Derecho

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Pat Gaines/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Mile 1, Elise, Metro 295, Morning Dove Coffee

One of the new hybrids, sparkling and quiet, pulls into Transit Center Bay 4. It is early dawn and already hot, rather, still hot. There is a pneumatic puff as the doors open and cold air from the bus tumbles out, lost to the heat wave outside. Woven scents of soaps from all the morning showers descend and hang in the air as students bound for the community college, office workers, laborers, and nightlifers step down off the bus.

Elise rolls her bike to the curb and waves at the driver. He gives her the thumbs up. She rolls it off the curb, lowers the bike rack, loads her bike on the front section, secures the support arm over the front wheel and moves into the queue, bus pass ready to scan.

She smooths the back of her skirt as she settles on one of the higher seats at the back of the first section of the articulated bus. She pulls out her iPad and balances it on the backpack in her lap. She leaves the seat next to her open anticipating a full commute into the university district, Pill Hill, then the downtown core. The pneumatic puff repeats as the doors close and the bus pulls away like a quiet dragon. The air conditioning works double-time to make up for the heat that boarded the bus like another passenger.

The deep blue sky is full of towers of cumulus clouds doing a quickstep march. They are positioned exactly where one of the local hot air balloon festivals takes place. She watches them sail quickly toward her. Her attention shifts as the kids bound for early university classes settle in with their energy bars, Odwalla drinks, and bloodshot eyes. A few pull out texts or tablets; most look hopeful for a few more winks. One is already curled up in a fetal position, her checkered canvas sneakers tucked on the seat, jungle red nails at the ends of her small delicate fingers cup her ankles. Her black knit watch cap implores “Love Me.” She has a little pout painted red.

Back outside, the sky on the horizon has turned from deep blue to dark gray-green and the cumulus clouds, racing in her direction bump into each other, flare out flat, and connect at the top. She hears something slide as the bus rounds a corner and brakes for the next stop. She looks down to see a bright pink toothbrush with green bristles slide out from under a seat. A woman’s cane crashes to the floor. Across from her an Asian girl in black watch plaid skinny jeans and four-inch suede peach stilettos picks up the woman’s cane for her. A wraith thin woman with a fever sheen to her face climbs on with heavy luggage. Elise wonders that she could lift it. She sits and a big shiver wracks her body. She digs out her cell phone and throws one leg atop her bag.

A woman sits down next to Elise. Her benchmate’s feet with celeste blue toenails swing freely in white leather flip-flops. A flash of departing morning sun lights the chin of a passenger in a dragon tee and the forehead of another across the aisle with his Beats and his music. Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones. The crackle of a couple of good old-fashioned newspapers, books. Watchers with smiles, with arms crossed bleary-eyed, with straight-ahead stares. The articulated center of the bus, the last seats to be filled, hosts a lanky boy with baggy trousers and a ball cap pulled down low.

There comes a changing of the guard at the transit center. The new benchmate sits down on the flare of Elise’s skirt. Thumbs still poised over his phone, one man sleeps through it all. Beats person reads the newspaper over another man’s shoulder and the bus is now at standing room only. Elise watches the lake turn serious gunmetal gray-green, reflecting the color of the horizon. Sunlight no longer makes its way past the bank of clouds which have formed an arched shelf. Low, dark, and menacing.

The couple across from Elise release hands as the man gets up for his stop. The woman, smiling a private smile, now holds her own hands on her lap as they pass into the dark of the tunnel.

The bus emerges from the tunnel to amplified crackling and an alarming jagged light. Another, followed by two enormous booms, reverberates Elise’s insides. The clouds now form a ceiling, like the low dark roof of a sports dome, crack, crack, crack—a series of lightning bolts is followed by the bellowing thunder.

In the seat in front of Elise little hands hang on the window sill. A child’s face, freckles pressed against the glass, head turning, laughing, pointing, smiling with joy, and speaking his own special language. His world goes by the window of the 295 and it is wonderful. His fellow passengers show mixed feelings, few share his enthusiasm, most of them have never seen a sky like this, some hope this means the end of the heat wave.

As Elise puts her iPad away and readies for her stop, the deluge begins, driven almost horizontal by the wind. Great! She’s early for her meeting. She shrugs her shoulders. Oh well. As she waits in line to get off the bus she spots a place of refuge from the storm, Morning Dove Coffee, named after the Mourning Dove, but the proprietor feared the word mourning might steer some people clear of the premises. She isn’t the only passenger planning a dash for the Morning Dove. She taps her bicycle helmet at the driver and he gives her a nod and thumbs up. She removes her bike from the rack, lifts the rack back into place in record time. Soaked, she runs head down against the driving rain with her bike across the street and locks it on the bike rack near the entrance. She is not alone taking refuge in Morning Dove Coffee. It is packed with bedraggled folk, pools of rainwater are already gathering on the floor. Streaks of lightning crackle and thunder booms.

The screen over the baristas that usually displays album art and info about the current song has been tuned to a news channel. A news anchor is interviewing a NOAA spokesperson who is standing in front of storm cloud diagrams. “…and can you explain why the extent of this thunderstorm, this, um, derecho, was not predicted?”

“While typical thunderstorms are reasonably well-forecast, the complexity of a derecho-producing storm system is not yet fully understood and observation networks…”

Elise orders a quad, no room.

Mile 325, Exit 18, Peg’s, “Homemade Pies, Fresh Coffee All Day”

Peg carries the round tray full of plates of food as though it is an extension of her left arm. The coffee pot in her right hand, likewise, seems like part of her anatomy. Skinny as a rail, tough as they come.

“Ha ha ha, what Lucy don’t know won’t hurt ya, Dan’l, fresh out of the oven this morning. Peach, loaded with cinnamon the way you like.” Peg’s smoker’s voice can be heard from one end of the little crossroads café to the other.

“Come on, go for it, Dan’l, you know we’re not squealers.” Jolene, Daniel’s cousin, chimes in from the center of the café.

An impromptu barbershop quartet from the back corner starts up:

I dream of pie with the light brown crust
Baked by Peggy, with loving care
I dream of fresh peaches baked within
That crust of care and cinnamon

“All right already you clowns, but if Lucy finds out about this…” Daniel growls.

Peg, who knows her customers, already has Daniel’s pie on her serving tray. She triumphantly places it in front of him. “There you go, Dan’l, I think this is one of my best yet, but you tell me.” She sets the coffee pot down and puts her right hand on her cocked hip, waiting for his first bite.

He cuts his first piece from the point, closes his eyes, and makes a wish as he chews—a childhood habit. He chews dramatically slowly. “Hmmm, mmumph.” He nods, opens his eyes, swallows and reaches his arm around Peg’s waist. “Darlin’, they’ll be serving this up in heaven.”

She nods, satisfied, picks up the coffee pot, tops his mug off and continues her rounds.

“Gettin’ dark in here, Peg, did ya pay the light bill?” Jeff asks from the counter where he likes to sit, the first stool but one.

Peg dips at the waist a little and peeks out a window. “Say, would ya look at that sky? Ain’t seen a sky like that, since, nope, well, never like that… dark like that, but not that big… damn if it don’t look like an alien spaceship dominating the sky like that. Well, folks, hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Peg’s.”

“I could think a worse places. Peg, top off all our coffees, and how about pie all around since Dan’l says its good enough for heaven! Oh, and make it on the house. Har har har har.”

“Now I just might to spite ya, Levi, you old coot!”

The door opens and bangs and bounces as a gust pulls it out of the new customer’s hand. The couple are probably travelers, no one knows them, but they are just as welcome as the regulars. Peg, still busy with serving, says over her shoulder, “Sit anyplace you like, well except Johnie’s table over there.” She points with her chin at a table in the corner window. It has a single place setting, a poppy in a vase, a photo of a boy in uniform and a display of medals. Sitting on one of the window sills is a US flag folded and displayed in a triangle.

“Say, what is this storm you’ve brought in folks?”

“We feel like it’s been chasing us!” the woman says as she heads for a table toward the back. “Davey tells me not to worry so, of course, now I’m really scared.”

Everyone in Peg’s chuckles.

Davey grins, as he pulls out a chair for his wife. “Aw, now, Lois. Well, everybody, I don’t believe I can take credit for this one. The radio is saying it is what’s called a derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders. Not very common especially this far west. From what I can gather we are maybe about in the middle of the thing. I guess over 250 miles is not uncommon. They say the North American record holder covered 1,300 miles. Yah, Minnesota, into southern Canada then headed out off the coast of Maine.”

“Never heard of one. You, Nosey?” Peg pours Clement “Nosey” Gray another cup.

“Not I, not I, Peg. Cheers!” Nosey lifts his now-full cup, nods at Peg, then downs the hot brew in short order.

Outside the windows it looks like nighttime until a bolt of cloud-to-ground lighting lights up the sky and the café followed by a rolling thunder. Another streak of bright electric light reaches from above the clouds to the ground and rebounds back. Its thunder roar takes less time to reach them. It feels like Peg’s little café actually shakes. Crack-crack, double-strike, and a roaring rolling boom prompts sounds not dissimilar to the sounds made by crowds watching fireworks.

The lights flicker.

“Oh oh, get out yer Zippos, boys and gals, we’re about to go down, glad we got the gas going in the kitchen already!”

The regulars pull out lighters or matches, lift the little glass globes from the candles in the center of their tables, light the candles like it is common practice here. Davey and his partner Lois, non-smokers, look around. Jolene, at the adjacent table, passes them her lighter and Davey lights the candle. “Much obliged.”

Mile 815, Holly, Code J45.901, Mostly Caff Café

Holly, a long-time barista at Mostly Caff, is now also interning as a pulmonologist at Mercy, the nearby university hospital. Very near—across the street actually. Many of the customers at the Mostly Caff Café are in scrubs. She was advised to quit her day job as soon as her internship started but she is young and energetic and has her eye on an elite racing bicycle. Everyone told her she’d be consumed by exhaustion, but she decided to wait and see.

She likes working the café. There is something familiar and comforting about it. Even crowded. Somehow the blending of multiple, low conversations sounds like a loft full of messenger pigeons coo-coo cooo, coo-coo cooo. Then there are the regulars, many of them fellow students. She likes the contact.

