The Error in Desire

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


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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to.”

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

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

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

Grace shook her head, and Mason’s smile faded into tender-eyed sympathy.

“Not feeling good today, sweetie?” he asked, rubbing Maddie’s back lightly. “I might have something to fix that.” He held up a DVD that he had been hiding behind his back. “Want to watch some Princess Sofia with me?” he asked, and then leaned forward and added in a whisper, “And I’ve got a super-secret, special snack for once your mom leaves, too. What d’ya say?”

Maddie tried to hide her smile, but it was obvious that she was hooked.

“I knew I’d win you over,” Mason chuckled, motioning toward the house. “Harry got a work call and had to pop out for a bit, but he’ll be back soon.”

“That’s fine,” Grace replied as she carried Maddie towards the spacious living room just to the left of the main entryway. “He warned me that he might get called away.”

While Grace situated Maddie on the couch, Mason got the TV set up for their movie watching experience. By the time Grace was kissing her daughter goodbye, Maddie was snuggled up in blankets and ready for her mother to leave so she could enjoy her show and find out what the super-secret treat was.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Grace smiled, tapping Maddie on the nose. She waited for her daughter to nod and then headed for the door. Before she reached it, however, Mason had wedged himself in front of her, blocking her exit.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Little late for this conversation, don’t you think?” Grace replied, not looking Mason in the eye. She couldn’t afford to let him change her mind. “It’s safe. It will get me the money I need to help Maddie. I’m doing it.”

“Grace…”

“Please move.”

Mason sighed but stepped out of the way, allowing Grace the escape she’d asked for.

*

The first hour was nothing but paperwork. “…and sign here. Please initial that we have explained and you comprehend the…” blah, blah, blah “…concerning this procedure.” Grace couldn’t understand why they were making such a big deal about the test. Virtual reality had been around for years. Why did it matter whether or not you were asleep while you experienced it?

Next, they asked her about her personal life. Nothing too specific, just questions about her family: what her daughter was like, her parents, her brother, Mason. They asked her if she was married, dating, if she had eyes set on anyone. She answered vaguely, “Who doesn’t see a cute guy every now and again?”

Finally, they had her change into a blue cloth gown and led her to a room containing only a single hospital bed and a bunch of monitors. They inserted an IV into her left arm. Grace had never been good with needles, but after having watched Maddie get multiple pricks and sticks, she felt stupid freaking out herself.

“Now, like we’ve said, this machine is programed to give you the perfect dream,” a lab technician explained as he attached little electrodes to her forehead. “You’ve got the easy job. All you have to do is sleep while we watch your vital signs on the monitors.” He smiled as if he’d made some sort of joke, but Grace didn’t get it.

He cleared his throat. “Are you ready?” When she nodded, he plunged a serum into her IV catheter. “Sweet dreams.”

*

It took a moment for Grace to realize that the water was still running in the sink. She had been watching Maddie out of the window as the happy child played with a small Labrador puppy in the backyard. The two were running around aimlessly, Maddie shrieking with laughter as the puppy chased after her, nipping at her heels anytime the four-year-old slowed down enough for it to catch up.

“Everything all right?”

Grace turned to see Mason entering the room. He was dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans, his black hair was short and combed neatly to one side. For a moment, Grace thought he looked a little different than usual, but the moment passed, and she smiled. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I was just watching Maddie and got distracted, I guess.” She turned off the sink and turned towards Mason who was stepping forward to wrap her in a hug. She fit perfectly in his arms, felt safe there.

“I think that puppy was a good idea,” Mason said, as they both gazed out the window. “I know Maddie is young, but it’s never too early to begin teaching responsibility. This way, she can have a little fun as well.”

“Mhmm,” Grace grunted in agreement.

“And speaking of responsibility,” Mason began. “Your brother is going to be a little late to dinner tonight. He has a situation at work that’s going to keep him longer than expected.”

“What else is new?” Grace sighed, falling out of Mason’s embrace. She turned back towards the sink but couldn’t remember what she had been doing there in the first place.

“He is bringing his new boy-toy, though,” Mason announced. “So at least he got back to us on that.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”

“I wouldn’t have to call them that if he would stick with one long enough for the guy to be considered anything else.”

“He just hasn’t found the right person yet,” Grace countered. “Not everyone can get it right the first time,” she added, smiling up into Mason’s deep brown eyes. How she loved those eyes.

“Yes, well,” Mason muttered, leaning forward to give Grace a kiss. It was a full kiss, a deep kiss that made Grace hunger for more.

“Mom!”

Grace and Mason broke apart to see a muddy puppy scrambling down the hall, leaving a splatter of footprints in his wake as Maddie charged full speed after him.

Maddie paused long enough in the doorway to screech out, “Dodger got inside!” before continuing her chase after the rampaging puppy.

