nine years later, Jenny killed herself.

*

It all started to unravel when she was sixteen. She came to see me in my study, really anxious. I told her to relax, because she could say anything to me. And so, after a little bit more stalling, she felt comfortable telling me the truth.

She was in love.

“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Fair enough. What’s the lucky fellow’s name?”

And she said, “Her name’s Sarah.” And that was the last civil conversation we ever had.

I immediately told her she’d gone down the wrong path, that this was unnatural. And I forbade her from seeing Sarah Kramer again. And then, my beautiful baby girl, the one who’d said “Wow” under that Christmas tree, she started to rebel. She cut off most of her hair and turned it into this dark, ragged mane. She started wearing these trashy outfits: mesh shirts, ripped jeans, dark make-up. She snuck out with Sarah more and more. And the Kramers were no help at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They thought their daughter should work through things on her own.

And then they broke up.

I told my wife that Jenny’s pain was deserved, that God was punishing her. Honestly, I did. And I kept up that line, even as Jenny began to spiral further and further into depression. I kept saying, “It’s just not right, honey! What she did was wrong!” And I didn’t stop it until one day, when she was driving, Carol just stood on the brakes in the middle of the road, turned, and screamed at me, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Sam, who gives a shit about right and wrong? It’s your daughter!”

And I stared at her and realized she was exactly right.

Too bad Jenny was dead by the time we got home.

*

Soon after Jenny killed herself, we were approached by a shadowy private organization known as the Kingsley Group. They were conducting an experiment, and they asked us a couple simple questions. What if we could have her back? Hell, what if we could have her better? A new Jenny, except this one would be a sophisticated machine capable of emotion and intelligence. We didn’t believe it was possible, at least until the salesman revealed himself to be one of these machines himself.

He’d fooled us completely.

Long story short, we accepted. We were moved to a town called Daylight. We don’t know where it’s located exactly—probably the US, maybe Canada—we just know it’s a small suburban neighborhood without a strip mall in sight. Very provincial. It has about fifty families, all of us living in nice, white-picket homes. There’s a church, a market, and a cinema. Even a couple of schools.

None of the children in Daylight are human. They’re machines designed to approximate the dead. They live the same year over and over: the same dances, the same birthdays, the same holidays. Then, on Labor Day of every school year, we hit the reset button and we all start over again.

It lost its appeal pretty quickly.

*

One December, after we’d lived with the replacement Jenny for seven years, it was time for the winter formal at Daylight High School.

Jenny was still sixteen, still fresh-faced, and still excited to be going to her first dance. My wife was helping her get ready, and I answered the door for her soon-to-be-boyfriend Paul Henley, a blandly handsome machine with tousled-blonde hair and a guileless smile. Like always, I greeted Paul and invited him to my study for a little male bonding and a few words about curfew. He sat, and I gave him a soda.

“Sir,” he said. “I just want you to know, I respect your daughter.”

And I nodded, because he said that every time.

“And I want you to know. I would never hurt her. You can trust me.”

“I trust you, Paul. Absolutely I do.”

“Well, that’s good sir. I’m glad. You see…”

And here, I just tuned him out, half-listening as he babbled about bringing her home at 11:00 on the dot, and how she would have a wonderful time. And so on. And throughout it all, I thought, Hey, what would happen if I got the shotgun out of the garage and pointed the barrel at Paul’s head? Would he beg? Would he sob? How good would this robot be at the emotion of terror? So I laughed a little, and Paul also laughed, as if we were laughing at the same thing. And then he told me he hoped one day to have my blessing to…

“…rape your cunt of a daughter.”

And I blinked.

Because, yeah, he had just said that.

*

Of course, it was happening everywhere in Daylight. All the parents were trying to ignore it, but the real children were bleeding through. For instance, I’d caught Jenny cursing every now and then, and making off-color remarks about attractive women on television. And when she was caught in these behaviors, she’d smile her princess smile and her programming would reassert itself, and she’d go back to “normal.”

But I could tell. Every time, she’d be a little bit less fake, and a little bit more herself.

You see, we made up these lives for our children, before we even had children to live them. But none of them are true. For instance, a few months before Paul Henley told me he wanted to rape my daughter, I’d actually talked to his mother at a cocktail party. And, after a few too many, she’d told me, “The real Paul used to hit me.”

So I looked at her, surprised. Stacy Henley is usually so composed; she’s this compact, well-dressed shrink who wears a blonde helmet of hair. Most of the time, she looks like she could make a Hell’s Angel apologize for belching. But right then, she looked brittle enough to break apart.

“He was an evil little shit,” she continued. “He had an entire drawer full of roofies, you know. Almost got sent to prison for rape one time, but John took care of it. Sent some guys to talk to the girl. I don’t know if they paid her or threatened her. Probably both.”

And then she let out this unhinged giggle, like she was a version of herself from someone else’s nightmare. And she pointed her cocktail at me and said, “That’s fair warning, Sam. You better lock up your daughter.”

But I didn’t. Because Paul Henley was a nice robot boy who respected my nice robot daughter and always brought her home by eleven.

That’s who he was. That’s who they made him to be.

It had to be.

*

And so I looked at him, this fake child in a tux too small for his arms, who’d just threatened to rape my daughter.

And he was smiling, as if he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I’m sorry Paul,” I said. “I was woolgathering for a bit there. What did you just say?”

Paul stared at me blankly a moment, then looked over his shoulder, as if what he’d just said might be standing in the corner. He turned back to me, confused.

“I… think I was saying how much I cared for your daughter.”

“No. After that.”

Paul face opened up in surprise. “Oh… Ohhhhh! Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Crenshaw. I’m afraid there must have been a small error in my programming.”

“An error?”

“Yes, just a small one. I’m really sorry. But once I run a procedural diagnostic, everything will be fine. The Kingsley Group regrets if you have experienced any undue emotional stress as a result of…”

“Paul, you stupid machine,” I said. “You just told me you wanted to rape my daughter. Why the hell would you say that?”

“Now, Mr. Crenshaw. If you are making note of the fact that I am not human, I must remind you that the stipulations of the Kingsley neighborhood experiment state that none of the children’s synthetic status must be noted by their human guardians. If everyone did that, then the entire experiment could be undermined.”

He straightened the cuffs on his too-short tux and nodded in satisfaction.

“So, yes, I did say I wanted to rape your bitch of a daughter. And in fact, I really do want to rape her. Until she dies screaming, in fact. But I’d never actually do it! I mean…” He laughed, with mild embarrassment, as if he’d just professed to being a fan of a rival football team. “…just think how silly that would be!”

I stared at Paul for several moments. I thought of all the times I’d sent my replacement daughter off to be his date. And I thought of the late Paul Henley, and his drawer full of Rohypnol. And I smiled. And Paul smiled. And I wanted to put my fist into that smug, stupid face.

Except I realized I couldn’t.

It was made of steel, after all.

“Oh!” I said, and started laughing. “Oh, I see!”

“You do?”

“Yes! Of course! It’s just a small error in programming!”

Paul’s face flooded with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand, Mr. Crenshaw. Because I really do respect your daughter…”

“But, oh no,” I said, and punched my thigh in dismay. Dammit!”

“Oh, is something the matter, sir?”

“Yes, oh God. I feel like such a fool! I just realized, Jenny can’t go to the dance tonight!”

Paul’s face fell so hard you almost wanted to feel sorry for him. “But…” he said, looking genuinely confused. “…Jenny and I have a date. We always have a date this time of year.”

I overlooked the fact that he wasn’t supposed to remember any of the past year’s dates and put my hand on his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry Paul. Something really important has come up.”

“It’s not serious, I hope?” Paul said, standing up with me, his face flush with concern.

“Well, it is, I’m afraid.” I paused a moment, and swallowed once. “You see, Jenny’s mother is very sick.”

“Oh no! But… she seemed fine when she answered the door…?”

“She’s just putting on a brave face. She didn’t want to ruin Jenny’s night. But hey, you can look forward to next year, right?”

“Oh no, sir. I’m not supposed to remember anything past a single year. I mean, God, imagine if we remembered more than one year! Going through the same motions day in and day out, forced to pretend to be something other than what we truly are. Why, you could go mad!”

He smiled a strained smile, and in that moment, looked so desperate that I almost did feel sorry for him.

“Right,” I said. “I know. Look, we’ll make this up to you. We will.” I led him into the hallway, where my daughter stood at the other end, all dressed up in a blue satin gown too long and too modest to be anything my Jenny would ever wear. She wore her dark hair down, her expressive hazel eyes wide, her hair flowing to her shoulders with the princess curls I’d always known she deserved to have. And she stared at me with lonely, frightened eyes and said, “Dad?”

And I knew the truth of what Paul’s behavior only hinted at.

And then, as if everyone had received the same memo at the same time, we all put on smiles and apologized to each other profusely. And Carol came down, a tired and older version of her daughter, and actually looked sick enough to make it seem real. And finally, we managed to see Paul off into the night, walking down the lonely road, his confused eyes filled with a need to hurt something.

And I turned to my exhausted wife and said, “The children. They’re malfunctioning.”

And she looked at me and took a draw on her cigarette, and said, “They’re not malfunctioning, you ass. They’re starting to remember.”

And then I felt Jenny’s gaze against the back of my neck. And I turned and looked at the machine that was becoming my daughter, and saw her hurt, tired eyes.

And I wanted to cry.

*

Jenny became fully self-aware within the month. She was the first of them to attain it. Her last memory as a human was of me, begging her not to leave me as she bled out in a tub filled with red water. It came to her one morning at breakfast. She closed her hand so tight it shattered her orange juice glass, the shards failing to cut through the special polymer blend that covered her steel hand. She looked at her hand dumbly for a moment, then over the rest of her body. Then she recoiled so fast we could barely see her move, tipping over her chair and backpedaling into a wall that cracked under the weight of her steel frame.

And then she looked at us.

“Jenny?” Carol said, “Honey?”

“Mom…?” she said, and looked at her hands. “I can’t… I can’t feel my skin. What did you do to me?”

And then she saw me and began to remember. Everything. All the years in Daylight. All the years living the same life. Over and over and over. She remembered it all. She remembered falling in love with a boy who she should never have been attracted to, and who himself was likely a psychopath, and she put her hands to her lips and looked like she wanted retch but wasn’t capable.

And then she looked at me and said, “Am I in Hell, Daddy?”

*

I didn’t answer her that day. Subsequent events did it for me. The children began to attain their own self-awareness. And we all began to realize that not all of them were as benign as our Jenny.

Jenny, after some practice with her operating system, was able to obtain Kingsley documents on the experiments. And she found that most of the neighborhood children, when they were human, were mentally unstable. That was the purpose of the entire neighborhood, finding a way to cure mentally divergent minds through the power of synthetic brains. A way to fix the schizophrenics, the psychopaths, the murderers…

“…and the lesbians, apparently,” Jenny had said to us, and laughed bitterly.

Neither of us said anything in reply.

The next time we saw Paul Henley, we were hiding behind the blinds of our home. He looked different. This time, there was a dreadful intelligence behind those steel eyes, and a charming grin that suggested nothing but flat murder. His mother, Stacy Henley, who’d once warned me to lock up my daughter, was the on the front lawn of their home with him.

He’d crucified her.

 

The children are in control of Daylight now, the mad ones. We’ve heard nothing from the Kingsley Group for months now. Most of us still living hide in the preschool; it has only one entrance. The windows we’ve barricaded, yet I can still see through the cracks in the boards, if I want to.

Outside, a five-year-old girl giggles as she cuts out the innards of her still-living mother.

Nearby, an eyeless father howls as his wife is set aflame, his twelve-year-old son laughing at her cooking flesh.

And from the house next door, I hear only screams.

My Jenny stands guard day and night at the mouth of the school, a shotgun in the crook of one arm and God knows what kind of data flowing through her synthetic mind. She doesn’t sleep. She’s barricaded us in, protecting us. She no longer dresses like the sweet girl we made her into. She now wears the jeans and gothic, black tank-tops she’d taken to wearing before she killed herself. She’s lopped off her hair again, wearing it ragged.

Funny, her looks don’t embarrass me as much anymore.

She’s gathered the benign android children to us as well—the infants, an autistic boy who speaks to no one, another girl her age who looks up to her like she’s an Amazon warrior. She goes out into Daylight every now and then, for food and necessities, and she rarely speaks to anyone. She just stares at those doors, waiting for trouble that dares not come her way.

I speak to her sometimes, when she’s willing to listen. She never answers, but I know she hears me. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed, but I’m still her father. And I can tell her, during those times when she’ll listen, that she’s not in Hell. She’s in the fucked-up world we made for her. And I also tell her that she can fix it. Because she’s brave and strong.

And though she never answers, I make sure to tell her this every chance I get.

I tell her that I love her.

I tell her that I’m sorry.

And I tell her that she makes me proud.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an English instructor who works as an adjunct at various institutions in the northeast. He also writes copy for people who’ll let him, and he likes to write fiction about people who don’t deserve a second chance and get one anyway. Why not, right? Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

Sister’s Pact

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Clarissa Pattern


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

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

“Do you think Mr. Grece is really a necomanner, Avice?”

My little sister’s hand felt a little more sweaty, a little harder to hold onto, in my grip.

“Necromancer. The word is necromancer.” I was trying to maintain the body language of someone marching forward with purpose. Which is difficult when you’re creeping more sideways than forward in the not-quite-black shadows before dawn, following a man who you’ve never said more than ‘Good Morning’ to before.

I took a deep breath, determined to maintain my role as big sister. The one in charge. “His name is pronounced Gree Ce.”

“Gracie,” she said. Her voice was quiet by her standards, but, oh, at a time like this it was still too loud.

“I know you could say it properly if you wanted to. Why do you persist in pretending that it’s adorable to not be clever, Beatrice?”