She and Hank are an efficient duo with the shift change crowd. It is especially busy today with regulars and non-regulars. Today is a guest day. Easy to spot, the first group huddles rather than queues. Five of them all wearing visitor badges around their upper arms like blood-draw Cobans. They are talking amongst themselves; she pegs them for the type that chat constantly as the line moves forward. She is right. They form a block oblivious to the people just trying to maneuver through the café. When it is their turn they look almost shocked, the clump disperses as they peer into the cases of food and crane their necks to read the drink offerings. She smiles, right every time. Her eyes make contact with one of her regulars behind the group; they both shrug their shoulders, amused. “What are ya gonna do?”

Holly has not seen the sky since arriving for work. Everyone coming in is describing it differently, but all agree it is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Fast-moving, a solid bank of low cumulus-like stuff, dark and menacing and heading their way. One person likens it to Birnam Wood’s assault on Dunsinane. All she knows is that, her ears, particularly sensitive to pressure changes, are bothering her. Suddenly the already dim Mostly Caff becomes even darker, like blackout curtains dropped, they way they do in the classroom prior to a video lesson. Just as sharply, darkness is broken as strobes, brilliant and revealing—almost blinding—flash brightly and give the room the feel of an old Gothic mansion in a bad horror film.

Soon a deluge is audible on the roof. More people pour into the already crowded café. Many, just off work, decide to wait out the thunderstorm before catching their bus home. None of the bus shelters are adequate to the task of shielding people from this thing.

Pitched above the cracks of lightning and the rumbling of thunder comes the sound of aid cars. It is not unusual to hear sirens since the ER is just across the street, but it is unusual to hear so many so close together. Suddenly beepers, phones, and watch alerts are capturing the attention of almost everyone in the place, including Holly. She glances down at her watch and asks one of her co-workers who was about to leave, “Hey Rhond, can you, um, not leave? I have an emergency call, I gotta run over to Mercy.”

Rhonda looks at her, shrugs back into her work apron by way of answer and mutters, “I won’t say it…”

“Thanks, Rhond, I owe ya.”

Over at Mercy, Holly is startled by the array of ambulances and aid cars. Inside, she finds chaos instead of what is usually a well-oiled machine of efficiency. She recognizes at least three triage nurses with their hands full with so many patients looking “life threatening” or at least “urgent.” She races through gurneys with people clearly in distress, many with intubations, and makeshift stations with oxygen bottles. She makes it to the locker area to jump into her scrubs. The locker room is more crowded than she’s ever seen it.

“What’s up, Bec?”

“Just up your alley, Holly, severe asthma attacks, some folks who’ve never experienced it before. The numbers… crazy. Almost like a fast-moving epidemic.”

“An outbreak of asthma attacks? Sure it isn’t some demented terrorist chemical attack?”

“Here? You watch too much news, kid. Hey Zack! They called you in too?”

Sandy, still in scrubs, who works in the office of the Unit Secretary, pops in just to drop off his backpack and interjects, “Yep, they even called me back. I guess they’ll want me pre-filling intake and charge forms. I already have it memorized. Code J45.901—asthma, unspecified, acute exacerbation.”

“I think they are calling everyone in. I saw this when I was a paramedic in Melbourne.” Zack is a resident. “Thunderstorm asthma. Lots of work done on this in Australia.”

Holly, Bec, and Zack, now into their scrubs, continue their conversation as they rush down the hall to see where they are most needed.

“Come on Zack, this is no time for one of your down-under stories.”

Zack continues. “No, straight. Lots of research done after several events including deaths. Theory is the violent activity of a thunderstorm breaks pollen grains into even finer particles than usual. The fragments or particles are so small they pass through the body’s natural defenses and get into the lungs. That’s why it gets some people who’ve never had asthma before and really does a number on asthma sufferers.”

The charge nurse puts Holly on preparing salbutamol and adrenaline syringes, some for the ER, some to go out with the aid cars. Bec is sent to help set up more resuscitation beds. Zack is given his first patient, a terrified boy. Already intubated, eyes wide, he clings to Zach’s outstretched hand.

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes “Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement” (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams,” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Lou Nell and her husband, Klee, live in Ashland, Oregon with three cats, her muses, Little Bear, Louie, and Valè. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

10 O’Clock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mike Wang


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

The summer of 1978 was meteorologically insignificant in Western New York. By all accounts, it was business-as-usual for the weathermen of Buffalo, but for me July of 1978 was a strange season of contrasts: days of pure bliss and nights of unadulterated terror.

My grandfather had died that spring: heart attack while driving that led to a tragic collision with a bridge abutment. I was only nine, but I remembered him well. At least, I thought I did. Today his memory is mostly a mélange of impressions: the smell of pipe tobacco, the proud look in his eyes when he introduced my siblings and me around at their country club. The summer before, in 1977, we had all made the long trek from England to their house in East Aurora. We were living overseas because my father was a pilot in the Air Force.

That first summer, at the tender age of eight, I thought I was pretty brave, but I had never met a thunderstorm. Living in England, we rarely had summer days topping 80 degrees, let alone generating enough heat and humidity to spawn anything like the gargantuan monsters that blew off Lake Erie every evening. That summer, I had quickly learned to hate bedtime because I knew what nightfall had in store for me.

It was diabolical. While every morning the sky would be clear and flawless, I learned not to be fooled. We would come down from our beds in the converted attic room that served as my grandparents’ office to the smiling faces of its owners. As we ate breakfast: juice and toast with homemade currant jam, an occasional egg, we’d plan the adventures for the day. We’d shop, we’d go to the local pool, get ice cream at Chet’s, maybe go into Buffalo proper to see a museum. Some evenings we’d go to the country club for dinner. As each day wore on, I would nervously note the small, puffy clouds building into cumulus. By the time we were back at the house, playing in their enormous unfenced backyard, I could see the towering fortresses of terror glowering at me from the stratosphere. Invariably, by dinner time, the muted roll of distant thunder asserted itself like a physical presence, making me nervous as a hare. My mother could see the anxiety building behind my eyes. She’d pat my leg and reassure me, but it never worked. I was terrified of thunderstorms.

As if to add emphasis and some tactile sense to my unease, one of the nights that summer we were all sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching a program on their enormous oak console TV. Certainly nothing could go wrong there. My grandfather and my father were in the room. All us kids were bathed and dressed in our PJs for bed. We were safe.

I remember being curled up on the sofa next to my father when an unearthly blue-white light filled the windows on three sides of the room. Not an instant later, the boom, no, the crash, no, the deafening roar of the thunder seemed to crush me down into the plush of the upholstery. My mother screamed at the same instant that the TV went black with an emphatic “Zot” and a wisp of smoke curled over the back of the set. Lightning had struck the antenna… which was bolted to the outside of the attic room where the kids slept.

The next day I loitered in the living room while the TV repairman (they came to your house back then) opened the vault-like back of the TV, revealing its intricate innards. When he removed the panel you could still smell the acrid aroma of burnt electronics. Pushing his cap back on his head, he said, “Whew! Never seen that before.”

Reaching into the guts of the set, he pulled out something that looked like a thick pencil lead, about half an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he poked it with a finger and it squished down into a powdery smear. “That’s a one million volt resistor,” he explained, holding out his hand to my grandfather. “It’s part of the lightning protection circuitry in this set. Good thing, too, or you’d have yourself a new coffee table. I’ll have you back up in a jiffy.”

At eight years old, I didn’t know much about lightning, but I knew that a million volts was a lot and that whatever a resistor was it had given its life to protect the TV. And, more importantly, I knew that the attic didn’t have any resistors and neither did my squishy little body.

So here we were again: new summer, old problem. This time the reassuring presence of my grandfather was gone and my father had stayed in England because he had to fly in some exercise so he couldn’t get time off. I was the man of the house. My little brother was useless, as they usually are. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time around the coffee table, speaking in low tones and abruptly changing the topic when any of the four kids strayed too close. There was an innate sadness the two ladies shared, sort of like a gray patina over both of them. We did a lot less adventuring that summer. Mostly stayed around the house and did things in Grandma’s little town of East Aurora.

I spent a lot of time in the basement. It was cool and dark and surprisingly dry. My grandfather’s tools and hobby equipment lived down there. I don’t think my grandmother was able to clear it out, not yet anyway. So my nine-year-old self spent many of those summer hours down amidst his train sets and golf clubs. I’d tinker at his work bench and look out the windows, high up in the cinder block foundation, watching the clouds build through the dirt and spider webs.

As evening approached, I’d get more anxious and taciturn. This summer my mother didn’t have the emotional reserves to spare for  me, so I’d work on comforting myself as night fell and atmospheric battle commenced outside. Eventually, the dreaded call of “bedtime” would ring out and all of us would trail upstairs to get in bed.

The attic was paneled and painted, but it had the strange ceiling contours of the inside of the roof, angled 45 degrees. Four twin beds took up the space where there was usually a small sitting area, while the desk and filing cabinets stood against the end of the room. There was one round window high up in the angle of the roof. Because of the shape of the ceiling, the acoustics of the room made it sound like my siblings across the aisle were right beside me. One by one, I could hear them drift into sleep and settle into a deep, regular breathing. As for me, I would lay there with the sheets pulled up to my nose, my eyes darting to the high window, waiting for each lighting flash and counting the seconds before the timpani of thunder reached me.

When the storm got close, the wind would increase and send the weathervane spinning in wild, rustily-shrieking circles. Rain would lash the window and pound on the roof tiles above my head. Then all I could do was curl into the fetal position and grit my teeth, clenching the covers over my head. Through my eyelids, each flashbulb pop of lightning registered as a pink haze. It was exhausting.

Eventually, the heat of the day would give up all its energy to the storm gods and the thunderstorms would wear themselves out. When they went to sleep, so would I, sweaty in my sheets and worn thin. That’s how every night passed. Slowly, so slowly, in a mindless terror. No one bothered to weigh me, but I’m sure I lost a couple pounds that summer. I stumbled around hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived most days.

But I started this missive speaking of blissful days. What of them? In actuality, there were only about three weeks of bliss. We had been there a fortnight and had 21 days to go, when on one of our trips to the public pool, I saw her. Beauty personified. To a nine-year-old, she was angelic. It wasn’t physical, really. I mean, she was nine as well. Her hips were straight and her chest was flat as mine. If it wasn’t for social convention, she could have pinned her hair tight and worn my swim trunks; no one would have seen a difference between us… though, that’s not exactly true.

She had an air, a certain carriage of the head and shoulders that set us apart. She seemed to float where I plodded. She dove into the deep end with the lithe grace of a naiad, pointed toes and hands reaching, long and lean. I plopped in like a baby duck.