“I’ve got it,” Mason announced, “but we’ll finish this later,” he added, passing her a sensual look.

As Mason cleaned up the mud, Grace prepared dinner, and by the time six-thirty rolled around, everything was as good as it was going to get. Grace’s parents arrived first, her father as loud and jovial as always while her mother stood quietly by his side, smiling politely when necessary. Mason’s father was next to arrive, his mother having declined the invitation. Ever since their divorce it was always either one or the other. This left only Harry and his date who, surprisingly, appeared only a mere half-hour late.

“This is Brian,” Harry introduced, and Grace was surprised to see that Brian looked a whole hell of a lot like Mason.

Who knew we had the same taste, she thought as she herded everyone into the kitchen to make up plates.

The meal was basically finished when Mason turned bright-eyed towards her, the corners of his mouth turned up in anticipation. “Are you ready to make the announcement?”

Grace smiled back, the warmth of his loving expression filling her up. “You do it.”

“Okay.” He picked up his fork and began tapping the side of his water glass. It was corny, but cute, and managed to get everyone’s attention. “Hey, everyone, we actually invited you all over for dinner tonight because we have a special announcement.”

He paused then, at which time Maddie popped up in her seat and cried, “Mommy’s having a baby!”

Grace never got to hear her family’s reaction. A moment later, she found herself lying on a hospital bed, staring up at a blinking monitor.

“You did really well,” a lab technician said as he began unhooking her from the machine. “We got excellent readings. All that is left now is for you to fill out a little questionnaire and you’re free to go.”

Grace nodded, but she hadn’t really been paying attention to what the man had said. Her hand was on her stomach, right over the baby. She was pregnant, but not by Mason, or even someone like Mason—not like it should be. Derek wouldn’t want this baby, just like he hadn’t wanted Maddie. He merely wanted the sex, content to jump in and out of her life like a yo-yo. There would be no family dinner where the announcement was made followed by congratulatory smiles. In fact, she hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone yet because she knew the kind of looks she would receive.

The dream had shown her what she wanted, all right. Maddie healthy and running around was no secret, but she’d thought the crush on her brother’s husband had been locked away deep in the depths of her soul. How did the computer know about that just by a few questions concerning her everyday life? She felt dirty now—secrets exposed, her true feeling laid bare even if it was only in her own mind.

She wished she’d never had that dream and yet… if she could trade it for the life she had now, she would. That machine was dangerous. Sure, it might keep nightmares away, which was supposedly its purpose, but who would want to live in the real world when they could have the one they always imagined while they slept?

Once Grace was unhooked from the machines, she was taken back to her changing room. She ripped off the gown, flinging it away from her before scrambling back into her own clothes as if they would somehow vanquish the grimy feeling left behind from the test. When she opened the door of the changing room, she startled as she found herself face to face with the lab technician.

He handed her a clipboard. “If you could just fill out this questionnaire before you leave. And also, for further reference, would you be interested in repeating this test if the designers thought it useful in the future?”

“Yes,” Grace replied without thinking.

pencilEmail: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

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

That Yellow Sun

Fiction
Jay Merill


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

That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.

Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’

‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’

Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.

She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.

‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’

Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:

‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.

‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’

Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.

Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.

After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.

Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.

She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.

Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’

Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.

‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.

I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.

I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’

In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.

Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.

‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.

Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’

Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’

Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’

‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.

‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’

Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.

‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’

pencilFiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net

After School

Fiction
Dacia Price


Photo Credit: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr (CC-by)

He said he loved her on the front porch of his parents’ house with tucked-under legs and sneakered feet. Their backpacks sagged and crumpled against the wall, their skateboards half-buried in unmowed grass. Moments ago, they had been carrying both. But he had wanted to hold her hand. She took note of the smooth pavement and downward slope as they walked. She liked his hair first and his face second. His name was Jeremy and he had brown eyes. He had a square jaw and jagged, angled cheekbones. He had brown hair. Before, when they were still strangers, she liked to watch him twirl it around his finger. A nervous habit. Like nail biting, only sweet. Soft. She thought it must smell like coconut shampoo. Fresh. Tropical. New.

She had never been to his house before and thought the street was also new. Like it had arrived perfectly formed that morning. Like him. She wondered if it might disappear again once she left. She thought a lot about things like that. Roads appearing just for her. Coconut-scented hair. Why the boys she chose were always named Jeremy. This one was her fourth. Though the last had shortened his to Jer so that you were left wondering if his name was Jeremy or something less. A boy at school had called him Jerry Cheesecake once, and the name had struck her with such force, such undeniability, that she had broken up with him, just then, right then. His hair had been the color of cheesecake. Yellowed. Wilted.

This one didn’t shorten his name. He was Jeremy. No abbreviations. She thought his mom was probably one of those who thought Full Names were preferable, superior. Were the only thing their child ought to be called. Moms who had Christophers and demanded they never be referred to as Chris. Or Benjamins as Bens. As though they were offended by it. As though a name could offend.