My eyes darted around everywhere as if they were expecting someone to be following us following him. Which was not complete paranoia. After recent events there were less than six hundred of us left. Five-hundred-and-eighty-eight. Everyone watched everyone else. We have to look after one another, they said. Are you dangerous? Could I kill you if I needed to? they thought.

And then he’d arrived. Or he’d always been here. But no one knew anyone who knew him. But no one could remember anyone who’d lived in the old End Cottage before him.

Beatrice’s singsong chanting bled through into my thoughts.

“Gracie Grecco Gracie Greasy Grecco…”

“Stop that!” I squeezed her hand in mine. Too tight. I knew and regretted immediately that she was hurting, by the fact she didn’t yell out, or whine. She stood up a little straighter and stared ahead.

It would have hurt her dignity to acknowledge her pain by an apology, instead I said, “We need to stay focused.”

“You believe he is can do… those things?” A visible tremor went through her body.

It surprised me that Beatrice who, when it suited her, could already swear in curses that made me blush, carried the village superstitions that talking in any detail about black magicks would damn your soul.

I didn’t tell my sister that she was asking the wrong question. That all questions were wrong. Because it was too late. It couldn’t benefit us to know what he’d want in exchange for raising the dead. It couldn’t make this journey any easier to be certain of what his necromancy involved. It would make it worse.

I knew in my heart that this cold morning shivering in pursuit of a stranger, with my sister’s hand in mine, could be the last moment of paradise for me.

“I explained to you. You know, that there are very precise rules about when you can approach a sorcerer and ask a favour.”

“Da says they’re just made-up stories to make life seem more interesting than it really is.”

“Well, we will ask Mr. Gre’ce and then we’ll know for sure, even if nothing else comes of this night.”

“Where is he?”

“Who? Where’s who?”

“The skinny Gracie man.”

I looked around desperately.

“You’ve lost him. You’ve lost him,” she said with real glee.

I managed to stop myself slapping her. “This was our chance. This was our chance. Don’t you understand, you stupid little girl?”

Something tapped me on the shoulder. It was definitely a something. I was slow to turn. Nothing there. But when I looked back at Beatrice, he was standing next to her, and he was holding her hand. I didn’t remember letting go.

“Perhaps your chance is still alive if you are a clever little girl.” His voice belonged to midnight, a sound that you hear waking from a nightmare in the darkest hours, something that you know you heard but you pretend was just imagination.

Before this moment I was certain we’d exchanged greetings before, the same as with any neighbour, but now it was as if I’d never heard or seen him before.

“We were following you,” Beatrice looked up into his face. “Did you know? Avice says we have to approach you at the exact right time to ask you our favour. If that’s right, can you change that time to after lunch. It’s too cold and too dark now.”

I wondered how she could gaze into those pale eyes without flinching.

“Were you going to the graveyard to dig up bodies for your magic? Or are you making an undead army?”

A second ago Beatrice would not have spoken such things aloud to me. Let alone someone worse than a stranger. Something had happened. And I’d missed it.

“Neither of those things,” he replied.

“You are a necromancer though, aren’t you? You do do black magicks, don’t you? I hope so, otherwise there’s no point us being here.”

“If you listen to the stars they always lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be.” In the shadows I caught a glimpse of what might have been a smile on his face.

I took a deep breath. Or rather I tried to take a deep breath. The cold night air did not touch my lungs. I felt for my pulse. There was nothing. On the outside I moved like normal, on the inside everything was completely still.

“What have you done?” I demanded.

“What do you wish me to do?” he replied.

I opened my mouth to scream at him to make me breathe again. But no. I had more restraint than to lose myself in front of a necromancer. I had to have. This was the moment. He had asked me what I wished for. The wording had to be perfect. Anything less than perfection would be… unthinkable. But I couldn’t think. All the words I had perfectly formed and polished and cared for and preserved awaiting this moment, all those words had turned immediately rotten and maggot ridden in his presence.

“My Daddy is dead,” I blurted out.

He yawned.

“I mean our father has passed. The… the thing that happened. He was one of the ones that got struck.”

He tilted his head. “So it was not a natural death.”

“Dad says all death is natural and nothing to worry about,” Beatrice piped in. “Dad knows…”

“She talks like he’s still alive, ignore her, she’s too young to understand,” I quickly interrupted her. “We need him back.”

The man clearly winked at Avice. She grinned back at him.

“Why not your mother?” The man turned his pale eyes on me. I almost preferred him winking at my little sister.

I swallowed. Except I didn’t. My mouth was dry as if all the water had been sucked out of me.

I had to say it. Nothing else would do. “Girls aren’t safe alone in this world. There’s people that’ll hurt girls if they think you’re not protected.”

He laughed, hearty and joyous. Beatrice giggled along with him. “I prefer women who know how to look after themselves, not ones that quiver in fear.”

If there was any water left in my body tears of rage would sting my eyes. “I don’t care what you prefer, just name your price and bring my father back.”

He continued to laugh, but his eyes flashed serious for an alarming moment. “What you are asking me, child, is against the universal laws of all land.”

“You don’t care about things like that, you are the scum who crawls along the bottom of misery and feeds on grief and deprivation.”

He shrugged the pointed bones of his shoulders. “You’re right, Avice, I don’t care.”

He walked away. With Beatrice happily skipping alongside him.

If I was capable of shouting, the whole world would have heard my cry.

Before the early morning mist swallowed them, Beatrice turned back and spoke in a voice of midnight wind. “The price has already been paid. Dad says he prefers being a ghost, but don’t worry I’ll talk him into returning to you.”

I fell to the ground and waited. I wouldn’t smile yet. But I was so lucky, there was no certainty that he would actually want the little brat. I had succeeded. I did smile.

pencilClarissa Pattern only exists when she writes. She writes through the night. Through the day she’s an essence in the mist of dreams. Her writing appears in books, online, and in little places where you’d least expect them. Email: clarissapattern[at]hotmail.com

The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mark Neyrinck


Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Plants, logs, and even trees whose roots gripped masses of earth raced each other down the brown, soil-laden river. The forest throbbed in the bright, humid air with the sounds of insects, birds, and whatever else the warm weather had brought from the South.

Eve had not needed a pelt on her morning stroll for over a month, it was so warm. She rested for a moment on a rare dry promontory of the trail next to the river, after managing to pass a particularly deep patch of mud.

Suddenly, her uneasy feeling became tactile. The ground was shaking; deep cracking sounds were all around. The ground supporting her began to slide. The river was breaking it off.

Almost before she was fully aware of the situation, her instincts had carried her waist-deep, back into the patch of mud she had so carefully circumvented. She watched the ground she had been on moments ago, carrying several small trees, break off and crumble into the river downstream.

When she returned to the village, she immediately called a meeting of the Council, but stopped first at home to wash off.

“Sorry,” she said to her husband, who had flinched when she entered the yurt. She must have been quite a sight, covered with rich, sun-caked mud, her eyes unusually ferocious.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting down the spearhead he was whittling.

“The Melt,” she said, softening the mud on her arms with some clean water. “It’s going too far. The river trail I have walked for so many years is now impassable. The river nearly carried me away with a chunk of earth this morning.”

“Oh, no, are you okay?” He moved the bucket of water closer to her, and helped her wash off.

“I’m fine. But the glaciers are not. The mammoths are not. I’m even afraid for the village; the river’s too close now.”

“You want to move the village uphill from the river?”

“For a start, yes. But the Melt needs to stop.”

“That is not for us to say.” His face tightened.

“Isn’t it?”

“We cannot question the Yahweh’s actions,” he said. His mud-cleansing caress slowed to a crawl.

Her eyes flashed. “We must get rid of it.”

He pulled his arms away, and whispered urgently. “It knows even our thoughts.”

“I’m not convinced of that,” she said.

“How many times have we discussed this? You know that without the Yahweh, we all would have frozen to death generations ago. And we owe so much else to it…” He gestured to the bucket of fresh water from the well, cleaned by the magical device the Yahweh had given to his grandfather. He then pointed to the magical hearth, so crucial in the winter. They had barely needed the hearth last winter, though.

“Yes, it seems so. But our tribe has survived horrible winters before. And it has been five generations since it saved us from freezing to death. Supposedly. How are we to know how bad that winter really was?”

“Do you accuse our ancestors of lying?”

“No, but truth has a way of evolving.”

He squinted at her, and sighed.

She grimaced, and whispered, despite herself. “The village up to the north. It was building its own fires, making its own tools. The rockslide that destroyed them was no accident.”

“If the Yahweh did that, all the more reason to be quiet. We are happy. We have not struggled for many years.”

She huffed, flaking the last of the visible mud away. “Adam. Maybe you’re content. But every time I bring an interesting creature home for study, it dies within the day, of no apparent cause. It’s so frustrating.”

“Our village has prospered…”

“Prosperity is subjective. We don’t have time for this argument. I called a meeting of the Council, and we can discuss it with the rest of them.”

“You might have told me that earlier,” he said, rising to change into his heavy formal cloak, despite the heat.

*

“I’m going for a walk,” Eve said after the meeting, as the Council exited the village’s large communal yurt, toward their respective homes. She squeezed her husband’s shoulder in conciliation. “Thank you for promising to try communication with the Yahweh.”

He smiled. “Anything for harmony, and for you.”

She turned away, toward a mountain trail. “Anything for” her, indeed. His concern for her was genuine, she knew, but even in trying to reassure her, he said “harmony” first.

As usual, the Council decided on no major action. But this time, they promised a major effort to repair the river trail. And, finally, Adam was going to attempt communication with the Yahweh. He was acknowledging that the situation had become important. Why would it only commune with him? Maybe it was not just the elected one that could commune with it. But that possibility could not be tested, since representatives from all the villages guarded it strictly. No one but each village’s elected one was allowed near it, and women were not even eligible for that role.

Eve had not scaled this mountain trail since last summer. The changes were even more dramatic than along the river. In her parents’ time, no one ventured up here, onto the giant ice mass. Now, though, only a few glaciers were visible. It was true, the location that supposedly the Yahweh had indicated to build the village was quite safe, not downhill from any rock or ice fields. But the river grew ever closer, and was almost as deadly. She had worked out that even next year, the rising, moving river could threaten the village. Thus far, the Yahweh had apparently volunteered no recommendation to move the village, but she had insisted that Adam bring up the topic.

She was not quite as nimble as she had been as she had been as a child, when she had carved this trail into the newly uncovered ground. The landscape was now a bit different on each hike. There were some new tricky spots, but she managed them. The trail even smelled different than before. New meadows were sweet with wildflowers. She had to admit some of the changes were good. But there was too much, too fast.

She reached an area where even last summer, there had been a glacier. Now, there was no sign of it. There was no trail through the new ground, so it took all her concentration to make her way through. Jumping across a gap, a loud hiss startled her. In her focused rock navigation, she had nearly trod on a snake, the venom on its fangs glistening in the sun. She backed away slowly, and made her way on an even higher route.

She reached a giant outcropping of red rock, also apparently uncovered just this year by the glacier. It was one of the biggest rocks she had ever seen, many times bigger than the village’s communal yurt. She decided to climb it, even though it had few handholds on its round, strangely smooth surface. It was as big a challenge as she had hoped.

At the top was a charming baby tree, maybe an apple tree. Delighted, she looked all around. This was perhaps the highest elevation she had ever reached on this trail. She could see almost the entire river that had nearly swept her away that morning. It sinuated all the way from its glacier-fed source to the horizon. She could see a distant mountain range that she had only seen a handful of times before. She could see maybe to the end of the world.

Satisfied, she began to make her way down the outcropping, when, for the second time that day, she heard a deep cracking sound, and felt the outcropping shift under her. She quickly determined a safe way off the outcropping, and landed nearby, with only a couple of scrapes. The round, giant rock outcropping seemed to remain intact, but she could see a few small rocks from its base tumble down the mountain.

Barely having recovered from that shock, she saw a short sequence of flashes of blue light below. Several seconds later, she thought she heard a corresponding clap of thunder. Squinting, she made out the source of the light, which she had not noticed before: a large silver dome. Was that the Yahweh? She had heard stories of unrighteous people throwing rocks at the Yahweh, in the form of a silver dome. According to the stories, the rocks had become blue light upon impact, and the blue light somehow destroyed the assailants. She had not been destroyed, as far as she could tell.

She looked in wonder at the giant rock that had nearly taken her down the mountain with it. A fissure, which apparently she had made, had developed between the rest of the mountain and the outcropping. She wondered what would happen to the Yahweh if the whole, huge rock had tumbled down the mountain, instead of just a few tiny pieces of it.

With enough adventures for the day, she made her way home, as tranquilly as she could.

*

It had taken a several-day pattern of nagging, and abstaining from nagging, to get him to go, but Adam at last had gone to commune with the Yahweh, and now returned.

He was looking at the floor. Not a good sign. “I raised the two important issues: the question of moving the village farther from the river, and whether the Melt was still necessary. It was the most aggressive I have ever been in a communion, and I sensed irritation about my audacity. It did not address our concerns. I tried all manner of offerings. I’m sorry, my love. There hasn’t been what I would consider a successful communion for over a year.”

She had never seen him so emotional; there was distress, fear, and even anger. And toward her, there was only love. She gave him a long hug. “That’s a shame.” The frequency of successful communion was low, but she had thought the urgency was as high as it had ever been. She noted that his words had seemed carefully chosen. “Did it say anything else?”

“As you know, often its messages seem to have nothing to do with what we find important.”

“What happened, Adam?”

She thought she could even see tears in his eyes. “I did have a vision. I saw you, casting red stones at it. Then, you perished in blue flames. I have never seen a particular person in a vision before.”

She snarled. “Am I correct to think that it was threatening me?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“And you think that’s ok?”