We had been to the pool in the previous two weeks that summer, but I hadn’t seen her. Later she’d tell me that her family was visiting her aunt in Albuquerque (wherever that was). But the first day I saw her, it was like she singled me out. Across the pool, she nimbly lifted herself onto the edge and grabbed a towel, careful with the glasses that were wrapped in it. As she dried her face and put the glasses on, she turned and looked straight at me, smiling. I remember turning to look over my shoulder; certainly there must be someone she knew behind me. When I looked back and discovered it was me she was focusing on, her smile became a cascade of good-natured laughter. She had a strangely deep alto laugh for such a young girl. It had a tripping, almost singing quality that made people around her laugh along. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t talk to her that first day at the pool, nor at Chet’s where we usually went for ice cream after swimming.

Her family pulled up two slots down in the parking lot while we stood at the window and ordered Chet’s famous peanut butter ice cream. I looked away and pretended not to notice her while my family shuffled over to a concrete table under the corrugated metal awning. It was a thin pretense since my young psyche was constantly and acutely aware of her. It was like she was a magnet that made the compass needle in my mind follow her every move. We didn’t speak, but she caught my eye as we piled into the back of my grandmother’s Plymouth. She waved: a tiny but graceful motion of her still-raisiny hand. Somehow, I forced myself to wave back and added a wan smile.

That night, I gritted and sweated my way through another tortuous bout of thunderstorms, but it was somehow a little easier, a little less tortuous. I thought of her, out there somewhere, lying in her little bed, probably sleeping the sleep of the blessed, and it comforted me. In retrospect, it was strange that where both my mother and grandmother were so smothered by grief to lend me aid, an unknown little wisp of a girl could do just that. At the time, I couldn’t process that idea. All I knew was that thinking about her helped me weather the storm. As I drifted off to sleep, the thunder still echoing outside, I resolved that I would talk to her the next day at the pool.

But, it didn’t happen. At least not the next day. “It’s not fair!” I raged. “Why can’t we go to the pool?”

My mother was a little taken back by the outburst and my uncharacteristic vehemence. “Samuel, you know why.” She used my full name. “We’re going over to the Edmondses’ for lunch. Your grandmother wants to show you off,” she said, smiling. “Now be a good boy and get your shirt on.”

You can’t fight city hall. We drove off for lunch and then spent the afternoon playing in the Edmondses’ backyard while the adults spoke in the same muted tones that pervaded Grandma’s house. As it turned out, that little pause probably steeled my resolve to talk to the girl the next day. Now I was determined.

Sometimes temporary insanity masquerades as resolve. That next day, I was certainly mad, but full of resolution to speak to her. As soon as we got to the pool, I threw my stuff down and walked right up to her. She and her friends were quietly chatting on some chaise lounges at the far end of the pool. Socially inept as I was, I broke in without a pause in their conversation. Her friends awkwardly ended their confab in mid-sentence. I was vaguely aware of their puzzled censorious faces turning towards mine, but hers was smiling and open.

“I’m Samuel,” I blurted.

“Hi Sam-O,” she smirked back.

I wasn’t sure she had heard me, what with all the splashing and kids yelling behind me. “No. It’s Samuel.”

“Yeah, I heard you, Sam-O.” Now her friends were smiling too, but not in the same friendly way that she did. “You don’t mind if I call you Sam-O, do you?”

How could I mind? I mumbled something about, “No… fine with me,” as I looked at my bare feet, suddenly self-conscious about how dirty they looked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Helen,” she replied, blue eyes dancing behind her large frame glasses. In later years I would have called the color of her eyes heliotrope, but at that point I only knew that they were blue. Bluer than anything I had ever actually seen in person. The centers of the irises were slightly lighter than the purplish rim around each. “Captivating” is the word.

As if to exhibit my learned character, I said, “Helen. That’s name of a lady who launched a hundred ships.”

She laughed. That beautiful sound of falling water. It wasn’t a wicked retort, just an amused acknowledgement of my small mistake. “I think you mean she had a face that launched a thousand ships,” she giggled.

Now I was really confused. I contemplated my dirty feet again and murmured that maybe I wasn’t so good at math. That little comment brought forth another little gush of laughter, this time joined by the tittering of her friends. Aware that I had accidentally said something funny, I looked up and smiled back. Helen invited me to sit down and the circle opened to admit me. That was how it started: an awkward interruption, an instant nickname, a botched reference to The Iliad, and some good-natured laughter. Oh, that more of my lasting relationships were so easy to break into.

From then on, we seemed to be inseparable. Every day followed the same basic pattern: a quick breakfast and then a sprint into my grandma’s backyard. It turned out that Helen’s folks lived in a house that backed up to Grandma’s just a few doors down. No one had fences, so all the huge yards flowed together to make one giant park for the neighborhood kids to play in. We’d meet at the junction of the yards at the base of an ancient elm tree. Most times my pesky younger brother tagged along, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Other kids from the neighborhood knew that there was a daily meeting of the minds under the big tree, so it usually turned into an opportunity for hide-and-seek or tag or red rover. Sometimes we’d play kickball until lunch when the whole gaggle would pack into someone’s kitchen for baloney sandwiches and then it was off to the pool. After swimming, Chet’s was the order of the day, and then we’d chase fireflies in the falling light while the thunderheads built overhead. Eventually, all the moms signaled dinner time, and we would reluctantly retire for the evening. Helen and I were usually the last to trail inside; we’d stall and dawdle and look at each other over a widening expanse of grass until the elm tree blotted out our view.

The thunderstorms still raged every night, joining battle over Lake Erie, but somehow I didn’t care so much. It wasn’t that I was “cured” or anything, just that the space where the fear had rooted in my soul was slowly getting filled with the warm feeling of fellowship, kindred spirit, dare I say it? Love? I couldn’t articulate it then and I wouldn’t call it love today: it was both more and less than that. It was a call and answer. The recognition of “likeness” in another that was new to me then. I’ve felt it since, with my best friend, Bill, and with my wife; I can put words with concepts today, but then it was merely the awareness of a resonance between Helen and me.

It was as if that resonance served as a frequency that offset and canceled out the terror that had once vibrated through my heart at the first muffled sound of distant thunder. I still avoided bedtime. I still hated the darkness and the sudden stabbing white-hot light that filled the little window in our room, followed by the madly bellowing thunder. The weather vane shrieked and I still cowered under the covers for a time, but with less conviction, less urgency, less fear. I usually fell asleep early in the storm cycle of the evening and rose refreshed, ready to meet under the elm tree again that day.

Of course, it couldn’t last. We were going to be heading back to England in a week or so. My father finally joined us, done with his flying exercise. He’d watch me, puzzled, then shoot meaningful looks at my mother as I wolfed down my breakfast and bolted out the back door, screen door slamming. She’d sigh and smile and shrug her shoulders as they watched me running across the grass towards the big tree. I think she was happy to have my father, her man, in the house again, and I also think she saw the budding of joy returning to the family as well.

But, that summer, joy was working on a time limit. The spate of perfect days couldn’t go on forever. I tried to ignore it, but the paradox of time was, and is, that the very passage of each wonderful day with Helen brought the end of those days closer. I felt it. We both did.

As the day of our departure drew nearer, Helen and I would look for opportunities to break away from the rest of the kids. We’d find a tree and sit on opposite sides with our backs to the bark and just talk. We didn’t need to see each other. We didn’t need to touch each other. In fact, I had never purposely touched her except when we were playing tag, or handing the kick ball back and forth. There was no romantic physical yearning, or anything so poetic, though had it been a couple of years later, there might have been. There was only an acknowledgement, a settled agreement between our two souls.

The things we talked about were inconsequential. What do nine-year-olds have to talk about, really? It was the act of communicating, of “communing,” in truth, that we were interested in. All the more as that last day of August crept closer.

The fact of our impending separation stalked us, tracked us, and eventually moved in for the kill. My family was leaving the next day.  Mom could see the strained sadness on my face, but she was too involved with the logistics of getting her four kids and husband ready for a transatlantic flight to give me much solace. My dad was no help either. He was hustling around the house at the direction of my grandma, trying to finish all the little chores that had been neglected for almost six months now.

That last day, we went to the pool, of course, but it was an awkward interlude. Helen and I were both filled with a sense of impending loss that was tough for kids to identify. We talked softly and swam a little bit. As we dried off and sat in the sun to warm up, we chatted, averting our eyes from one another. I mumbled and bumbled and tried to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let me. We were desolate.

At Chet’s she got progressively quieter. I could read her mood. There was a deep contemplation raging behind her eyes. She was forming a plan, coming to some resolution. Right before we left for the evening, she whispered to me, “Meet me at the elm tree at ten.”

I nodded.

Our families were saying their goodbyes. We would be leaving for the airport early, so we wouldn’t see them tomorrow. Amidst that confusion of handshakes and back slaps and promises to “see you next summer,” I caught Helen’s eye and nodded again.

Dinner at home. Baths. The final packing that needed to be done. It all drug along with the somnolent sluggishness of a bad dream. In the back of my mind I heard the distant rolling thunder, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had promised to meet Helen outside at night when the storms were sure to be raging. For a moment, just an instant, my courage wavered. But then the look of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the totality of our summer together, crystallized my resolved to be there, under that tree, no matter what.

My father had given me a watch that year, one of his old ones. It was too big for me, so I hardly ever wore it, but that night I had it strapped to my skinny wrist. I hid under the covers so my siblings wouldn’t see the glowing hands on the watch face as they inched towards ten o’clock. Far away, faintly, thunder cracked and rolled across the lake. The lightning flickered, but at a distance. I held out hope that the storms would peter out before they got to us tonight. Maybe they would just march in another direction. Not to be. By eight-thirty, the rain was pelting the roof, the wind was busy pummeling the weather vane, and I was balled up under the covers steeling myself for what I knew had to come.

By 9:55, the storm was raging, but it was time. I slipped out of bed, momentarily caught in the strobe light of a flash of lightning. I saw, frozen on my retinas, the images of my brother and sisters sleeping. Then it was black again as the thunder pounded my eardrums. I was terrified. I took advantage of the noise that the thunder made to open the door and step out onto the creaky landing. The light from my parents’ room made a bar on the carpet in the hallway. I could hear their voices, muffled by the partially-closed door. My mother’s shadow passed over the light and I froze, but she was just walking to their closet. Downstairs the house was already dark.