She was his first Lia. His first girlfriend. His first everything.

Jeremy’s mother had brought them cookies and juice when they arrived. He had rolled his eyes. He’s not a child, he seemed to be saying, who needs after school snacks. But Lia could tell he was. She thought he was the kind of boy who still had his mom brush his hair. Still told her his secrets. Lia could see he was just learning to be his own person.

They sat on the porch and ate chocolate chip cookies and drank orange juice and the summer air twisted and tugged at her hair. It sent it around her head. Under her chin. Across her face. So she saw him through intersecting lines of blond. A cage of strands. The wind whipped around them and wrapped her face in strangling yellows and golds. She struggled to disentangle her lips. Her neck. Her eyes. And in that moment he mistook frustration for fragility and found it beautiful. Found her beautiful.

He proclaimed his love, his undying love, his new and different I’ve never felt this way before love with shining eyes and cookie crumb lips. His hand gripped hers so that it made her palms sweat and her spine ache. He sputtered his love so recklessly, so radiantly that for a brief moment she was sure she might love him too. Might love this Jeremy who didn’t shorten his name and whose hair smelled like an island. She laughed and he kissed her. And together they explored his mouth and lips. His earlobes. His neck.

That afternoon they had sex behind his bedroom door while his mother made dinner. His dark walls lined with posters of bands and airplanes, of medals earned in Little League, and guitars covered in stickers. In black marker. She thought of mac and cheese. Of homework that needed to be done. Of how coconut shampoo never smells like the real thing. The weight of him on top of her, his long hair brushed against her forehead. They used to play doctor like this. She on her back. Hands under her clothes. It was always pretend, before. His mother’s humming crept beneath the door.

When they were finished he cried in her arms, he had found her, he said, he had waited so long, and now it was over. It filled him with a profound sadness. So she held his head and stroked his hair and thought about how cool the evening air would be against her skin. About the heat inside his room and about the way his love clung to her, hot and humid and heavy.

pencilDacia Price loves nothing more than cold beer on hot afternoons, standing on top of tall mountains and writing stories. Some of those stories can be found in Pacifica Literary Review, and discussed on Ploughshares. She lives in Seaside, CA. Email: dacia.price[at]yahoo.com

Looks Like Death

Fiction
William Locke Hauser


jalexartis/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We are driving, my sister and I with our mother, from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, to consult with doctors at Johns Hopkins about our mother’s hemochromatosis. My sister and I are very sad, and our mother is angry. It’s December 2016 and Hillary Clinton has just been elected president, which should make all three of us happy, but we’re still sad and angry from Mom’s predicament.

“I feel awful,” Mom says. “I want to go back.”

“We can’t,” Sis says with an angry shake of her head. I can see in the rearview mirror that her carefully coiffed pageboy is trembling with exasperation. “We’ve got to get you well or die trying.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff,” Mom chortles. “I am dying.”

I remain silent, concentrating on the road. My opinion of this expedition falls somewhere between that of the two of them, to wit, I wish Sis would shut up and I wish Mom would either flatly refuse to go or peacefully acquiesce, instead of sitting in the front passenger seat—I’m the driver—and muttering under her breath.

We’re an Army family, or at least we were when Dad was alive, and Mom is currently resident in a home for Army widows in northwest Washington, a converted mansion furnished with satin draperies, 1930s overstuffed furniture, and gold-framed portraits of intrepid generals from World War II. The main building holds the hale and hearty, there’s a wing for those who need “assisted living,” and there’s a basement dormitory for the dying, of which Mom is one. The walls there are decorated with crayon drawings from favorite grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the odor of urine is pervasive.

There’s also a daily bus to Walter Reed Armed Forces Hospital, where Mom goes every ten days to be bled. If that sounds medieval, it isn’t far from the truth. They say there’s no cure for hemochromatosis—where an excess of red blood cells overloads your liver and kills you very unpleasantly by inches—and no relief from intense pain, except when some phlebotomist nurse draws off a pint or so at a time, and if you’re very old—Mom is now 84—the puncture wounds heal badly or not at all. Gross.

“I’m hungry,” Mom says. She’s not, I know, but she wants to be difficult. I can see her face getting as red as her still-red hair, and her swollen-knuckled hands are wringing one another in her lap.

“No, you’re not,” Sis says.

Now it’s my turn to be angry. “Goddammit, if Mom says she’s hungry, she’s fucking well hungry!”

“What language!” Sis exclaims.

“Well,” Mom retorts, “I am fucking well hungry.”

I turn off at the exit for Baltimore-Washington Airport, and we see a sign with a knife-and-fork symbol, directing us to a roadside diner. It’s a Golden Corral, “all you can eat” of the whole world’s salty sugary fat-fried cuisine.

“Not here!” Sis says.