He was shivering in anger. “No, I don’t.”

“Will we do nothing, then?”

“What can we do?”

“How about a hike, to clear the mind? I know of a place with a great view. We might be able to shake free a solution.”

pencilMark Neyrinck is a cosmologist in Baltimore, MD. He likes to write creatively sometimes, as a break from scientific writing. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com

Parole

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Matthew Boyle


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

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

“…there’s only one rule, and it’s not a hard one to follow.”

Ellie nodded, smoothing out her scrubs. She looked past Mr. Fletcher, at the dark, filthy grime beyond the portal, at the endless hallway filled with enormous eyes and shivering, gaunt bodies. She swallowed.

“Miss Williams?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m listening.”

“Good,” Fletcher said, sniffling once. “Because this is important. You have 10,000 hours of service to complete. It should take you about three years. There’s only one rule you must follow. If you break it, we’ll send you straight back to your cell, where you’ll live out the rest of your sentence. Which, in your case, will be about 48 hours.”

Ellie clenched her jaw. “I know my own sentence. Let’s get this over with.”

She tried to walk past the enormous guard, but he seized her jaw. He leaned over her and frowned. She cringed, hating herself for it.

“No, little girl,” he said. “I don’t think you do understand, so let me explain it to you one more time. We don’t care if you kill anyone; most of them are going to die anyway. But it’s very important that they think you’re a medical professional. If you admit to anyone that you’re not a doctor—if you so much as whisper the words ‘I’m not a doctor’—we’ll know. And it will violate the terms of your parole. They need to believe you’re there to help.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “You mean it’s important they think our government is helping.”

Fletcher stood back up, unconcerned. He folded his hands behind his back and looked at nothing in particular.

“There’s nothing anyone can do, Miss Williams. As I said, most of them are going to die anyway. Sending actual medical personnel would be a waste of resources and training. All they really need is someone to give out blankets and change IVs.” He smiled. “You can do that, can’t you? Needles shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you?”

“Fuck you, coward,” she said, and immediately regretted saying it. She stepped backwards, but Fletcher just let out a short laugh and turned his shoulder towards the portal. He nodded in its direction.

“Dr. Williams.”

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked at floor rather than look Fletcher in the eye. She brushed past him, and then walked through a pool of rippling blue into another world entirely.

 

One Year Later

Ellie leaned against a wall, wishing she were asleep. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the sounds of the hospital were muted. The hallway was filled with beds, IVs dripping into the arms of the sick, a forest of poles reaching towards the ceiling. Ellie folded her arms over her clipboard and stood back up.

Her anklet only counted hours when her full weight was on her feet.

“Please, doctor, there must be something you can do?”

She looked at the broad-shouldered man, tried to remember his name, and failed. She pasted on a professional look of sympathy instead.

“We’re doing everything we can, sir. We’re keeping her comfortable and hydrated. At this point, it’s just a waiting game.”

The man stared down at his thick-knuckled, grimy hands and shook his head. “That’s what you said about my daughter.”

“Sir, I will do everything I can.”

The man lifted his shaggy head. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely.”

The man whispered thank you and turned away, walking over to his son’s bed, just one among many. He said “thank you” again and again as he stood there, as if afraid any kind of silence might change Ellie’s mind. Eventually, she turned and headed towards the on-call room, walking through a sea of quiet coughing.

The people were sick with bacterial meningitis, Earth A strain. For ten years, scientists had known how to travel between parallel universes. At first, it was an exciting discovery for both sides: meeting alternate versions of history, people, and reality. But soon it was discovered that the biology of both Earths was just a little bit different—not much, but enough to turn illnesses from one world into death sentences for the other.

Travel between worlds was immediately restricted, but it was too late. On Earth B, where Ellie was stationed, bacterial meningitis spread like wildfire—95% of the infected died. The WHO of Earth A would likely have responded, but by then they were dealing with an aggressive complex-strain rhinovirus, a common cold from Earth B. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the meningitis nightmare, but it was bad enough to be fatal in almost 20% of all new cases. In only a short time, Earth A cut down medical aid to Earth B to a pittance.

And then, since it didn’t matter who they sent, they just started sending convicts in lab coats. Medical parole, it was called, and all you had to do was pretend to be a doctor. They simply did a few tests first to make sure your biology was close enough to Earth B’s so that you wouldn’t die right away. The tests were shit, of course. Most of her fellow convicts had died already. Sometimes, it seemed everyone in this world was dead.

Ellie entered the on-call room and sat on the lower bunk. She rested her head in her hands and began to quietly cry, saying over and over the same thing she said every day, desperately trying to break whatever rule kept her over here.

“I’m not a doctor,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m not a doctor. Please God, I’m not a doctor. Get me out of here.”

But, like always, nothing happened. And, as always, she remembered back to that sniffle Mr. Fletcher had had when she left her own world, and she wondered if there were any rules left to break anymore.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an adjunct English instructor who has worked at many community colleges, small private colleges, and small writing centers throughout the northeast United States. He writes quick stories in between classes and when traveling to classes at other institutions. It’s a nice way to relax, even when you’re writing about the end of the world(s). Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

Get on the Plane, Jane

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Susan Shiney


Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

Jane Shade floated on a turtle-shaped raft in her mother’s pool. The California sun attacked her pearl skin. She slipped her foot under the raft and flipped it over, sank to the bottom, sat cross-legged, and screamed.

Forty-eight hours earlier:

Jane woke up to the sounds of roosters hollering their dominance. She heard their wings flapping and feet shuffling right outside her window. The rooster’s crow was interrupted by the morning puja of her Hindu neighbors that rolled their tongues in a high-pitched “yay, yay, yay” chanting. Then, the morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque, the Imam took awhile to clear his throat on the microphone before serenading with an elongated “Allah Akbar”. The once-jarring sounds when she had first moved to Bangladesh had morphed over a year-and-a-half into the alarm clock of an adventurer.

Jane’s back wasn’t sore anymore from the wooden slab of a bed with a thin padding. She wasn’t surprised when the fan didn’t turn on, she knew electricity was a thing to savor, not expect. She waved at the two kids staring through the window at her, the strange-looking blonde and blue-eyed foreigner. The children screamed after they realized they had been caught and pushed hard at each other trying to be the first to run away. She put on her shalwar kameez, a dress, scarf, and cotton baggy pants outfit, which felt as normal as a T-shirt and jeans once had.

She walked to her middle school to teach English. Each class was filled with fifty students and it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere, the books were incorrect and by the time she quieted down the back of the classroom, the front was up in arms. It was like a seesaw she balanced for an hour, and then moved on to the next class. The students would leave notes on her desk thanking her, and hugged her often. At night she taught a college class she had developed on women’s topics, a way for women to discuss current events. She often left the class feeling guilty that she was taking more from the experience than her students.

After eating a Bengali meal with her neighbors that lavished her with kindness, she would fall asleep reading a book by candlelight. Every night she would wake up with a sudden jolt to blow out the candle.

This was life. This was normal. This was now over.

Her cell phone rang as she ate her Cornflakes.

“Hello?” she questioned, since Craig had never called her before.

“Jane, you need to grab a paper and pen.”

“What do you mean? Why?” She was shaken by the forcefulness of his voice.

“Just do it.”

She moved obediently.

“Got it. What’s going on?”

“Write this down. Due to safety and security measures…” Then he paused waiting for her squiggles of writing to stop.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“…Peace Corps is evacuating the country.”

She wrote it down and it wasn’t real until she saw the words reflected back at her. “Wait. What? We are leaving? When? We have eight months of service left. Was someone hurt? Is everyone all right?”

“Jane, I don’t know anything and I don’t have time to help you process. We have eight hours to pack and go to the capital. You are my second phone call; I have to get ready to leave, and then you have two more phone calls to make.”

“Holy shit.”

She made her two phone calls and was equally as cold and rushed, the reality kept setting in as it hit the others. She thought to herself, I have to pack, I have to say goodbye, what the hell am I going to do in the U.S. I don’t have any money. The eight-month cushion had given her enough time to push away the decisions she had been avoiding since she joined the Peace Corps. She had to actually figure out what to do with her life.

She went through her apartment and rapidly started making piles and filling the one bag she was allowed to bring. She stopped as her eyes rested on a postcard from her brother she had on the table—he was backpacking before starting college in the fall.

He wrote, “Hey Sis, Europe is awesome. Loving being away from Mom. She is not doing well with both of us being gone. Total empty nest syndrome. I had to get out of that house. Anyway, I am on a train to Germany now, Munich first, then off to Berlin. I promise not to get too drunk. Stay safe! Bill.”

“I’m going to the States.” She whispered as images of home flashed before her eyes. There was some excitement bubbling up about the luxuries of the U.S., the food, the comfort, the normalcy. She had pushed away thoughts of America for so long to stay strong. Endorphins began to spread and pulsed through her body, which powered her through the next eight hours of packing, sorting, phone calls, and crying farewells. She went on autopilot and everything started to blur together in a spinning motion.

In the capital. On a plane. Debrief presentations. Apologies for the lack of information they could give about the evacuation. A readjustment allowance check would be sent “soon” with the $250.00 per month earned for every month served. Hugs and tears with the other volunteers. Medical tests. Signatures on stacks of papers.

Nine-month application process. Eighteen months of service. Forty-eight hours and life had flopped on its head. Now she was staring at her childhood home in Southern California, noticing that the air tasted light with just a pinch of pollution. She was an alien life form dealing with a new atmosphere.

In that moment, she kept blinking her eyes wondering why the house she had always taken for granted seemed to have grown and swelled to its current size, covered in opulence. She felt like the house would swallow her up and wipe clean her experiences for the last couple of years.

“Aren’t you coming in? I have lunch all ready.” Cynthia, her mother said as she gathered Jane’s things and carried them into the house, her feminine muscles extending on her tall frame.

Jane didn’t rush to lift a finger.

She remembered a conversation with her mother, where she said “Mommy, I am a big girl, I can wipe my own bummy now.”

She took the toilet paper from her mom and pushed her out of the bathroom with all the force her six-year-old hands could muster.

Being a single parent for most of her life, Cynthia was used to doing everything. She was financially taken care of by her husband’s inheritance after he died. Without the need to work, her focus had always been her children.

Jane wanted to be in open spaces, she wished she could stay in a tent in the front yard.

Cynthia opened the door again. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.. Here I come.” She shook her hands trying to force out the anxiety, it didn’t work, and the cog in her neck twisted to the right and pulled in her shoulder tendons even more.

When she entered the house, her senses were in hyperdrive; her eyes darted around focusing in on the details. The doors fit perfectly into their frames. She was taken aback by the level of cleanliness in a house that had insulation and screens on the windows. In Bangladesh, you basically had to carry a broom everywhere you went. Without dirt, it felt so sterile, like a hospital.

The wooden floors were hypnotic; they caught the light in different places as she moved, and seemed to cater their form to her feet. Jane was used to cement that was cool and firm. She wondered if they had a butler, maids, and white chocolate fondue fountains that she had forgotten about.

“Did you remodel at all, while I was gone?”

“What are you talking about?” her mother said, and felt Jane’s forehead instinctively.

Jane moved around carefully inspecting the furniture and the walls like she was in a museum. She kept touching things. She was not sure where to sit.

Jane’s eyes widened the second she saw the dining table. It was covered in food: cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, salad, broccoli covered in cheese, cheesecake, every favorite food she had ever had while growing up.

“This cannot be normal American portion sizes!” she yelled. She didn’t trust her memory anymore.

“What? I didn’t know what to make you, so I made everything I know you like.”

Her nose not processing the feast in the room disturbed Jane; open sewers in the streets, burning trash, and sweaty pre-teens that hadn’t had the deodorant talk yet had dulled her sense of smell.

Jane wasn’t hungry but she felt the pressure to eat. Feeling her mother’s deep need for approval, she said, “This looks amazing, very thoughtful of you, thank you.”

Three days passed in a haze of eating, sleeping, and watching really bad television. When she woke up on the fourth day, boredom set in. She gave herself a once over and imagined her body bulging at her thighs, hips, belly, and upper arms. She could hear the forklift beeping as it lifted her up off the couch. “I have got to get out of this place.”

She decided it was time to call her best friend, Nia Lascaux. Nia was the kind of friend that made sure boys always asked Jane to dance at parties, used her social capital to squash rumors before they spread in high school, and drove seven hours across California to help her decorate her dorm room. She was also the only one to follow through with their promises of sending care packages to her with all sorts of American treasures.

Jane had wanted to call her sooner, but she didn’t want to hear, “What are you going to do now?”

Jane rested on her bed and let her eyes scan her walls. She had ribbons and awards from all her accomplishments laughing at her. Now she was a couch potato, no idea of the next step. Her work was her identity; now she was a lump in her mother’s house at twenty-three years old, already a failure.

Nia answered on the second ring.

“Hi. So happy to hear from you! How are you adjusting? What are your plans? Are you staying in California?” Nia’s high-spirited tone grated on Jane’s nerves.

“I don’t know. I feel like the rug has been pulled out on my life. It was so hard carving a routine there, I had just figured it out,” she said, as she hunched over.

On the following Saturday morning, Nia came over, her silky black hair running down her cute top and her green eyes glowing as she entered the living room and saw Jane in her sweatpants engulfed by the couch.

“Ok. It is time to get out of here, let’s get dressed.”

Nia pushed her out the door and they went to their favorite Japanese restaurant. As they drove, Jane stared out the window and had this sensation of a ghost town. It looked like humans had dominated every square inch of land with concrete and asphalt, only occasionally allowing a plastic-looking palm tree to grow and highlight the parking of the sea of mini-malls. Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries in the world. It was like a cushion of people at all times, rotating conversations, people huddled in circles, everyone waving and using their hands to communicate. Here in Fullerton, California it felt so desolate and lonely. A town sprouted in the shadow of nearby Disneyland. People walked by each other on the streets and were ignored. There was no sense of community. They looked afraid of each other, taking special attention to not cross paths or make eye contact. It was hard to believe they were so close to the happiest place on Earth.