I glanced at my watch. Just a few minutes to our meeting. I had better hurry. I slipped down the stairs and out the kitchen door, this time holding the screen so it wouldn’t slam closed. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressive. The bulk of the house sheltered me there on the stoop, but even so the wind was whipping the tree tops into a frenzy, blowing sheets of water that had already made a quagmire of the backyard. Lightning flashed, outlining the elm tree in black and white. The thunder tore the sky, louder than I had ever heard it.

I almost turned back, almost just went back into the house, but then I saw her. Across the vast expanse of the yard, I could just make out a white smudge, a blur, moving towards the tree. I instantly started moving too. Within moments, I was soaked to the bone, but not cold. Those summer storms had a sweet, warm quality to the rain. As I splashed across the yard, lightning cracked the sky again, followed very closely by the crash and peal of the thunder. She beat me to the tree. Underneath it was drier but still blustery.

She was in her pajamas too, a lightly ethereal, diaphanous white night gown. Our eyes met in the gloom, slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was smiling. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” I admitted, forlorn.

“Yeah, but you did,” she smiled again.

“This probably isn’t safe,” I had to nearly shout over a peal of thunder.

“I know,” she replied, the corners of her lips curled up.

“I think I love you, Helen,” I said, looking into her eyes.

“I know,” she answered.

“When will we see each other again?” I quested, a little frantic about the answer.

“We see each other now, don’t we?” she laughed and took my left hand in hers.

“I’m serious. Will you come to England?” I had to shout. The lightning and thunder were beating the sky overhead almost continuously, cascading in an avalanche of light and sound. Wind and rain buffeted us under the elm and I could hear branches snapping close by.

“Probably not.” She answered matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford that. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Much later.” She took a long look up into the branches overhead. “But I think we’ll always be… special to each other. You’ll always know me; I’ll know you.”

At that moment, she stepped back towards the trunk of the ancient elm. I clung to her left hand with mine. At that instant the air was filled with blue light, it flashed and froze the raindrops in mid-air. The thunder was so loud, so immanent, I felt it rather than heard it. Even today, in my mind, I see the ropey lightning, as if in slow motion, twining down through the crown of the tree, burning bark and leaves as it comes. Helen’s eyes were fixed on mine as the bolt flew out of the trunk behind her, passing through her night gown just to the left of her sternum, and then down her left arm into mine. We flew apart like a landmine had gone off between us.

Raindrops. My face is wet. Something smells like ozone and burning wood. As I opened my eyes, the scene came back to me. I was dazed. All I knew was that the old elm was a wreck, split from crown to root, and smoldering in the wind and rain. Helen? Where was she? I sat bolt upright off the wet grass. There she was lying on her back amidst the wreckage of the tree. I ran to her, a deep throbbing pain in my left hand slowly registering. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face was dewy from the rain; it held a serene half smile. The only thing that looked out of place was a small burn mark over her heart.

I touched her face. I sat looking at her then I started to cry. A moment later, my father was next to me, along with several of the neighbors. They had seen the old tree take a hammering, seen the destruction, and come out to investigate. If they were surprised to start with, imagine their astonishment when they found a little dead girl and a little boy with one of the fingers on his left hand nearly burned off.

Naturally, our plans changed. We couldn’t leave the next morning. There was the funeral, of course. A specialist had to remove the ring finger from my left hand and sew up the gap. He said he was giving me a “Mickey Mouse” hand. I think he was trying to connect with his pediatric patient and be funny at the same time. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but my parents didn’t see the humor in it. In any case, it was a week before he would let me fly back.

Eventually, we did go back. Life went on. Almost returned to normal. I never worried about thunderstorms after that. My hand healed and I got along just fine without that finger. I’m right handed after all, but it did affect me in one way later in life. I couldn’t wear a wedding ring. My wife understood. She knew about my accident when I was nine. I never told her about Helen.

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“My name is Mike Wang (pronounced like “Long”). I know, Vera pronounces it like “Bang.” I’ve never talked to her about it, but I think she changed the pronunciation because it’s just easier in business. I get it, but if I ever do get a chance to talk to her, I’ll have to mention how difficult her choice has made my life! Anyhow, I’m a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls, 12 and 9. Been married for 28 years to the same great lady, Kris. I grew up in an Air Force family and I flew fighters in the Air Force for 21 years. Now I fly 737s for Southwest Airlines. We’ve lived in Phoenix for the last 19 years and I think we’re officially anchored here for the long haul. I’m not an author and I’ve never had anything published, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. This is a first step into a new world.” Email: mnkwang[at]aol.com

Seven Disconnected Facts about the Human Heart

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Patrick B/Flickr (CC-by)

1. The heart beats 115,000 times a day

The sky darkens and my heart beats uncomfortably fast.

I put the phone down and try to absorb the information, letting it pass from ear to brain. This is it. A possible match. Please get here as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.

For weeks the heat has built; for months I have waited for this call. Now it is here, I’m not ready; I long to return to balmy warmth and postponement. I look down at my list of shakily scribbled instructions. Nil by mouth. Not a problem now nausea has taken hold. Bring all current medication.

My rapid pulse is not good; it is important to remain relaxed and calm, to steer clear of all strong emotion, avoiding undue stress on a damaged organ. The wind has picked up, setting the windows rattling. The rattling of my heart feels like terror; perhaps it is also something else.

I breathe in slowly and slowly out, inhaling the smell of dusty heat through the open window.

I think how this is my once in a lifetime chance to regain my life.

I think how the operation has risks.

I think how someone has died, someone who most likely got up this morning expecting a perfectly ordinary day.

A car accident. An operation gone awry.

A murder.

A suicide.

A bolt out of the blue.

I won’t be told the details, not now. It is morbid to speculate, impossible not to be curious about the stranger whose heart is still beating, the heart which will become mine. Afterwards I will be given the opportunity to write a letter to the grieving family. Thank you for my gift of a heart from someone you loved and lost.

Presupposing that I am still around.

2. The heart is the size of a fist

Lightning flashes across the sky. I don’t want to do this: the thought sparks up hard and fast and I fist my fingers, reason battling against instinct. I stare at the veins on the back of my hand, their bifurcating pattern.

Operative mortality—death within thirty days—is between five and ten percent. Toss a coin four times, all are heads, fail to wake up, or wake up only to succumb to septicaemia. Is the former any worse than the latter? Is dying from the operation worse than dying from this natural but unlucky defect? There are no satisfactory answers.

I have little time left, but am unlikely to die today, not if I stay here safely at home. This is not the way I should be thinking.

The decision is made, my consent given when I agreed to my name being put on the waiting list. No amount of prior discussion—calm and rational—with doctors and my daughter, settles the matter within this instant. But the call has created an obligation. I owe a debt to unknown people—the person who died, the family who have said yes, the one who was next after me on the waiting list—to seize this chance. Even though, right now, every ounce, every minute of here and now life seems so much more precious than my nine in ten chance of a future.

Thunder cracks. I relax my hand. I stand and drive myself forward through the procedures. I retrieve my already packed bag, essentials pared down, keeping things light. I sweep up my cornucopia of pills. I make the single call I need to, leaving a message when Amanda fails to pick up. ‘It’s Mum. They’ve found a match. I’m making my way to the hospital now.’

She knows the score. She has been waiting for this phone call too. I know what she would say if she was here, all the reassuring words she thinks are good for me to hear, reinforcing all that the doctors have already said.

I am doing this for you, I think. So my adult daughter will not be orphaned, so her future children will know their grandmother.

This is my final call for an added decade.

3. The heart beats to an electrically controlled rhythm.

Lightning again, electricity discharging chaotically, then thunder, the gap between them shorter, the storm moving closer, a scattering of rain across the windows. I ring a taxi and try to still the waver in my tone. The woman’s voice—laid back, indifferent—does not provide confidence that this booking is being taken sufficiently seriously, the details properly marked down. ‘It’s urgent,’ I say, and I repeat my address.

‘We’ll be there soon as.’ She sounds annoyed at my pushiness, at my inflection of doubt.

And now there is nothing to do but pull on comfortable shoes and check I have my keys for the umpteenth time. To wander round my flat and double-check all the windows are closed. I confirm the battery level on my mobile phone and go in search of my charger and list the possible ways this will go.

Option 1: I will be in hospital for four weeks. Option 2: I will be sent home immediately, the match not confirmed, or tests revealing an infection, or a deterioration in my health. Option 3: I am not going to think about that.

If sent home, would relief or disappointment gain the upper hand? Best not to ask unanswerable questions. The rain builds; it clatters and runs down the windows in all directions.

4. The heart pumps 2,000 gallons of blood every day

I operate on autopilot, heading out into the deluge of rain to the taxi, suppressing the instinct to make a quick dash for it. Raindrops bounce off the tarmac; they course down the windscreen and I watch the smear of colourful umbrellas, grey buildings, and greenery outside. The trees with their summer leaves, which I hope to see turn to autumn reds and gold. Roses on the turn. Scorched grass. The people I don’t know, all of them precious, I hope, to someone.

Water drips from the ends of my hair. Shivering, I place my hand over my damp clothing above my poorly functioning heart, which is giving out in the summer of my life. I have no reason to feel attached to this, yet it has been with me from the beginning and I feel reluctant to let it go. I picture how the donor—the person, the body—will be scalpelled and then sawed open, the lungs still inflating, the organ still beating as it is cut free. The same process will be enacted on me, and then the reversal. I will receive a secondhand heart, be sewn back up and brought round. The details provoke a swell of nausea, my brain dwelling on the blood and guts details I’d prefer not to know.

At the hospital I am taken though to a small room whose closed window looks out onto the expanse of low-lying cloud. Someone will be with you soon. I have forgotten to bring anything to read. Unlikely I’d be able to concentrate, but I miss the page turning distraction. Minutes pass slowly and I ought to appreciate every one; instead I feel a fidgety anxiousness, and I try to mute my emotions down while, beyond the glass, light continues to flash and thunder rumbles distantly. I long for the cool freshness of the outside air; I am trapped here amidst the suffocating stuffiness.

The nurse arrives, briskly cheerful and I wish she wouldn’t be. ‘How are we today?’

How would anyone feel before such a major operation?

