The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Mirage Lin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Gripping the phone tight between sweaty fingers, I close my eyes, breathe in the heavy air and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ My voice sounds thin and tinny.

The voice reassures me that he will be in touch again soon. He reels off the digits of his direct extension along with a helpline number. ‘In case you need to talk to anyone.’

It’s a while before I realise that I am still clinging to the phone, the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I try to picture the person belonging to the voice, wonder what he is doing, now he has ticked off this awkward task from his list.

I stand and stretch and head to the bathroom where I splash cold water over my face then stare into the chipped enamel sink. Slowly I raise my eyes and turn, catching the mirror only obliquely, passing a glance at the image which is never quite what I expect.

In the kitchen, I half trip over the curling lino. Sun streams through the glass; it bounces off metallic surfaces, blinding me and threatening to turn the strain behind my eyes into a full-blown headache. For weeks the heat has built with no relief, mirroring my inner tension, as if I’ve been half-expecting something to happen.

I make a cup of coffee, splash in some milk, then cradle the mug between my palms, warming my hands, which seem to have retained a sensory memory of that time outside time, those clock-stopped days.

I gear myself to call my parents, wishing I could postpone, knowing that nothing could excuse a delay of any kind. Relief battles with frustration when the answerphone kicks in. I cannot blurt out my message, so instead I stall: ‘I’ve got some news. Please ring me back.’ I picture them listening and knowing instantly, the way that I did.

Good news or bad? Dad always asks that. It is hard to say.

This all happened long ago and I have pressing things to do, working from home no excuse for slacking. I return to my home office and sit in front of my laptop and manage to spill my gone-cold coffee. I try to re-immerse myself in the figures which fill my screen, grounding myself in the present, filling the crevices of my brain with facts, trying to force out the voice pounding in my ears.

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

The shriek of the alarm sliced through my thumping head. Emma groaned. It would have been so easy to curl up and drift back down; I was determined not to. I rolled towards the kitchenette. Emma was doing her best to feign sleep and I nudged her with my foot. ‘Come on Ems. Rise and shine.’

She opened her eyes. Her face seemed to mirror my own, looking every bit as crap as I felt. ‘What time is it?’ she asked, the same question every morning.

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

We’d crashed on the pull-out sofabed four hours ago; it seemed better not to spell that out. ‘We need to get there early.’ Rising with the sun was worth it—surely—to enjoy the early morning quiet on the slopes. ‘This is our last chance.’ We’d been travelling for several weeks now. Time had slipped past and we’d arrived at our next to final day.

Released from exams, the two of us had one last summer of freedom ahead of being shackled to the confines of office life. Friends were heading for salt-white beaches. Lazing in the heat and avoiding sunburn held no appeal. ‘What about skiing?’ I’d said.

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

‘Sure. There are plenty of places where you can do that. It’s just a question of going up high enough.’

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

We plotted a train route, joining the dots between major European cities, stopping off at smaller places with hiking trails in between, but the highlight of the trip—literally—was Zermatt, the traffic-free town in the shadow of the Matterhorn, with ski lifts whizzing you from the alpine flowering meadows up to the glacier, snow covered twelve months a year.

Emma was unenthused about my insistence on up-with-the-lark starts. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be relaxing and enjoying ourselves?’ she said.

‘Come on. We can nap this afternoon. It’s never the same once the hordes get going.’ Plus the ski lifts closed at two, before the snow turned wet and heavy. I scooped generous measures of coffee into the pot, added water and put it on the stove. I started pulling on yesterday’s clothes, postponing till later the daily battle with the shower which cycled through from scalding hot to ice-cube cold. Emma finally stirred herself, giving in; she looked nine-tenths asleep as she took two steps to the bathroom, moving more slothfully than was necessary, a token protest. The rich aroma of coffee filled the apartment, promising wide-eyed alertness.

Outside, the air was sharp enough to cut lungs. I anticipated the usual progression whereby we experienced the four seasons in a single day. The ice of early morning would give way to two hours of a perfect spring, the sun warm on skin, the snow soft, exertion building up a sweat with fleecy layers needing to be discarded; later back at base the heat would build, the thin air strengthening the sunlight, so even though the temperatures were significantly lower than Geneva, we’d risk our fair skin burning if we weren’t careful; then though the evening would remain light, the warmth of the day faded quickly and it would feel more like autumn.

Freshly risen sun reflected off newly smoothed snow up above and dazzled my eyes. A brisk ten-minute walk would bring us to the lifts. My leg muscles were stiff from the accumulation of our daily exertions, first on the slopes and later on the dance floor. They’d soon loosen up. Neither of us had much to say, and we didn’t force it, content in our individual silences.

Approaching the chairs, we appended ourselves to a group of dour-faced people in luminously bright clothes, all speaking rapid German.

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

It was from Joel that I’d taken this idea of early starts. Our first evening here, he happened to be seated on a table next to ours in the cheapest eatery. Instantly, I had him sussed: young and single-minded, carelessly conscious of his athletic beauty, his sun-tinted unkempt hair and sun-kissed skin, wearing the right casual gear in a vibrant array of matching colour, a cool Aussie accent.

‘New Zealand actually,’ he corrected me. ‘Lots of people get that wrong. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

We slipped easily into casual conversation, with Joel keen to provide the insider tips for ski runs, eating places and nightlife, acting as if his hanging out here for several weeks made him some kind of expert. And though his easy chat could have been flirtatious, I knew it wasn’t, that I would never be his type.

He wasn’t my type either.

The following morning, I ensured we were at the chairlifts early. Sure enough, he was in place ahead of us and I hoped he didn’t imagine us being there was due to anything but the promise of clear slopes. He greeted me and Emma with a lazy ‘Hey,’ which I flipped back, feeling the rising flush, hating myself for the way he seemed to make me feel about fifteen.

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

This became the pattern. We’d exchange our itineraries and his always sounded vastly more thrilling. Emma and I had built up intermittent experience from childhood holidays, and we got up to speed on blue runs then progressed onto the reds. As the days went by, I was keen to go for black, wanting to press further, faster, pushing ourselves to our limits; Emma remained cautious. Each morning, Joel managed to convey how ordinary our ambitions were, in the nicest, yet most condescending way. He found the graded slopes too prescribed, too overused, too restrictive. Turned out he had skied all over the world and almost always headed off-piste. Not always harder, but certainly more satisfying, he said, his smile self-deprecating, seeming to imply the option was open to us too, if only we shared his spirit of adventure. Nothing like the pure expanse of the unknown. Even here, a popular area, often he could ski for hours and hardly see anyone. Just him alone in the mountains beneath the sky.

‘Awesome,’ he said, and I smiled tightly and mimicked the word sneeringly in my head. And just as he was getting into his swing, the chairlifts would come to life with a heavy clunk. He’d barely finish his sentence before turning, intent on claiming his place, focusing on what lay ahead, rather than lingering in timewaster chit-chat.

Out of sight, and Emma and I would disappear from his thoughts, while my mind still hummed with thoughts of him. And though the mornings passed well enough, I felt frustrated by the tameness of our chosen slopes, by the accrual of the middle-aged along with their precocious kids, all of them churning the snow up into criss-cross ruts. Today, I needed one last glorious morning to fix in memory, to help me through the dullness that was to come as I returned to England to embark on my fast-track civil service career.

Waiting in line, my mood was beginning to dip, exhaustion refusing to be shrugged off. I’d expected to see Joel and finally win some small measure of his respect. Instead, I had nothing but a conjured-up image of his supple limbs intertwined with those of the dark-haired woman I’d seen him with last night.

Not that it was any business of mine.

And not that I needed to see him. I had his ideas committed to memory, the most straightforward of the off-piste routes. No more difficult than many of the official ones. His claim echoed in my head.

This was our final chance.

The weather forecast was pinned up at the entrance to the ski lift: clouds bringing heavy snow were due to blow in from the West. Difficult to believe with the sky currently pale blue and clear, just as it had been all week. ‘Not looking good,’ Emma said.

I cut in fast. ‘Fine for now though. We’ll knock off early for lunch.’

It was almost time and I was muscle tense, waiting for the squeak and clank of well-oiled machinery, the passing moments before an officious Swiss official would open the gate barrier and bark at us and let us through. The group ahead took the first cable-cars. Close behind them, Emma and I moved forward towards the moving seats, choreographing things to settle ourselves and our paraphernalia of poles and skis and bags before the bars descended and locked us in, ensuring we could not slip out as we soared high above the soft cushion of white below, heading ever higher up into the mountains. I loved this. The stomach-drop moment of that initial swooshing upwards. The repeating stomach lurches whenever we bumped over one of the tall towers holding the whole thing up. I never fully acclimatised to the precarious feel of our high-flown transit, but that was part of the experience, the glorious aliveness which inhabited my body, fear mingling with exhilaration. Emma closed her eyes and tightened her fingers around the bar for the entire trip. She never managed to relax into it, or learned to enjoy the hammering of her heart.

The bars started to lift as we reached our destination and we jumped off. The Germans were still faffing around. I headed away from them and Emma tagged on behind.

I explained the route for the tenth time with Emma frowning at me; she never did have much of a sense of direction, choosing to rely on me, rather than putting the effort in herself.

