Why the Lapwing Laughs

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Christina De La Rocha


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

I walk in.

Usually they frown and dismiss me and I close the door and set my sights on the next one. Because you try surviving on a pension these days. You wouldn’t give up either. You’d be “volunteering” for medical trials left, right, center, and up the wazoo (yes, even those). They pay and they’re interesting. A break from routine, a strange drug, or three months of prepared meals and a hilarious exercise regime. Even if you’re just the control, you learn new things and that’s so much better than bingo. And so you keep trying to get yourself enrolled in trials.

This time, as they take me in from behind their clipboards and glasses, I see I have piqued their interest. They will let me be their guinea pig.

“Mr. Pfannkuchen,” one says, “you offer us the chance to see how the elderly brain takes to the technology.”

The other nods. “Yes, perhaps you will dispel our doubts that the aged brain retains the plasticity to adapt to it.”

Snotball and Scuzzface, I name them right then and there, although it’s more that they’re ignorant than nasty. They’re too young for hemorrhoids. They’ve never operated an aged, elderly brain. They have no clue what it can do.

I stay and they drill everything into my head. Literally. It takes some weeks for me to recover. Then they send me home.

“The experiment will begin soon,” Scuzzface says.

“Avoid operating heavy machinery,” Snotball adds. “You might find yourself suddenly disoriented.”

I leave with a drone over me, serenading me with its eight-rotor whine. It’s weird to be tracked like this, like I am a hot Hollywood brat ripe for some sort of insanity that they want shots of to wire off wirelessly to the press.

But, anyway, you don’t still function at my age unless you subscribed early to the use-it-or-lose-it philosophy of life. I still fight the stairs, battle the gym, and go every day for a walk. It helps that I live out in the countryside where walking is more soothing and less crime-ridden than it is in the city. The biggest fear I have here is of horse apples.

So I’m out on a farm road one morning, on one of my usual routes. The path runs between two cornfields with stalks reaching up towards the sky, although not quite as high as my eight-rotor tail, its Wi-Fi device, and whatever else it has packed into its body.

It is a beautiful day so I close my eyes and stretch my arms out to soak in the sun. I listen to what hum of the day I can hear under the drone’s droning; mainly the rustling of stalks in the quickening air. Wanting to be one with it all, I start with the corncobs, all fifty bazillion of them surrounding me on all sides from both sides of the road. I feel them all in my brain, the shape of them and their location in space. I feel their heft, the bumpy curves of their kernels. I feel all the ants crawling upon them, each one with its little legs going dink!-dink!-dink!-dink!-dink! as they travel. I feel the caterpillars boring within each cob (a slow munch… munch… munch…). And then I feel the moles, the mice, and the beetles scuttling upon and skittering within the ground.

I exhale.

I may be making this all up (I can’t really sense where all those corncobs are and all that), but life is grand.

That’s when it hits me. Something vast superimposes itself over the pastoral landscape, adding previously unimaginable dimension.

For starters, now I know everything it is humanly possible to know about Zea mays.

Zea mays var. indentata, I correct myself. Also known as dent corn, directly descended from maize domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southwestern Mexico by the people living there at that time.

I become aware that as it is a hot, dry day, the seven-hundred-and-fifty-two-thousand maize plants around me are all holding their breath. All their stomata are closed, preventing the release of of oxygen into the atmosphere and the uptake of carbon dioxide out of it. (Okay, technically that’s the opposite of breathing, but allow an old man poetic license, for crying out loud.) This prevents the profligate evaporation of water out of the soil, via the pores of the plants.

Five birds bomb in (barn swallows, Hirundo rustica), zooming, swooping, chirping, and hunting like mad acrobats completely at ease in the air. I know their speed, how they maneuver so magnificently with tiny changes to the tilt and shape of their wings, rump, and tail, and the evolving statistics of each individual’s fly-catching success.

I perceive that my familiar farm track follows the course of a small stream perfectly hidden beneath the thick stands of nettles (Urtica dioica subsp. dioica), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), dewberries, blackberries, and raspberries (Rubus caesius, Rubus ulmifolius, Rubus fruticosus, and Rubus idaeus) that line the left side of the road. All of these plants are edible and the nettles, in particular, indicate that this frequently disturbed soil is, unsurprisingly, given the frequency with which it is fertilized, rich in the nutrients nitrate and phosphate.

I know then that this farm track/stream has been the dividing line between two properties since this area was first cleared and drained for farming, 400 years ago, and that pipes sunk under the fields continue this drainage from several topographic depressions.

Previously, temperate forest (consisting mainly of oak, beech, chestnut, larch, and elm trees) alternated with bog atop this Quaternary alluvium of chert (cryptocrystalline silica such as used in the construction of early stone tools), granite, and schist ground down to gravel and sand, carried over, and deposited by the Northern Hemisphere ice sheet during the last glacial period. This rolling landscape, in fact, marks a southern edge of the miles-high pile of ice at its most extensive extent 18,000 years ago.

It is all here simultaneously around me: the rustling cornstalks; the bitter, glacial wind; the bog and its frogs; and the tall, stately presence of thousands of trees. I sense the comings and goings of the animals and insects and even the human beings that have inhabited this area for thousands of years. I know their customs, their habits, their beliefs, and sometimes even their names, when they were born, and how they died. All of this is woven into a web and I am a part of it too.

I stand transfixed as knowledge streams in about the sun, the sky, the wind, and the air. I smile, amazed as I am introduced to the journey of carbon from the interior of the Earth, out through a volcano, up into the sky, down into the soil, up through roots, into plant biomass, into a herbivore, back out to the air, used for the dissolution of a rock, converted into carbonate ions, delivered to the ocean, taken up by a calcareous plankter, and then sunk to the sediments to be subducted back down into the interior of the Earth to start all over again. I thrill to know that each atom of carbon in my body and in all of that corn has, on average, cycled into and out of the interior of the Earth at least seven times in the last several billion years. The joy this brings tingles out to the tips of all my extremities, including my nose. All of this knowledge drags me into the everything.

And so I trip through the next few days. My orange juice at breakfast treats me to all there is to know about orange groves, about the evolution and development of citrus fruits and their relatives, and about the chemical components of orange, tangy flavor. This so beats reading the back of the cereal box.

Sitting down floods me with the history of chairs, their design, and manufacture, with an anatomical/physiological cost-benefit analysis of sitting, and with a multicultural exploration of sitting traditions down through the ages. It is all the freaking coolest thing ever.

How pea-brained and sad my life before now, spent in the dark and the dirt like a cave man.