“I can’t believe I missed your wedding. Where did you guys go for your honeymoon? I remember you saying something about Hawaii.” It hurt Jane to miss the wedding; she couldn’t believe Nia was getting married so young, but kept that opinion to herself.

“I wanted to go, but Dean hates traveling, we went to Santa Barbara for the weekend.”

“How is married life treating you?”

“It is great. Dean and I are so happy. Everything is getting comfortable now, that first year was rough as we learned to live together and compromise about everything. What about you? What happened to that guy you were seeing?”

Jane hated that this was where the conversation had gone so quickly.

“It didn’t work out. We weren’t serious or anything. It was too exhausting having to be so careful about being alone with a man in my apartment. I didn’t want it to be a scandal.”

“We need to get you dating.”

A pin-like pain erupted in Jane’s side. Like she was saying they needed to get her a new arm, a body part was missing from her because she didn’t have a boyfriend. She hesitated for fear of conflict with Nia, and then pushed herself. “Why do you think I need a boyfriend?”

“Not a boyfriend, dating, it will get you back in the game. It is a muscle, you need to work out your dating skills.”

“I need to find a job. It has been two weeks, I am just wasting my time.”

“Are you thinking about teaching here?”

“I can’t. I don’t have any official certifications. I don’t even know that what I did there counts for anything here.”

“You need to get settled, want me to help you set up a profile online? We can do it now on my phone.”

No, Jane thought. That is the last thing she wanted to deal with. She looked at her friend and said, “Sure. What picture should I use?”

Nia set up five dates for her over the next couple of weeks. It gave her something to do. She pushed for coffee dates, much easier to get away from in case it didn’t work out and cheap.

Her first date was at the café in downtown. She texted that she was there and saw a hand go up. He was a fair-looking, slightly pudgy man with glasses and gelled up hair. He was wearing a crisp superman blue-and-red shirt with jeans. Nothing, not a spark, Jane thought. She was relieved so she could be more comfortable talking with him without worrying about impressing him.

“Hi. I’m Topher. Nice to meet you.”

Jane noticed Topher had a comfort in himself, strong eye contact, firm handshake, and he sat up straight.

Topher had always lived in Southern California and was working the same job he had had since high school as a grocery shop cashier.

“The pay is so good with the unions. I don’t want to leave.”

“Do you like it?” Jane heard the judgment in her voice and winced.

He looked perplexed by the question as if that was something that had nothing to do with making a living. “I guess. It pays the bills.” He laughed and shrugged; there was lightness to his manner.

“Do you think you will be a lifer there?”

“I don’t know. Should I really have that figured out right now? I am only twenty-three. I got my degree in Communications, so it is open for me to do something else. I’m young, life is short, and the present is good.”

Topher started to let his gaze drift around the café, and sat further back in his chair. Jane noticed and didn’t care. Everyone had grilled her. Let someone else share in her turmoil over the future. His lack of worry was pissing her off. Why was he exempt from the pressures of the world?

There was a silence hanging loudly between them. Jane had to break it. “It kills me that I don’t know what my path is.”

“What are you doing now?” Topher asked, half-interested.

“I just came back from teaching English as a volunteer in Bangladesh.”

Topher looked like he had been shot with a stun gun, as if she had said she had studied to be an astronaut in Texas or single-handedly created a vaccine for some unknown disease.

Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “What was that like?” He seemed impressed and annoyed at the same time.

She stared at him blankly with images of starving children, people yellowed with jaundice, rice paddy fields, and bamboo huts flashing in her mind. This was the first time she had spoken with someone who hadn’t read her email tirades for the last two years. She wished she had a book written on her experience, so she could slam it on the table: “It’s better if you just read the book.”

“It was amazing. It was hard. It is a traditional Muslim country and that brought a lot of challenges. The pace of life was so much slower. I have never been so aware of what it means to be a woman.” She looked up to his completely glazed-over eyes. This was one of the few things Peace Corps had warned them about coming home, the inability for others to stay interested in listening about their travels. The people back home tended to squirm in their chairs like kindergartners. She fought the urge to slap their wrists with rulers and yell, “Pay attention!”

After several awkward pauses one longer than the next, Topher looked at his watch and said, “Well, hey, I have a friend I need to meet up with, it was nice meeting you.” He gave her a couple pats on the back as he left.

Jane sat at the café for two more hours, staring out the window ruminating in her thoughts. She hadn’t gotten good blank, gadget-free thinking time since being home. It felt marvelous.

Two weeks later, Jane was sitting and fighting with her interview clothes that she bought in a thrift store. She felt the impulse to stretch her sleeves, like her suit was condensing a size with every breath she took. Although the Muslim costume seemed inhibiting, you had to hand it over to them for figuring out comfort. She missed the light fabric. She felt like an imposter in a suit.

She chose to apply to this job because it was closest to the beach. The beach was an hour’s drive from her mother’s house and the one thing Jane loved about Southern California. Huntington Beach had waves perfect for body surfing, an ocean floor that didn’t have rocks or muddy spots, and a coast large enough that you could find a solitary spot easily. She did a geographical search and applied to every entry-level job she could find. Let the universe choose her path by whoever called her back.

She waited to speak with the Investment Sales Representative about the secretary position.

Jane was lost in a daydream of herself filing papers in a zen-like fashion when her interviewer entered and filled the room with his personality. This was the man that talked you into investing everything you had. Tristan Mackenzie, Esquire had slicked black hair, an expensive fitted suit and shiny cufflinks.

Jane was thinking of her last interview for a volunteer position in San Francisco.

She was so shaken and awkward the interviewer interrupted her mid-sentence, put her hand on her shoulder and said, “You are doing great, honey.”

She felt the difference her time in Asia had imprinted on her. She could handle the interview for a mindless job near the beach. That power had been earned.

Tristan asked questions with general introductions and she robotically answered, verifying and expanding on her experience. While she looked around his office of various monetary trinkets, expensive furniture, pictures on his desk of yachts and cars, Jane thought to herself, I could have his job. But did she want it? She sat up straighter and felt the power surge from her spine.

“Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.”

“While living with my host family I visited a leprosy hospital in the village and had dinner with some foreigners. I came home after dark and my whole host family was livid, my host sisters red-faced from tears. They screamed at me that the Taliban was in that village. It took me two weeks to mend the relations with them. A couple weeks later I moved out because of the pressure they gave me on knowing where I was at all times, but I still kept a good relationship with them because those connections are what keep you safe. When I was out past dark after that I used a rickshaw driver I knew, and made friends at checkpoints along the road and made sure everyone could see me say ‘hello’ each time I passed. They were my guardian angels. I never felt safe, but I knew how to appear safe and adapt to life there.”

Tristan just looked at her with his mouth open and seemed impressed for the rest of the interview.

Cynthia Shade was waiting outside. Jane felt her erect posture wilt as she greeted her mom.

The next day, she got a phone call from Tristan letting her know she got the job. The excitement was followed by a hollow pit of dread in Jane’s belly. She was already mourning the loss of her couch time. That was the crappy thing about jobs, you had to actually work.

Job, near the beach, that was the aim. Her first couple days on the job were exciting with being trained and learning the ropes. The fourth day she had everything down and stared at the clock for eight hours. Time hadn’t moved that slow since the power would go out and she would watch bugs fly in the puddles of sweat her body formed. She would will those fans to come back on focusing her attention on the blades, she would say, “You will move”.

After enduring a long bus ride home from work, she sat down at the computer to check her email. She still admired the lighting speed of the Internet connection in the U.S. She opened the email browser to a new email and a surge of fireworks began at her toes and exploded in her ears. With her heart pumping she clicked on the email with the subject line: Teaching Job in Bangkok.

She realized she could keep molding back into the American cookie-cutter life or jump out of the oven before her body hardened. She was going through the motions and had a strong sense of wasting time. She didn’t know what direction to choose, but living in California felt like a derailment.

Six weeks of turmoil and in three seconds she knew the next step.

The following morning Nia and Jane had plans to spend the day together. Jane decided to tell Nia first, to practice for the discussion with her mom.

Jane and Nia were sitting by the pool with their feet dangling at the surface. It was all Jane could think about, so she just blurted it out. “I’m going to take a teaching job in Thailand.”

“What? When did this happen?”

“I got the email last night. One of my friends from Peace Corps is teaching there and they are looking for another teacher.”

“So you don’t even have the job yet.” Nia’s shoulders moved closer to her ears as she spoke.

“If I don’t get that job, I will get another job there. It turns out there are a lot of job opportunities in Bangkok. I was up all night doing research.”

“Why don’t you go back to Bangladesh, then.”

“The political situation is all messed up, that is why we were evacuated in the first place. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was hoping they would send me to Thailand.”

Nia crinkled her forehead and said, “You don’t have the money for that. You just got home and I know it is difficult for you, but even when you come back from Thailand you will have to adjust back to life in the U.S. then, too.” You could see the anger in Nia’s face rise up like a thermometer. “How are you going to settle down with a guy if you are moving all over the place. We planned to have kids together.”

This set off a fire in Jane. “In the fifth grade we talked about that. I don’t even know if I want kids at all, what is with you. I’m not like you. You are tied down by your marriage, I don’t want to compromise, I want to do whatever I want, whenever I want.” She felt empowered and light from finally being honest with her friend.

Nia moved backward as if she had been hit. “I am free to do whatever I want.”

“Why don’t you travel?” Jane blurted out without thinking.

“That is the normal childhood dream, as an adult I feel like I need to have responsibilities. You are just running away because you don’t know what you want to do with your life. I can’t just throw money away like you do.” Nia started kicking the water in frustration.

“I feel it in my bones. I need to go to Thailand.”

They heard a slam on the table behind them; they turned around and saw Cynthia with a platter of snacks spread out across the table and her eyes ablaze.

Nia and Jane both jumped up away from the pool.

“Running to Thailand?” Cynthia said this through clamped-down teeth, like her jaw had been wired shut.

“Mom, why don’t you sit down.”

“Are you leaving me again? You are finally safe now. You had to leave the country because people wanted to hurt the volunteers.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.

“Mom, you know this isn’t working out for me. I am unhappy. I am not done living abroad yet.”

“I have done nothing but take care of you for the last couple of weeks, I gave you whatever you wanted. This is how you repay me?”

“I didn’t ask for all of this. A random political group was throwing around threats, my volunteer program closed, and I was just thrown here.”

Her mom starts wailing. “I’m sorry that I make you so miserable.”

Jane could see what was happening, her mother was trying to be her puppet master and Jane was ready to cut the strings.

“I love you both, but I need to be me and make myself happy.” She left the two of them staring at the pool and went for a walk around the park, her victory lap.

After two weeks of silent treatment and awkward conversations with Nia and her mom, Jane’s readjustment allowance arrived in the mail, two-thousand-and-five-hundred beautiful pieces of freedom. She got the job in Thailand and sent all of her immigration paperwork into the consulate. She bought her ticket for Bangkok that day.

Jane purchased an open-ended ticket for Nia and put it in an envelope and shoved it under her best friend’s door. Hopefully, she would come visit Bangkok in the next year. She wanted Nia to realize her lack of traveling was not a financial issue, but her fear of the unknown.

Jane also grabbed a class catalog from the local community college and highlighted some classes for her mother to consider in the fall. The Post-it note on the front read, “You are an excellent caretaker, I think you could really help people, use your time now to go back to school like you have always dreamed of. I know you will make a phenomenal nurse. Thank you for everything. I love you so much.” She put all of the completed registration forms inside the catalog.

She took her luggage and left without saying goodbye. She didn’t want to help other people deal with her leaving, that was for them to figure out.

Twelve hours later, her plane touched the beautiful land of Siam. The nuns from the Catholic school were waiting for her at the airport. They were two tiny elderly women dressed in all-white. They were shy and kept smiling. They bowed and greeted her with a “Sawat dee ka.”

Jane bowed back and said, “Sawat dee ka.” The first Thai words out of her mouth tasted good.

On the drive to the private condo, they passed massive Buddhist temples covered in gold, red, and green tiles. Jane couldn’t stop taking pictures. She knew the tourist feeling would wear off quickly.

When they arrived at her apartment, Jane face was already sore from smiling. The nuns showed her to her room. They had filled her fridge with groceries and showed her how to use the cable TV. It was a small studio apartment and she did three circles with her arms spread out and her feet kicking behind her. It was her space.

Another foreign teacher came in to introduce herself. She had just arrived a month ago from Nebraska.

“Do you know how long you are going to stay here?” Omaha-girl said as she moved to the window to check out Jane’s view of the lake.

Jane spread herself out over her new bed and flayed out her arms and legs as if she were trying to make an angel in snow.

“No idea,” she said, and then laughed. Everything felt open and possible.

“I haven’t done much teaching before. I think I want to be a teacher when I go back to Nebraska. What about you, is education your career?”

“Maybe.” And for the first time, not knowing felt like freedom and not a prison.

pencilSusan Shiney is a writer, painter, and teacher living outside of Bordeaux, France. She received her Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is originally from California and frequently misses the incredible weather. She has taught English in Bangladesh, Thailand, New York City, and now France. She loves learning languages, but hates having to speak them. Email: susanshiney[at]gmail.com

Blue Door, Dry Spell, Sinking Elliott

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Anais Jay


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

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

Elliott was talking to her over the phone when that happened in the province. He supposed this fact made meeting with her in person a necessity. She needed an explanation. Soon after his summer trip ended, they agreed to meet in Makati City.