“Yes here,” Mom says. She’s almost crying. “I want my way. Didn’t I raise you to be obedient?”

Sis refuses to eat anything, and I’m not hungry, but I go through the line and get a small helping each of short ribs, coleslaw, and butter beans. The people in line ahead of me are obese; the people behind are almost as fat, even the littlest kids; and the odor of grease, despite over-airconditioning, is so thick that the very air seems opaque. Mom has grits and red-eye gravy, a harkening back to her Catawba County childhood.

Mom’s still a good-looking woman, despite the ravages of her illness—tall, slender, aquiline nose, long once-expressive hands. Sis must take after our late dad’s father, the one whose portrait hangs in the county courthouse: dark hair, olive skin, and hooded eyes that tell of the clan’s Native American heritage. She emphasizes this by wearing long Indian—Asian-Indian-made, that is—skirts, embroidered blouses, and turquoise bead necklaces. I favor Mom, except for having a dick, which you can’t see of course, and a mustache and beard which you can. I long ago decided I didn’t want to look like a woman, even the woman I love second best after Hallie, who isn’t along because she hates hospitals after what we went through with our son Kevin’s agonizingly drawn out decline.

We get back in the car, my new Jag sedan, which has a comfortable ride despite its racy lines, and despite Mom’s constant shifting in her seat as if she had plunked down her hemorrhoids in a wooden church pew.

“How much longer?” she asks.

“Must you keep asking that?” Sis demands. “Don’t you know this isn’t easy on the rest of us either?”

I look, expecting to see a sour expression, but she looks bland, an adjective which suits the moment because that’s the question she’s posed at least four times since we left the northwest quadrant of the District.

“Zip it, Sis,” I say, and though she relaxes in her seat, the tight sourness of her expression never loosens.

We leave the interstate and find ourselves in Baltimore’s potholed streets, past houses with incongruous marble stoops—there’s a story behind that feature, which our dad used to tell but I’ve forgotten—and the GPS leads us to the Cancer Ward annex. Hemochromatosis apparently isn’t a cancer, or so one of the specialists at Walter Reed told us, but it might as well be, with rogue cells crowding out the productive and clogging the channels, but hematology and cancer are traditionally housed in the same wing of major hospitals. I mean, if proliferating red corpuscles aren’t malignant, I can hardly imagine a more apt use of the adjective.

Dr. Azam is occupied with an extended surgical procedure, we’re told, and we’re asked to make our way to the cafeteria because the waiting room is too full with other backed-up patients, some of whom are absolutely ghastly-looking and falling out of their Eames chairs. I grab a magazine as we exit, and to my dismay discover on the way down the hall that it’s Golf, a game that I played as a teenager but have since discovered distracts me from the pleasures of a walk, if indeed the course lets you walk instead of electric-cart rolling along an asphalt path.

“Cup of coffee?” I ask Mom. “Or tea?” She disdains to answer.

It’s past lunchtime, and the cafeteria is empty except for two waitress-cashiers, who ignore us as we wait to pay.

“Can we get a little service here?” Sis calls out.

“We’re on our break,” one of the women answers.

“Then is there someone else?”

A shake of the head. “She’s in the can.”

“Fuck it,” Sis says, and leads the way to a table.

“Fuck it,” echoes Mom.

I sip my cup of coffee, which tastes awful, conjuring up visions of arrest for not paying, but no one comes. A third waitress joins the other two, and their conversation continues, with arm-wavings and exclamations of “You don’t say!” and “I’da told her…” and “You think I didn’t?”

Finally we are summoned. Dr. Azam is young, courtly, and precise of speech. “There is nothing to be done, “Mrs. _____. No cure, no therapy, no…”

“But we were told…” Sis begins.

“Leave it,” Mom barks. “Leave it!” She rises and leads the way out of the doctor’s little side office, glancing as she goes at his framed diplomas and testimonials. “Thank you, Doctor. We won’t be back.”

“But you may,” he sputters, “if you’re referred again.” His round face bespeaks sincerity, and his plump little hands steeple piously.

“I said we won’t,” Mom answers, turning back in the doorway. “W-O-N-apostrophe-T won’t.”

We get back in the car, drive to the exit of the parking lot and discover that we have neglected—“You were supposed to take care of that!” Sis says to me—to get our parking ticket validated by a machine in the entry hall, so I have to feed my AmEx card into the gate for a $25 charge. So we’re disgruntledly on our way.

“I want some oysters,” Mom says. “Stop for oysters.”

“You can’t get oysters on the interstate, you silly old…” Sis begins, and then swallows her words with a stricken look.

Mom and I both ignore the cruelty. “We’ll drive down to the harbor area,” I say. “I know a place that has crab cakes that’ll bring tears to your eyes, and I’ll warrant their oysters ain’t too shabby either.”