‘And you’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ she asked.

‘Wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t.’ I tried to exude certainty, because confidence is a mind-trick, act it out and it’s there. ‘Just follow me.’

I adjusted my ski boots and checked the fastenings. I lowered my visor, positioned myself and then pushed away.

Images from the previous night kept flashing. Emma and me, dopey from afternoon snoozing, dressing for the evening in floaty cotton, taking turns in front of the cracked mirror as we applied make-up, intent on improving the canvas of youthful skin. Heading out to a cheap eatery and filling up on sizzling rösti washed down with wine. Moving onwards to a club, the hangout for youthful travelling types, and I’d never have admitted it to anyone, but part of me was on the lookout for Joel.

As always, he seemed surrounded by an adoring host of women. His fan club.

He came over, asked about our day, told us about his. Time slid by as we drank and laughed. Emma sipped the same beer for some kind of forever. Mid-evening and Joel drifted off, disappearing into the throng, and I allowed myself to coast with the crowd and anyone watching me would have figured that I was having amazing fun. But as I tripped the light fantastic out on the floor, unleashing an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition, inventing feverish dance moves amidst the swirl of coloured lights, despondency was taking hold. I caught passing glimpses as Joel paired up with a wispy looking girl with long dark hair and olive skin, the photo negative to my fairness, and though it was nothing to me, not really, somehow I minded. And the discontent lingered as we headed out into the snow that morning. I had no reason to believe that Joel would care, or even know about today, but I wanted to prove myself to him in the face of his casual dismissal, my mind forming the misconnection: I had lost out romantically; I was not going to miss out on adventure.

Slowly my mind cleared, unwelcome thoughts swallowed by the close-to-perfection scene. Unblemished white sparkling in soft early light. The thrill of the steep but manageable slope. My skill with the poles which had gained fluidity in the ten days we’d been here. I wouldn’t get far ahead, but I longed to immerse myself in the utter aloneness of the wild. To absorb myself in the pure tranquillity of the moment. A presentness untainted by past disappointments or future worries.

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

I felt the faintest pick up of the wind; a trickle of soft flakes melted on my lips and swirled in front of my eyes. Not enough to worry about. I heard nothing but the rustle of my clothes, the whish of skis slipping along the crust of snow, the whisper of my out-breath. Slowly the flakes built in size, in density, in churning momentum, building to form an encompassing cloud, casting a strange ethereal light, heightening my awareness of self, of existing within a time-stopped moment, a perfect harmonious dance of near-weightless body, mind and landscape.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped and looked behind me for Emma. How long I waited, my serenity turning to an irritated disguise for fear. How long before I pierced the silence to call her name, listening to the rustle of wind in trees and no reply, before I started to walk clumsily up the slope. How long before I began to panic. Before I realised how alone and helpless I was. Before the weather closed in deeper and I could barely see the back of my gloves. Before I decided the best, the only thing I could do was carry on down and get help, my mind frantically constructing a scenario in which she must either have overtaken me, or turned round and taken the chairlift. She’d be waiting anxiously for me at the bottom, of course she would, and over a boozy lunch somewhere warm, we would turn the events to anecdote, an amusing tale to retell our friends.

 

The screen full of figures glows at me, the data failing to order itself and divulge its meaning, my mind struggling to make sense of the story, those crucial aspects that I have always kept secret.

My sister died in a skiing accident. It is so long since I have seen the need to tell anyone this. She got lost in a suddenly descending snowstorm which forced the two of us apart, in an area where snow sometimes formed a thin layer over deep crevasses in the glacier. Her body remained unfound. None of this version of events—the version I told the police, the journalists, our parents, various therapists and the people I have met and tried to be close to since—is untrue, in the same way that a mirror neither hides nor reveals things fully. I tell people of the hot-cold panic of waiting, those unreal days of searching, of my struggle to describe the route we had taken, everything blurring as if seen through a blizzard.

‘Your sister has been found,’ the man on the phone said and for one heart-soar second I pictured her alive. ‘Some skiers discovered her body where the glacier has melted.’ Perfectly preserved, perfectly frozen, stuck in time. And needing someone to make arrangements for repatriation and burial.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Think it over. But yes, of course, if you want to.’

Time passes and outside the sun burns ever hotter, burning through the glass, scorching my skin. My screen has put itself to sleep. The phone rings, startling me from reverie and perhaps it is my parents, or possibly some journalist has got hold of the story. I make a move towards the phone and I catch my reflection in the blackened screen and imagine staring into a frozen mirror. Staring at the clock-stopped face which will stare back, the image of the self that was lost to me twenty years ago. The face of my much-loved twin. Youthful. Hopeful. Light still dancing in her eyes.

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter Magazine. She started her career as a theoretical physicist before moving into economics and policy advice. She and her husband live in Welwyn Garden City, UK. Twitter: @Sarah_mm_Evans

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


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

There was a gentle buzz as the phone screen lit up, but Bebe didn’t spare it a glance. She continued methodically shaving the onion into paper thin slices. Her husband looked over from his pile of haphazardly diced pepper.

“You know, there are filters for spam texts,” Dominic laughed. “Unless you want to check out prices for roof replacements in Ohio.”

The knife slipped across onion into flesh. “Ah!” Bebe hissed, dropping the blade and heading over to the sink.

“Are you ok?” He grabbed the little first aid box from the junk drawer.

She nodded. “It’s nothing, just a tiny cut.”

He frowned as he handed her the antibiotic ointment. “How many times have I said that you don’t need to cut the onion so fine? We aren’t cooking for Iron Chef, Bebe.”

“I like to follow the recipe instructions exactly, Dom, unlike you. Those diced peppers are a tragedy,” she muttered, her hand shaking slightly as she took the bandage.

He kissed the end of her nose. “I know you like doing everything perfectly. But you don’t have to try so hard; I already think you’re the best.”

“You’re sweet,” She rested her chin on his shoulder, but her gaze was focused on her phone. “You’re still re-doing the peppers, though.”

“What do you want?” Bebe’s voice was a whisper though she was a good twenty yards from her house.

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Well, hello, to you, too, sister.”

Bebe exhaled impatiently. “Cece, I don’t have time for games. I still have the kids’ lunches to pack, and I need to get at least five hours of sleep to function at work tomorrow.”

“Ouch! So, just because I’m not a control freak who plans out her life down to the second, I should have to take care of this by myself?” she asked angrily.

“I don’t even know what this is yet,” Bebe looked down at the daylilies, frowning. Gardening was not her favorite pastime, but everyone else in the neighborhood had lilies, and she didn’t like to stand out. She began furiously plucking off the dead blossoms. “What is going on?”

Cece didn’t reply. Bebe waited, bending to pull an emerging dandelion, grimacing at the dirt that gathered under her classic French tips. The silence stretched, and dread settled in her limbs. She sat down on the grass. “Well?”

“You need to come home. As soon as you can. Plan to stay least ten days,” Cece’s words came out rapidly, tripping over one another in a garbled mess that only a sister could decipher.

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

“Yes,” Cece cut the question off. “Look, I’ve got to go, and so do you. Just get there by Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Bebe replied, though the call had already disconnected. Chaos was creeping towards the edges of her carefully cultivated life. A wave of dizziness enveloped her, and she fell back on her manicured lawn, breathing in the humid Washington air creeping out of the woods bordering her backyard. It was an old, dark smell, too wild for her to enjoy. She rose, smoothing out both the creases in her pants and the panic in her chest before heading back to the kitchen.

“Sylvie, you need to clean your room before you watch any cartoons,” Bebe lifted her eyes from the laundry pile.

“Mom!” Sylvie pouted. “I just cleaned my room yesterday! What about Josh? His room is a bigger mess!”

“Then he can clean his room, too,” Bebe leaned over and took her son’s Nintendo Switch out of his hands. “I want your rooms in order before I leave tomorrow.”

“Nice throwing me under the bus, Sylvie,” he snapped. “Mom, seriously, you think our rooms are filthy if we have one sock on the floor.”

She ignored his comment and gave him a stack of neatly folded shirts. “It wouldn’t hurt either of you to have a little less screen time. Take a break and put these away.”

Josh started to pull the clothes from her hands, but she tugged back. “Not like that, Josh! I just folded them. You’re wrinkling them all over again.”

“Just because you’re going to a lame technology detox retreat in the woods doesn’t mean we should have to suffer, too,” Sylvie groaned. “I want to watch Netflix.”

Dominic entered from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “Breakfast is ready, guys. Laundry and clean rooms can wait. Let’s have a good last day together. No bickering.”

“Then tell Mom not to be a psycho about our rooms,” Josh grumbled.

Bebe flinched. “Having an organized living space creates an organized mind.”

The kids both rolled their eyes as they went toward the dining room. Dominic caught her arm.

“Don’t be upset. No kid likes to clean their room or put away laundry. It’s nothing personal, sweetie. They love you; they’re just grumpy that they’re going to be stuck with lame ol’ Dad for two weeks.”

She tried to shake the hurt. “What’s so awful about wanting a nice, orderly home?”