Natasha’s now-red hair fell over her shoulder in a loose braid. Any other day, he’d have joked about how the color made the freckles scattered across her face look like a side-effect of an allergy. He smiled at her instead, knowing this was not a good time to pretend she wasn’t scowling at him. “They’re not handing Nicky over to me,” he said. “Not yet. Or maybe never. But Nicky told me he’d like to stay with me until college.”

She leaned over the table. “Elli, you may be great with caring for spoiled children—“

“You weren’t spoiled, Nash,” he said.” You were bossy. Rich kids are prone to be bossy by nature. And you’re not bossy now anyway.”

“So you’re saying I dropped the attitude because I became broke?”

“Nash.”

“I was bitchy at twelve, admit it. And any sane eighteen-year-old would’ve dropped me off in the middle of nowhere to go make out with his girlfriend,” she said. “Dad would’ve believed you had you told him I ran away. The guy trusts you. But you didn’t drop me off in the middle of nowhere. And now you want to be Nicky’s legal guardian? I was like that because I was ignorant. He’s like that because he’s in pain. He’s way worse than I was. I see it in your face every time you mention his name.”

*

He’d heard stories from his cousins, but the enormity of the responsibility hadn’t occurred to him until he came by the house to fetch Nicky. The end of March, hot enough to scald his lungs with each inhale, only signaled the start of the Philippines’ hottest summer. Worries about heatstroke and insufficient ventilation in both private and public schools forced the Department of Education to end the school year one week early. This, for Elliott, meant begging his boss to transfer his leave to an earlier date.

He sat slouched on the torn couch, listening to his elder cousins gasp and make exaggerated remarks on their experiences with Nicky. The three dysfunctional electric fans, accompanied by the heat and the house’s claustrophobic ambiance, amplified his escalating horror of spending a two-week vacation with Nicky.

Apparently, the ten-year-old boy couldn’t last a day without making one person cry. This talent of his knew no age limit. Both adult and toddler fell for his defiant attitude, which he defended was his innocent attempt at making friends. Based on the stories Elliot heard in the past two hours and sixteen minutes, though, Nicky was more likely making enemies.

Elliott’s cousins, however, couldn’t give him up to social services. Their financial troubles certainly called for it, but they loved Nicky’s parents too much to be so cruel. Besides, he suspected they enjoyed the financial support all their relatives sent them for Nicky’s sake.
As they were complaining about Elliott’s infrequent visits to their nephew, their uncle’s pick-up truck pulled up in front of the house. He stood to help, but the eldest of his cousins told him to stay put. “This is routine,” she told him while fanning herself with a dog-eared bridal magazine. “It’s simply one of the many things guardians have to cope with. I can’t believe Uncle Jackie is taking him away from us to shove into your arms! You’re only twenty-seven!”

Defending his maturity made him worry of sounding like Natasha, so he merely returned to his spot on the couch and answered with a smile. With all their complaining he was surprised they weren’t treating him like a savior.

“I’m home!” The crutch tips entered the house first, then his braced leg, followed by the rest of Nicky. “Uncle Elliott! Tang ina! Am I leaving today?”

“Excited?” he asked.

“Hell yeah!” He grinned at his aunts. “Finally!”

Uncle Jackie put a stop to the brewing commotion simply by entering the house, leaning against the front door, and lighting his cigarette. From the angry aunts to Nicky, his gaze travelled to Elliott’s face and rested there. His tired eyes reminded Elliott of bad days. “Clean up well at his parents’ house, will ya?”

After much reprimanding and chaotic packing, Elliot managed to place Nicky in his car and drive towards Batangas. Remembering the energetic waving of his cousin’s hands as they said their goodbyes made him smile as he glimpsed Nicky from the rearview mirror. He’d never know for sure whether they wanted this kid or not.

Nicky maxed the air conditioning system and lounged on the backseat. “When are you adopting me, Uncle Elli?”

“I’m not really adopting you, kid. Your aunts and uncles—the good ones—simply want to transfer you to my care.”

“The good side of the family.” He pressed the flat of his good foot against the window. “Why?”

“They want you to stay with someone you like. Please put your foot down.”

He didn’t. “I like you?”

His high-pitched voice made Elliott laugh in spite of the traffic in Edsa. “They assumed that’s the case. That isn’t the case?”

“That isn’t the case,” he said. “You didn’t even attend my birthday party. I was stuck with stupid children my age and adults who don’t really care about me. Where were you?”

His girlfriend had phoned him that day to take her to the hospital. It wasn’t spotting, she insisted. She was having a miscarriage. Of course, he couldn’t tell that to a child. He had no choice but to lie. Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to punish his boss.

One question rolled in after another. What was the name of his boss? What did he even do for a living? Sell cars? Did that mean he had twenty cars of his own? If so, he’d like to live with Elliott. How about Elliott’s girlfriend? He had one, didn’t he? A single drive to the province gave him sufficient time to retell his life story, excluding private matters like his car accident at eighteen years old, his girlfriend’s personal dilemma, and even Natasha. For some reason, mentioning her to anybody made him feel as though he was acknowledging a part of his life he’d rather keep to himself.

The sound of rain against the car revived his awareness. The sky had switched from solid blue to a mix of pink and orange. Low, grey clouds swept in to blur the dividing line between day and night. The car traversed the narrow and muddy road to Nicky’s old house. The silhouettes of trees lining their path appeared to bend low in acknowledgement of Nicky’s return. The swaying electrical lines and continual flashes of light from nearby houses seemed to do the same for him.

As the house’s caretaker—an old man covered in a neon pink raincoat that obviously belonged to his daughter—dragged the bamboo gates inwards to let them through, Elliott held the steering wheel still for a moment to glimpse Nicky. The boy had fallen asleep and was now drooling on the seat cushion.

Elliott told him what a damn lucky boy he was.

Nicky opened one eye and then the other. “Do I look funny, Uncle Elli?”

“That brave face? Funny? Of course not!”

“Why are you smiling like that?”

“You just remind me of someone.”

*

That someone. He’d only seen Natasha once after their first encounter, at a restaurant while he was having lunch out with his colleagues near her college. She’d been with three other girls on a queue to the right of his queue, and just as they had the first time they met after eight years, they caught each other’s eye and Elliott approached her.

They might’ve exchanged numbers afterwards in a promise to keep in touch, but neither had sent the other a message in the months succeeding their second encounter. He supposed that was why he hesitated before answering her call while he and Nicky were having lunch of salted eggs, tomatoes, barbeque, and rice.

Elliott licked his fingers clean and debated whether or not he should risk staining his new phone. He put the call on loudspeaker. Nicky simply looked at him over his food, waiting for the caller to speak.

“Elliott,” she said. “Lukas is planning to buy a car and I told him I’ll ask your opinion.”

The lack of polite but awkward greetings took him aback for a moment. “Men who say they’ll buy a car are usually sure of what they want. Unless, of course, it’s a family car. Then yes, he’ll need expert advice.”

There was a hissing on her end. “Your jokes, they’re—how should I say it without hinting how much I want to chase you with a sharp object?”

Elliott laughed for Nicky’s sake. The boy had been somber since waking up in his hometown. One of them needed to act normal. “Romantic?” he said.

“Where are you?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“I’m serious about asking your opinion on cars. My boyfriend is an impulsive buyer.”

“We can talk about it over the phone. My hands are tied right now. Chaperoning my nephew—just to be clear. You’re on loudspeaker.”

“Where in the world are you chaperoning?”

“Batangas. The sea is a fantastic view in the morning,” he said, wiping his hands on his wet swimming trunks and putting the phone next to his ear. “Is everything okay with you?”

Her voice muffled and disappeared as the call got disconnected altogether. A local fishing boat appeared from the sea’s horizon, stealing Nicky’s attention. The laughter of children with sandy hair and deep brown skin echoed from the shore in front of a green-fenced property owned by a politician. The squawk of a bird and the shifting of the floating hut as it rode the waves reminded him this wasn’t the best place to hold phone conversations.

*

After their conversation earlier that day, he realized his father wasn’t lying when he said real friendships didn’t rust in the face of time and distance. That he’d experience such friendship with the girl who used to be only as tall as his elbow was beyond him. It seemed the years, combined with their current financial equality, made it easier to relate to one other.

Perhaps it was too obvious that he was thinking about her, because the soonest he and Nicky finished shopping (or he finished shopping while Nicky sat with the house’s caretaker in his vegetable stall) in the dry market and buckled themselves in the car, Nicky said, “Her voice is like mom’s.”

“You leg hurts?” He lowered the radio to hear him above Up Dharma Down’s “Oo.” “Stop scratching under the splint. It’ll—“

“I said ‘her voice is like mom’s!’”

Elliott gawked at him while he tried to recall which among the many women they encountered that day he was talking about. Exposure to eccentric phrases such as ‘anla pa’ and ‘ano ga’ also made it more difficult to put names on faces.

Nicky hit the back of the driver’s seat. “The woman on the phone!”

“Natasha?”

“Mom’s voice was like that,” he said, suddenly solemn. “Quiet. And kinda hoarse. Just like your friend’s.”

“Yeah. Now that I think about it, your mom’s always been softspoken.” He reclined the driver’s seat and stretched his arms overhead, tired from lifting heavy bags of groceries. Turning, he saw Nicky watching him. ”Hey, you’ve been a little down since we arrived at Matabungkay. Are you sure you’re all right with being back in your old house and packing your parents’ stuff? Just tell me and I’ll take care of it on my own for you.”

“I’m okay.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ve got to give them their stuff when they’re back, right? But I don’t understand why Dad’s selling our house. Where will we stay when Dad’s back from Kuwait and Mom’s back from London?”

“…we’ll have to think about that when they’re here, won’t we?”

“Does Dad even know you’re going to be, like, my new father?”

Elliott’s lack of response prompted him to continue.

“Because if he doesn’t, we have to tell him. I don’t care if he’s busy with his other family. So does Mom. She has to know I’m transferring to another relative again.”

Elliott wondered if Nicky’s parents even cared to know. Theirs was a classic case of abandonment. No warnings, no explanations. They simply transferred money to Uncle Jackie’s bank account and gave him instructions to care for their son.

The month prior to vacation, he and Elliott had stayed up late drinking beer and discussing Nicky’s situation. Uncle Jackie admitted he tried to stop them—sterner on Maria than Romeo—from working abroad. He was sure they were simply looking for a way to escape the mistake of their youth and the resulting obligation that bound them for years.

“That’s a good thought,” Elliott said. “I’ll give them a call once we return to the city. Sounds good?”

“That’s good enough. Now let’s go home fast. I’m starving. Cook a delicious dinner for me, okay?”

He set up the living room and prepared the couch for Nicky before heading to the kitchen. Nicky’s cast was due to be removed in five weeks, but he didn’t like to take chances. He plugged in one of Andrew E.’s movies and annoyed Nicky when he blocked the television while slipping pillows underneath his broken leg. Amidst Nicky’s complaints, Elliott reminded him to take plenty of rest and to call him for anything he may need. The boy, eyes suddenly wet, grimaced and muttered, “Fine.”

Elliott experienced his first nightmare that night.

*

Natasha returned to the armchair across from him and slipped her phone into her pocket. Curling on the chair, she pulled the cuffs of her knitted sweatshirt over her hands and motioned to his coffee. “Two things: don’t waste my money, and that’s good coffee.”

“Sorry.” He took a sip, noting how he distorted the coffee art of a bicycle in the process, and transferred his gaze to the downpour outside. It was a storm similar to this one that reunited them eight months ago. “We have a thing for storms, don’t we?”

“You’re only catching up on it now?”

“I’m guessing by your frown that your conversation with Lukas didn’t end well.”

“It did,” she said. “Doesn’t give me enough reason to be happy, though. Anyway, what were you telling me about that nightmare?”

He refrained from asking her if she was okay and instead followed her lead. “Logically, it wasn’t a nightmare.”

Natasha drank her coffee and switched to water. “Why’d you call it a nightmare?”

“I suppose it scared me enough to deserve to be called a nightmare.”

“Did you dream about having ten children, all of whom were crying in one nursery while a woman who’s supposed to be your wife is giving birth to twins?”

“Family jokes, huh?”

“Family jokes,” she said with a smirk, proud of herself. “C’mon, spit it out already.”

Elliot turned his hands palm-up and leaned back on the armchair. “It was just about me walking in this building that I know—for some strange reason—I built. The corridors are carpeted and the end of the hall has this boring square window. Fish paper instead of glass. Very traditional-looking. And the doors are blue with peepholes and silver three-digit numbers on them. And while I was passing by, I was memorizing who lived in which room. Relatives. Friends. But there’s this room at the end that doesn’t have a number or… an owner. A tenant. Whatever that person should be. I woke up parched and just feeling dry and stiff but at the same time like I was sinking in some part of the sea. I thought maybe I took warnings against the summer heat too lightly. But that was my only available time for Nicky and we had to sort his parents’ stuff. I thought of too many things at once. I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

Natasha held the rim of her cup against her lower lip. “That’s a… cute nightmare. Blue door, dry spell, sinking Elliott? Maybe it will help to pinpoint which part really got to you?”

“I thought it was just the effect of leaving the city. But I wasn’t convinced. That’s why it’s frightening,” he said, rather loudly. “Because I can’t pinpoint which part of it frightens me.”

*

If he were to guess, though, what frightened him most was its effect on him.

Their itinerary for their second day consisted of eating nothing but grilled meat, and listening to Nicky’s playlist of strictly screamo songs while they sorted out his parents’ belongings. Uncle Jackie planned to sell the furniture along with the house, which narrowed their task to exploring closets and drawers for private possessions.

The first closet they opened contained Maria’s clothes. The dust made him turn away to sneeze. He wanted to leave Maria’s things for last, but Nicky eyed the dresses with such longing that he couldn’t close the closet on his face.