The restaurant, a low-slung weathered-wood shanty decorated with anchors and fishnets and with the fiberglass sculpture of a killer whale projecting from the shingled roof, has a poster board by the door that says:

EAT FISH, LIVE LONGER
EAT CRABS, PLAY LONGER
EAT OYSTERS, LAST LONGER

It’s past 2:00 p.m. and the place is empty. We choose a booth in a reasonably well-lit corner, and Mom consumes, with Sis and me helping, a dozen raw plus a huge basket of fried. She leans back in the booth and emits a most-unladylike belch. “Your father always used to say that that’s the way to show appreciation for a really good meal.”

And she leans forward and says, “Did I ever tell you the story about your dad and me and the bad oysters in New Orleans?”

“Be careful,” Sis says, playful for the first time today, “It’s against the Napoleonic Code to criticize New Orleans cuisine.”

“Well,” Mom says, “It was at the Commander’s Palace of all places. We’d been to an excruciatingly boring conference on management of Episcopal parish endowments—your dad was the parish warden back then—the zydeco music at the welcoming reception was appropriately deafening and your dad and I showed that stuffy crowd a thing or two about how to get down and dirty, but the appetizers were skimpy and the dancing had worked up a huge appetite. So we taxied to the Commander’s Palace and they said they were full and we didn’t have a reservation, but then your dad spotted some old friends from the board of trustees at his old boarding school, and they were obviously regulars, and next thing you know we had the best table in the house, under the branches of that magnificent old live oak, and I had all the oysters I could eat, and they were the best I’d ever had. Until…”

“I can almost guess,” Sis says. “You didn’t get sick on the airplane, did you?” Her tone implies that we haven’t heard the story before, which is not the case, but she is too polite to say so outright, and I also pretend to be astonished.

“Sick?” Mom says. “There weren’t enough sick bags on the plane to hold all the barf.”

“Mom, we’re eating!” Sis exclaims.

“No, we’re not,” Mom says. “We’re done.” She rises abruptly, and before I can reach out to steady her, she’s on her way out the door.

“Mom,” I call after her, “you don’t know where the car is parked.”

“I’ll ask the valet, and he’ll give me the keys, and I can start it and get the air conditioning going so the car will be comfortable when you and Sis get there.”

“But I have the claim check!”

“And I have an old lady’s privilege of getting my way. He won’t dare not fetch the car for me.”

Back through the city, which by now is clogged with rush-hour traffic. As we pass through a depressed neighborhood, locals peer into the car, and Mom mutters, “Looks like drug gangs, so make sure the windows are locked.”

I survey the passing and standing-watching parade, and see no evidence of drug gangs. The crowds are young and old, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, working class folks wending their weary way, “leaving the world to darkness and to me.” Then we get stopped by a house fire—red ladder trucks, hoses stretched across the street, forlorn occupants standing in despair and hoping for permission to reenter and rescue their meager possessions. The street is awash with water, and the gutters are emptying frothily. A kid comes up to the passenger window and taps on the glass. Mom presses the down button, and asks, “What do you want?”

“Close it!” Sis barks from the rear. “These people have knives.”

“I don’t have no knife, lady,” the kid says. It’s a little girl, her hair in intricate braids. “I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. We’ve got peanut butters, s’mores, and thin mints. Five dollars a carton, or eight dollars for two.”

“In original packaging?” Sis demands.

“Shut up, Sis,” I say.

“Shut up, Sis,” Mom echoes, and to the little girl, “We’ll take two s’mores, please.”

Cookies are passed in and ten dollars out. “Keep the change, darling,” Mom says, and I can see the sour-pickle expression on Sis’s face at the largesse. I never cease to wonder at her parsimony, financial and emotional, despite having been raised in an environment of outgoing generosity.

There’s a backup getting onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and there’s obviously going to be another onto the Beltway, so I take a detour over to U.S. 1 to kill a little time at Behnke’s Nursery.

“Why are we stopping here?” Sis demands. “None of us has a garden anymore, what with Mom at Knollwood, me in midtown Manhattan, and you on Capitol Hill.”

“This used to be Mom’s favorite stopover,” I answer. “Still is, right, Mom?”

“Still is,” Mom echoes. She strains to turn her head toward the back seat, countering Sis’s glower with a sunny smile.

It’s hard for Mom to maneuver her walker on the gravel paths, and she eventually yields to necessity, switching to an electric-motored buggy. “Whee!” she exclaims, outdistancing Sis and me, slowing down when she herself becomes apprehensive. We tour the rose beds first, with Mom leaning precariously out of the cart to read labels with her AARP magnifier, of which she must have a dozen because that silly organization keeps sending her recruitment letters that offer one as a “free gift.” “That’s redundant,” she says. “A gift is always free, unless it undertakes a moral obligation, which I certainly don’t feel toward a bunch of patronizing do-gooders.”