I begin to grasp that this is how the human race will transcend. This is the next phase of existence, the next big step in our evolution: rapid, unfettered access to and understanding of all the knowledge that Homo sapiens has acquired over its 180,000 calendar years. We shall be unified, humanized, and then lifted beyond our humanity in our awe of the amazing, meaningful, and interconnected.

Even those who still fear that a flood of knowledge and reason will wash away faith and divinity and flatten the world will be moved. A few moments in this live stream and the scales will fall from their eyes. For the first time in their lives, they’ll be able to fully appreciate the details of Creation.

Even atheist, grumpy-puss I spend the week in a trance, skin shivering, nerves tingling, and eventually am elevated. My self obliterates and becomes subsumed into a great and magnificent vastness. In a word (well, three): Everything. Makes. Sense. And, hot damn, is it beautiful.

I’m back in the office with Snotball and Scuzzface when they power it down. The loss collapses me onto the desk.

“You can’t,” I wail. “You can’t take that away!”

“The experiment is over, Mr Pfannkuchen.” They nod and tick on their clipboards.

“Please,” I howl and beg them to plug me back in. “I was nothing and I was supreme. I knew everything’s name, what it was doing, how it was doing it, and what its place was in everything.”

“You must wait for the first commercial model.”

“How long?” I cry.

“Five to ten years, maybe twenty.”

But I’m a very old man.

“Take heart, your participation has helped,” Snotball says. “We’ll put you down for a discount.”

Scuzzface adds, “Your pay has been transferred. Thank you for your time.”

Then I’m shoved out the door to face what’s left of my life naked and alone. At least they hadn’t smiled and said, “Have a nice day.”

What does one do? I carry on, stumbling about like a fish gutted, an amputee lost and cast out of the garden. Plants are just plants, birds are just birds, and flavors have no extra charm. I am no longer privy to information. I am again an individual. I am no longer enmeshed in the Cosmos.

I try to rectify the situation with my smartphone, searching the interwebs as I walk. What’s that? What’s it up to? What are its secrets? But progress is slow and the threads so clunky, I chuck the phone into the stream.

What a joke.

I consider throwing myself in too, but I don’t need to be mainlining all of human knowledge to know that this will just net me nettle stings, muddy clothes, and maybe some broken ribs. Dying there would take hours and hours of being wet and uncomfortably cold.

So I walk on through the flat, grey gloom of the sunny day.

When I reach the edge of an open field, I see a bird in the air. It’s whirling and swirling, looping, climbing, diving, and laughing, that fucker. I search my own small memory banks for the name: a lapwing. But why does it fly so adventurously? I know nothing. I must be content to make up a fable.

It flies like that because it can because flying like that is super good fun. It is laughing because I have been born five or ten years, maybe twenty, too soon to regain the grand, transcendent knowledge of everything.

And the reason the lapwing is not just laughing but laughing loudly?

Because it knows that I know it. And that is rotten bad luck.

pencilAfter 20 years of working as a biogeochemist/oceanographer, Christina De La Rocha had a mid-life crisis, threw away her career, moved to Germany, and decided to learn how to write. So far she’s had one short story published (in Analog) and has completed a popular science book that is due out in 2017. Email: xtinadlr[at]hushmail.com

Jeanie in a Bottle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Valerie Lunt


Photo Credit: Inayaili de León Persson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The cement was cold beneath her hands. A common block wall—or so it appeared. Jeanie knew better. Even her recon team with their most advanced scans could not get a read through the material. A special power hummed through it, almost pulling her in before she pushed.

She felt her heart speed up, her breathing shallow. This was the best part of the job, the part she’d been doing before she had a job. The part that got her the job in the first place. And what a job it was, taking her into some of the most wonderful rooms in the world. Rooms most people never even knew existed and fewer still had seen. Treasure rooms. Vaults. Mind-blowing technology. Government secrets. She’d seen them all. That’s not to say she was always successful. One time she’d found herself in a near-vacuum, unable to breathe, her tissues swelling painfully in the sudden lack of atmospheric pressure. She’d been discovered before she could make a second attempt. And, she tried to keep this under wraps, but the greater the distance of solid material, the tighter it squeezed. One day she might just try something too big and end up stuck, her dead body (or essence—she wasn’t exactly sure how the process worked) adding to the very defense she was trying to penetrate.

Still, that was never going to stop her. “What have you got for me this time?” she whispered, a smile teasing her lips. She pressed herself against the wall and willed herself into the room beyond. A whirlwind of color, a pressure that seemed to force her very molecules apart, an odd catch on her mind, and she was through, materializing into the most disturbing room yet.

“So you’re the invisible girl.” The voice jolted her out of her shock.

She looked around. No one was there. And it’s not like there were many places to hide.

“Look who’s talking,” Jeanie said, trying to mask her fear. “Or rather, I would look, but…” Her eyes raked the disconcertingly familiar walls for any sign of a microphone or camera.

The voice seemed to smile when it spoke next. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself. Most people thought the stories were just a myth.”

Jeanie should go; she’d been discovered. It wasn’t good to have a reputation when you were a spy, especially a spy with a super power.

But instead, she lingered, reaching a hand out to an old wooden bird, a child’s toy. A distinctive scratch mark caught her eye and she pulled back. “How are you doing this?” she asked, her voice betraying more fear than she would have liked.

“Ah, do you like it? We made it especially for you,” came the disembodied voice.

“You know me?” She looked around again for a hidden lens or transmitter, but there was nothing out of place. Everything was just as she remembered it. (And just as pink.)

“We do now.” It was smiling again.

Jeanie walked over to the window. Lacy pink curtains draped to the sides. A walnut tree waved its arms lazily, its leaves filtering the sunlight. This isn’t possible, Jeanie thought. She unlocked the familiar latch and pulled it up. But when she tried to pop the screen out, she met more wall. Wall, said her fingers. Wide open space, said her eyes.

“Don’t be so cocky,” Jeanie replied, angry now. “So you replicated a room.” Down to the very last detail. Even the smell was the same. But there was no reason to say that.

“Oh, is that what we did? It was just a byproduct. The room was created as you… walked in.”

Jeanie frowned at a stain on the floor. Her dog, Puddles (named for her regrettable lack of potty training) was responsible for the well-known spot. She’d always thought it looked a bit like a koala bear. But then there were her shoes, sitting brand-new in the corner. Those had been worn out by the time they got Puddles…

“It’s taken from my memories?”

“Very good. Your most vivid ones from childhood.”

As Jeanie continued to examine, she noticed other anachronisms there as well. Things were in their most memorable state, pieces of the room she’d grown up in, but mixed in a way that, all together, had never been. A lace doily hung over her old dresser, a picture of her grandmother on top. She’d put those there after Grandma had died—after getting rid of the old carpet.