She takes my pulse and blood pressure, and then a blood sample. I’ve had this done so many times and you’d imagine I’d be used to it by now. Still, I manage to dislike the whole procedure. The application of the tourniquet, the prod and prick as she tries to find a vein. I close my eyes tight and try not to think about the pumping red flow. I have always been squeamish and it’s an unfortunate thing to be, given how much time I spend in hospitals.

5. A disconnected heart continues beating

I stand under the warm downpour of the shower and close my eyes. I wash thoroughly using plenty of soap, mud-brown and smelling of iodine. Dried, I pull on the hospital gown and draw a sterile dressing gown round tight. The doctor turns up, the man who I have seen regularly for months now. He runs through the practical details which I already know. ‘Have you any questions?’

His smile is forced, yet not unkind. I wonder how he feels. Trepidation, knowing what is at stake? The excitement of imminent performance?

I ask if the other heart has arrived yet.

The surgeon looks me in the eye in that disconcerting way he has and I picture this being part of his training. Always make eye contact. Don’t avoid awkward answers. Be honest.

Honesty is not a well-defined thing.

‘Not yet, but it will be by the time we need it.’

‘You won’t remove the old one until the new one arrives though?’

He lets his silence speak.

I have become an expert in this operation. The maelstrom of medical activity involved in cutting me open and severing my heart cannot be done in a hurry. The longer the other heart is on ice, the poorer the chances of success. Timing is everything. The logistical chain is complex. The heart might be in a hospital far away and a team from here will need to travel there for the process of harvesting. Harvest. It’s an uncomfortable term. I don’t know what word I might prefer, but not this one, conjuring picturesque farms abundant with fruits and grains.

What ifs pound in my head. What if the storm means the plane cannot take off or the courier car crashes in the wet? What if the icepack fails? I picture myself lying prone and opened out, my defective organ set aside and still beating, and the finger tapping wait for the new one to arrive. At what point would they put the old one back and what sort of chance would it have?

‘Trust me,’ the doctor says. ‘We’re not going to leave you high and dry without a heart.’

Trust is the hardest of things.

6. Laughter is good for your heart.

Time ticks by and I try to exist outside these moments, to rest suspended, in a state beyond thought. My last moments may thus be unarticulated ones.

The rain against the window starts to ease. My phone rumbles, interrupting my quasi-meditative state. I jolt alert in a wholly unpleasant way, heart beating fast. I pick up.

‘Mum.’

I feel reluctant to take this call, lacking the energy to adopt my usual role of not wanting to worry her. Nurturing, that’s how a mother should be; not needy. Yet now that her voice speaks in my ear, I discover how desperately I need to hear it. Neither of us will refer to the possibility of this being our last ever call, but we are unusually tender with one another. She makes a joke about my heart-age becoming younger than hers and we both laugh and I feel the tension ease. Rays of sun peak out from the leaden sky, the rain reducing to a few heavy drips.

‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ she says, though very obviously she cannot be sure, not beyond the ninety-percent-plus success rate of at least getting through the first thirty days.

‘It had better be,’ I say.

She tells me that she is going to get a train later this evening and should be here for when I wake in the morning. I try to picture opening my eyes, feeling groggy and crap, yet alive, knowing this thing is over. I picture placing my hand on my bandaged chest and feeling a heart beating inside me, one which is not mine, one which has the capability to keep on going. I focus on the image of my daughter being there and the sun shining once more through the window. I am doing this for her.

We are out of things to say and we spend a moment listening to the imagined sound of the other’s breathing, and of their heartbeat. ‘I love you,’ I say and wait for the returning echo.

The door opens. ‘The nurse is here,’ I say. ‘I have to go.’

7. The beating sound is caused by the valves of the heart opening and closing.

The room is windowless, cocooning me from the outside world. I have always hated submitting to anaesthetic, that feeling of drifting away. As a child in the dentist chair, gas mask placed over my mouth, I kicked out, tried to fight the dentist off, before consciousness was switched off and I woke in an eye-blink to a painful, bloody mouth. In bed, sometimes, I catch myself on the very verge of sleep and the thought jerks me awake. The terror of the void. Of not emerging from it. Even though, once I am there, it will not be terrifying at all.

The anaesthetist has a carefully practised manner. She chats about everyday things, things which have no importance within the scheme of facing death. She wouldn’t talk about tomorrow’s weather—the calm after the storm—unless she thought I’d survive, would she?

What would she talk about?

The odds of my coming round are better than nine in ten. The odds will shortly turn binary: life or death.

A person has died; I ought to get my shot at living as cosmic compensation. But there is no ought to this.

The prick of the needle hurts. The woman apologises. Just my luck that she’s less than competent, or having a bad day. I dislike the thought of the cannula, of this opening into my vein. I cannot bear to think of what will happen once I go under. I long to rip the needle out, to shout and scream, to claw and fight my way out of here, to run carefree through the rain-washed world, inhaling the scent of green, to flee my only hope of living.

I don’t. I breathe in the scent of hospital and try to relax. ‘Count down from ten,’ the woman says. And dutifully I do.

Ten…

— I feel the steady beating of my heart —

…nine…

— I fist and relax my free hand —

…eight…

— I imagine the lightning jolt which will kick-start my new heart —

…seven…

— blood courses through my veins, carrying the drip feed of drugs to my brain and adding a mugginess to my thoughts —

…six…

— I picture my heart, disconnected, still beating —

…five…

— I hear the rumble of children’s laughter, my daughter long ago, the grandchildren who might one day come —

…four…

— I feel myself sinking, can hear nothing but the opening and closing of valves, the closing of one chapter, the opening of another —

…three…

…two…

…one…

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Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher Prize, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Best New Writing, and Shooter. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York. Twitter: @sarah_mm_evans

Bird Watching

Baker’s Pick
Thaddeus Rutkowski


Photo Credit: J. Robinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My family acquired a duckling at a local carnival. The bird was a prize in a game of chance. The way the game worked was, contestants threw ping-pong balls at small glass vases. Most times, the tossed ball would bounce off a lip and dribble into a trough, where it would be redirected to the next player. On one throw, however, someone in my family hit a cup and won a duckling that was dyed blue.

The duckling appeared to be female—she had a wide chest and a relatively short neck. She grew fast, and soon all of her blue down fell out. The bird, who wasn’t named, became her natural color—white—as feathers grew in. She also outgrew our living room, where she had been living on newspaper sheets spread on the floor. I didn’t miss the newspaper duck nest; we already had two dogs that made the kitchen their home.

To accommodate the growing bird, my father built a coop in the yard. He made a duck house out of plywood, with two-by-four legs to keep it off the ground. The coop had a wire-mesh front so the bird could see out—and we could see in. My father scattered straw on the wire-mesh floor.

She seemed to thrive there. Sometimes we let her out so she could roam the yard, though someone had to watch her all the time. She clicked her beak as she walked. She was snapping at insects and so was reducing the number of pests. But her snapping action might have been a threat; she looked like she could deliver a strong pinch. When she came toward me with her beak clacking, I got out of her way. I didn’t want to be “goosed.”

I remembered seeing an artist’s illustration of a child herding ducks with a stick. The image was in a book of Mother Goose rhymes, though not all of the animals in the book were birds. The inclusion of ducks among the verses seemed coincidental; the only bird with a purpose was Mother Goose herself. She had to tell the stories through rhymes.

In any case, the birds in the Mother Goose book were running away from the stick as the child held the weapon over their heads.

I tried the stick method with our duck. I picked up a branch and held it behind her head. She was afraid and didn’t want to be touched. With the stick in my hand, I was in no danger of being pinched. But I didn’t know where we should go, she and I, so I “herded” her in random patterns in the yard.

Over the weeks, the duck laid eggs, and my father collected them. The eggs were larger than a hen’s eggs, and the shells concealed a tough inner skin. Nevertheless, my father cracked the shells, pierced the skin, and cooked the eggs. He served me one, sunny side up. The yolk was darker than that of a hen’s egg, and it was larger than the egg white. “Eat,” he said.

I complied gingerly. I picked at the egg with the tip of a fork.

Whenever I was outside, I didn’t look in the straw of the coop. I didn’t want to find an egg and have to turn it over to my father.

Presently, the duck began to fade. She spent her time sitting in the straw that lined the bottom of her coop. Maybe she was brooding over her eggs; more likely, she was unhappy with her captivity.

My father transferred her to the house cellar, where she did even worse. The darkness and dampness got to her. Now and then, my father went down to feed her, but otherwise she received no attention.

I wanted to free the duck from the basement. I found a large cardboard box and gathered my brother and sister to help me. We went down to the damp, stonewalled room and pulled a string to switch on a bare lightbulb. The duck was sitting on the dirt floor. She didn’t get up when she saw us.

My brother and I carried the duck to the nearby creek; our sister followed. I had the idea that our duck would find a new life in the stream. She was a descendant of wild mallard ducks, bred by the Chinese to be white and relatively tame.

She still didn’t stand up when we placed her on the ground, so we put her in the water. She floated slowly away, with her neck extended and her head up. When she reached a distance from us, she looked like a white flower bobbing on the surface.

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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. His received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Email: Thadrutkowski[at]aol.com

End of a Light

Fiction
Dana Verdino


Photo Credit: Andrew Atkinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I’m nearly forty, and the days turn over with blind haste. My dog has grown older and her kidneys are failing. It is nearing the end of winter, which was a mild one. Not too cold most days, with a single dusting of snow that frightened southerners into buying up all the bread and milk at the stores. It seems as though Lucy has died already. All I can muster are moments of glee and the rest is keeping my head above the water. I spend my days teaching part time at the college to a bunch of apathetic freshmen. I come home to my husband and four children. I drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and prance around the house, ragging on my children, pretending to listen to my husband, who is talking about work. He paints houses, interiors and exteriors, and he often uses ladders. I try to pet Lucy as much as possible now. She lies on her dog bed in the living room by the window. We once were best friends—just me and my dog in the big city.

Sex is not what it once was, but nothing ever is. It isn’t that the sex is prosaic; it’s just that our parts of flesh are so familiar that duty and mere satiety have usurped desire. Making love to the same and only person year after year seems unfair, but the alternative is a malignant force in a marriage, so I’m stuck, isolated with only love without the lust. Also banal are the vegetables I cook with dinner. We are getting older and we need to eat better, plus the children should learn to find vegetables agreeable. My husband picks the vegetables out of his food, and this is not good for the children to see, but I can’t complain because they see me smoking my lungs out. One week I come down with the flu. One Sunday, my son falls off the couch and splits his cheek open good enough to get four stitches. Lucy grows weaker. My daughter loses a tooth. The dishwasher stops working. Lucy is dying more quickly.