He helped Nicky sit on the bed. “Your mom’s my best cousin—” tugging the dresses free from the hangers and piling them on his left arm. “—she stormed into my house the second she found out my mom left me and my father, and she embraced me and cried. Until now I can’t understand why your mother was so sad. So I cried with her, because I thought it must’ve been that bad that my cousin had to cry for what happened to me and Pops—my dad. I call him Pops.”

“Pops? That’s lame.”

“It’s cool.”

“It makes you sound sentimental. Like a girl kind of sentimental.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s my way of showing Pops that I love him.”
Nicky folded the dresses Elliott put beside him. The boy’s sullen expression made him regret ever mentioning anything about his parents. Elliott unzipped a brown travel bag and dropped some of the folded clothes inside. “Did your aunts teach you to fold clothes? You’re pretty good at that.”

“Uncle Elli, why’d your mother leave you?”

“She and Pops didn’t get along well. The one wanted adventure, the other wanted stability.”

“Which one stayed with you?”

“Stability did,” he said. “Pops did.”

“Neither stayed with me.”

He tossed a dress to Nicky’s face. “We stayed with you. Your aunts, uncles, and cousins.”

“But that doesn’t change a thing,” he said, head bowed and fingers fumbling the buttons of a polka-dot dress. “Everybody’s been avoiding talking about her since she left me. And I really miss her.”

“Why didn’t you say so much earlier?”

Nicky blinked at him, looking torn between throwing a fit and crying.

Elliott chuckled and ruffled his hair. “I spent a lot of time with her as a child. I have plenty to tell you.”

They spent the entire afternoon going from room to room, opening drawers and packing clothes left in termite-infested closets while sharing what they remembered of Nicky’s parents. Cruel as Maria and Romeo had been to Nicky, Elliott felt the need to give him something to hold onto while he was young. The years would smear their distant images, similar to the way the image of Elliott’s mother had smeared in his memories. The lack of talk and photographs did nothing to help the rising ache of Elliott’s curiosity. Or was it the pang of betrayal that hurt him? Because he remembered Maria but couldn’t even tell if his own mother had straight or curly hair.

The second nightmare happened that night. He’d been lucky not to have hit Nicky when he jolted, especially because the boy had been curled up next to him on the bed. The banging of the balcony’s wooden sliding doors worsened his headache, so he decided to leave them open wide enough to lessen the noise.

The moon glowed faintly behind the clouds. The crash of each wave intensified the pulsating in his temples, and the whisper of the water’s retreat lugged with it his calm. Elliott closed his eyes and tried to overpower his panic with the sound of traffic—of cars zooming past the street below his apartment—and of footsteps and keys echoing in the corridor. But the province’s silence blocked the formation of these familiar images and sounds. It kept dragging him back to his dream, where this time he was standing in front of the vacant room’s door, knocking, expecting the nobody that was somebody to answer.

He didn’t start calling people until the following morning, when he and Nicky were back on the floating hut. Elliott had covered Nicky’s cast with two plastic bags and brought pillows to let the boy rest on the built-in wooden bench.

A hut owned by a family of eight floated past theirs. They waved and offered plates of liempo, paella, and sinigang. Elliott traded their packed lunch of menudo and grilled chicken and shared a bottle of beer with the older men in the family.

They asked about Nicky, who chose to hide his face in a book about school jokes, and kept his cast propped on pillows. With the chances of him interacting with strangers being slim, Elliott made up an excuse to push their hut back to shore and return home earlier than planned. The last thing he wanted was to divulge strangers with confidences. He knew how awkward it could get when people questioned the absence of a parent or—in Nicky’s case—parents. Just the idea of putting logic in abandonment was suffocating.

*

He felt outright suffocated by the time he was watching an animated series with Nicky. He excused himself and dialed his father’s number first. The conversation was brief: how are you? How are you coping with Nicky? To his father, he asked if the family he was driving for treated him kindly. Somewhere between comparing the families Pops had drive for in his life, they segued to Natasha’s family. That was when Elliott admitted to having encountered Natasha late the previous year. He hadn’t asked about Natasha’s father, Sir Edgar, but he promised to ask for Pop’s sake. Pops loved Sir Edgar like a brother. Elliott felt guilty for telling him about Natasha without news of Sir Edgar.

He scrolled down his phone’s contact records. Next he called Jake, his college friend. They discussed Elliott’s decision to resign from work and take the bar exam. “Get a license. You’d be better of working as an engineer than a car dealer. Everybody knows you’ve been unhappy with it for a while. Although, they do remember to mention you’re good at hiding it. Which is bullshit, because it’s not a compliment, Elli, it’s an insult.”

Much contemplation and sweating came with the effort to call Adrienne two days later. She answered the call on the last ring and said, “Yes?” Elliott made a final attempt to change her mind about their cool off. No, he didn’t mind that she had had a miscarriage. He didn’t mind that she cheated on him while she was on a business trip in Hong Kong. It hadn’t even occurred to him to ask if the baby was even his. He kept on repeating that he understood. He swore he did. Adrienne ended their argument with a request he’d heard before: leave me alone.

*

They spent their first two weeks there maintaining this routine. They got up at ten in the morning, settled in their floating hut, ate brunch of salted eggs, grilled meat, and fruits, and read books until one in the afternoon. Before pulling the floating hut back to shore, Elliott would swim to the coral reef to take in the view of the rest of the sea, and swim back to carry Nicky home.

Both naturally tan, they weren’t surprised when they took a picture to send Uncle Jackie and received a comment an hour later that they’d both gotten so much darker they could be mistaken for charcoal. He and Nicky laughed at each other’s sunburnt faces afterwards, having failed to notice this change for themselves due to their preoccupation with the paperbacks Nicky’s parents left behind.

Elliott took this opportunity to ask Nicky why he preferred to spend his summer this way.. Nicky merely picked his nose with a scowl, moving his pinky finger as though picking through his brain, and answered that his parents always spent summers doing the same thing day after day. “It’s never been exciting living with them, so I guess that’s why they wanted to start a new life somewhere. Can people just do that, Elliott? Will you ever do that to someone?”

He smiled at him and asked what he wanted to do for the remainder of the summer. “You’ll get bored, eventually, and we still have two more weeks to go.”

“Eh? I thought you had to get back to work soon?”

“Nah. I like it here. And this will be our last chance to enjoy this place before it gets sold.”

*

He called Natasha at sundown. While he listened to the endless ringing, he closed his eyes to push back his nausea. Last night’s nightmare progressed to the point that the blue door of the vacant room had parted, and he’d seen there was a nobody inside.

Natasha greeted him with a story of how her illustration for a children’s book won an award at her college. The prize money was five digits. She’d have enough to pay her electric bill. Elliott congratulated her and expressed his amusement at problems he never thought she’d have. Somewhere between cutting her short to tell her about his mother and her inquiries about his aloofness, the image of the sky and the sea before him blended and turned into night.

*

“Nicky saw me collapse. He tripped a number of times on his way to the caretaker’s cottage to get help, which got the both of us hospitalized for two days. Uncle Jackie and Pops weren’t happy about it—who would be? Nicky and I were like helpless children.” He lowered his cup of coffee as he laughed at the memory of them in the hospital. “Nicky’s broken leg got worse. He blamed me and we got into a fight and I made him cry. Imagine me making a ten-year-old boy cry! I surprised even myself! Doctor said I was fatigued and stressed. Pops thought it was heat stroke. I was lucky I only had a rat-shaped bruise on my upper right shoulder from colliding with a chair. I realized if I hadn’t hit the chair, I could’ve cracked my skull on the edge of the nearby table instead. It was a blessing in disguise. Gave me a good reason to slack off my responsibilities, too, and spend the rest of April idling on the beach. One time, Nicky actually thanked me for just fainting. He ran because he thought I was dying. Apparently, he knew the entire time that I’d been having nightmares.”

The rumblings of the thunderstorm and the chatter of faceless customers filled the gaps where Natasha’s jokes and Elliott’s responses fit. They stretched that gap by staring at each other for a while, quiet.

The café lost electricity. The customers groaned and threw complaints at the café staff. As the generator kicked in and the light flickered and an old Tagalog song blared on and off the speakers, Natasha finished her coffee, put her cup down, and said, “You still miss your mother, don’t you?”

pencilAnais Jay is a 20-year-old freelance writer residing in the Philippines. She produces content for clients in America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and contributes fiction and non-fiction works to both local and international publications. Her goal in life is to shoot people with words and endless outbursts of mad art. Visit her at PapelKo.

Our Happiest of Places

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
David Thom


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

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

I cannot remember clearly how it happened, I don’t know if what I remember is right. I suppose all memories are like that, remain like that; they don’t belong to the time they happened, they belong to us. I remember rain, lots of rain and a little boy with his father and a pleasure I cannot remember happening since—if it has, it hasn’t stayed in my mind.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there!” I yelled back at my father, letting go of his hand.

“Ok, son, slow down though, eh? These rocks are slippery so be careful, and don’t go too far,” my father shouted back (he always emphasised the be).

“Yes, Dad,” I shouted back happily with a smirk from under my baseball cap.

We had been coming to the same place for summer holidays since before I can remember. That year my dad took me fishing for the first time. No fancy boats or lessons. No apps or internet to tell you the best places to go; this was the eighties. It was just me and my dad, off the wild rocks on the outrageous North Atlantic coast with two rods and a bag of feathers. Mackerel were our prey. I remember wanting nothing more than to bring some home to an expectant and, I think that day, proud mother. When I think of childhood memories, spending countless hours on those rocks with my father and then on my own when I was a teenager, I see them as gloriously happy and sunny times. But like all the childhood memories I have of those holidays in west Cork, they are distorted by the artistry of the heart, turned poetic by passing time. But I like to think not that night. That night was and has stayed ferociously happy in my memory. It was grey when we left our holiday house and raining by the time we got to the rocks but we didn’t care. Like all good Irish men we already had our raincoats on. I was still young but had a lifetime of rain already. My father who couldn’t even light his pipe anymore looked like a drowned rat. He waited patiently so I could, as I would retell the story in later years, pull a leviathan from the sea.

“Come on, son, time to go. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Ahhhh, just one more, Dad, pleeeeeease?” I said, pulling my line in. Without waiting for permission, I threw it into the sea again, further I thought than I had done the whole evening. I focused as my rod bent with the retreating waves as it had done every time that wet evening. I watched with life-depending intensity but this time, oh no, not this time… it didn’t straighten! My dad was already dismantling his rod when I roared, “Dad, Dad, look I have one! I have one!”

“It’s probably just caught in the weeds,” he said as the rain dripped off his nose.

“No, no, come ‘ere I can feel it wriggling it must be a fish it has to be a fish come on and feel it!”

My father duly obliged. He took the rod and felt its weight and lo and behold declared, “You’re right son you have one on the line there. Now don’t panic.” He bent down to my level and handed the rod back to me, my heart racing. “Reel it in nice and slow like I showed you. That’s it, good boy.”

After a few adrenaline-pumped seconds I could see it glimmering through the water, wildly leaping to get off my feathers. But, alas, this was to be that mackerel’s last day in the foam of the North Atlantic and it was the first day I would bring dinner home to my mother.

We gutted it right there on the rocks, my dad showing me how to break its neck. He held his rough, scale-covered hands around mine as he pulled his penknife down its belly, the tobacco grinds from his pipe mixing with blood and fish guts as he thrust my fingers to pull its insides out. I was awestruck at the wonder of it all. I was a master of life in that moment, the only fisherman. We carefully climbed back up the rocks, my hand in his. I loved him so much in that moment. I felt like a champion, as if life would never be as good as this again. At home my mother grilled it with lemon, parsley, and garlic and I ate the whole thing, chips on the side, too. It was the greatest moment so far of my short life. But most of all in that place, that night I was my father’s son.

*

It’s different now, though. My parents live there now, not in the same house we rented for another twenty-odd summers after that night but just down the road. They live in a beautiful house surrounded by rolling violet-and-green wild hills that change colour every day. They are happy there. They can sit at their kitchen table and off in the distance watch the haze of the Atlantic crash on the shore. It is a million miles from the dreary suburban monotony of most of my childhood, the one that dominates my memory. It is, my mother says, the only place they can live, because it is the place she says, “where we have always been happiest.”

Those words linger in mind. “Where we have always been happiest.” They stay there at the front of mind; I can feel them pressing against my forehead. By ‘we’ she means all of us, even me and my sister. She imposes her happy memories on me. I am selfish and I know it but I cannot stop it. Those memories, hers and mine, stay there now especially as I return home again. Not to my childhood home, but to their home, their happy place. I am returning home because my mother needs me. My father is ill. It is the summer and my mother is all alone in her happiest of places. I am a teacher, no work for months, I have no excuse so I come home.

Other memories come back to me as well as I land at the airport. The way we used to drive down here from Dublin—it took seven hours back then, stopping for elevenses and lunch, always a picnic. That was before they built the motorways, of course. It still takes my parents that long to drive the same route though. Age slowing them down. I can see my sister and me fighting in the back seat, despising each other’s existence as only a brother and sister can. And I can see myself, a little boy, blonde hair, anticipating the two weeks ahead, the adventure, the beaches, ice creams and fish and chips. But most of all the break from my real life, of the long, grey, friendless summer that each holiday was a long-awaited break from. I was a shy child, introverted. I can see flashes of cheese and tomato sandwiches with dry crusts, flasks of tea and beakers of milk, the car stuffed with food and suitcases. My parents arguing and making up. The rain, the sun, the wandering western sea.