And then to the houseplants, which I don’t have any of in my little flat, and I’ll bet if Sis has any in her 38th & Park terrace apartment, they’re tended by her and Geoffrey’s Filipina housekeeper with strict instructions not to let the children touch. We look at hen-and-chicks, snake plants, aspidistra (I recall an unheralded George Orwell novel, worth rereading), and a philodendron that stretches all the way across the ceiling of the check-out shed that would give me bad dreams to have in the house.

“I’ll have that snake plant there,” Mom says.

“It’s too big for your room at the residence,” Sis says. “And your roommate will complain.”

“She won’t complain,” Mom says. “She’s dotty. Anything I do is all right with her, because she thinks I’m her beloved sister. Or sometimes her mother. Sometimes even her husband.”

I load the plant onto the back of her buggy, and we head for the check-out.

“That’ll be $17.67 including tax,” the clerk says.

“Oh, no,” Mom says. “That bench of plants had a sign that said ‘SALE’.”

“Yes, ma’am, so it’s marked down from $25.00.”

“But one of the outside leaves is cracked. Look there.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s why it’s on sale.”

“Never mind my mother,” Sis interjects.

“Never… mind… my… mother,” Mom says. “Did I just now hear that correctly? Surely not.”

“I meant, ‘Thank you for the bother’,” Sis stammers.

I hand the clerk a twenty, mumble “Put the change in that crippled-children’s-fund jar,” and we make our exit.

We’re on the Beltway within minutes, and after the bleakness of strip malls along U.S. 1, the landscape—if you ignore six lanes of traffic—is lush with trees. We pass signs telling of stream valleys now bridged with concrete, and I recall woodland adventures thereabouts from when Dad was in the Pentagon and I used to go camping with my Cub Scout den. The “den mother,” a woman of whom I grew so intensely fond that Mom would bristle when I praised her over the dinner table, was “only a housewife.” That’s what Mom would say, contrasting the lady’s status with her own as a lobbying firm’s legal secretary.

We take the Connecticut Avenue exit, and suddenly we’re in Washington’s elegant Upper Northwest suburbs. Massive houses of brick and stone fronting on the busy avenue, with once-deep lawns now amputated by the addition of lanes. And there’s a brand-new house of garishly modern design, turrets and furbelows, with a circular driveway in the middle of which looms an ornate fountain. Only half the lawn is green, the other half still bare but for stacks of sod. The traffic, already clotted, now slows to a crawl.

There is a bicyclist riding alongside us, sometimes getting a bit ahead, sometimes falling a bit behind. Now he’s passing at a glacial pace, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that he’s old and diminutive, helmetless with a bald head, bony face, and pale shanks showing beneath a billowing white garment instead of the usual road-biker’s colorful jersey. He’s waving his left arm at us, as if to encourage us forward.

“Looks like an angel,” I comment.

“Looks like Death,” Sis counters. “Brrr!”

“No,” says Mom, “he looks like Shorty Morgan. Shorty was my hometown boyfriend before I met your father. You probably met him at that tricentennial we went to, editor of the local paper founded by his granddad and run by his father back when I was a girl. It’s probably under his son now, more than likely. All named Arthur. They always were a close-knit family.”

“Still looks like Death to me,” Sis repeats.

I get distracted by something in traffic, and when I look again, the biker is gone.

We enter the residence’s gate and start up the drive to the main building. “We’re here, Mom,” I announce, but there’s no answer. I pull to a stop, and she is slumped forward in her seat, held in place by the shoulder belt. I set the parking brake, get out, and walk around to the passenger side. There is no pulse. Mom’s gone.

Late that evening, back at the hotel after dealing with the residence’s management and with a funeral director, I say goodnight to Sis and go to my own room, exhausted. I order supper from room service, and while waiting for it to be delivered, on impulse call 411. “Operator, please give me the residence of Mr. Arthur Morgan, on Magnolia Avenue in Newton, North Carolina.”

She reads off the number, and I copy. A recorded voice comes on, offering to ring the number for an additional charge. I push “1” to indicate assent.

“This is the Morgan residence,” a lady answers.

“Sorry for calling so late, but may I speak with Arthur Morgan?” I say. “I’m the son of an old friend.”

“Mr. Arthur Senior?” she asks. “Or Junior?”

“Either one,” I say. “Actually, I know Senior better. Like I said, he’s an old friend of my mother’s.”

“Well, you’ll have to speak with Junior. Mr. Arthur Senior, the one they called Shorty, he died this morning.”

pencilAfter military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of  writing fiction. Thirty-four of his short stories and narrative essays have been published, most recently in Stand Magazine, Big Bridge, Shadows & Light, and Rosebud Magazine. He is seeking an agent for a trilogy of novels. Originally from North Carolina, he and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons. Email: wlhauser[at]comcast.net

The Candle

Fiction
Nancy Christie


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

As Margaret leaned forward to light the tall white candles, she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. It wasn’t that she wanted to commit suicide—at least, not exactly. But she had given death a great deal of thought in the past few weeks.