The end of March ends in rain and it continues into the beginning of April. Lucy starts waking me up two or three times a night, summoning me from worlds away as I fumble through the maze of a dream. She comes to the side of the bed, breathing heavily, nudging my arm. She stares at me with her tongue hanging out, glossy eyes, writhing tail. I try not to wake the children, tell Lucy to shush as she shakes her collar and the metal charms clink and clank. At the top of the stairs, she sits and fidgets. I pick her up, my arms behind her hind legs and front legs, scrunching her into a loose ball. Then I follow her as she trots languidly over the wood floor on her twig legs. On the kitchen tile, her hind leg slips away from her, and she falls on her rear, but quickly gets up and makes her way to the water bowl. I pet her small head, a head too small for her Labrador body, but she isn’t all lab. She is all black, part lab, part collie, maybe. I refill her water and sit at the table, waiting for her to slurp it all up. Then, I let her outside into the backyard, although I know it is in vain, as she will go to the bathroom on the hallway rug, as she normally does.

Over the back porch light, the trees cast shadows on the clover patches in the yard, a bat swings low through the air, and I wince. The Orion is clear and I can make out the Huntsman’s torso and bottom parts, over the distant neighbor’s house. I learned how to spot Orion at work, from one of the other teachers, Mr. Poleck. He talks about constellations and swing parties. He and his wife go to parties and trade spouses; sometimes they dress up in animal costumes. He invited me to one such party, but I’m not interested in sleeping with someone that I don’t get to choose ahead of time, neither am I a fan of dressing up as a fox or bear and humping another person in a monkey or cat costume. None of that ignites my lust. So I say, “No, thank you. I’ll just enjoy listening to your stories, if that’s ok.” He had said, “There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s all so natural, like the stars in the sky.” He doesn’t believe in a God. He believes in stars.

After a while of her hobbling around out in the dark, Lucy comes to the door and I let her back inside. She drops down onto her bed in the living room, and I climb back upstairs and into my bed. I hear my two sons and my daughter breathing heavily as they sleep. My other one, the baby, sleeps in our bed in the middle. He sleeps with his delicate, tiny mouth ajar, silent breaths coming out of him. I like to watch his small face and soft mouth breathing air, by the light of the moon through the window.

There are bats living in the attic. A dog, two cats, four children, and a man also live in this house. I try to avoid having to open the trap door on the ceiling and have turned the washroom into the storage area. It is getting too full, but I’m afraid to open the attic door. My husband doesn’t care about organization and there isn’t anything he cares about in the attic, except for his old sports trophies and newspaper clippings of his sporting accomplishments. He says the bats are harmless.

Lucy used to bark when the bats made fluttering noises, which was likely them squeezing their way in through a hole behind the shutter on the attic window. She also used to bark at the mailman, the stray cats, and the occasional squirrel on the back porch. She is dying quickly now, so she doesn’t bark anymore. I ignore the bats and I ignore the death that is eating my dog. Sometimes I kiss her and whisper, light of my life, which is something I used to say all the time. When I met my husband, he became my light, and when I had children, they became my light. They became the lighthouse of my universe, and I stopped being a good friend to my dog. She became a fixture in our home, and sometimes she was even a nuisance. “I’m sorry,” I’d say to her, in those rare times we were alone. “I’m sorry I can’t do this all; I’m just so tired.”

Lucy soon stops waking me in the night and begins using the rug in the living room as her bathroom. I clean rugs and floors and spray the air. In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I’ll lie next to Lucy, my body draped on the floor, my head next to hers on the dog bed. I hang one arm over her and bring her close to me. I asked my husband if I should come home early one day from work and shoot her in the backyard, before the children come home. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, that I’d regret it. Then I get too busy to think about it, and as the days pass, the closer she gets to not existing anymore. In the evenings, my husband reminds me that she’s dying. “She can barely walk,” he says. “She didn’t eat anything today. She hasn’t moved from her bed.“

By mid-April, spring brings the pollen, and the air gets more sluggish. I only wake in the night to make a bottle for the baby. I pass by Lucy on her bed and I sense life. I look over at the couch as I fill water in the bottle at the kitchen sink. The television is on and a blanket lays on top of the mound that is my husband. I can barely keep my eyes open. In the morning, the children and I go downstairs. I start on pancakes and eggs for our Saturday breakfast, while the baby plays with wooden spoons on the floor and the kids watch cartoons. I don’t know where my husband is. I’m thinking he went to the dump before we all got up. Until he arrives home, closes the door lightly, and comes into the kitchen. He looks at me, then shows me a piece of paper. I glance at it and understand fully where he’s been. No wonder I couldn’t make out a head when I looked at the couch in the middle of the night. He wasn’t actually there. He was in jail all night after being arrested for a DUI.

I say, “Good for you. Want some eggs?” I wanted to skip over all the tasks of this giant inconvenience and be in a morning in the future, when everything would be forgiven and it wouldn’t hurt just to speak.

“No,” he says. “I feel sick to my stomach.”

I continue to work the eggs. The kids need breakfast, preferably with protein. I crumble the American cheese into the egg mixture and stir. My husband starts from the beginning. His words are accusatory when he talks about the rookie cop, as if the blame could even partially be placed elsewhere. I feel as though I’ve been through stories like this a million times. I roll my eyes. I don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t matter. We wake, we rear children, we eat, we sleep. Our dog is dying, and our flesh is drooping around crumbling bones. Love has become an act of distribution, and with each passing year, there is less to give. I don’t want to hear the story because I’m enervated and time is of the essence.

 

I’m groggy when I go to work the following Monday. In the tutoring center, I settle into the corner of the large table, where Mr. Poleck sits on the other side, a bag of bagels in front of him. This is where the tutoring takes place, either from teachers at the school, or other student peers. It’s a little extra money, and we get paid even if we don’t tutor during those four-hour blocks. Mr. Poleck offers me a bagel and says he got them free because they’re a day old. He shrugs his shoulders and chuckles, as if to say a world that discards day-old bagels is cruel and foolish. I secretly agree with him, even though I know people want their bagels fresh in the morning. I tell him to rip me a half of a plain one, and I gnaw on it while I start grading student papers, and Mr. Poleck talks about architecture in Chicago. It’s hard for me to concentrate, and the center is empty, so I say, “My dog is dying.” I’m not close to Mr. Poleck but he tells me things he shouldn’t about going to swing parties and dressing up in animal costumes. He is an intelligent man with a PhD in Science, and he has red streaks in his hair and wears sneakers. There is something very trustworthy about him.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he says. “How old is your dog?” He takes a calm sip off his coffee. We talk about my dog. Then, he says “Your Lucy is a supernova. Right now she’s spreading herself into pieces, shining brighter than any other star.” He flutters his fingers, illustrating the pieces of a star like the pieces of my dying dog.

A few nights later, on a cool night in April, we sit at the long, wooden table and eat chicken and rice and string beans. I have moved Lucy’s bed into the dining room, so I can look at her while I’m wandering about in the kitchen, as I do most evenings. My children are laughing and making noises like animals when I hear a whimper, and I look toward Lucy to find her seizing up. She is lying there, her legs sprawled out in front of her, eyes wide open. She is hardening inside, her organs icing over. I curse at my children to shut their mouths and rush over to her. I kneel down and hover my body over hers, cradling her head with one hand and holding her side with the other. The children are laughing at her. I yell at my husband, “Get them out of here right now. Just get out!” They all go into the living room and continue to make their noises there, while I tell Lucy it’s going to be okay. Her body is stiff and stretching, her head shaking against her vertebrae. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. I love you.” Her tongue falls out of her mouth, she lets go of a light sigh, and she is gone. Her eyes stay staring into the air at nothing at all. The children clamor in and yell, “Lucy’s dead! Look at her eyes!” I wonder how it is that it doesn’t hurt them, as if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child.

I cover Lucy with a sheet from the linen closet. We don’t use top sheets, just blankets, so I save the sheets for occasions like picnics, and apparently, for the death of pets. I used one just a few months prior to bury the cat. We clean up the kitchen table while the children play and Lucy rests like a boulder on sticks under the sheet. After we wash the dishes and sponge off the table, I take the baby and go upstairs to lie down. I lay there while the baby drifts off to sleep, and I listen to my husband carry my friend out to the backyard. In the light of a lantern, he buries Lucy while the children watch. They ask questions like “Why are you putting her in the ground?” and “What will happen to her now?” I lie still on my back, my hands cupped on my chest, and I watch the lantern flickering through the window. The flickers of light and Mr. Poleck’s fingers dancing like the spirit of my dying dog make me smile. I know she isn’t going to fade into blackness like a supernova. Not in my universe. I close my eyes. Light of my life, I whisper and turn on my side to rest my eyes on my baby’s silvery face.

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Dana’s work has appeared in Pank, Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English Instructor for Gaston College and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children. Email: dcv206[at]nyu.edu

The Naming of Plants

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Seán Ó Domhnaill/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Ok, so some people might think a graveyard isn’t a suitable place for a child to play. But I disagree. I’m not talking about one of those soulless city cemeteries. I admit they can be bleak. No, I’m talking about small church graveyards like the one near us in the village. I’d always loved it even before we had Molly: the lichen-encrusted slabs, the old trees and shrubs, the weathered headstones.

 

And since things started to go wrong at home I’ve been coming here a lot. As soon as I step in through the lych-gate I feel a sense of peace. All the emotion and anxiety disappears. I can sit for hours on one of the benches just thinking, trying to work out what to do, what the future holds. I know it’s a cliché but the graveyard really is an oasis of calm, a place for reflection and yes, even for dreaming. What might have been. What the future might hold.

 

Recently I started bringing Molly with me—only when she’s not at nursery, of course, maybe at the end of a walk or just when I can’t bear to be in the house anymore. To her it’s just a lovely green space to play in. Nothing morbid or sad about it. She loves to run about and play hide-and-seek behind the gravestones. When we came in the spring she picked wildflowers and we learnt their names together—buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell. I talked to her about the old trees and how some of them might have been there even before the church was built.

Of course, she asked me about the headstones and I told her the truth, that they’re to help us remember people who have gone away. I don’t believe in lying to children. Which is why I’ve been honest with Molly about what she hears at night sometimes, the shouting, the angry words.