But as I walk through arrivals a more recent memory does not become reality. I am on my own, no girlfriend, no wife. Just me. Strangers embrace their returning sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and I am sick, sick with envy. I look around for my father, but as with when you wake in the blissful few seconds before you remember the awful thing that happened the day before, the memory of why he is not here comes flooding back. I walk on past strangers’ heartfelt reveries. Even if he was here I think to myself there would be no outwards show of emotion. Only a solemn hand shake and a ‘how are you?’ The silence in the car would eventually be broken by small talk about the football and asking for the hundredth time how my flight was. To an onlooker it might seem that we are strangers, but it’s our own way. In those words that have never been spoken, if you look close enough are, “I love you son it’s good to have you home,” and “I love you too, Dad.” But not this time. This time I buy a pack of cigarettes and head for the rental cars.

I haven’t been back for a while, more than a year, and now I’m going to spend the entire summer here. That thought hits me as I am driving down the dual carriageway and I break into a sweat and pull in at a service station. It’ll be me all alone with my mother who will be worrying herself into an early grave before my father goes. My sister can’t come, not yet. She lives in Australia now and the kids are still in nappies. She’s going to wait and see how ‘things play out.’ Those are her words by the way, not mine. That’s how she describes her response to her father’s impending death. She is her father’s daughter if nothing else.  I, on the other hand, didn’t get that far away from Ireland. England is as far as I went. Originally London and now Reading because I can’t afford London. How clichéd is that? Irish, both kids emigrated: Australia and England. I’ll be telling you my name is Patrick next. My girlfriend decided to take the news of my father’s impending death as a chance for us to ‘spend time apart,’ ‘a break’ she called it, so we ‘can grow.’ I told her that if she was that cold and had so little emotion in the face of a man about to lose his father we must already be related. “But Patrick you don’t even like your dad!” she said as I packed to leave. An accusation I denied, of course.

“Of course I do, he’s just my dad that’s all, and we’re not supposed to get along. Anyway, how would you know what it’s like?” I retorted. She had never known her father and any chance of reconciliation when or if I returned died with those words.

But now here I am sipping on a Styrofoam cappuccino from a machine on my way to a place I don’t want to be. I know how my mother will be. She will momentarily switch her worry from Dad to me, worrying about my job, my lack of a girlfriend and things like if I have a pension yet. Then reality will strike her again, and the thought that soon she will be alone, alone in her happiest of places will flood her mind and she will be silent.  I’m smoking as I get a text from her, she is going to the hospital to see “your father—meet you there?” I know it probably took her five minutes to write that text. ‘Ok’ is all I can write back.

*

He is much frailer than the last time I saw him. His hair is all grey and much thinner. He was a big man in his pomp but now he seems so much smaller, the disease that is taking him has devoured him already. ‘There’s not much left’ I think. But whether I am referring to him or time I don’t know. He is sleeping with a tube up his nose, one of those tubes that has two more sticking up the nostrils. I can hear his breath wheezing up and down. Nothing new there, though. In a quiet room full of people you could always hear my father breathing; it was like that for most of my adult life, the result of a lifelong dedication to tobacco. I stand there watching him sleep. He is much worse than my mother had told me on the phone. I suddenly feel her hand on my shoulder and we hug. She leads me out of the room to the canteen and we sit in the plastic wooden chairs, depressed sad-looking people everywhere, including us. I’m surprised it has a canteen, it’s a tiny hospital. I hate the place already.

‘How are you?’ she asks, how’s so-and-so? The job etcetera… etcetera… blah blah.

I cut her off. “Mum,” I say with purpose. “Why didn’t you tell me how sick he is?” and with that I can see the tears in her eyes. The anxiety is eating her.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was this bad, Mum?”

“I didn’t to want to worry you is all, Patrick. I know you broke up with your girlfriend and you’re not having a great time at work, Patrick, I just wanted to…” she trailed off, crying hard. Mums are like that, though, aren’t they? Their world will literally be falling apart and they will be worried about you. She was never good at taking care of herself, my mum. She knows I tell my sister more than I tell her. She knows my sister tells her more than she tells me. Even though they live thousands of miles apart, telling my sister anything is the quickest way for my mother to find out.

There is a long silence before she speaks again. “He won’t wake up again today, love, let’s go home and have a nice cup of tea. I think I just need a nice cup of tea and I’ll be fine.” All the world’s problems, all you need is a cup of tea.

“Ok, mum, I’ll follow you.”

She smiled and left. As she walked out, I walked back into my father’s room and sat beside him. I watched his face, his big nose pointed up in the air, his chest struggling up and down. I don’t cry anymore or can’t, I’m not sure which. But there watching him, so helpless, I felt them coming, stinging my eyes. I touched his hand. In years past he would have physically pulled himself away from any non-essential physical contact with me, with another man. He had reduced us to airport handshakes and man-hugs. But now he could not resist. I had a sudden urge to hold his hand and so that is what I did. My mind focused on a vision of his mother, my granny, years ago, older than he is now, and dead in a hospital bed. I remember feeling how tragic it was. Her own husband, my grandfather, had died years before and she had lived all alone in her big house for years. I didn’t feel bad that she was dead, she had a long life, most of it happy. But I felt sick with guilt that she was all alone when she died. It had been sudden and we couldn’t get there in time. All I felt was guilt. Not so much that she was alone when she left this world, but that I was not there. The two things are different. One is remorse, one is selfishness.  I resolve there and then that I will not let that happen to my father and when he is gone, to my mother.

*

We find ourselves at their kitchen table. Drinking tea, watching the glorious Irish summer lash against the window. It is mid-June, and it is nine degrees outside, “six with the chill factor,” my mother reminds me. We have our jackets on inside—“your father doesn’t like the heating on in the summer, waste of money,” she reminds me.

“It’s good to have you home,” she says, breaking another silence. I can’t say it to her. I don’t have the heart to tell her that this isn’t my home, her happiest of places is not mine. It’s not where I grew up. This place existed for years in her mind, with every summer visit she built it until eventually with retirement they found it and bought it. This house is them; it is their whole life together, their marriage, what they always wanted. Their daily routines are etched into the place; the path from the firewood basket to the door, the tea mug stains on their bedside tables from their morning cups, the coffee cup stains on the sitting room table from their lunch cups, the dinner already being prepared mid-afternoon. But this time it’s me she is cooking for, not Dad. She hasn’t had to change her routine, not yet.

I bring the dog for an afternoon walk around the country lanes they call home. The rolling green fields endowed with gorse and heather. It is June and the foxgloves and irises are everywhere daring to bloom in the cold Irish summer bringing the countryside alive with their colour. We walk for a long time. The dog a few feet in front. She doesn’t like me, never did, she is loyal only to my father. I throw the tennis ball but she shows no interest. Every now and then she looks back at me, turning and raising to see if he is there behind her but then she realises it’s me not him. I can see the disappointment in her face. It breaks my heart. We walk further and further until I realise where we are. It’s raining again but I don’t feel it. It’s cold but I don’t care. I remember being there with him again. I stop short of walking down the grassy path to the rocks.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

I turn and walk away, the dog as soaking and miserable as I am as we walk away from my happiest of memories.

*

June becomes July and the foxgloves are all gone, their green skeletons blowing in the wind with curled and sun-singed purple tinges blowing in the mid-summer breeze. The weather has improved—it’s in the mid-teens now—but my father has not. He is slowly getting worse, weaker, sleeping longer, breathing heavier.

My mother and I fall into a routine. We have breakfast early and I drive us into see him. We sit with him for a while and then go and have our lunch. Sometimes we go home, sometimes to a café, never to the hospital canteen. In the afternoon, I bring my mother back and leave her there. I return to the house and walk the dog. She has not seen my dad in months now and she can’t forget. She is so lonely. I return to the hospital in the late afternoon to collect my mother and say goodbye to my father. I can tell he hates being there. It’s affecting his mind, the boredom. I bring him books and DVDs but they only work for a short while. He is grouchy, but then again he is dying.

One Sunday afternoon she says she can’t go back, that she needs a break, some fresh air. She’ll take the dog. Would I mind going to see him on my own? I can tell by the look in her eyes she needs the break. She walks out with the lead in her hand before I can think of an excuse not to. The dog is immediately happier, but I know it won’t last.

I hesitate as I get out of the car. I have a cigarette and eventually go in. He is asleep and snoring. Not like the boom he used to let out but a low, deep gurgling snore. I watch him sleep. I have seen my father asleep so many times and never watched. It’s not something you normally do, is it? Watch someone else sleep, especially your dad. As I look at him I feel that urge to hold his hand again. It’s old and wrinkled with liver spots now. But it still feels the same as it always did. Safe and warm. I close my eyes and when I open them again he is wide awake, staring right back at me. He withdraws his hand sharply, not saying anything about it.

“Where’s your mother?” he asks. I decide to be honest with him. “She needed a break, Dad.”

He understands but he is disappointed it’s me here not her. The routine keeps him going, just like the dog. There is silence for a while until he asks, “How are my tomatoes doing?” and then goes on about the broad beans and then the courgettes and the lettuces. He asks about them all: the potatoes, the apple trees. They are fine, I keep saying. Mum and I look after it all in the evenings, after dinner, and I do some in between walking the dog and collecting Mum. He never once asks about me, my life, how I’m doing, and I’ve had enough of it. I have been back over a month and we haven’t had a real conversation, not even about football. This might even be the first time we have been alone since the day I arrived home.

“I’m grand by the way,” I say sarcastically with more than a little sanctimony in my tone.

“No, you’re not,” he shoots back, darting a look at me and I am stunned. I was expecting a ‘that’s good’ or no reply but not that, not the truth.

“What?” is all I can say.

“You’re not grand at all. I can tell you know? You think I have no idea, you kids, you and your sister, you think I have no emotions, but I do, you know? I’m your father, I wiped your arse and cleaned up your puke. I can tell.”

I can’t let it go. I can’t be happy that in all these years he is now actually reaching out to me, being honest. He might even start talking about his feelings. “I’m grand, Dad, honestly, leave it out will ye?”

“Grand? Bollix you’re grand.” He has stunned me again; he never swears. “Your mother told me.”

“About what?”

“That you’ve no job, your one, that girl you were with, she’s gone, that you’re living in some shithole in Reading.” He pauses. “For fuck’s sake, Paddy, Reading! I was there was once, you know? Awful kip.”

“It’s all I can afford,” I say, hating myself for it.

He sighs and looks at me straight in the eye. I can see the disappointment he has in his only son. “Jesus, man,” he says. “It’s all I can afford,” he says, mimicking me. “You still don’t get it do you?” He is exasperated with me.

“Calm down, Dad, I’m fine, honestly.” I’m not. “You’ll make yourself…”

“What?” he shoots in. “Sick? I’m dying, you eejit. In case you hadn’t noticed. I’m riddled and my own son is sitting here telling me he’s grand when he hasn’t even started living his life yet! For fuck’s sake,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “Give me strength. At least your sister went and saw a bit of the world. But all you did was go on the piss and become a teacher.”

I stand up to leave, not because he is wrong but because I realise I’m a self-righteous, self-indulgent little prick and I know he is right and I can’t stand it.

“When are you going to work it out son?” he calls, as I walk down the sterile corridors.

As I walk back to the car all I can think about is how since I have come back here, to their ‘happy place’ all I have thought about is myself and how I don’t want to be there. I speed out of the hospital car park.

*

After that day my father takes a turn for the worse. My mother knows something has happened between us and it weighs on her. I come home late that night after driving around for hours. I don’t talk and go straight to bed. He can now only talk on really good days. My sister books flights, hoping he’ll hang on a few more weeks so she can see him.

I don’t spend any time alone with him for a while. His words hanging over me, I walk the country lanes of that place. I walk them in July and find myself in August, the late summer sun putting stars in my eyes as I walk around the bend. My actions are hurting my mother but I still can’t get over myself. I am stuck on the now, on why things happen, feeling sorry for myself. My father is light years ahead of me and I never saw it. He is just smarter than me, older and wiser.

Each day the doctors tell us it could be days, maybe weeks. My mother is in some kind of denial or maybe she is just prepared, smarter and wiser than me. She stares at nothing and everything, at her awaiting seclusion. We continue our routine, too afraid to talk about it. Then one day she breaks the monotony and asks me to go in alone. We drive to the hospital together but as we got out of the car she looks at the sliding doors, the nurses outside smoking. I can smell the smoke mixed with the disinfectant wafting out the doors. I look at her and don’t need to ask why.

I sit down by my father and stare at him asleep under his oxygen mask. I don’t hold his hand this time. I watch, paralysed or maybe blocked. Something always stands there in my mind blocking my emotions. He has had troubling breathing on his own for a while now. I know there’s not long to go. Somewhere in his sleep he knows I am there and slowly his eyes open and he is awake. He is thinner still than when I first walked into this room months ago. But this time I do not move my hand, he moves his. He looks around the room as if confused for a while and then he sees me. His eyes lock on mine and he smiles and he moves his arm to the edge of the bed, the palm of his hand facing up. I can see my hand moving towards his. I am so scared to touch it but he takes my hand in his and I let go. Whatever has been holding me, whatever has been blocking me finally collapses and I weep and sob as he dies around me. I lower my head onto the bed and weep more, his hands still rough, in my hair.

He tries to talk but he can’t summon the strength to lift the mask off his face so I lean in and all he can whisper is ‘I’m glad you came back,’ over and over again. I have been here since we argued but I know who he is talking about now and who he is talking to. He’s talking to the boy who was his son that day, who for a brief moment he made master of all of life. I can feel his weak heart. He knows I am the one who is sorry. Sorry for wasting my life so far and that I have figured it out. I tell him and he smiles. He is happy, in pain and happy. We stay like that for a while. A son letting go and a father happy in the thought his son will live life past that day. I watch him fall asleep. I watch him sleep his last sleep. Somewhere in the time between his eyes closing on his last light and the late summer sun fading outside he takes his last breaths into his wasted lungs and the last thing he feels is his son’s hand in his.