“Nothing,” he reassured her. “And trust me, a week from now, when Josh can’t find his tablet, Sylvie has lost her third pair of soccer pads, and they’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch instead of your gourmet fare, they will be begging me to fly to Maine and hike three hours to your wilderness retreat to get you.”

Bebe pulled back, looking up with worry on her face. “Will you be all right without me, really?”

“Not all right, but we’ll survive,” Dominic grinned, cupping her cheeks and kissing them both. With the air of man defusing a bomb, he eased the shirts from her grip and set them neatly on the coffee table.

He put an arm around her waist and led her to the dining room, pulling out her chair. “Seriously, hon, I think it’s a good idea. You haven’t had a vacation in forever. Though, I have to say the whole wilderness, no technology is a surprise. Are you sure you want to go to the middle of the woods and commune with nature in the middle of summer? You spray yourself down with repellent to walk to the mailbox.”

Bebe smiled tightly. “It wasn’t my first choice, either, but apparently my friend Vivian from college swears by it for ultimate relaxation. Honestly, it isn’t exactly roughing it. The place has plumbing and central air. It will be a good opportunity to re-connect. And being away from phones and computers and television for two weeks won’t kill me.”

“Mosquitoes might though,” Sylvie snarked as she poked at her food. “They carry Ebola or something.”

“Or ticks,” Josh added, his mouth full of oatmeal. “You could get that citrus disease.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bebe replied automatically, though her face blanched of its color. “And it’s Lyme Disease with a ‘y,’ not an ‘i.’”

“Stop harassing your mother, you two.” Dominic put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I already put three kinds of bug spray in your luggage.”

 

Sunny’s Diner had seen better days. The majority of its business had shifted three miles west to the travel plaza just off the newer and much better paved four-lane highway. Most of the remaining customers were older locals who preferred the winding two-lane country road, plain black coffee with no fancy flavors, and the crispy hash browns of John, the fry cook of thirty-five years.

Bebe parked her rental car and took a steadying breath. She stared at the peeling yellow paint on the bricks. The smiling sun logo was missing an eye. How like this tiny town, she thought, to be half-blind.

“Bebe Carter!” a booming voice greeted her the instant she walked through the door. “We never thought we’d see you again!”

She pasted a friendly, non-committal smile on her face. “Miss Maryanne,” she murmured, nodding her head respectfully at the waitress, noting that all the heads in the diner had turned her way.

“Table for one?” the older woman looked toward the parking lot. “No one with you? No husband?” her eyes locked onto the golden band on Bebe’s left hand.

“My husband couldn’t get time away from work,” Bebe answered. “But Cece is meeting me.”

“Heaven have mercy!” Maryanne’s grin faltered as she placed two laminated menus on the tan Formica table. “I was real sorry to hear about your mama.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

“Hmm,” Maryanne hummed as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. She placed them on the table, along with a small ramekin of milk. “You still take cream, right?”

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

Maryanne leaned down, her yellow uniform smelling of homemade buttermilk biscuits and bacon grease. She put an arm around Bebe’s shoulders, not noticing how she tensed at the touch. “I know she was a hard woman to love, but she was still your mama. It’s ok to cry.”

Bile and angry words rose in Bebe’s throat, but she was saved from exposing her bitterness by Cece’s entrance, grand as always. Her younger sister threw open the door, sending the bell above into a frenzy of jingling. Cece was wearing ripped acid-wash jean shorts, scuffed army boots, and a paint-stained Alice in Chains T-shirt. For a disorienting moment, Bebe worried she had traveled back in time to high school.

“Good Lord, child,” Maryanne had rushed over to Cece, crushing her to her chest. “You didn’t clean up at all in twenty years.” She ran a finger over the dried blue splotch on Cece’s shoulder. “Still messin’ around with paint? Didn’t you ever grow up, girl?”

“Cece is a successful muralist. Her work earns her an excellent living,” Bebe felt compelled to come to her defense, though she had made similar comments about her sister’s appearance.

Cece winked at Maryanne. “Hear that? I have Bebe’s seal of approval. I clearly must have grown up, because she is a serious adult.”

Maryanne’s broad bosom heaved with laughter. “Too grown up for blueberry pancakes and sausage links?”

“Never!” Cece sat down. “Give Bebe the same.”

“No, I don’t eat gluten,” Bebe called out, louder than she’d intended. Everyone turned to stare at her again. “Fine. A small stack,” she mumbled, her fingers tracing an ancient crack in the table top.

After Maryanne had entered the kitchen, she turned to her sister. “This was a horrible place to meet.”

“What? You weren’t feeling nostalgic?” Cece took the milk, pouring the whole container into her cup.

“Hey! Some of that was for me,” she protested.

Cece shrugged. “Too bad, so sad, my Bad Bitch,” she taunted.

“You know I hate that nickname,” Bebe grimaced.

“With a name like Bebe, I couldn’t not give you an awesome nickname, sis. You’re just jealous you never came up with a good one for Cece, because you don’t have any imagination, just like our mother.”

That stung, and she was suddenly twelve again. “I do so, you… Cackling Chicken!”

Cece made a choking sound and slapped the table. “Oh my god! How long were you holding on to that one? It was even lamer than I imagined!”

“I was wrong, you didn’t grow up at all,” Bebe used her napkin to wipe up the few drops of milk that dripped from the ramekin, then began the futile task of scrubbing at a stain worn deeply into the table’s surface.

You were wrong?” Cece said in a tone of faux shock, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “I should have recorded that.”

Bebe’s temples began to throb. She wrapped her hands around the mug to keep herself from cleaning the entire table. “How long will this take?”

A serious expression settled on Cece’s face. It looked out of place. “Apparently, she pre-planned her funeral years ago, right after Dad died. So, most of that is handled. She has a plot next to his, and they’ll have everything ready for the burial tomorrow. I put a notice in the paper yesterday.”

“How many people do you think will come?” She put her spoon in her black coffee, stirring vigorously and aimlessly all at once.

“Hard to tell,” Cece chewed her lower lip. “On one hand, our mother alienated just about everyone in town at some point in her life. On the other, she was the main source of entertainment before streaming video.”

“So, you think the only people who will come are gossips and the ones who want to spit on her grave?” She tried to make a mental count and gave up.

Cece’s laugh was a mix of camaraderie and mockery. “I know—that’s half the town, right?”

To Bebe’s relief, the turnout was closer to twenty people. The guess about their motivations was spot-on, though. A dozen or so were faces she recognized from long-standing feuds with her mother, while the remaining mourners included the local conspiracy theorist and a woman who papered her study with obituary notices.

Bebe had never loved her sister more than when Cece announced loudly that there would be no reception after the burial. Bebe didn’t even mind the normally unbearable looks of judgment from those assembled. Cece put an arm around her, and she leaned in without hesitation, grateful to use the body language of grief to convince others to leave her alone. They stood side by side as if frozen in the summer heat, silently staring at the open grave as the cheapest coffin was lowered slowly into a cleanly cut rectangle. Time passed, all the cars pulled away, and finally, a backhoe began to fill in large clumps of earth.

“I forgot to throw in my rose,” her voice broke as she glanced down at the flower in her hand. All its thorns were gone, and putting a flower without defenses on her mother’s grave seemed cruel.

“Me too, except I didn’t forget,” Cece tugged on her sleeve, moving her a few steps over. “Dad would appreciate the flowers.” She bent down and placed the roses on the slate gray tombstone.

“Do we have to go there?” Bebe asked quietly. “Can’t we just pay someone to burn it down?”

Cece laughed bitterly. “I’m seriously impressed that you suggested that, but if she had been worth going to prison for, I would have poisoned her vodka twenty years ago.” She glanced over and grinned. “Speaking of vodka, I stopped at the liquor store. Want to go back to our crappy motel and get plastered?”

“No,” Bebe said tiredly. “Between the red eye flight and the time change, I just want to go back and sleep.”

“Fine, but stop by my room in the morning for an Irish coffee—I think you’ll need a shot of something before heading out.”

Bebe settled for the motel lobby coffee, which was foul and terribly weak. She wasn’t sure how anyone could make what was basically water taste burnt, but the Good Rest Inn had managed the feat. An inquiry about the room cleaning and linen replacement schedule had revealed that those services were only provided every other day, for the good of the environment. Fighting back nausea at the thought that the room she’d slept in hadn’t actually been properly sanitized, she sat down in the tiny breakfast nook and forced down a dry serving of corn flakes because there was no milk. Cece came in a few minutes later, holding a large silver thermos. Her face was mostly covered by large, reflective aviator sunglasses. She was wearing old, stained clothes, a red bandana over her hair, and a grumpy expression.

“Here,” she held out another bandana. “You are definitely going to want to cover that three-hundred-dollar blow-out.”

“It was only one hundred,” Bebe replied defensively. “And I was going to my mother’s funeral. I needed to—”

“Look perfect?” Cece cut her off. “I’m well aware of your compulsive need for projecting a perfect image. You’re going to regret wearing that perfect little yoga outfit, though. I have a feeling you’ve never actually sweat in it before. Come on, we need all the daylight we can get.”