“Mummy and Daddy don’t always agree about things, you see,” I told her. “Daddy gets cross and then he shouts because he thinks I’m not listening. But I do listen. I hear every word he says.”

“I listen, don’t I, Mummy?” Molly said. “Buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell.” She did a wobbly pirouette on the grass.

“That’s right my pet. Clever girl.”

 

Things got worse and worse at home. Martin was like a record stuck in a groove. Since he found out about me and Dan he’s been obsessed. I told him we all make mistakes, but you have to move on eventually, forgive and forget. But he couldn’t.

I have tried to make a go of it—for Molly’s sake. I really have. But I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on like this. The atmosphere was poisonous. Not good for any of us. And whenever I tried to look ahead I just knew it was going to be up to me to make a move.

 

Autumn’s heading towards winter now. Gloomy days and even darker nights. The house was beginning to feel even more like a prison. So Molly and I were going out as much as we could when the weather allowed. Like we did a few weeks ago. We had a lovely walk together through the woods, scrunching through leaves, talking about the trees and flowers, dropping sticks into the little beck.

On the way home we had to pass the churchyard. I suppose I just wanted to delay getting back to the house, back to the inevitable rows and recriminations. It was only for an extra ten minutes or so as it was getting towards dusk but Molly had a lovely time racing around.

“Look, Mummy—look at all the different leaves I’ve found.”

“That one’s a sycamore and that’s an oak—you can tell by the curvy edges. And that’s a horse chestnut. It’s just like a huge hand isn’t it?”

“Can we take some back home for Daddy? He’d like to see them all.”

“Yes, that’s a lovely idea. I think I’ve got a plastic bag in my pocket you can pop them into. Off you go—see how many you can find.”

She skipped off and came back with a bagful of crisp autumn leaves, gleaming colours ranging from russet to yellow. She was so pleased with herself.

“Can I put some of these berries in the bag, too, Mummy? They’re so pretty. Like little red jewels.”

“You’re right, they are pretty. Yes, that’s fine—but not the squishy ones. Just a few of the nice round ones. Now we’d better go or it will be dark before we get back.”

 

My point is you can’t blame a four-year-old for something they don’t understand. I’m just so glad Molly was in bed by the time Martin started to feel ill. First he said he felt shivery so I told him he must have caught a chill at the weekend when we went to the seaside. But then, when he got up to go upstairs, he started to stagger and had to grab on to the banisters to stop himself falling.

“I feel so cold, Becky. Freezing cold.”

I went into the kitchen to boil the kettle for a hot drink to take upstairs with him. By the time I got back he’d collapsed, lying sprawled across the bottom of the stairs. His colour didn’t look good and I could only feel a really faint pulse.

I don’t know why the ambulance took so long to arrive but it’s no use blaming anyone now is it?

Of course they had to do a postmortem as it was all so sudden. Taxine alkaloid ingestion, they said. Had I any idea how Martin could have eaten yew berries?

I explained that Molly and I had been in the churchyard and that she’d collected leaves to bring home to her daddy. “She must have popped some yew berries in, too,” I said. “We had fruit salad for dessert—maybe she added her berries to Martin’s dish while we were out of the room? She probably thought they looked pretty. She would only be trying to please him.”

 

Everyone agrees the main thing is not to burden Molly with any feelings of guilt. No one wants her to have something like that hanging over her for the rest of her life.

So it’s early days but I think she’s beginning to accept that Daddy is in the churchyard now with all the other people who have gone away.

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Gwenda Major lives in the Lake District in the UK. Her passions are for genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous print and digital publications. Most recently her short stories have been published in Dodging the Rain, Toasted Cheese, Retreat West, Brilliant Flash Fiction and Bandit Fiction. Gwenda has also written four novels and three novellas. Her novella Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG Open Novella Competition in December 2016 and others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

Backseat Driver

Fiction
Mark Joseph Kevlock


Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I worked at the car wash. She worked at the Acme supermarket next door. It was 1975. We were probably in love.

I saw a kid hanging around more and more in the background. I thought maybe he was our son, from the future, come back to ensure his own birth by monitoring us closely. I read a lot of science fiction in those days.

I followed the kid when he wasn’t looking. After he left the car wash he went straight to the supermarket and lingered in the produce aisle, where Cathy worked.

“Do you have any long-lost brothers or sisters?” I asked her, walking home up the hill together.

“No. Do you?”

I told Cathy no. She asked why I asked.

“That kid. Haven’t you seen him?”

“Which one?” Cathy said.

“The one with the ragged jeans and the black windbreaker. Bangs in his eyes. Tennis shoes.”

“Un-uh,” Cathy said.

“How could you not see him? He was standing in your aisle for twenty minutes, staring right at you.”

“I didn’t see him,” Cathy said.

The next day at the car wash I chased him into the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. He’d been leaning against the cinder blocks, nonchalant, when I circled around and snuck up behind him. At the last second, he spotted me and scrambled through the open door of the car I’d been washing, a VW Bug. The windows were still all soapy, so I lost sight of him for just a second until I got there. Guess what? He was gone. Vanished like a magic act. Neither door had opened on the opposite side. I was positive I saw him climb in. So where did he go?

A time-traveling ghost was looking better and better, as explanations go.

I ate lunch out on the curb with Cathy.

“Why don’t you ask someone else at the car wash if they see him?” Cathy suggested.

“And if they don’t?”

“Then you’re bonkers,” Cathy said.

I didn’t give her a bite of my cupcake.

The kid wore the same clothes every time. But a lot of kids do. Pretty flimsy evidence of a supernatural origin—that was all I had so far.

I did ask a couple of customers, next time he appeared. They didn’t see him. Maybe he’s a psycho-projection of my unconscious mind, I reasoned. I tried to recognize the kid, but I didn’t. I just didn’t know him from anywhere at all. I followed him again to the supermarket. The automatic door opened for him like it did for anybody else. He must’ve been real. Right?

Cathy was getting close to marriage, and I was the only guy around.

“What if we have a kid and this is him?” I said.

“I don’t want our son hanging out at car washes and supermarkets,” Cathy said.

“We’ll raise him better than that,” I said.

“Maybe you should invite him to the wedding,” Cathy said.

She laughed but I didn’t.

Maybe I had a little brother who died, then my parents had me hypnotized to remove the trauma. You’d think I’d recognize his face, though.

I tried shouting at him. He didn’t answer. He didn’t ever look directly at me, either. Just sort of in my direction.

I waited for a revelation. None came. I got married to Cathy, on a car washer’s salary. One day the kid wasn’t there anymore.

“Maybe he’s in my womb, hiding,” Cathy joked.

It took us nine months to find out.

“He’s just a baby,” Cathy said, at first glance. “I can’t tell what he’s going to look like.”

Neither could I.

“Maybe the money got tight and we put him up for adoption. Then he haunted us out of revenge.”

“Haunted you,” Cathy corrected. “I’ve never seen him.”

“I should’ve taken a picture with your Kodak camera,” I said. “Instant developing.”

The kid wasn’t so instant. It took him ten years to get to the right age. I even bought him tennis shoes and a black windbreaker.

“Well?” Cathy said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It might be him. It might not. Let’s grow those bangs into his eyes.”

“Are you, by chance, working on a time machine in the basement?” Cathy said.

“I guess I forgot that one little detail.”

Winter turned to spring. The car wash was reopened. It was 1985. Cathy and I were probably still in love.

One day a Volkswagen Beetle pulled in. There was a kid asleep on the back seat. He had on a black windbreaker.

I stood there looking at myself in the window reflection. The kid moved a little bit like he was dreaming. Maybe he was. Maybe his dream started back in 1975.

Maybe I only existed because he was dreaming about me. Maybe my whole life was just a story that began at that moment.

I loved Cathy. And my real kid. I didn’t want to lose them.

He kicked a little, like a dog having a bad dream. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know that I didn’t exist. Maybe I was ruining his imaginary love life. Maybe I represented him in the dream.

All I had to do was wake him up. That would prove, or disprove, all of my theories.

I might cease to exist. Or maybe he would.

I stood there with the sponge in my hand. Then I tossed it back in the bucket.

I couldn’t take the chance.

I just didn’t want my story to end.

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Thus far in 2018 Mark Joseph Kevlock’s fiction has appeared in over two dozen magazines, including 365 Tomorrows, Into The Void, The First Line, Ellipsis Zine, Literally Stories, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Friday Flash Fiction. He has also written for DC Comics. Email: DippedinForever[at]aol.com

Subsidence

Fiction
Hayley N Jones


Photo Credit: NCM3/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When it began, I would see her reflected in windows. Sometimes she was reading mail; other times she was striding across the room. I saw her dusting the sideboard on several occasions. Always mundane tasks. Chores. I asked the doctor whether hallucinating was a symptom of my condition, but he said it was doubtful. He thought it might be psychological rather than neurological, since she was often doing the housework I can no longer do. He referred me to a counsellor and suggested I keep a record of the sightings.

They thought my condition was stress related, but nobody knew for sure. The symptoms started around the time a large crack appeared in the exterior side wall of our house. Subsidence, said the structural engineer. He said it could be repaired without spending an astronomical amount, but couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again in future, especially in another part of the house. The ground was literally shifting beneath me.

Julie thought my condition was a reaction to William’s coldness, a subconscious bid for attention. I pointed out that it wasn’t very effective. If anything, my illness made him angrier and more distant. He resented having to prepare his own meals and iron his shirts. He made snide comments whenever he saw me lying on the couch, too exhausted to move.

I used to pride myself on not being weak. I demanded perfection from everyone, in my job as a television producer and in general—including from myself. William used to joke about his go-getter wife whose programmes got top ratings and awards. I scrabbled to cling to work as I got ill, but the bare minimum soon became too much. I went from running the show to oblivion. In the television industry, there is always someone to take your place.

Perhaps the same is true of all things in life: everyone is replaceable. As people fade away, others shine. William may have found my replacement as soon as I became ill. He worked longer hours as I got frail and needy. I had no energy to check on him, to make enquiries at his office or examine his schedule. Anyway, I didn’t want to be that type of woman.

We led separate lives. William could still do the things he enjoyed: playing golf, drinking whisky, vintage car shows. I could only watch television, the medium I used to control. I watched others claiming successes which should have been mine. The names on programme credits belonged to people who possessed a scant percentage of my talent and dedication.

But paying attention to the screen took too much energy. I had no appetite for critiquing programmes and I didn’t care who was staring down the lens of my camera. The names were becoming unfamiliar—producers too young to remember me, even by reputation.