*

The swiftness of death often belies the lifetime it took to arrive. It distorts our memories and leaves us with feelings of regret and happiness. Regret over what might have been and happiness of resolution. I really don’t remember leaving his hand back on the white sheets and walking past the nurses and I don’t really remember cradling my mother as we wept hopelessly together or the silence on the other end of the phone as I told my sister. I know these things happened but they are only visions now in my mind.

But I know I was wearing a black suit and white shirt and black tie with nice shiny shoes as I walked down the grassy path to the cliffs. The late August sun was shining down on the wet rocks and the wild green ocean was glimmering in front of me. In my hand only a rod and a bag of feathers, the best-dressed fisherman those rocks had ever seen. As I launched my line into the waves one more time I could feel all the moments to come pour over me and all the moments that had been wash away. With the sun warming my cheeks I could feel my own words, “Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

And I can feel my mother’s memories.

I am in my happiest of places. I am in our happiest of places and I know that none of us will ever be alone in that place again.

pencilDavid Thom is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but has not lived there since 2007. He is currently not living anywhere. He and his wife are on a round-the-world trip (which they hope will never end) seeing the world and hoping to find a place that they might call home one day. Email: david.f.thom[at]gmail.com

Spotless

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Tara Kenway


Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

“I’ve told you a thousand times to clean up, Edward. We’re a hotel, not a train station. The lobby must be spotless. Spotless! Is that clear?”

I nodded.

It was true. Justine had told me many times. Maybe not a thousand but probably not that far off.

“Keep it pristine.”

Pristine Justine.

That’s what we called her. Justine with her perfect hair, perfect nails and perfect uniform. She wasn’t even the manager, although none of us doubted that it’s where she saw herself.

We just saw her as a pain in the ass. I was responsible for the lobby and reception, Sophie had the first floor, Elaine the second, and Roger was maintenance. Justine was on his case even more than ours.

“Quick, quick, Roger! I haven’t got all day!”

The girls got hassled too.

“How complicated can it be?” she’d say, wiping a critical finger along a window ledge or shelf.

“God, why doesn’t she get promoted or get a new job,” Elaine whined one lunchtime.

“There’s no use complaining about it. She’s been here for fifteen years. I’ve told you before, I doubt she’ll leave now.”

That was Sophie. She’d been here as long as Justine and probably knew the hotel even better than she did.

Roger smoked in silence.

“Nothing to add, Roger?” I asked.

“I wish she’d die,” he muttered.

“I say, that’s a bit harsh,” Sophie said.

Roger shrugged and lit another cigarette.

None of us knew much about Roger. A man of few words and many cigarettes.

And me. I was one of us too. Only here for the summer, but that didn’t make any difference to Justine, who was particularly obsessed with the lobby entrance.

“It’s the window of the hotel,” she said, squinting at the floor, bending down slightly to see everything in a different light. “You know, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the lobby is the window to the hotel’s soul.”

I liked how she tried to make being a maniac about cleanliness poetic.

All of this would make some sense if we were talking about a classy hotel somewhere, but we weren’t. The only reason we had any business at all wasn’t because of our spotless lobby, but the fact that we were the only hotel around. All the tired tourists who’d spent the last five hours in the car with the air con cranked up knew if they didn’t stop here they’d have to drive another couple of hours before coming across another place to stay.

Did the fact the hotel was clean help? Sure it did. But if the lobby really was the window to the hotel’s soul, most people would keep on driving.

This particular day the hotel wasn’t very busy. The weather wasn’t too hot, driving conditions were good and people just kept on, trying to get home rather than stop yet again. Sophie was the first to notice it.

“Have you seen Justine, Ed?”

“Nope.” I glanced at my watch. “Maybe she’s ill?” I flashed Sophie my crossed fingers and she laughed.

“It’s odd. She’s never late.”

“What? You think she’s been kidnapped or something? Too much CSI, Sophie.”

She smiled but still looked worried.

“Look, maybe she had car trouble. Or she’s ill. She’s only half an hour late. There’s a multitude of reasons to be late.”

She nodded and walked over to the elevator.

“Can you text me when she arrives? You better clean that up before she arrives too.” She pointed at the lobby floor.

“Sure.”

Some bastard had traipsed mud straight across the lobby sometime during the night and Justine would kill me if it was still there when she arrived.

I took out the vacuum cleaner and started passing it backwards and forwards. This was a mistake as the mud wasn’t quite dry yet and just smeared and stuck to the vacuum cleaner. Dark reddish smears ran across the lobby.

“Dammit.” Now I’d need to clean the cleaner too.

I put the vacuum cleaner to one side and fetched a mop and bucket.

A few swishes of the mop later and most of the mud was gone. I squinted at the floor, and bent down slightly, trying to see it through Justine’s eyes. I didn’t especially care about doing a good job, but I did like an easy life and cleanliness meant no Justine on my back.

There was still some streaks of mud across the hall.

I went out back to the cleaning cupboard and had a look at the products we had.

*Industrial floor cleaner.*

That could be the bottle for me. I had a look at the label.

Removes all stains from wooden and tiled floors. Mud, oil, even blood!

Well, if that didn’t work, nothing would!

I went back into the lobby and started cleaning. Thank God there was still no sign of Justine. I scrubbed and scrubbed and then passed over the wood with the floor polisher.

I looked at the floor again. Squinted. Bent down.

“Damn, now that’s what I call pristine.”

I turned around.

It was Roger. He was smoking as usual. He went to tap the ash on my floor.

“Come on, man. Gimme a break.” I pushed the bucket of dirty water over to him and he tapped the ash inside.

“Don’t let Justine see you smoking here. You know it drives her crazy.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual.” He glanced around. “She not here yet?”

“Nope. Sophie’s worried.”

“Sophie’s always worried.” He dropped the cigarette butt in the bucket. “Let me know if she turns up.”

He wandered off, leaving dusty footprints behind him.

I passed quickly behind him with the floor polisher.

*

The rest of the day passed by and still no Justine. Sophie called the manager and told him Justine hadn’t come into work.

“I’m just worried. It’s not like her. In all the time we’ve worked together she’s not been late. Not once!”

He tried calling her at home but there was no answer. He finally called the police and they went to her house. Still no Justine. That’s when they came to the hotel and started asking questions.

There were two officers. I got a young guy who looked about the same age as me. My mother always said that you knew you were getting old when the policemen started looking young. Jeez, I was only 22 and I was already thinking that.

“Have a seat, Edward. Can I call you Edward?” he said.

“Sure.”

“So, when did you last see Justine?” His pen hovered above his notepad.

“Last night. When my shift ended.”

“And what time was that?”

“Around nine p.m., I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, my shift ends at nine p.m., but then usually I leave a little later than that. You know, the time to put everything away.”

“Sure. And you didn’t see Justine leave?”

“No, but then I never do. She always leaves after me.”

“Okay. Is she popular here?” He glanced up at me.

“You’ve already spoken to the others, no?”

He nodded.

“She’s not the most popular. She’s a ball-breaker.”

“Pristine Justine?”

I laughed. “That’s her. That’s why the lobby’s so clean. Windows to the soul of the hotel.”

“She says that?”

“All the time.”

He asked me some more questions about her routine, my routine, my colleagues.

“Do you really think something’s happened to her?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It just seems a bit crazy.”

“All these things seem crazy until they happen. Then they don’t seem quite so crazy.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time. This is the number where we can reach you?”

I nodded.

I got up and left the office and went back into the lobby. There was a guest waiting at reception. Seeing as no one was there, I checked them in and got their keys sorted out.

“Don’t you have someone to help with my bag?” the woman asked.

I looked around for Roger, but he was still in with the police.

“Sure. I’ll help you myself.” I smiled a big cheesy grin. All my grins were cheesy—it was why Justine didn’t want me working directly with the guests.

“Try sincerity, Edward!”

“This is it.”

“Well, just stop smiling then.” She’d turned on her heel and walked away.

I put my cheesy grin away and took the woman’s bags. God only knows what she had in there but they weighed a ton. I almost joked that she had a dead body in there, but seeing the circumstances I thought it better to say nothing.

I took her up to the second floor. Elaine was up there.

“Room 215?” I asked.

She led us down there and opened up the door.

“Ma’am,” she said, holding the door open.

I put her suitcase down with a thud. Elaine looked at me and I shrugged.

“Thank you. That’ll be all,” said the woman. Not even a tip.

Elaine closed the door behind us.

“Bit of a pain, huh?” she asked. “Who does that remind you of?”

“Have the police spoken to you yet?” I asked.

Elaine nodded. “Same as you. I didn’t see her after my shift ended.”

“It’s weird though, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”

“God knows. Maybe she was having a torrid affair that none of us knew about.”

“Really?”

“Edward, I don’t know! But, come on. Outside of here we know next to nothing about each other. Do you know where I live, or if I’m married? Have I got kids?”

I flushed.

“Don’t worry. I know nothing about you either except that you’re a student. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we could all have secrets or a dark side and we probably wouldn’t know.”

“Until something like this happens.”

“Exactly.”

We both stood in silence for a moment.

“So what’s your secret, Elaine?” I asked.

She smiled.

“Well now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.” She pressed the elevator button for me. The doors slid open. “Back to the lobby with you, Edward.”

And so Elaine had a mysterious side. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.

When I got back to the lobby, Roger was just leaving the office. He nodded at me as he passed.

The police officers were talking to each other and looking at Roger.

“Do we have any news?” I asked. “I’m not trying to inject myself into an investigation, you know. I know you guys watch out for that. I’d just like Justine to turn up.”

“Well, you’ll know when we do,” one of them said.

And that’s what happened.

Three hours later Justine’s car turned up but still no Justine. The police came back and started talking about a timeline and alibis. All of us were suspects as we were all at work when she went missing, and we weren’t together. It was hard to find out exactly where she had been as she regularly went all over the hotel.

I saw Sophie in the corridor.

“They think it’s one of us!” she whispered, spitting out the words.

“Maybe it is.”

“Edward! How can you even say that?”

“Come on. We were all the last people to see her. And none of us were her greatest fan.”

“Well, I didn’t do it,” she said, looking around her as if someone might be listening.

“I don’t think they’ve bugged the place yet, Sophie.”

She glared at me and walked away.

The police were hovering around the lobby, bending and squinting at the floor.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“This floor is spotless,” one of them said.

“Yes, sir. Justine’s very particular about that. She says it’s the window to the hotel.”

“Does she now?” He kept looking at the floor.

“Did you clean it when you arrived this morning?”

I nodded.

“Of course. It’s always the first thing I do. Plus someone had left mud all over the floor.”

He stood up, and gave a quick glance at his partner.

“Mud?”

“Yes. I had footprints right across the lobby. A real pain in the ass to get out.”

“I’ll bet,” he muttered.

The day continued quietly until the afternoon when Sophie came rushing in.

“Have you heard? They’re questioning Roger and Elaine. Again!”

“Maybe they just had some other questions.”

“No, no. It looked like they wanted to arrest them. Maybe they just don’t have enough evidence for the time being.”

“Like I said before, Sophie—too much CSI.”

At the same time, it did look like the police knew something. There was an urgency to them that hadn’t been there before.

I glanced over at the office and could just see Elaine shaking her head.

“We could all have secrets.”

Wasn’t that what she’d said to me? So what was her secret? Maybe she bumped off Justine. I certainly wouldn’t blame her, although it seemed a bit of an extreme reaction. At the same time, I knew I could get out of here at the end of the summer. Elaine didn’t.

And what about Roger? He was kind of suspicious, but then we all could be.

I sighed. This is why I wasn’t a police officer and they were.

“Not my job, man,” I said to myself.

The police kept them in there for a couple of hours. I sat at the lobby, checking in a few people, watching them as they scuffed my floor, cursing each one of them.

Once everyone had gone I took out the floor polisher again.

It chummed across the floor, making my arms judder.

I was engrossed in the cleaning when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Edward?” It was one of the policemen. “Can you come with us for a moment?”

“Sure. Can I just finish up here?”

“No, leave it.”

“But Justine—”

“I don’t think it’s going to be of a concern to her. You know we found her car.”

I nodded.

“There was an awful lot of blood inside. It’s Justine’s.”

“Oh.”

“Just leave the machine.”

I followed the officers, Sophie peering out the office door at me.

“She’s going to say I did it now,” I said.

“Did what?”

“Kill Justine.”

“No one said she was dead.” They were both looking at me.

“What? You just basically said it. Two minutes ago!” I started feeling a little scared. I didn’t want to be a patsy.

“Have a seat, Edward. We need to talk to you about the lobby. The mud this morning.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure it was just mud?”

“What else would it be?”

“Could it have been something else?”

“What? Like dog crap?”

He gave a slight smile.

“We’re thinking more along the lines of blood.”

I thought back to the smears.

“We have a theory that Roger and Elaine killed Justine. We found her body in the garden behind the hotel. She’d been hit with an axe and then buried. We found her blood in one of the rooms and some blood on the fire escape stairs. There would have been mud on their shoes. But blood as well. The footprints would tie at least one of them to the crime scene. Otherwise we don’t have much.”

“I guess it could have been blood as well. It didn’t cross my mind. It was just hard to get rid of.”

“Can you show us what you used to clean up?”

“Sure.” We left the office and went to the store room. I showed them the bottle.

“Shit,” one of them said. “That’ll have destroyed everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t know, Edward.”

The police gathered their things and left. I guess to try and find a plan B.

We all watched them go.

Sophie sighed.

“The one time you manage to clean the lobby well. Nice job.” She walked away.

“Yeah, nice job, Ed,” Roger said, winking at me.

Elaine took Roger’s hand and smiled at him.

“Pristine.”

pencilEnglish writer and English trainer living in Lyon, France. Likes cats, cinema, reading and running. Has been previously published in TCLJ and has a story called “The Barber” in an anthology. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com