“You scanned me?”

“Yes.”

That would explain the strange catch on her mind on entering.

“As I said, this place was built for you.”

Jeanie felt partial relief. So they hadn’t somehow been watching her since childhood. On the other hand, they probably hadn’t gone to all this effort just to get her youthful ideas on room decorating, even if Strawberry Shortcake was making a comeback. They must have set up fake intel to draw her in. Her feeling of exposure heightened. She really should be going now.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” said Jeanie, one hand back on the wall, “but this isn’t the intel that was advertised.” And with that, she pushed.

The wall didn’t meld. She didn’t move. She tried again.

“It won’t work,” came the voice. “You were stuck the moment you came through. It knows the way you enter, your vibration signature. You can never pass it.”

Jeanie tried again, this time in the exact place she’d entered. Nothing. She was hitting a wall, for the first time in her career. She pushed again, then screamed in frustration, punching the wall for good measure. It left her whole arm stinging but didn’t make so much as a dent in the wall.

She tried to calm down. “So you caught me. It won’t last. You’re not the first to try. Nothing can hold me! I can’t be kept anywhere by anyone!”

“There’s a first time for everything,” came the patronizing answer. “Try not to live so much in the past.” It laughed. “Ha ha! Get it?”

Jeanie got it. But, as much as she wanted to, Jeanie couldn’t punch that person anymore than she could punch through the walls. Instead, she tore up the room, trying to find a weakness. She threw the old rocking horse at the fake door and crashed the lamp against the wall. Nothing. Literally, nothing. Nothing broke or even chipped. Not a scratch appeared on the wall. Everything seemed stuck in the state they’d been created in. Forget those. She’d use her hands, feeling for a door—they’d have to have a door if they wanted to run more tests on her—or did they intend to keep her here until she starved?

“There’s nothing you can do,” the voice said again.

“Now that is never true,” she muttered. There was always something you could do. She kept feeling all along the walls, trusting her fingers instead of her eyes until finally she found something, a microphone. “See?” she said, smiling. And she smashed her elbow into it.

It wouldn’t break.

Laughter.

“Okay, you’re really starting to annoy me!” She took her knife out and tried that. No use. She went back to kicking the walls, ramming them with her shoulders. If there was an electrical component to them keeping her in, maybe she could jar it long enough to break through.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said the voice, its tone disturbing with its utter lack of worry. “I’ve got some scans to see to, after all.”

Jeanie didn’t know how long it was before she finally gave up. She sank down on the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, exhausted. She really ought to bring explosives with her on these trips. There was no team coming to rescue her. They could not risk their connection being discovered with this one. That was their understanding anyway, before she came in and found out it was a trap.

Absently, she fingered the hole in her bedspread, then pulled her finger out when she became aware of the old habit. Tears pricked at her eyes. She blinked them back and held on to anger instead. Who were these people, adding such a personal humiliation to her capture? Had the scan really needed to work this way? In either case, it felt too much like treating a child with a tantrum. Stay in your room until you calm down! Mommy needs to run some tests. Except, her mother had never been able to keep her in her room. Hers wasn’t the safest gift to have as a child. How many times she wandered off onto the streets… Her mother had had to sing her to sleep most every night to keep her from leaving.

She leaned up against the wall, that impenetrable wall, and hummed one of her mom’s old tunes. Slowly, her heart calmed with the tune. I just wish I could see Brody one more time. The thought surprised her. No time like impending doom to clear up your love life. She pictured his hair, blowing wildly in the wind of the chopper. He was always flying. She could almost feel the vibrations of the helicopter now just thinking about it.

“What are you doing?”

Jeanie jerked up at the sharp interruption. Panic. That was panic in its tone. Hope flared and Jeanie realized the vibrations weren’t just her imagination. Could this be? Might the very same tactic her mother had used to keep her in now serve to get her out? Pressing herself firmly against the wall, she hummed more purposefully, the music thrumming not only in her chest and body but in the wall itself. But still, she wasn’t getting through.

The voice scoffed. “Well, maybe you should try a funeral dirge next. We’ve gotten all we need from you. Let’s see if you can materialize your way through acid.”

It can work, thought Jeanie. She’s desperate; I’m on the right track. Sprinklers sprouted from the ceiling. Ignoring them, Jeanie focused, feeling for the right vibration within her, within the wall. Yes! There it was! She hummed the low tone, disrupting whatever cancellation system they had in place to block her, causing it now to resonate in a helpful way.

Acid fell, the first drops sizzling on her hair, her skin, but Jeanie didn’t stick around for more. There was someone she needed to see.

After she threw out her old Strawberry Shortcake pillow, that was.

pencilValerie Lunt, a native Arizonan, always loved writing, although, for several years she confused that with hating it. Thankfully, she got that sorted out in time to choose English as her major at ASU. She just finished writing her first novel (YA fantasy) this year and is wrapping up her second. Email: valelunt[at]gmail.com

Little Big Man Speaks

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robert Walton


Photo Credit: Jerry and Pat Donaho/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Hector?

Yes, Marsha.

It’s hot.

Yes, Marsha.

It’s beastly hot!

Yes, Marsha.

We could skip the next stop, Crazy-something-or-other.

Crazy Horse.

Whatever.

He was a Lakota leader.

Whatever.

They lived here.

Look at George Washington’s nose. The sun is hitting it just right.

The Black Hills was their sacred place.

Just think of all those little men chipping away up there for years.

Marsha, I feel a little dizzy.

I never knew George’s nose was so big.

I think I’ll get off the bus, get some air.

The father of our country!

I am weak. The hoop of our nation is broken. At the center of the world, the holy tree is dying.

Hector, where are you going?

A dream of power awaits me. White Buffalo Maiden awaits me.

Hector! Come back this minute!

I stand beneath the holy spire and sing to the powers. Thunder beings, I climb to you! White Giant, I climb to you! Morning Star, I climb to you!

Stop! Those rocks are loose!

Hoka hey! I climb!

Hector, come down from there!

I am Lakota! It is a good day to die!

Hector, come down this instant!

The powers are with me! I am one with the rock.

Hector! You’re hundred feet up!

A spirit floats above me, wrapped in a buffalo robe. His eyes are covered with blue ice. He opens his mouth to speak, but his mouth is filled with blood.

Driver, do something!

Crazy Horse! Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, you made the hearts of the Lakota grow big when you were near.

Get help!

In the Moon of Making Fat we leaped on our ponies and fought the Wasichu soldiers. Long hair led them and they wanted to kill our women, our children, but we rubbed them out.