During the short drive from the motel, Bebe tried to prepare herself. Nothing worked, though, and her chest filled with a deep ache as Cece turned beside a clump of poison oak that obscured all of the mailbox save the little rusted red flag. The winding drive was more purple coneflowers and goldenrod than gravel, and even the light sound of long grass brushing against the side of the Jeep was torturous to Bebe’s already frayed nerves. Cece steered toward a pile of wood and stone that had once been a stand-alone garage and parked.

Bebe stared in horror through the windshield at the structure. As unlivable as it had been during their childhood, this was worse. Part of the roof was sagging dangerously, and a mantle of ivy, moss, and algae had covered most of the siding. A front step was missing, as were several porch supports. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been condemned?”

“The county inspector was terrified of our mother, just like everyone else. I think she threatened to set him on fire once.” Cece pulled a large sack from the back of her Jeep. “Look, no local company will come to clean while there are biohazardous materials inside. We just need to deal with a few areas, and then we can make plans for other people to clean and fix up the rest. Then we can sell it and never worry about it again.”

“Is it really worth fixing?” Bebe asked doubtfully. She watched Cece reach back again and pull out a large blade. “Is that a machete?”

“Yep,” Cece replied. “Don’t give me that dirty look. I’m not going to hack you to pieces. The police trampled down a few spots, but we still need to cut a path. Unless you want to wade through a sea of weeds and a million chiggers to get to the front door.”

“What’s left of the front door,” Bebe could see from fifty feet away that the main door was missing a quarter panel in the lower left corner and tilting at an odd angle. She tried to disregard the mention of chiggers, but her fingernails began to spontaneously scratch at her arms.

Cece handed her a bucket with a roll of heavy trash bags, cleaning spray, paper towels, a packet of latex gloves, and a giant pump container of hand sanitizer. “You’ll need this. Follow me.”

“Wait!” Bebe grabbed a can of bug repellent out of her purse and sprayed it all over her body, then offered it to her sister, who took it without hesitation.

“Do you have a spray to protect against a breakout of childhood trauma?” Cece joked, but neither woman laughed.

Even though Cece thought she had no imagination, Bebe’s brain was excellent at self-harm, and by the time they had reached the front door, it already had convinced her that she was covered by thousands of tiny bugs despite the spray. She fidgeted nervously as Cece set down her things and lifted the door sideways.

“It was off the hinges?” Bebe asked. “Why?”

Cece groaned at the weight of the door, and Bebe rushed to help her. They propped it against the siding, waiting to see how far into the moss it slipped. “The police took it off when they came out to do the welfare check.”

“How long was she—” Bebe swallowed, taking the latex gloves out of the bucket and pulling them on with a snap.

“The coroner’s report said a few weeks,” Cece reached down and put a pair on as well, then stepped through into the dark hallway. “You’d better get your phone out and use the flashlight.”

Bebe hovered at the threshold. “I didn’t bring my phone.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bring your phone? Who doesn’t carry their phone these days?” Cece griped.

“I told Dominic I was on a technology detox retreat in Maine. I’m supposed to not have a phone,” she confessed, waiting for her sister’s scoffing censure.

But Cece only turned on her own flashlight app. “Just stay near me,” she muttered.

Bebe still hesitated, unable to force her feet into the house. Fear was spreading upwards from the soles of her feet, burrowing into her skin like chiggers, releasing the toxins of a thousand bad memories.

Cece’s hand snaked out, grabbing her and pulling her forward. “Don’t give her any more power, Bad Bitch. She’s dead.”

“It still smells like,” Bebe gasped as she stumbled against her sister, breathing through her mouth, not wanting to complete her thought.

“I know. We should’ve brought Vick’s and face masks,” Cece shone the light forward, revealing the precariously towering stacks of newspapers, cardboard, clothing, empty food containers, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous junk cemented together with cobwebs and twenty-five years of dust, grime, and cigarette smoke. “Do you remember the way through to the living room?”

Bebe closed her eyes against both the acrid smell and the memories rushing toward her. “Straight until the Dennis the Menace doll with the missing arm. Turn right, then left at the baby gate covered in broken Christmas lights. Don’t forget to duck by the stack of Good Housekeeping—there’s always a spider web there.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cece nodded, her voice low and shaky. She coughed, then continued, her normal sarcastic tone back in full-force, “Who could forget Dennis? That little shit has given me a lifetime of nightmares.”

They walked slowly through the winding path, turning sideways at times, crouching at others. Bebe had always compared going through her mother’s house with playing a giant game of Twister in which it was entirely possible to break a leg or worse with the wrong step. The last time she had been here, the day she’d packed her bag for college ten states away, she’d cut herself on a broken ceramic Precious Moments angel figurine, the jagged edge of its praying hands catching her thigh as she’d hurried past to the waiting cab. At the school health clinic, she’d gotten a booster for her tetanus shot, but her clumsy attempt to use butterfly tape to close the wound had resulted in a raised, silvery scar. When Dom had run his gentle fingers over it, she told him she’d gotten it by slipping against an open locker after swimming in the college pool, the first of many lies she had told him.

In the living room, the light was a little better. The windows had curtains, but they were in tatters, and the piles of debris hadn’t made it fully up to the top of the casement. There were only two spaces cleared. One was in front of the hulking television set purchased in 1990 where about forty grimy cigarette cartons balanced like filthy Jenga blocks. The other was a small area around the dry-rotted recliner, heaped with blankets, a stack of empty popcorn canisters depicting happy Boy Scout faces propping up the broken left armrest. The blankets were soaked in a black, slimy sludge that made Bebe think of a toxic oil spill. It smelled terrible; the stench intensified with the heat.

“Is that where she was when they found her?” She looked away quickly.

Cece nodded in reply, putting down her bucket and pocketing her phone. She opened one of the heavy-duty trash bags and handed it to Bebe. “Hold this steady.”

Her sister had always been the brave one, Bebe knew, but the amount of fortitude needed for this job seemed impossible. Cece grabbed the top blanket, folding the edges inward to lift it. Her arms strained, and she grunted. “God, that’s heavy.”

She dropped the bundle into the bag, and Bebe clutched at the plastic as it slipped out of fingers from the weight. A blend of fetid cigarette ash and death rose to her nostrils and she gagged, her burned coffee water emptying into the trash bag.

Cece snorted. “You just threw up on Mom.”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her gloved hand, Bebe lifted her chin defiantly. “And I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Excellent,” she hefted the next blanket. “That’s the attitude we need to get through this.”

 

As soon as they got back to the motel, Bebe took the bucket of cleaning supplies into her room and scrubbed every surface, including the walls. She stripped the bedding and took her rental car down to the local laundromat, which was across the road from the liquor store. Generally, her limit was two glasses of white wine, but today was exceptional in every awful way. The clerk raised his eyebrows at the five bottles.

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

“A pity party,” she answered with uncharacteristic honesty. He was a stranger she would never see again, and she had to tell at least one person the truth or her moral compass might rot away completely.

Unfazed, he bagged her purchases. “Right on. You might want to add some solo cups for easy clean up.”

She retrieved the clean linens and stopped by a gas station to get air fresheners. It was beginning to concern her that she would never stop smelling her mother’s liquid remains. After hanging the cardboard pine trees from the wall lamps and doorknobs, she remade the bed and took a scalding shower, using up her entire bottle of peach-scented exfoliating scrub. Her skin felt raw, but marginally cleaner. The clothes she had worn earlier went into one of the black trash bags.

There was no chance of her trusting the water quality of the motel’s ice maker, so she mixed herself a room-temperature margarita. She was sipping on her third when there was a knock on her door. Cece came in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes downcast. Bebe was reminded of how her little sister had once made a secret path between their rooms, a tunnel too low and dark for their mother to notice, their own little battle trench in the world war that was their home.

“I saw a roach in my room,” her voice was hardly audible. She glanced around. “All your cleaning probably scared it out of hiding.”

Bebe handed her the cup she was holding. “You can sleep here. I made margaritas.”

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

By the time the bottle of mixer was gone, and they had started on straight shots, the normal, abrasive Cece had returned. “I thought I was the bad child. I still can’t believe you told everyone at college that our mother was dead.”

“I was just so sick of people asking if I was going home for the Thanksgiving break. It came out, and then I couldn’t take it back.” Her words came out in a belligerent slur, then dipped into a mournful sound. “I promised myself I would never step foot in that house again.”

“Yeah,” Cece threw her head back to take another shot. Her bleary eyes met Bebe’s accusingly. “You left me behind in that shit show for two years alone.”

There was nothing she had done that pained Bebe more. Tears immediately began to stream down her face. “I know,” she leaned toward Cece, her body flopping sideways as she tried to hug her. “I’m so sorry, my little Cackling Chicken.”

“Whatever,” Cece said gruffly, but she moved into the hug. “Pain makes for good art.”

“Then you are definitely a world-class muralist,” Bebe murmured, her face hidden in her sister’s hair. It smelled like the overly floral motel shampoo, with an underlayer of ever-present turpentine.

“Did you tell them I was dead, too?” Cece asked in a whisper, her own cheeks wet now.

She shook her head so hard the room began to spin. “No. I put up every piece of art you sent me. Dominic and the kids are always asking when you will come out to visit, but I know you’re really busy.”

“How old are they now, your kids?” Cece wiped at her face with her T-shirt.

“Sylvie’s twelve, and Josh is ten,” Bebe answered, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose. “They’re good kids.”