Her long blonde hair swung forward and, for a brief second or two, Margaret let the carefully-cut ends hover dangerously close to the flame.

Suppose, just suppose, she stayed that way—her hair close to the lit candles. Soon there would be that peculiar odor so typical of burning hair, growing stronger and sharper as the moments slipped by.

Then the golden strands, fed by the heat, would twist and turn with a life of their own. Fire would race along the shaft, hungrily seeking a pathway to her body until she herself became a flame-tipped candle, burning in death with a fire she had never know when alive.

Margaret stepped back quickly, pulling her hair safely away before shakily lighting the rest of the candles. That had been close—too close. A few more minutes of imagining could have brought that particular fantasy to life.

Although, she considered as she carefully set the spent matches in the crystal ashtray, that method of death stood a greater chance of success than pills or alcohol. With an overdose, there was always the chance that someone would find you before it was all over. You would no longer have the energy to tell them to leave you alone, that it was entirely your own choice to surrender.

Someone would certainly find her, she knew. And, once found, her body would have to suffer the indignity of a stomach pump while her veins were filled with life-giving fluid. And she’d awaken from blessed darkness to see accusing faces, her husband’s among them, staring down at her.

Sometimes, in her all-too-frequent nightmares, she would see the baby staring at her with just the same expression—accusing and unforgiving.

It had been such a small thing she had to do, after all. A pill each morning, and her womb would be kept under control. One of the few tasks Paul had expected of her—one of the few responsibilities they had both considered she was capable of handling.

When had it begun, Margaret wondered, this belief that she was incapable, incompetent, unreliable? She had long given up wondering if there was any truth to it. If she had any inner strength, living with Paul had drained it from her. Paul needed to be in control of everything—his life, her life, their future. There was no forgiveness in him for anyone who disrupted his carefully orchestrated plans.

She hadn’t even considered pregnancy as a possibility when her period failed to appear one hot June morning. It wasn’t until recurrent attacks of nausea kept her from eating even the blandest of foods that Paul ordered her to see the doctor.

“There’s obviously something wrong,” he had stated irritably, folding the newspaper in exact thirds as she came back into the living room, the remains of that night’s dinner flushed down the toilet. It had stayed in her barely long enough to make an impression on her delicate system before being summarily discharged. “This can’t continue.”

It was inconveniencing him, he meant. Already two dinner parties had had to be canceled for fear that Margaret would be unable to handle her role as hostess.

She made an appointment—she always did what Paul told her to do—expecting to hear a vague diagnosis of virus or flu.

Even now, more than two months later, she could recall every moment of the visit—the way the paper gown shifted to let a chill down her back, the cold metal stirrups, uncomfortably hard against her stocking feet.

Blood pressure, white count, palpitation of the lymph nodes lying quiescent under the skin of her neck and in her armpits, a urinalysis—all the usual tasks performed with impersonal efficiency. And then the diagnosis, tearing apart the calm fabric of the visit. It was totally unexpected, and after the first shock, she was filled with unaccustomed exhilaration.

“You’re about four weeks pregnant,” the doctor had said, and Margaret could only look at him in shock, hardly daring to believe. She had long since given up hope of ever having a child. Sex, like everything else in their life, was far too regulated to allow one renegade sperm to find her egg.

She was to come back, he said. Even something as random as this pregnancy must be brought rapidly under control. There would be regular appointments, blood work, routine examinations.

Margaret nodded her head, hardly hearing his words. It was the baby she heard—its heartbeat, its soft murmurings. A child full of life, who would, in turn, bring new life to her.

But the abortion ended her brief resurrection just as it ended the life of her child.

Although, as the psychiatrist later insisted, it really wasn’t a child. No longer able to bear her silences or her tears, Paul had made an appointment with the man, determined to “fix” her mind as he had “fixed” her body.

“You have to understand that at such an early stage it is just an indistinct mass of cells—not recognizable as a baby at all. This was just a medical condition you corrected.”

Margaret had closed her eyes against the stream of lies pouring over her. It was a baby—a tender, delicate thing with her eyes and smile. She would have held it and kissed it and watched it grow.

And loved it—how she had loved it already, poor little fetus. But she had let it die. She had signed the paper giving some strange doctor the right to probe inside her body and steal away the only thing she had of any value.

It didn’t matter that it was Paul who had insisted on the abortion, presenting her with carefully thought-out reasons. She was too old to consider any other course of action, he had said. She would look almost obscene, pregnant and waddling, when so many of their friends were becoming grandparents. (But first, they had children, Margaret thought.)

And he added, think of the disruption to their lives.