Call the rescue team!

The dust was like a thunderstorm. The bullets fell like raindrops. The big, gray horses screamed when the arrows pierced them. I drove my lance through a soldier. Another turned to shoot me. I put my six-shooter beneath his chin and fired. Then I saw you on your pony, Crazy Horse, dead Wasichus under you. Burning dust hid the sun.

Yes, Ranger Murchison, he just got out of the bus, walked over there and started climbing.

Pahuska led them but we rubbed them out!

No, Hector’s never climbed anything before in his life.

I climb to you, Crazy Horse. The cracks and holds hide from me. I must hunt them as I would stalk deer. My fingers are arrows. They pierce the hiding cracks.

He’s almost on the top. Do something!

Crazy Horse, the victory was ours! We rubbed out the Wasichus together, but the Wasichus are like the blades of grass on the prairie. We cut down hundreds; thousands chased us through the long summer. Grandfather Winter came and the children cried. They had nothing to eat. The Wasichus took our ponies; the Wasichus took our guns. We went with them to the fort, even you.

Get a helicopter!

They came for you during the Moon when the Calf Grows Hair. A hundred soldiers with guns watched you. You did not fear them though you had no gun. Your courage made them fear. Their eyes were round and yellow.

He’s climbing again!

Later they came to move you. I came with them, for I felt uneasy in my heart. They took you through the darkness to the little prison with iron bars. You saw where they meant to put you and you cried out. You pulled out your knife and made to attack all those Wasichus. Their guns with the long knives on them shone in the starlight.

I can’t look!

Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, I did not want you to die. When you raised your knife high, I seized your hand. We struggled. Though I am larger than you, as an old bull is to a yearling, your strength was equal to mine. I held your hand high, but I could not move it. A Wasichu soldier moved behind you. His eyes were yellow in the dark, yellow, yellow. His cap fell off as he thrust at you with the long knife on his gun. He stabbed it into your back. I felt it pass through you. Crazy Horse, I mourn for you!

He’s going to fall!

I mourn. The rock flies above me like a cloud.

I’m going to sue the government. There should be big fences to keep people away from those rocks.

Hoka hey! I hear you, Thunder Beings. Come to me now. Fill me with your power! Help me climb the holy spire! Hoka hey!

My God, thunder and lightning and rain!

Ha! Thunder power fills me! Winds lift me! My arms burn no longer, for cool rains wash them. I climb. Hand over hand, I climb. I thrust hard and leap into the storm’s heart. Lightning is my sacred path.

He’s on top!

I stand and raise my hands to the powers. Thunder Beings speak with voices like mountains falling. Their blue fire covers my hands, my arms.

Duck, Hector! Lightning!

You step down the lightning path to me. You are covered with blue fire. The ice is gone. The blood is gone. You sing:

The light river is my way. Behold!
The light river is my way. Behold!
Blue light flows around me.
I have come again. Behold!

Crazy Horse, you are here. Forgive me.

Ho, Little Big Man, do not be sad. It is beautiful on the other side. Soon you will come home with me.

I see the white hailstones leap up from the rock. Their babies’ faces smile with joy. Crazy Horse, the Wasichus promised us this land for as long as grass grows and water flows. I feel the Thunder Beings cross their mighty arms in the clouds above me and listen in silence.

Little Brother, the grass grew and the water flowed for eight years only. They came after the yellow metal that makes them crazy. The earth is our mother, but they cut her with their plows. They built their iron roads. They poison the rivers, the streams, all of the waters. Where can a human being now find water to drink that will not turn his blood black? Nowhere.

I feel maiden fingers of wind touch my breast.

They killed the buffalo, used none of the meat, and the power of our people spilled like buffalo blood into hot sand. Our young men drink the Wasichus’ whiskey; their lives are dust. Our young women flee from here and never learn the songs of their grandmothers. The earth cries under their burning wheels. The earth cries!

Crazy Horse, hear me. I held you when the Wasichu knife drank your life. If you had lived—

No, my brother, do not think this. I could not stop the white men. Nothing stops them.

Then why have you come here? Why have you called me?

Even when the knife went through me, I knew that you were my brother.

He held out his hands to me.

Know this! I hold your vision. Its fire is wisdom.

He opened his hands and on them lay a small sun.

A great change comes. The earth shall heal; the air shall be clean; the waters shall shine clear again. New snows will fall. Hear me!

The Wasichus will be rubbed out?

No, there must be peace between all. Even the Wasichus will become our brothers.

Crazy Horse, brother, how can this be?

Little Big Man. The Wasichus looked too closely at the things they could make. Their eyes became sick and blind to the earth, to the Great Spirit. Their eyes are withered now like leather that has lain for a season in the sun.

They will I never see.

No, soon they will see again. Soon they will know us. Our children’s children will help them to heal the wounds they have made. Then they will honor us.

How?

You will do this. Hold out your hands, brother.

I hold out my hands.

Take this fire.

The fire passes over my palms, but it does not burn. It is cool and soft like new snow first touching the earth.

It is a vision. Take it to the Wasichus. Show them clear light. Let it heal their eyes. Peace will come then and the world can become clean. Go now, my brother-friend.

I turn from him and step to the cliff’s edge. I cannot climb down while holding the vision in my hands.

Brother, ride the lightning as I have done. The Thunder Beings will carry you back to the world of men.

I look up. Two white beings grasp my arms with fingers like talons. I think that their touch will burn, but it is cool and gentle. They lift me. Blue light surrounds us.

No! Don’t jump, Hector! Somebody, stop him!

I soar! I see Wasichus below and their wagons with no horses. In light I am coming, behold!

Hectoooooooooooor!

The Thunder Beings mount the sky on wings of light. The light in my hands rushes over me. I am covered with light.

Hector?

The light fades.

Hector?

I raise my hands to the Six Powers and give thanks for the vision they have sent.

Hector, are you alive?

I give thanks to the Great Spirit.

I think you fell?

I thank Crazy Horse, brother-friend, for this vision.

It must have been the helicopter. Thank God for the helicopter!

I feel great weariness. I must eat. I must drink good water.

Oh, my God, Hector! It’s the rescue squad.

I will I take my vision to all the far places in the world, to all human beings, but first I must rest.

Hector, the helicopter is landing! This is embarrassing!

White Buffalo Maiden welcomes me.

pencilRobert Walton blogs at Chaos Gate. Email: dragonlemontree[at]sbcglobal.net

The Net

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Gail Webber


Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”

My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.

I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.

“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.

“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”

Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.

It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.

Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”

I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.

He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.

“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”

“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.

It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.