“You dodged a bullet for them by never subjecting them to our mother,” Cece grinned, then added, “I bet you make them clean their rooms every day.”

Bebe opened her mouth to protest, but Cece raised a hand. “I’m joking. Well, like forty percent joking.” The smile left her face, her voice beginning to waver again. “I don’t doubt at all that you are a great mother, Bad Bitch. You were a great mother to me, even when you were just a kid.”

Bebe began to cry harder, her shoulders shaking. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t take good enough care of you—I left you behind.”

“Hey!” Cece grabbed her by the shoulders. “You mastered the art of making macaroni and cheese on a camping grill when you were seven. You cleaned my clothes in the creek, even in the winter. You stole baby wipes and washed my hair so I wouldn’t smell bad at school.”

“I should have taken you with me,” Bebe sobbed, snot mixing with her tears.

“No. You had a chance to get out, a scholarship; you had to take it. I got my chance, too, just a little later,” Cece murmured, handing her another tissue. “And I’m going to visit this Thanksgiving, on the condition that you don’t make me clean my room while I’m there.”

Bebe’s laughter was a wet sound, but happy. “How about you have to make your bed, but I’ll do your laundry?”

“Deal,” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the death of mom and the rebirth of our sisterhood.”

“Here’s to Bad Bitch and Cackling Chicken,” Bebe smiled, bumping her cup. “May their reinvented past clear the way for a brighter future.”

pencil

Amberdawn Collier is an adjunct professor of English at Ohio University. She earned an M.A. in English Education at City College, CUNY. She loves story-telling in all its forms and enjoys the challenge of writing prompt-driven stories that push her creativity in new directions. Email: acollier00[at]gmail.com

Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

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Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com

Light-Up Shoes

Beaver’s Pick
CJ Maughan


Photo Credit: malouette/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Krista finally found them. Kneeling on the orange department store carpet, she pulled the black shoe box from the shelf and brushed the dust off the top. The lid flapped open and revealed the size eight shoes that she was searching for.

There were ruby gems embedded in the heels and there were pink stripes lapping at the tongue. Stars, rainbows, and sunlight danced along the sides. These images were the solemn promise of Velcroed possibilities. Yes, you can jump higher, run faster, longer, better than all the things. These shoes are made of magic. These shoes will make you magic.

Krista unzipped her windbreaker, tossing it aside, and slipped her feet into the shoes. The lights in the heels flickered as she stood. She wiggled her toes. There was room to grow and room to run. It would require a test, of course, and there was only one way to know their true power.

The fresh rubber squeaked, leaving a black mark where she ground her toe into the white tile of the store aisle for good luck. Heels to the block, knees to the ground, elastic in her veins—she took off.

Pumping her arms as the shoe lights flashed along the whites of the floor. Reflecting through eternity in the long store wall mirror. She saw a glimpse of herself, a blur of lights and a white shirt. Her hair billowing behind her. Her legs strong and quick.

She ran down the walkways and the aisles. She skirted around registers. She darted around strollers and jumped through clothing displays. She spun through jewelry racks and sashayed across the escalator track.

She didn’t see the ruby-lipped, ice-haired girls stepping off the elevator. The shoes were fast; they only knew two speeds: fast and faster. They did not know how to stop once started, but still, she tried.

Krista locked her knees; the ice queens watched, wide-eyed and jagged, but it was too late. Together they entered the realm of confusion, slamming into each other with a force greater than each of their lives. Blackness reigned. Terror threatened. Voices cried out. The ceiling was the floor. The floor was the ceiling.

Krista bravely jumped first to her feet. Her lungs sore, her knees scraped, but her pride intact. “Sorry,” she said, wanting to run away, but schoolyard lessons kept her locked in place.

The less-blonde girl helped the other blonde girl up from the floor. “Jesus Christ, watch where you’re going, kid.” They bent and gathered the impossibly tiny hangers that held the impossibly tiny clothes.

“Are those for your dolls?” Krista asked.

The girls held up the hangers and looked at each other. “They’re bras, kid. Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“God, the dumb kid has never seen a bra before. How old is she you think?

“Eleven?”

“Barely.”

Krista didn’t understand.

The girls looked down at Krista, closely inspecting her white shirt. “Hey kid,” the more-blonde girl said. “You’re giving the boys a free show, you know.”

Krista shifted her feet nervously and the lights danced across the floor once more. And then there was the worst sound of all: laughter.

“Oh my god, I just saw. She’s wearing light-up shoes!”

“They still have the price tag on them!”

“Are you shopping with Mommy today? Maybe if you’re good, she’ll buy you a pretzel.”

“I think I was five the last time I wore those.”

“I know, right? What a baby.”

Krista looked down, surprised by her own feet. The lights flickered as she moved.

“See ya later, little kid,” the girls said. As they swung their hips away, Krista watched the big, bold words they left behind in their wake. She reached and touched each of these words. They were words that she never before thought about. Boys. Too old. Free show. Bra.

But there were also other words. Krista looked around, surprised to realize that she didn’t see them the first time. Embarrassed. Naked. Under-dressed. Unable and undeserving.

Ugly.

Krista crossed her arms across her chest. She didn’t understand why, but she wanted her jacket. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. The lights on the shoes were now a dim glow of their shadowy past.

She passed the tall mirror again and watched herself walk past. Slowly now, a distinct shape took form. Yellow hair that frizzed into a triangle. A stomach that rounded the edges of her jeans and something, two somethings, up top that she hadn’t noticed before.

“There you are,” Mother said. “I turn for one minute and you run off. I’ve been looking everywhere.”

Krista stared at the shoe box on the ground, its lid turned open like the soft pages of a book.

“Take those off,” Mother said, pulling out her cellphone as it rang. “Hello? Yes, I’m still here. Just shopping with Krista. She’s being impossible.” Mother pointed at Krista’s feet. “I’m serious. Take those off. You’re way too old for those. Yes, yes we’ll be home soon. I just need to get her a bra and then we’ll be done. No, her teacher said something. She said the boys in the class…”

Krista didn’t hear the rest. She didn’t need to know. She pulled the shoes off one by one and slowly closed the box on her childhood. The lights from the shoes flickered as she stuffed the box on the shelf. She didn’t bother looking back to watch them stop.

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CJ Maughan is a former chemist who realized she was much better at writing fiction than lab reports. She is oddly fascinated with melancholy and tends to prefer stories that are depressingly beautiful. Her debut novel, Eighteen, won the 2018 League of Utah Writers Golden Quill award for adult fiction. Twitter: @CJ_Maughan Email: hello[at]CJMaughan.com

The Crow’s Chuckle

Fiction
Sonia Trickey


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

Interviewer: And finally, your greatest regret?

David Goodwin: Losing a decade’s worth of compositions in my mid-twenties in Cambridge. It was such a fertile time—I was like—I don’t know—the angels were singing to me?

Interviewer: And it was all lost? What happened?

David Goodwin: A girl. Of course. (laughter). I wasn’t as careful with young girls’ feelings as I might have been. She was fragile. Perhaps, I was insensitive. Anyway, she stole my laptop and floppy discs, everything I’d worked on for nearly ten years and she chucked it all in the river.

Interviewer: Gosh—that’s criminal.

David Goodwin: Ha. Maybe. Hard to prove. The formidable feminists at Newnham closed ranks. But in some ways I’m grateful now.

Interviewer: Grateful?

David Goodwin: I suppose it’s driven me forward. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover what I composed—but it’s always on the edges. It’s like I’m haunted by those lost arias.

Interviewer: Well—hell hath no fury. I’m sure she regrets it now as much as the rest of us—

I snap the lid down on my laptop and the sound cuts out.

I don’t regret it at all. If I could have pecked all of the music out of his brain, drawn it out through his ears, the gore of grey matter catching in chunks on the long barbed wires of his genius, I would have done it. If I could have lugged him from his bed, drowned him in the silky waters of the Cam and stowed him under a punt, I would have.

Perhaps going to the David Goodwin Choral Evensong was a mistake.

His success has pursued me for twenty years: he’s always on the BBC, Radio 4, bio-documentaries, Desert Island Discs—and the publicity campaign for this Choral Evensong has been relentless: Music for a secular age; School of Life endorsed; British Humanist Society seal of approval; music is the new religious experience; all proceeds to the Dadaab Refugee complex in Kenya. He’ll receive a knighthood for humanitarian works someday, or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s a national treasure.

I slipped into the shadows at the back of King’s College Chapel just before the Evensong started. He was standing by the altar looking fatter and less sculpted than in his publicity shots. He had the look of someone who is defying middle age by squeezing into a jacket which would have given him panache twenty years earlier. I found my seat, closed my eyes, and took deep meditative breaths, hoping that his music had also gone to seed.

The opening chords of the organ reverberated through the chapel; a hard wave of sound bouldered through the nave sweeping us all into its tumbling kinaesthesia. It wasn’t just his composition: it was the architecture, the acoustic, the archangels, the history; he has the full weight of God backing him up. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak. I couldn’t help it; I was moved.

That pissed me off.

You hope that anger will mellow with age but sometimes it intensifies.

I couldn’t face going home afterwards, so I came here, to my ivory tower.