“What would we do with a baby? How could we entertain, travel? There would be diapers, bottles, toys scattered everywhere. And we would both be unhappy,” he said the night before she was to see the doctor again. “And it would know that—it would know that it wasn’t wanted and be unhappy, too. You wouldn’t want it to be unhappy, would you, Margaret?” he asked persuasively.

Margaret sat, still and silent, in the rocking chair, her hands clasped protectively over her slightly swollen abdomen. She could never withstand Paul when he spoke like that. It was one of his strengths, this ability to appeal to her better nature, to make her feel any other choice would be foolish or selfish.

That was the way he had spoken when he wanted Lady, Margaret’s pet collie, put to sleep, because “you know, Margaret, the city is no place for a dog that size. It would be miserable in the apartment”—the apartment he had chosen, although Margaret had preferred to live outside the city. “We would be doing it a service to put it down.”

“‘She’,” Margaret had said, stroking the soft fur as the dog lay trustingly at her feet. “Lady isn’t an ‘it,’ but a ‘she’.”

It was all Margaret could say in the animal’s defense, not that any more words would have made a difference. The dog was taken first thing in the morning, like the baby, years later.

Paul had called the baby “it,” too, Margaret remembered suddenly. The few times he had spoken about their child, he said “it” as though the genderless term gave it less right to exist in a world of two sexes.

But Margaret always thought of the baby as a girl—a tiny, blue-eyed, golden-haired daughter who would love her mother just the way she was.

She realized with a start that she had been standing there, watching the candles flicker, while the minutes ticked by. Paul would be home soon, and he would expect that dinner would be ready—candles lit, wine chilled.

He always insisted on having a formal dinner in the dining room, instead of the more intimate nook off the kitchen. The first few days after Margaret’s treatment (he never referred to it as an abortion), he had permitted her to have a tray in her room, while he ate at one of the many expensive restaurants in town.

But now he judged her to be fully recovered—although, she wondered, what was the expected recovery time for grief?—and wanted a return to the way their life had been organized.

The baby would have been so inconvenient, so disruptive—and Margaret wasn’t certain if the thoughts were her own or Paul’s.

“Is dinner nearly ready?”

Margaret turned, startled. She hadn’t heard Paul come in. He was frowning. It took so little these days to irritate him.

“Very nearly,” she said hastily, picking up the matches from the ashtray.

“Fine. I’m going upstairs to change my shirt.”

And Margaret nodded her head, not that an answer was required.

“Why don’t you take a glass of wine out to the patio, and I’ll join you there,” he added, the force of command underlying the suggestion.

Margaret nodded again, like a marionette. Nod your head, Margaret, smile and agree when you are told.

She walked into the kitchen, but instead of opening the wine, reached for the vodka. Carefully, she poured some into a tumbler and then added several ice cubes. Then, seeing there was still room in the glass, she gently tipped in a second thin stream of alcohol.

Pulling open the French doors, she stepped onto the brick patio, stopping at the wrought-iron table to light the candle securely placed in a pierced brass holder. Then, still holding the glass, she settled herself on the cushioned glider, watching the stars as they glittered in the night sky.

It was nearly eight. Night had fallen, and the candles and stars were the only source of light in the darkened world. As Margaret sipped her drink, she hoped that dinner would go smoothly, that she would give Paul no excuse for any more irritation.

Her eyes blurred, and she blinked them hard before taking another sip of her drink. The alcohol burned a bit, but the pain inside her was slowly being drowned, and that was all that mattered.

She brushed a hand across her forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again—was it a moment or longer? How long had she been out here in the dark?—she heard Paul’s step in the kitchen. She knew he was searching for her, but she was too listless to call to him.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have had that drink after all, she thought. Not when she was still taking those tiny blue-and-white pills the psychiatrist had ordered.

“For your nerves,” he had said, not knowing Margaret had no nerve at all.

As she forced her eyes to clear, she noticed a delicate white moth hovering dangerously close to the patio candle. Translucent wings danced and darted above the point of light, toying with self-destruction.

Margaret sat, still and silent, unable to stop watching. With one breath, one small motion of her lungs and lips, she could save the life of the small insect. Voices echoed in her mind—“It’s only a moth”—no, that wasn’t right—“It’s only a baby, not even a baby” and suddenly she shivered.

Startled by the sudden motion, the moth dipped and swirled over the table. As she watched, still unmoving, it gracefully circled the candle, drawing nearer and nearer the flame until, in one perfect second, the fragile wings burned with light.

pencilNancy Christie is a writer by trade and a fiction writer by preference, the author of a short story collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and the inspirational book, The Gifts of Change. Her fiction has been accepted by magazines such as Down in the Dirt, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, St. Anthony Messenger, Talking River, Wild Violet, EWR: Short Stories, Hypertext, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal, Fiction 365, Full of Crow, Red Fez and Xtreme. She’s also the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day, an annual celebration of short stories and those who write them. Email: nancy[at]nancychristie.com

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