I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.

My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.

It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.

“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.

Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.

But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.

By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.

I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.

“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.

He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.

“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.

All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.

“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.

We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.

“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”

Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.

“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”

pencilGail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Liberal Arts

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Heather Finnegan


Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The security guard could tell immediately that the young girl was wearing layers of stolen lace underwear beneath her shirt and tight jeans. He did not even have to see the look on her eyeliner-smudged face when she saw him in the Sears elevator, floor five.

“Oh,” he said. “The elevator’s broken. Been stopping at every floor for no reason all day. But it’s fine to use.” The girl, who had greasy brown hair and smelled like sticky buns, stepped on nervously. It was the summer between his first and sophomore years of college—they didn’t use the word “freshmen” at his school because it excluded women from their daily vocabulary—and he had just finished a seminar on ethics where he learned about stepping into another’s shoes. Maybe, he thought, she couldn’t afford the underwear she needed. Maybe her dad just died of a ravaging brain cancer or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and her mom, who’d dropped out of college to birth her and her two triplet-sisters, was still trying to pay off the debt of his medical bills with only a seventy-five-cents-to-a-dollar minimum wage job. It was possible, he thought. He should be nice to her. She could probably use a little kindness and guidance in her life.

“So,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.

“That’s good,” he said. “Mine was good too. Would be better if it weren’t for this elevator though.” The door opened onto floor four, home goods and as-seen-on-TV items. The security guard often came here during his breaks to use the scalp scratchers. The girl didn’t say anything. He held down the close door button. “So,” he said. “You in school?”

“It’s summer,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “But… in the fall?” She told him she would be starting high school but didn’t say where. He thought maybe she went to the “inner city” school and was embarrassed to say so. “Do you think you’ll go to college?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“I study at a liberal arts school,” he said.

“Cool,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Liberal arts schools are cool because they teach you how to think instead of what to think. It’s way different than high school and vocational schools. Good different.”

“Cool,” she said.

Then he thought, what if she couldn’t afford a fancy liberal arts school? He had been lucky, winning a scholarship for badminton, but what if she wasn’t supposed to go to college? Plenty of people weren’t supposed to go to college. Maybe she was supposed to be a sales representative or a hairdresser or a full-time surrogate or something. Then he thought those were typical women’s jobs and maybe she could be a plumber or a construction worker or a security guard like himself. Also, he should use the word “cosmetologist.” Not “hair dresser.” The elevator stopped on the third floor, which was full of lots of overpriced, nonsensical books. The security guard had only visited the floor once and got scared because he couldn’t tell where the floor ended. The rows of books situated in little hexagonal displays seemed to go on forever, like an endless beehive or something.

“But it’s not all great,” he said. “Liberal arts school. Once I read this graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for an English class. It was okay but I didn’t like it because it was all in black-and-white, only I couldn’t tell my professor that,” he said. “I had to tell him I didn’t like it because it showed a really harsh bias toward the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their violent acts in ancient or in modern times. But I don’t really know much about the Palestinians’ violent acts because that book didn’t teach me any and no one’s taught it in any of my history classes. I was just kind of bullshitting,” he said. Shit, he thought. Did he just tell her college was about bullshitting?

“Cool,” she said.

The door opened on the second floor which sold no goods at all but housed a large concrete gate with an old, peering gatekeeper and a sign labeled “das Gesetz.” He started to panic. He was running out of time.

“But I could have learned more if I wanted to,” he said. “I could have studied abroad in Jerusalem this summer. That graphic novel, it said that you can find whatever you’re looking for in Jerusalem as long as you know what it is you’re looking for.”

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “ I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But I could have found grants and scholarships and stuff if I tried,” he said so as not to discourage her. “And I got this job for the summer which has been cool,” he said. “College is full of great opportunities like that. Like, if you work hard then you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But it’s like that The Mamas & the Papas song. ‘You gotta know where you wanna go,’” he sang. “Just have a goal and go for it,” he said.

“I think it’s ‘Go where you wanna go,’” she said.

“Right. Same thing,” he said. “What I mean is college is a really cool opportunity. It can be really important,” he said. “Or not,” he said. The door opened onto the first floor which, like most department stores, sold makeup and perfumes and fancy watches. “Cosmetics,” he thought. Not “makeup.” “There are lots of parties,” he said.

She stepped out of the elevator and power-walked toward the exit.

He stepped out, too, and called to her, “Have a great day!”

“Thanks,” she said, which made him feel accomplished.

He remembered that he was supposed to have gotten off on the fifth floor to relieve another guard for break, but the elevator door had already closed. He pressed the button and played Candy Crush on his cell phone while he waited for the car to return.

pencilHeather Finnegan’s work has appeared or is soon to appear in The Interlochen Review, Cargoes, The Quaker, and Litmus. She is graduating from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Email: finneganhr[at]gmail.com

The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’

 

The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.

 

She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.

 

Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.

 

The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Rendez-Vous

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.

Love,

Grandpa

I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

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

Bus Stop

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine


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

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

I was greeted with smiles, jeers and whistles as I walked through the large room full of desks. All city precincts are alike—attitude and clowning. Nothing is holy. It has to be, or you go insane. And if you’re not one of the gang, then you are shown respect, but given little. I’m not on the force anymore, but I’m still one of the gang, and they definitely respect me, though an outsider wouldn’t know by the clowning.

“Hey Jewell, we’ll push our desks together if you’ll strip!”

“Sorry, I’m going down to the firehouse later and dance for them… they have a pole!”

Laughing grumbles followed this as I went into the Captain’s office.

“What’s up, Bud?” I asked, noting he was getting closer to the Lou Grant look everyday.

“Thanks for coming, Jewell.” He indicated a seat. The ancient air conditioner in his ancient office buzzed fitfully.

“What is it this time, Bud? Need me to sneak into another board meeting, church social, or political rally?” Now that I was off the force, I was extremely useful to them. I knew what to look for, and, as a private detective, police rules did not govern my conduct.

“Nah. I got a case bothering me. I’m about to mark it closed, but… my hand won’t put it in the file cabinet.”

“Hmm. A mind of its own. Just what kind of things does your hand get up to, now that Janet’s left?”

He turned red. “The same as before she left and none of your concern.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Before you call me a cruel bitch again, what’s the case about?”

“Looks like a mugging that caused a heart attack. Found this fat, middle-aged accountant lying on the sidewalk, tits-up, just past the bus stop where the overpass drops from Old Town Heights across the six-lane. Guy had a really bad heart condition. He rode the bus everyday and his apartment was ground floor, half block from the stop. He was tasered from behind. His wallet was missing. He had abrasions on his hands and forehead so we know he initially fell forward. His glasses were found about five light poles down the overpass from the bus stop… and that’s it.”