From my turret window I look down at the young women flying past on their bikes and wonder whether it’s different for them. Do my seminars on challenging heteronormative hyper-masculinity change anything after three cocktails with some chancer in a well-tailored suit?

Sometimes I imagine that I am an avenging angel, amber immolation in my eyes, great feathered wings mantling at my back, but I’m probably more of an old crow: dull feathers, dodging falcons, scrapping with pigeons. I launch myself from my window and flap until I’m hovering above the spires, then I swoop down across thirty years and this is what I see.

Lucy is slipping through cloistered passages. With her long black gown, closely bobbed hair and purposeful stride, she might be the ghost of medieval novice, observing early morning devotions. Elaborate tracery frames her as she flickers across the Bridge of Sighs, momentarily vanishing behind fluted columns then reappearing in each lancet arch. She hesitates, disoriented by the confusion of passages with their uneven paving but then recognises St John’s First Court. Flitting past the neo-Gothic grandeur of the chapel, she arrives breathlessly at the Porter’s Lodge.

The Porter, an ex-military man in his early sixties, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie is seated in post. At this time in the morning, the main gate is locked. Lucy stands before the pane of sliding glass and taps on it even though he can see her and even though he knows what she wants.

The Porter sees a pretty girl, not much older than his daughter’s kid. His eyes sweep over her unbrushed hair, last night’s make-up, then drift down her short black dress to the ladders in her tights. She is draped in a gown and in her hands there is a scarlet snarl of shoes. “For a clever girl,“ he thinks, “she’s not got much sense.”

“Good morning,” chirrups Lucy. “Could you unlock the gate, please?” She stares at him unsmilingly. Eventually, he slides the window shut, carefully unlocks the office door, shambles round to the ancient wooden gate, unlocks it and heaves it open.

“Thank you.”

“You might want to put your shoes on, luv.”

Lucy steps out onto the greasy cobbles of Trinity Street and drops her shoes into the nearest bin.

I’d only worn the shoes on Nina’s encouragement and Nina had only been in my room because I’d closeted myself away for ten hours to wrestle with an essay on Beckett and Brecht. It was the last one for my feminist supervisor at Newnham who I loved almost as much as I loved constructing essays up in my tiny room, wedged into the eaves of the nineteenth-century red brick building. A worn white oak desk had been built into an alcove that spanned the lead paned mansard window. Through the thick, uneven panes of glass, I could look down into the glow of Queen’s ancient library and imagine kinship with the scholars of ages. God, I was reverential.

When Nina knocked on my door at six, she found me tired-eyed, immersed in paper and cross-references.

“Jesus, Luce. We need to be there in an hour.”

She bustled in, retrieved a corkscrew from the bedside table wedged between a cheap blue bra and a library copy of Lacanian Readings of the Oedipus Cycle, uncorked a bottle of Le Piat D’or (“Only the best for us Luce!”) and sloshed it into the two filmy wine glasses that had burrowed their way under my bed.

“Have you eaten anything? Have you showered?”

“I was just about to. It took longer than I thought—“ It dawned on me, as I swallowed a mouthful of the wine, that I’d eaten nothing more than a bowl of cornflakes and an apple that day.

“Get in the shower and I’ll make you some beans on toast. Have you got any cheese?”

“Maybe—just steal some from the fridge—no one’ll mind.”

I trailed down the narrow staircase, my head shimmering with Brecht, Beckett, and half a glass of wine to the ancient bathroom with its enamel tub, speckled brass taps, and cheap electric shower screwed amateurishly into the old tiling. The monastic asperity kept ablutions brisk and soon I was tripping barefoot back up the narrow staircase, in my underwear, wrapped in a scratchy towel.

As soon as I got back to my room, Nina handed me a plate of baked beans on cheese on toast, replenished our glasses and surveyed the thin pickings of my wardrobe, a cigarette in hand.

“What are you going to wear?”

“That black dress from New Look. It’s a bit short but it’s all I’ve got in black. I’ll wear it with some opaques.”

“Shoes?”

“Those?” I always went for my black trainers.

“Oh-la-la. What about these?”

Nina drew out a pair of red velvet strappy heels from the back of the wardrobe.

“Oh, those.” My mother had insisted I buy them for formal dinners. “I can’t really walk in those. I don’t know why I bought them.”

“They’re not for walking in, Luce.”

“I’m not sure…”

“What about David Goodwin?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I agreed to wear them mainly because Nina had made dinner and brought round wine and because I didn’t want to talk about my crush on David Goodwin who was a post-doc at the time, back from some conservatoire, running the choral ‘collective’ we were both involved in. And we needed to be in King’s College Chapel in less than twenty minutes, and my hair was still wet, and David had a nasty temper.

Shoeless but in tights, Lucy meanders down Trinity Street: a huddle of square oriel windows, roof turrets, scrolled brackets, slate rooves, tiled rooves, buff brick, red brick, mottled brick, ashlar brick, ancient hidden doorways, elaborately tiled entrances and six wall-mounted Richardson candles. Reaching round to the baroque frontage of Gonville and Caius, Trinity Street is quintessential Cambridge, usually filled with undergraduates chattering and dodging jangling bicycles. But now, it is silent.

She rounds Gonville and Caius and makes her way over the biscuit-coloured slabs of Senate House Passage with its tunnelling yellow walls, Tudor roses, and gargoyles. She is retracing her steps from the night before as though she might find the thing she has lost glinting quietly in a shaft of morning light.

When we had wheeled round the corner towards King’s College the previous evening, it had been drizzling. The bulk of the chapel has a primordial thickness, like a demented Old Testament God. We slipped in through the North Entrance where the choir was only just assembling, and fell in line.

The exterior colossus of King’s College chapel belies the hall of light it encases. A regiment of flying buttresses shoulders the magnesium limestone wall forcing the chapel upwards creating a supernal acoustic. Singing in such surroundings is as close as I’ve ever come to God. That evening’s programme had a watery theme, a celebration of the chilly waterways that bound the city. There were Icelandic discords, which shivered through space like spicules of ice; English ballads, still meres of sound pooling in the calm of the chapel; the lucent riff of a negro spiritual, meandering its way past the saints of ages; all building to an arrangement of a Gaelic fishing song. It began with a swell of tenor and soprano voices singing a familiar melody in a robust two-part harmony that recalled simpler times—the shores of home. Then the chorus: alto voices tumbled onto the melody in syncopated arpeggios that split and repaired like the veins of a river valley. Next, a subterranean tremor of basses rumbled in while the soprano voices skated over the top, a creaking sweetness leaving the hollow tenor voices holding the melody. The whole chapel seemed to give itself over to an impossible fragmentation of voices until suddenly we plunged into a swooping two-part harmony that closed the set. Finally, the voices ceased and an echo hung audibly in the air. Then silence.

In the milky light, Lucy looks at a locked wrought iron gate. She removes her gown and shivers in the chill of the early morning. Overwhelmed by nausea she retches into the storm drain but her stomach is empty and all she brings up is thin yellow bile. She soothes her head against the cold Norman masonry and rests for a few moments before standing back up and placing the canvas bag with laptop, floppy discs and camera between the railings. Shaking, she hitches her dress up to her waist and clambers up the gate using the latch and hinges as footholds. She negotiates the row of finials spearheading the top before dropping down inside the boundary of King’s College. She retrieves her bag and gown.

The rising sun is throwing perpendicular stripes across the path where she stands. Lucy resumes her quick walk towards the river. Her feet are beginning to numb and there is a spasming in her stomach which is making her headache worse. Once she arrives at the bridge she leans over the flat balustrade and looks upstream to Clare Bridge, older than the English Civil War. Mist hangs like gossamer over the spangling river. Lucy imagines a swallow diving off the bridge.

Then she draws out the contents from her canvas bag and places them on the balustrade. She pushes one of these objects off the bridge and follows its fall into the water. Globes of light rise to the surface and burst.

We only went back because Nina had forgotten her scarf. It was a gift from her counter-revolutionary Iranian grandmother: a vermillion liquid silk with a burst of ochre exploding in the middle. Sometimes she wore it as a hijab if she was feeling super-Iranian. It was definitely a scarf worth turning back for so we retraced our steps and hurried towards the shadowy entrance.

David Goodwin and his friends were just closing up:

“Forgotten something?” He was less intense than usual.

“My scarf. It was a gift. Can I just run in and get it?”

David was uncharacteristically amiable. He told his friends to go on without him, pushed the heavy door back open, accompanied us through the porch and even found the light switch.

Nina ran over the smooth monochrome tiles, the slap of her feet sounded through the empty chapel, while I stayed with David, awed in the presence of genius. David raked me over with his eyes until he came to rest on my shoes. I felt ridiculously embarrassed, like I needed to explain them, distance myself from their coquettish suggestiveness.

“They’re absurd,” I gabbled. “Nina made me wear them. We were in a rush. Now I can hardly walk.”

“You look lovely,” David said warmly. More absurd than the shoes was how much I basked in his approval. He smiled and looked me directly in the eye:

“Did you enjoy it? The singing?”

“Oh yes. It was amazing. It came together sublimely. Your arrangement, this space—it was astonishing, truly.“

The ease with which he accepted this scattergun praise should have warned me.