Julie came around for coffee a few times a week, often bringing treats from the bakery. She also brought stories of the outside world—a mutual friend having an affair with a man twenty years her junior, a bad car accident on the main road into town, an argument with her sister which ended with her phone calls being ignored for a month. Our gossiping was banal and wonderful. I almost felt normal. It reminded me of meeting Julie for lunch when I had half an hour to spare and could be released from the pressures of the studio.

‘The builders will be here next week,’ I said. ‘Mayhem and upheaval, no doubt.’

‘Hope it’s sorted quickly. You know, once the actual work starts.’

‘William wanted to get second opinions, to check everything would be fixed properly. I doubt he’s been stalling on purpose.’

‘Wish I had your faith. It’s the kind of thing he does, manipulating you by prolonging the stress.’

‘It’s stressful for him, too.’

Julie pursed her lips. She had thought the worst of William since they met at a charity function and he mistook her for a waitress. While I had no illusions about my husband, I didn’t believe he would put off repairs to the house. It was more of an inconvenience to him than me.

I was afraid to tell Julie about the woman I kept seeing. I’m not sure why: nothing she could say would be worse than my own thoughts. Perhaps I was going mad. I never asked my doctor whether you can get hallucinations which appear only as reflections: neither answer would reassure me. Instead, I watched her. I saw her plucking her eyebrows and deadheading the roses. I could feel her presence even when I wasn’t watching her; cool wisps of vapour pervading my home.

I began to resent her silence. I shouted, willing her to communicate—or to glance in my direction. I wanted her to acknowledge me. I yelled until I fell back onto the couch, exhausted.

 

None of us could believe how my health nosedived. The doctor was mystified, Julie was concerned and William was incandescent. Living with an invalid tests everyone’s patience and William had never been the most compassionate man. He kept insisting there must be something I could do—a different type of medication I should take, physiotherapy, breathing exercises. His suggestions became more outlandish, less William-like: Bikram yoga, colour therapy, stroking horses.

Even if any of those non-options could work, how would I access them? I struggled to leave my bed, let alone the house. Our household budget was being eaten up by building repairs and the takeaways William bought because he couldn’t be bothered to cook. When I questioned the practicalities, William flew into rages.

We had a bad argument when he accused me of spending too much time with Julie. She had dropped off several chilled and frozen home-cooked meals, so that William didn’t have to do anything more challenging than put the dishes into the oven. I told her she was very kind; William thought it was an invasion and an insult.

‘What business does she have coming around all the time? If you didn’t waste hours talking to her, you’d have the energy to do the things that matter.’

‘Friendship and companionship matter to me.’

‘Why is she always here?’

‘She helps me.’

‘If you need a carer, we can employ one. Once we’ve paid for these bloody subsidence repairs.’

‘I need Julie—I’m damned lonely.’

‘One of us has to work and pay the bills.’

‘I don’t expect you to mollycoddle me.’

‘But she does. I forbid it—I’m fed up with coming home and finding her in my house. I want her gone. Stop inviting her and tell her she isn’t welcome.’

‘You can’t cut me off from her. It’s not fair.’

‘Having to put up with her isn’t fair on me. Bloody interfering woman.’

‘None of this is fair! This illness isn’t fair and Julie helps me to cope, which is more than you do most of the time.’

He flushed crimson. ‘Who the fuck helps you wash? Who puts food on a plate for you?’

‘I mean emotional support. You never listen to me.’

‘Why should I when I’m bloody tired from working and picking up your slack?’

‘I can’t help it. I didn’t want this to happen to me.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘At least you can escape. You can go out and get away from my illness—I can’t.’

‘It’s still a burden to me.’

‘You mean I’m a burden to you.’

‘Yes. You are.’ He stomped out of the room.

My phone went missing that night. I kept it near me at all times, but it wasn’t on the bedside cabinet when I awoke. I checked the floor around and under the bed. My body screamed with pain. I peered behind the bedside cabinet, sliding my fingers into the gap. I checked every space I could think of, hoping that my instincts were wrong, but my search was fruitless. My phone was gone.

William denied taking it, but he didn’t offer to buy a new one. I tried calling it from the landline, but it went straight to voicemail. Since I was meticulous about keeping it charged, someone must have switched it off.

As I lay awake next to William that night, I saw the woman in the wardrobe mirror. She was trying on dresses, one after another, examining herself with a critical eye. Elegant, expensive dresses tailored to her slender hips and shoulders. She smoothed her hands over the silks and jerseys, checking how they draped over her breasts and midriff. She poked a non-existent love handle and frowned. Her underwear was simple, bridal: white French knickers and a lace bra. Her movements were smooth, balletic. Mine had become clumsy and lumbering. Our eyes never met, but I felt as if she were putting on a show for me.

 

Julie came around when she could, but it was difficult because she had to be gone before William got home and his work hours were unpredictable. I think he might have varied them on purpose, hoping to catch me dancing around the kitchen. He was convinced I was somehow fooling him.

I missed Julie with an intensity I found disconcerting. She offered to get me a pay-as-you-go phone, so that we could call and text each other again, but I was afraid William would find it and accuse me of cheating. I called from the landline when I was able to get to the phone, but moving around was increasingly difficult. I was also worried that William would see Julie’s number on the bill. Or that he would say the bill was too high.

Julie begged me to leave, but how could I? I was too drained to make plans or pack and I didn’t want to be a burden to her—she had her own problems. I think I had decided to stay in my ever-shifting home and wait for death.

William grew more stressed and aggressive. He never hit me; his cruelty had more subtlety.

‘This house is filthy.’ He dragged his finger through the dust on the sideboard.

‘What can I do about it? I can barely dress myself.’

‘It’s disgusting.’

‘So get a cleaner.’

‘What with? The money for the structural engineers and builders?’

‘They’re causing most of the dust. It’ll be better when they’re finished.’

‘And until then?’

‘Get a cleaner. Or do it yourself.’

He glared at me.

‘I’d do it if I could. I did for seventeen years while working full time, didn’t I?’

He sighed and went to the kitchen. I heard him bashing the kettle and his mug on the worktop. He didn’t offer me a coffee.

 

I couldn’t stand long enough to shower anymore, so William had to help me in and out of the bath. He looked away as he manoeuvred me, as though my illness made my body repulsive. It still looked the same—perhaps a little skinnier, with less muscle. I wondered how he would react when I deteriorated enough to need assistance using the toilet.

The warm water eased my aching joints and muscles a little. After several minutes, I regained enough flexibility in my fingers to wash my hair. I disliked rinsing it in the bath water, but it was easier than asking William to help me use the shower hose. As I lathered the shampoo, I glimpsed her in the bathroom mirror. She was wet from the shower, with droplets of water glittering on her pale skin. She dried herself with a thick towel, stroking her limbs and dabbing between her legs. Another performance.

She stepped outside the range of the mirror and didn’t come back; I watched as the bath water cooled and my pain intensified. There was something threatening about her that I couldn’t pinpoint. It wasn’t just her sense of proprietorship, the way she moved about my home as if she had always belonged. Perhaps it was her vitality.

I began to see her chatting on the phone, her conversation punctuated with laughter. She must have more friends than me. Julie still tried to come around when William was at work—I gave her a spare key years ago, though I knew William wouldn’t like her having access to our home. I didn’t get to see her often, but it was enough to keep me going.

Julie told me I should have divorced him years ago. ‘Get your compensation and get out.’

‘It’s not that easy.’

‘It’s not difficult—I’ve done it twice.’

‘But I love William, that’s the difference.’

‘I loved my husbands, in my own way.’

‘It’s too late now anyway.’

On my worst days, I had to rely on William to give me my medication. He handed me the pills with such carelessness that I wondered if he had checked the dosage. How could I tell? I was so tired I passed out regardless of what he gave me.

*

Everything came to a head, as it always does, on an otherwise ordinary day. A Friday. I had spent the day in bed—in fact, I had spent most of the week in bed, listening to the builders. I was too weak to read or watch television, so there was nothing to distract me from my aching body. I begged William to help me to the bath, just so that I could have half an hour’s semi-relief.

He lifted me into the bath as usual, his gaze averted. After he left, I savoured the warmth enveloping my stiff and tired body. I relaxed for the first time in days. The woman wasn’t in the mirror, making me feel like I had no right to be in my own home. I stretched out my legs and spine, relishing the relative ease of movement. Then I slipped. My body weight shifted and my shoulders sank down the side of the bath.

I couldn’t grip the edge: my hands kept sliding off. I tried to push myself up, but I had no strength. My feet scrabbled against the porcelain and then my body plunged forward, dragging my head underwater.

I thrashed about, trying to gain purchase or alert William, but my energy drained within moments. I lay in the water, my lungs burning and my head close to exploding, until everything went blank.

 

I see her every day now, cooking in my kitchen and choosing new sheets for my bed. I think she knows I’m here—sometimes I catch her eye and she turns pale. Her name is Susannah, but William calls her Sweetheart. He seems softer, more patient. He brings her roses and cups of tea. They have romantic dinners in front of the living room fire. She smiles and giggles, but I know part of her is always uneasy.

She senses me, no matter how much she changes the décor and feigns nonchalance. She knows I’m here, even as she blots out every vestige of my life. She threw away my photos and my television awards, but she can’t get rid of me. She pretends not to care—she tells her friends she doesn’t mind living in my house because it’s gorgeous and the location can’t be bettered. They might believe her; they don’t hear her pleading with William, saying that the latest subsidence problems shouldn’t have a drastic effect on the price.

She continues her pseudo-exorcisms as she uncovers more of my things, as though binning a birthday card or a trinket could unleash us from each other. She bristles as I walk past her, my body no longer aching and cumbersome. She senses me, just below the surface of her life.

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Hayley N Jones has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter. She has previously been published in Confingo and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017. She lives in East Devon, England (UK), where she volunteers for a local youth mental health organisation, blogs about mental health and is currently studying part time for a Psychology BSc. Email: hayleynjones[at]hotmail.co.uk Twitter: HayleyNJones

The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


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

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

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

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

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

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went home numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There the story ended.

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

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

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

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Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

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

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

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

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

“Bah… pth?”

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

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

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

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

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

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

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

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

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

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

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

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

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

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

“What was the insignia?”

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

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

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

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

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

Crrrrk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nearly fainted.

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

Wait.

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

“Stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

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

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