“How did they get down there?”

“The glasses? Dunno, maybe some kids kicked them down the street.”

“And…?”

“And that’s it. Looks like he took a short walk, got mugged, had a heart attack, and died at the hospital.”

“Sounds solid. So, what’s the problem?”

“He was a very important suspect in an organized crime case.”

“Why wasn’t he in witness protection somewhere else?”

“He was. We’re the somewhere else. Case is from the West Coast. We now know that he compromised himself in several ways.”

“How?”

“Calls to his wife. His brother. Who knows who else he may have called. I think the safe house was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him.”

“Well, he was an accountant. ”

He agreed with a shrug.

“You think it was a hit?”

“My brain tells me it’s cut and dried, Jewell. My… hunch tells me different.

“Well, Bud, anyone who knows you would take your hunch over the meager offerings of you brain any day.”

He game me a tired look. “You’re never going to forgive me for firing you, are you?”

“Would you?”

“No. Now will you take a look at this goddamn case? Please?”

“I’d do anything for you, Bud.”

“God, how I wish that were true, Jewell.”

“You have four heart bypasses. Best it’s only a tease.”

“I don’t know. Death might be worth it,” he grinned.

“Oh, I guarantee it would be worth it, Bud. I guarantee it.”

He shook his head, handed me the case file, and left red-faced but chuckling. I sat at his desk and read. It did look cut and dried. Except for one thing. The glasses were found five blocks away, out on the overpass. In the picture, the gold-framed glasses lay folded, lenses up next to a rusty, cast iron light pole, looking put aside with care. Neither muggers, nor the dying man would have done this.

“Um, Jewell?

I looked up to see Debussy—Conan O’Brien in a blue uniform.

“Yeah, Gregg?”

“Bud said I was to assist you,” he stated softly.

“Gregg, the paramedic’s report said he was laying next to a light pole near the bus stop. But his glasses were five light poles away from the bus stop. How did they get there?”

The cop that wrote it up had only what the paramedics told him. The veteran bus driver knew the man by his picture, like he knew everyone in the city by their picture, he said. He had no recollection one way or the other of the man getting on or off that day.

I had Debussy drive me to the paramedic squad house. He was too quiet.

“What is it Debussy?”

To his credit, he was forthright about it. “They fired you. Even though everyone says you’re the best detective they ever met.”

I didn’t respond.

“You saved that little girl…”

“I did.”

“And they fired you… Why did you strip?”

“To gain the suspect’s confidence, Gregg. It was the only way. Her life was on the line.”

“But you lost your job for stripping.”

“There are things more important than a job, or a uniform, Gregg.”

He didn’t respond.

“Gregg, if the job is more important than justice, you will never make a great detective. You will automatically stop seeing clues that would lead you down a bad career path. You become permanently mediocre. If you’re good, though, you end up betting your job against solving every difficult case. You might not have a long career, but there are other things waiting.”

“Like being a private detective,” he queried.

“Or a stripper. Think you’d look good in one of those Chippendales G-strings?”

He had a Harrison Ford self-deprecating grin. “Not really.”

Neither paramedic could recall exactly where on the overpass they found the man. They also claimed they had not seen the glasses. I was getting pissed.

The quiet one leaned to his partner and whispered in his ear.

“Oh!” The talker looked me up and down with a slow smile building.

Debussy moved his hand to his gun. His look said: “She’s one of ours! One of ours! And if you don’t want an angry six-foot-four cop pistol-whipping you into a tearful puddle, you’ll be respectful.” The paramedic’s smarmy smile leached away.

“We…” He kept looking from me to where Debussy’s fingers petted the grips of his pistol. “We found him laying by the light pole on the overpass, just down from the bus stop.”

“Which light pole?”

“Don’t know. I was kinda busy.”

The quiet one shrugged.

“You found him on his back, though?”

“Yeah.”

“Which one of you hit him with the defibrillator paddles?”

“I did,” said the quiet one.

“And what were you doing?”

“What? Getting him…” he glanced at Debussy and calmed his voice. “…ready.”

“Go through it.”

“What?’

“Are you deaf?” asked Debussy, dangerously.

“Okay, okay. After I cut his tie off, I pulled his jacket open and then…” He hesitated.

“What?” I demanded.

“Damn! I took his glasses…”

“Stop.” I pointed to the floor. “Show me.”

With a glance at Gregg, he knelt down, tugging at his partner to come down and play the dying accountant. “I opened his jacket. I saw his glasses in his shirt pocket. I grabbed them and…” He hesitated, then twisted around and lay them down. “…laid them next to the light pole.”

“Like this?” I asked, showing him the picture.

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Driving back I said, “So, Gregg, you never come to see me down at the strip club like some of the others.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Most of the guys won’t. They think you’re beautiful, but… the police basically forced you to become a stripper.”

“That’s not true. I became a stripper on my own.”

“I’m still not coming to see you.”

“Why?”

“I like you just like this. I want…”

“What, Gregg?”

“I want to become a detective and, you know, bring justice to the world. I hate injustice. Hate it!”

“Then look for the odd things in the cases you are on. Little things that most people overlook. Like these glasses.”

“But what does that tell us?”

“In Bud’s file it says he was found south of the bus stop next to the light pole. This proves the man was found five light poles south of the bus stop.”

“What does that tell us?” Bud asked, when we got to the station.

“It tells us he didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop,” said Gregg.

“Very good.”

“But… you haven’t proven anything.” said Bud. “He gets off at the bus stop and takes a little constitutional out across the overpass. Someone mugs him. His tie gets grabbed in the struggle. A second operator shoots him in the back with the Taser. He goes down, face forward; they grab his wallet and run. The paramedics try too revive him but it’s too late,” finished Bud.

I indicated Debussy should explain where he was wrong.

“Well… it was way too far for a man in his health to walk in that heat on purpose—it was ninety-eight. And it’s downhill so he would have had a real hard time getting back uphill.”

“He would not have done it,” I stated. “Never.”

“So… he must have gotten off the bus where we found his glasses,” Gregg finished.

“Right.” I beamed.

“But what does… why would the bus let him off there?”

Debussy was out of ideas now.

“To kill him out of sight, Bud,” I said.

“What?”

“He was tasered in the back, right?”

“Right.”

“Have the Medical Examiner check the body to see if the Taser shot was angled downward.”

“Down?”

“From the top step of the bus,” piped up Gregg excitedly.

“Very good. I’ll be back in the morning for the answer.”