“But those trills in the Icelandic piece, bars 90 to 96. They weren’t quite right.”

“I’m sure the audience didn’t mind.”

“Maybe…”

There was a pause while I scrambled for something clever but not too sycophantic. I discarded: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through,” because I didn’t think he’d appreciate irony. Or listen to Tori Amos. Instead I reached for Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything?”

Perfection: he smiled. I was so pleased with my mastery in this game of getting David Goodwin to notice my existence that I indulged a surge of optimistic abandon that characterises burgeoning infatuation. He was divine: tall, dark, intelligent, intense, elusive, and pulsing with musical talent.

Nina was making her way back, scarf in hand and I held his glance, looked meaningfully into his eyes and hoped he remembered my name. He did one better: with a quick glance at my tits and then back to my eyes, he asked, “We’re having a few drinks back in my rooms at John’s. Why don’t you both come along?”

I thought about my essay that was still unfinished and about the Sunday of contemplative study I had planned, and hesitated. Nina took charge. “That sounds lovely.”

*

When I woke up nine hours later I was lying on an unmade up mattress under a scratchy tweed blanket. I was also naked apart from my shoes, shivering and struggling with a headache that cut through my temples right to the back of my head like razor wire. I had no memory of how I had arrived in this room. “I’ve been date raped,” was my first thought. Date rape: an absurd term that had currency during the nineties, a category of date on which you might get raped as opposed to a date where you might find a long-term boyfriend or a date where you might have casual sex. “I must have been date raped.” I’m not sure who I was trying to convince.

The light was streaming in through the small window illuminating the uneven starkness of the white walls. There was a threadbare crimson Persian rug on the floorboards and motes twinkled in the sun stream. Perched on the bottom of the bed were my clothes, folded in a neat pile.

The primness of the folding kicked me into heaving rage. I’d been date raped by some exacting, academic pedant who prided himself on his neatness. I don’t know why that mattered. Perhaps I’d always imagined being raped by a cave man and felt less of a woman for having been overpowered by a cerebral sensitive type.

I sat up and kicked off my shoes. I was also furious with the shoes. They had walked me into this mess.

I pulled on my underwear and my tights and it wasn’t until I was zipping up my dress that I realised I might not have been date raped after all. I didn’t feel as though I’d had sex let alone been raped; presumably I’d be able to tell?

The blankness in my memory was terrifying. I’d arrived at the party, I’d accepted a drink, and then a disorienting emptiness. I needed to leave.

Cautiously opening the door, I peered into the main room. The room, at least, I remembered. Last night, David Goodwin had been transposing Spice Girls hits on the baby grand while swigging from a bottle of Absolut vodka. Now the closed lid was covered in a scattering of glasses, pizza boxes and a sprinkling of white pills. David Goodwin, the musical talent of his generation, was nowhere to be seen.

Despite the horror and bleakness of the moment, in the immediate aftermath my instincts were lucid and destructive. It is the nature of trauma to haunt and amplify. On that morning, in that room, I had not even begun to understand what had been done to me. I still believed in justice and retribution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I looked around for stuff to pillage and loot. I wanted to inflict serious and lasting damage. I found a canvas bag and put his laptop inside. Then I stuffed all the floppy discs I could find in with it. Anything else? There was a camera on the piano. I dimly remembered him having told us about it at a rehearsal the previous week. It was a digital camera from Japan, a gift from an admirer. No one owned digital cameras yet: it was 1998. I picked it up. Before I stuffed it into the bag with the rest of my loot, I wondered whether it might have photos of the night before, something to give me some inkling where memory should be. I flicked it on like Pandora unlocking the box, or maybe like Eve eating the apple.

The first thing I found was five still images of me wearing nothing but my red shoes on a white mattress. They were arty shots, like something that might appear in a trendy magazine. Porn was fashionable again and we were all trying to be cool about it. I was looking at tasteful porn of me wearing shoes that I hated. I looked hot. I flicked further back through the camera. There were more porn photos of more hot girls wearing nothing but shoes. I recognised a couple of them: Christine (emerald green wedges) who had dropped out of the choir at Christmas and Eloise (fuchsia kitten heels) who was now one-night-standing her way through the tenors.

How many women, I wondered had found themselves here, in these rooms, naked under a scratchy blanket? How many of them even knew they had been photographed? How many of them had slunk back to their rooms to try to sleep off the hangover, hand in their essays late and never mention anything to anyone, even themselves? Brush it under the carpet, chalk it up to experience, drop out of choir, become slutty: lipstick feminism.

I turned off the camera and put it in the bag with the laptop and the discs, placed the bag over my shoulder and picked up a voluminous postgraduate gown from the floor which I put on as I left the room.

*

About three days later I was summoned by the Senior Tutor at my college. A rising musical star, David Goodwin of John’s College, was alleging that I had stolen his laptop and sixteen floppy discs. Together, they constituted a decade’s work and study. Luckily the University Library had a hard copy of his thesis but the work on the laptop and the disc were irreplaceable. A tragic loss. The camera was never mentioned.

I denied everything. It came down to his word against mine. Anyone could have taken the laptop. I wasn’t the only person there. I never mentioned the memory loss, the nakedness, the photographs. The porter testified that I had nothing in my hands other than a pair of red shoes when I left through the main gate at 5:38 that morning. The CCTV supported his story and mine. There was a furore. I held my ground.

*

I alight back into my room, old dull feathered crow, and start pecking at the keyboard.

When I showed the 68 photographs of naked girls to my supervisor at Newnham, she counselled against going to the police or the university: “It will damage you more than it will damage him.” She also advised me to give him back his laptop and discs. She was helpful, pragmatic. She’d internalised the patriarchy.

Peck, peck, peck.

So I told her that I’d dropped the laptop and discs into the river and publically denied everything. Everyone loves a crazy woman and a river.

Now all that data fits onto a single memory card, which I slide into my laptop. I open the files and I look at the photographs of me, naked on the bed. Was I ever that smooth? Was that body ever really mine?

I think about the interview I just heard with David on the radio and his sublime choral Evensong. I look at the photographs of twelve girls. naked in their shoes and I wonder where they are now: mothers, CEOs, head teachers, barristers.

Peck, peck, peck.

I do have some power now; I could ruffle some feathers. I attach one of the images to the email I’ve been composing but I hesitate before I press send. Eventually, I save it to drafts and start scrolling through the music files. I open one at random and an aria plays. For a while I lose myself in the arrangement of voices and strings. It is a rough recording, work in process but I can only imagine how it might have sounded, brought to fullness, released and allowed to soar in some domed cathedral.

With the music still playing, I resume my vigil over the street below. It’s later now and fewer people are passing. A young woman looks up, catches sight of me and waves. I wave back.

To my surprise, underneath all the anger, I feel the pull of tenderness, maybe something approaching regret.

And then, deep inside me, something releases and bubbles up uncontrollably. At her perch, the old crow is chuckling.

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Sonia Trickey started writing again in 2018 after attending the Cambridge University creative writing summer programme. Since then she has had short stories accepted for publication by Fictive Dream, Litro and Calyx Arts. She was had a notable entry in the Disquiet short fiction prize. When she’s not writing, she is teaching English in a secondary school in Cambridge. Twitter: @stickytrewart Email: stickytrewart[at]gmail.com

If These Walls Could Talk

Fiction
Rita Pecos


Photo Credit: teofilo/Flickr (CC-by)

If these walls could talk, they would have a deep, booming voice. They would speak for the house and do his bidding. They would tell you that the name of the house in which they stand is Roak, so named by the first family that lived there. When the father built the house they had six children. The third born, Terry, who was six years old, had asked where they were moving to and the father had said, “To the new O’Rourke house.” Terry had repeated it, “The new Roak house,” and the name stuck, magically linking the father and Roak for all time. Through the years the family grew to 12 children and they filled the house with their lives.

Roak witnessed all family discussions and meals. He quietly observed the family; he watched their daily activities and witnessed their arguments. He even painfully tolerated their abuse of one another. He was long tempered and compassionate. He was sturdy and dusty, yet he smelled of popcorn, bacon, and bizcochitos, with a hint of tobacco and coffee.

Roak stood proudly on the corner of Comanche and Palomas in the high desert of the sunny southwest at the very edge of the city limits. With windows for eyes, Roak watched the children play in the yard, and the mother prepare her family’s meals, which the family shared over long conversations and debates. He had eyes in every room, in every window. He watched the family’s budding sycamore tree grow to towering heights and magnificent width. He could see all the way into the Albuquerque valley from the living room window and he had a lovely view of the Sandia Mountains from his own kitchen eyes.

From the living room he watched many soccer and football games in the park across the street, that is, after the city finally built the park. Prior to that it was all mesa as far as his eyes could see, the only thing north of the house being Old Man Montgomery’s barren land. Often the children would walk westward, out onto the mesa, with a glass jar of water for hydration, pitch a tent and camp out. Roak could see only a speck in the distance to keep track of them, not having access to any pipes reaching out that far at the time. He worried about them, as Old Man Montgomery had been known to shoot at trespassers. It would not be beneath the children to taunt him.