“He was tasered from above.” said Debussy. “The toothpicks the ME stuck in the Taser wounds were at an angle.”

“The bus would have been full of people,” said Bud.

“They could’ve used another bus,” Gregg countered.

“How the hell would they have gotten away with that?”

“The driver controls the sign,” I said. “After getting him on the bus the driver could have changed the sign so that no one at other stops saw it as their bus. He tells the passengers that did get on that he is having trouble with the bus and everyone who isn’t getting off at the overpass stop, needs to get off at the next stop.

“And the real bus would be coming along behind, so no one would have a complaint.”

“Very good, Gregg. You’ve got my replacement coming up here, Bud.”

Bud looked the beanpole up and down regretfully. He had a love/hate relationship with detectives.

“You can see how it goes,” I said. “The bus passes the bus stop and he yells, getting pissed off. The driver stops five light poles out onto the overpass. The driver tells him that he either gets off there, or goes all the way around again. This makes him even angrier. He steps onto the sidewalk and gets a Taser in the back. The huge bus blocks the view of anyone close. The driver steps off, grabs his wallet, flips him over, and flees the scene. The whole thing takes less than thirty seconds because he has practiced.”

“His wallet was in his back pocket. Why turn him over?”

I looked at Gregg and he grinned.

“To tighten his tie.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry, that doesn’t wash. We’ve looked into the driver. Nothing odd or bad. All the drivers have been accounted for, on and off duty. You’ve got nothing.”

“If I were you Bud, and I am so glad I’m not…”

“Thanks, Jewell.”

“I’d— no. You do it, Gregg.”

He looked panicked.

“Calm down. What’s the dilemma? Take your time. How do you solve that dilemma?”

“Uhm… all the drivers have been accounted for… so…” He looked down, then up quickly, “But not all the people who can drive the bus!”

I smiled. “Excellent.”

“What?” asked Bud. “Who else?”

“The head bus mechanic. He knows how to operate it as well as any driver, and could cover by saying he was test-driving it.”

I clapped and his face turned as red as his hair. Bud personally escorted Gregg down to arrest the head mechanic. He’d been given twenty-five thousand to pull the caper off and had almost gotten away with it.

After we met in Bud’s office, I offered Debussy lunch and he accepted.

“You like these kinds of cases, don’t you?” Gregg asked at lunch.

“Like dogs love tennis balls.”

“I understand why you stripped now. It was for justice.”

“Right. I would have died for that little girl. I almost did die for her, and I would do it all again, gunshot wounds, coma and all. What was a little nude dancing against her life?” I started tearing up. “I see her occasionally. She’s becoming a niece of sorts.”

He handed me his kerchief and I sniffed into it while he smiled at me.

“What?”

“It’s passion that drives you.”

“Sure… Oh, I see. You’ve been taught to keep passion out of it. Sometimes passionate righteousness is all you’ve got to go on, Gregg.”

“Thanks for the lessons, Jewell. I’m gonna make you proud.”

pencilEmail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

First in Time, First in Right

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meredith Bateman


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

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

First in time.

Davis Nichols woke to the branch he needed to trim scratching his window, just as the sun brought grey to the horizon. He got himself coffee. Took a quick shower, he’d done well with Violet, his daughter. She’d seen all this conservation stuff coming a mile away. It was sensible and so was she.

He fed the chickens, watered the corn he would later feed the chickens. She’d talked him out of pesticides, antibiotics. He missed her, but as much as she could hold her own on the rugged edges of tiny towns, she belonged in the city. She was going to make the world a better place. She was a voice for the silent men like Davis.

It was normal to miss Violet though, just part of the day. It had been lonely since she’d gone. The most memorable thing to happen so far was the branch; he kept his place in good repair. He would take care of it after he checked the mail. His post office box was in town.

Davis checked it every other day with Otis, his bloodhound, the most- and least-friendly dog in the world, depending on if he knew you. The new postal supervisor wouldn’t let Otis in the office anymore, even just the box section, so Davis went when he wasn’t working.

Otis followed him, sat right at his side as he opened the box. Lay at Davis’s feet as he dumped any junk directly into recycling. Violet had told him there was a way to get them to stop sending it completely, but it had involved filling out an online form and he’d told her he’d need her help with it next time she came on back home and she laughed and agreed.

The day the branch woke Davis up got unusual when he pulled out his mail and there was the sound of unwrapped metal, something small, as it fell from the stack of papers. He reached in and pulled out Abigail Clark’s broach. It had been her mother’s. Davis didn’t have much of a mind for jewelry; Abigail had stepped in and helped Violet accessorize for dances and the like after Charlotte died.

There was a photo of the broach on his mantle. He’d spent a frantic hour looking for it after it had fallen out of Violet’s purse as she’d told him over and over again how irreplaceable it was. When they had told Abigail she had laughed, but she never lent anything of her mother’s to Violet again.

Davis went into the main office, Otis at his side. Sam began to shake his head no.

“Sam, I found this with my mail. It’s Abigail Clark’s.”

Otis growled. The supervisor had come in early. He had been crossing behind Sam and stopped to stare Davis and his dog down.

“Got to get out of here with that animal.”

“I’m getting out of here. I just wanted to know how this got in my box, with no postage or wrapping.”

Otis growled.

The supervisor reached for the broach. He sneered.

Davis held it back.

Otis snapped.

“I know who it belongs to.”

Davis left. The supervisor was yelling at his back, saying things about come back, impossibility, and police. Davis had known Joel Harris, the sheriff, since grade school, he would have been happy to surrender the broach to Joel. He was Abigail’s neighbor.

As they walked back to the truck Otis was riled up, bristling and jumping like a dog half his age. Davis looked down at the dog and said, “I don’t like him either. It’s okay.”

That was when he saw the glasses. Joel’s glasses sitting at the base of the lamppost. Joel had been legally blind since anyone had thought to ask him how well he saw. With them he saw everything, he was a hell of a sheriff, but he never went anywhere without them. He picked them up. It was unsettling, carrying things that meant so much to his neighbors.

He drove to Joel’s and Abigail’s. There was nobody at either home. It made sense that Joel would be at the station. It made sense that Abigail would be tending her peas and raspberries. They wove in the wind, in a lonely dance.

Davis and Abigail were friends, that was all, but he ached to see her in her garden. He wanted to see Violet beside her, ribbons in her hair. They would all be laughing. The girls outright, Davis something silent at the edge of his lips.

He circled their houses, looking in windows. When he found nothing there was nothing to do but leave.

He stopped at the sheriff’s office. It was unlocked and empty. With a force of four and crime amounting to those speeding through on their cars and an occasional occupant in the drunk tank, teens and Sam Chambers, one thing or the other wasn’t that unusual. But unlocked and empty was strange.

Davis stood, hat in hand. Otis circled him. There was work waiting for him back home. It could wait, but for what, for Davis to stand in an empty station with his hat in his hands. He circled it around.

Allen, the deputy walked in from out back.

“Davis, how can I help you?”

“Have you heard from Joel today?”

“Sure thing, called in sick. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I was just by his house. He wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe he was sleeping.”

“Maybe.”

Allen reached to pet Otis. The hound didn’t growl, but he circled behind Davis, slow, unthreatened, and away from Allen’s hand.

“I found his glasses.”

“At his house? Did you go inside?”

“Wouldn’t go in a man’s house without invite. They were under the lamppost outside the post office.”

“That’s awful strange.”

Davis stood, Joel’s glasses in his hand. Allen stood back.

“I can take them and give them back to Joel when he comes back. Maybe he got a new pair.”

“Maybe so. Still, it’s strange where I found them.”

“It is.” Allen took the glasses and put them on the desk. “Folks should be careful when things are strange like that.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Davis left the station, got back in his truck, stared at the sky. For the life of him he couldn’t think of why he hadn’t mentioned Abigail’s broach. There was a storm at the horizon. He could tell by looking it would roll through fierce and quick.

He needed to cut his branch. Nothing in his past served as a frame to make a plan for this. He started up the truck and headed home. Otis lay down on the seat next to him. Davis wished he would stick his head out the window like normal.

The hound held the storm in his bones.

At home Davis put the broach on the counter. He went out back and got his hand saw. Headed to the tree. The branch was dangling at a strange angle. It hadn’t grown to reach his house without Davis noticing. He prided himself on noticing all about his farm before even needing to. That was how to keep it going.

On the branch was Ben Goodwin’s medic alert bracelet. Davis’s mouth went dry. It tingled and his knees matched the branch’s strange angles. Everything within him was as foreign as the farm he gave his life to. He pulled the bracelet of the branch. He got the feeling Ben wasn’t home either. Wondered if his friend still had use for the bracelet.

He sawed away anyway. It was something he could do, had been in times lean and fat. His face was wet with tears and though there was no one around he hoped the storm would come. Folks were dropping and if Davis could be all the things he was always supposed to be he might be able to see the world Violet was making.

He turned around and wasn’t surprised to find he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see Otis sitting at the feet of the visitors. They’d met before. He sat right between the two of them, eating a steak. A dog is a dog.

First in right.

“Davis Nichols, father of Violet, widow of Charlotte,” he looked at his palm and turned something around it. “Lifelong resident of Eagle, Colorado.”

“Just outside of Eagle,” the other one said. He looked at a finger.

The first speaker tossed the broach. “Abigail let Violet borrow this once, right? I thought I saw that in one of the pictures.”

“Did you see the ring he bought for Charlotte?”

The man extended his ring finger. Charlotte’s ring was at the very top of his finger, he held it out to his friend to look at.

“I like it. It’s simple.”

The storm cracked above. Even Otis looked up from his bone.

“Let’s go inside,” the man with the ring moved it down to pull his coat aside revealing a pistol. This hadn’t been necessary and the other man didn’t bother. There was no one for miles and a gunshot would just blend in with the thunder.

Davis had a rifle, but he didn’t carry it around with him to cut branches. He brought his saw with him inside. He should have gone straight for his rifle as soon as he got home.

As soon as they were inside the man with the ring put it on the counter. The other set the broach next to it.

“No matter what I wouldn’t keep it,” the ring man said. Though Davis would want Violet to have it, somehow that made it worse. They sat down.

“Do you know what this is about?” the broach.

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that idea?” said the ring.

“Are they all right? Abigail, Joel, and Ben?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” the ring man said.

“Joel didn’t have senior rights.”

“Joel was a decent sheriff,” said the ring man.

“Allen, now he’s more reasonable. Anything that happened to Joel, not that I’m saying anything happened to Joel, didn’t have to happen to him,” the broach said.

“Joel was decent.” The ring.

“You’re right, they did have to happen to him.” The broach.

“What did you do to him?”

“See, Davis, you never have to find out.” The broach.

“Where do you keep the rights?” the ring asked.

“I have a daughter…” Davis said.

“Violet. She’ll probably let you stay with her. We’re paying and taking the water rights, or you’re paying and we’re taking them anyway. You won’t actually have to leave even,” the ring said.

“We’re not pretending you can keep farming.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“What do you think is going to happen? If you let the ground go fallow? If this land is allowed to dry?”

“Our interests are far enough away that we have no interest in the dust,” the ring said.

“It will reach you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’re reaching you now,” the ring said.

“All you want is for me to sign over my rights.”

Davis looked out at what had always been his whole life.

“Don’t think too long,” the broach said.

“Not much to think about,” the ring.

“This place is my whole life,” Davis.

“This place and Violet.”

“I raised her right. Abigail helped.” Davis’s eyes stuck to the horizon. “She knows how to do.”

“Think, Davis.” The ring put a picture of Violet on the counter in front of Davis. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re giving up?”

“I’m not giving it up. You have to take it.”

“Think again, Davis. All you have to do is sign the papers,” the broach said.

“For killers you don’t seem to want to kill.”

“Never set out to kill, just work for people who want their water,” the ring.

“It’s my water.”

“It was your water.” The broach. “They pay well. They pay well enough that men who never set out to kill would do anything. They’ll pay you well, then we don’t have to do those things.”

“Davis, did you think again?” The ring.

Davis answered by lunging at them with the saw. He had never done anything like that before. It wasn’t that he expected to get away from such a confrontation with his life.

The ring grabbed his left wrist, the broach his right. The broach squeezed and he dropped the saw. It dented the floor. Davis couldn’t help but notice that it needed cleaning just then and he smiled, and the rain started outside, but they were so close to each other that it was warm and they could feel each other’s breath.

“What do you want for Violet?” the ring asked.

“She stands to inherit the rights, doesn’t she?” the broach said.

“Out of everyone we’ve had to visit she’ll be the prettiest,” the ring said.

“They’ll catch up with us eventually. It would be nice to visit with someone pretty before they do.”

“It would.”

“What do you think, Davis?” The ring let go. He took a pen out of his pocket.

The broach let go of his right. “You don’t want us to visit Violet.”

The pen sat between them. Lightning cracked loud and oblivious outside. The sky opened and rain poured off the roof, onto the land, out to the sea.

pencilMeredith Bateman is a creative writing student in Denver, Colorado, a place where water is first in time, first in right. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

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