Roak knew the family’s deepest, darkest secrets. He had witnessed their most intimate moments and he was the most trusted confidant, keeping holy all that was told to him in private. When he saw the children break the rules he felt sad, and sometimes mad, but he did not tell the parents. He never broke that trust within the world of humans. But he was the record-keeper for this family and was required to regularly report the goings on to the house council, cataloguing every detail.

There was much love in the house. Roak eagerly waited for the family to return from their frequent summer camping trips so that he could hear the stories of their hapless adventures. Like the year the family went to Hopewell Lake and returned with everything covered in mud. The father had decided to move the campsite to Lower Lagunitas, a tiny New Mexico mountain lake, pond really, set at an elevation of 10,400 feet. The father said the lake was accessible only by navigating a treacherous path that some had the gall to call a road. The father attempted to drive his old 1962 Blue Bird school bus, which he had converted into a camper, up this steep, precarious road. In dry conditions it would have been dubious; just to make things a bit more lively, and because the father attracted a certain kind of luck to his every endeavor, an explosive monsoon deluged the area. The father had one chain and put it on the right rear tire. Most of the family got out to help push the bus, including the myriad of cousins and friends the children had brought along, trying to keep it from sliding over the edge into the deep ravine. This story was told over and over again along with many others.

Roak particularly enjoyed the frequent slide shows the father hosted. All the family would sit in the living room, or on the back porch on cool summer nights, on metal folding chairs, eating popcorn and watching the slides the father lovingly prepared and organized. The family laughed and joked so loudly that Roak could laugh too, “Harumph!” and his noises would not even be noticed.

Roak also enjoyed the family’s Sunday night tradition; after a huge meal of fried chicken or rabbit—the latter of which the father raised himself—mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, and biscuits the family gathered in the living room and watched The Wonderful World of Disney. Roak enjoyed Old Yeller most of all. And no matter how full the family was from their feast, Roak was awestruck at how they still managed to eat mountains of popcorn, an aroma he loved dearly.

Roak rarely interfered with the family, but when he saw a strange man intent on harm darken the door late one night he groaned such a groan as to wake the father. “Katchoom!” he hollered in his deep booming voice. He only slightly bent house rules in that event and the father chased the evil man away. Roak had heard, through his network of pipes and electrical connections and his high standing with the house council, of houses that acted very strangely indeed, scaring and causing harm to families that displeased them, but these were rare instances. Roak disapproved of such behavior. One did not break house rules.

However, Roak opened his connections when Vivian practiced her violin, sharing the lovely sound through his party line of pipes with his neighborhood friends. They listened and hummed along as she played Brahms, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Bach, and they marveled at the progress and improvement she made over the years. He had a special connection with Vivian, the last born. There were rare individuals who could commune with a house. When Vivian was only six years old she walked inside the wall between the boys’ and girls’ bedrooms, which was not six inches wide as one would imagine, but more like a whole other room. She entered through the mirror in the girls’ room, mirrors being the doorway into the world of houses, and spent many hours playing there with her stuffed animals.

He knew the family history he documented would one day be transferred to her and she would tell the story to the world. Being the youngest, she could not know all that transpired before her birth, nor all that happened outside her awareness, but Roak could transmit messages to her through her dreams driving her to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and start writing.

In his reports, Roak admonished two of the younger boys, Dennis and Pat, for smoking pot in their bedroom; they foolishly think they are getting away with something, he dutifully reported, but the father and mother are simply too tired to do anything about this behavior. But, in truth, Roak secretly reveled in this, vicariously enjoying the high like a kite in the breeze.

The family often amused Roak. When Pat was a little boy, the hapless mother could not keep him in shoes. Roak learned that it was not that they could not afford shoes, it was that the incorrigible boy hated to wear them. “Please, get your shoes on,” the mother would holler for the umpteenth time. “You’re going to be late for school!”

“I can’t find them,” Pat would protest.

“Well, did you look for them?” Eventually she would shoe the boy and send him off to school. But occasionally he would get sent home for the egregious indiscretion of being barefooted. “Oh, they must think I’m a terrible mother,” she would cry, “sending you to school with no shoes. Where are your shoes?”

Roak wondered why the mother worried so much about shoes when she clearly had much bigger worries, what with Dennis chasing MaryKay down the hall with a butcher knife, having been pushed to madness by her constant teasing and ridiculing over his inability to read. And MaryKay occasionally using Roak against Theresa, like the time she slammed the bedroom door as Theresa chased her, and caught Theresa’s arm in the door during one of their frequent fights. That was going too far, Roak thought, there is no need to damage my parts, or hers.

One night, Roak watched when Kevin, at 18 years of age, came home drunk. He walked in the door, and scolded Theresa and Vivian for being up so late. He then staggered to his room and closed the door. The girls snickered. Minutes later Kevin came running out in his T-shirt and tighty-whities screaming, “The house is on fire! Get the kids out of the house! The house is on fire!” He ran outside, turned on the water hose and sprayed it into his bedroom through the broken window. He had struck a match on the window to light a cigarette and caught the paper thin curtain on fire. In an attempt to put it out he crashed his hand through the window, and when he pulled it back the shattered window ripped the skin off of his thumb and forefinger like a peeler on an unsuspecting potato.

Kevin ran back into the house, screaming again to get the kids out. Roak trembled in fear. By this time the whole family was awake; the floor was covered in water and Kevin’s blood, and he slipped and fell, weeping and hollering. He had succeeded in putting out the fire and saving the kids and the whole family, and Roak too. But his injury was serious and he never did regain the feeling in the tip of his thumb and forefinger. Roak never took his life for granted having escaped certain death that night.

Roak documented many happy times, before the alcohol took hold of the father. He told of neighbors, family, and friends who often sought the father’s advice. Once, the father, a simple journeyman pipe-fitter, as well as carpenter, welder, and jack-of-all-trades, taught a teenager next door two fundamental principles of fluid mechanics, the hydraulic paradox, and Torricelli’s theorem. While sitting at the humble kitchen table—a fourteen-by-six-foot piece of plywood, laid atop a Formica kitchen table, covered with a modest table cloth and sandwiched by two six-foot-long handmade wooden benches—the father described the complex concepts to the young man and sketched them out on the back of a napkin. The young man later became a civil engineer and occasionally put those principles to use impressing his colleagues, though he always gave full credit to the father. Neighborhood children sought solace at the O’Rourke house, too, knowing they would be welcomed, fed, housed for days if need be if their present circumstances were too unbearable to return to their own homes.

But, as the years wore on, the father increasingly snuck swigs of Jim Beam in the darkness of the garage, numbing his once-sharp intellect and ingenious creativity. During these heartbreaking years, Roak sadly watched as the father sat in his chair at the head of the kitchen table muttering incoherently to himself. Woe to the hapless family member who inadvertently walked into the kitchen at such times. Usually it was the naive mother. The father would pounce on her vulnerability, like a cat on a mouse, telling her she was fat, a lousy cook, or whatever popped into his shriveling mind. He was relentless, unaffected by her tears. Pat would often come to her defense, skirting dangerously, “Dad, why do you have to pick on her so much? She’s doing the best she can. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Roak knew, at least in part, why the father sought solace in the drink. Through their connections, all houses had access to the entire city and more, anywhere there was plumbing or electricity; they could even reach into the yards through water hoses and sprinkler systems to keep tabs on their particular family. Through this system he became aware of information he could not ignore, which sparked many heated arguments with the house council about the Queen of Heavenly Gates Catholic Church. When Vince, second-born child and first-born son, was an altar boy, he was hired to do yard work for the rectory, to help pay for his tuition. The mother and father were very pleased that their family would be honored in this manner, as the Catholic belief was this was a special privilege. When Terry was old enough he joined Vince and assisted with the work. On Terry’s first day, Vince instructed him, “If you ever see Father Purgot coming, I need you to climb this tree, hop the fence, and hightail it outta here.”

“Why?” Terry demanded.

“Just promise me.” Vince grabbed Terry by the collar and yanked his face close. “You run and don’t look back, no matter what! You understand me?” he hollered.

“Okay, okay!” Terry shook lose of Vincent’s grasp. “Geez, you don’t have to get huffy about it.”

“Now show me,” Vince insisted.

“What?”

“Do it!” Vince ordered, “Climb the tree and hop the fence so I can see that you can do it.”

Roak fumed. “Surely exceptions can be made,” he pressed the house council. “This priest must be punished!”

“And what would you have us do?” the house master countered. “You, sir, are not some naive cabin; you know what happens on this continent every day. We cannot interfere. Do you know what would happen if we did?” he queried. “Mayhem, that’s what!” he hollered at Roak, answering his own question. “No, we cannot consent. House rules,” he scolded. Roak shook so violently that he cracked the front walkway of the O’Rourke home in three places.

When Vince was arrested for indecent exposure at fifteen years of age, the father muttered to no one in particular, “Where did I go wrong?” He shook his head. “How did this happen?” Even with his sharp intellect it was beyond his skills to help his son or fathom why Vince started to behave in this way. The father’s only solace was tucked away in a dark corner of the garage in a brown paper bag.

When Terry left for his four-year stint in the army he saw his budding dreams of college and hopes of a successful career through bright blue eyes. He was clean-shaven, good-looking, gifted in math, and sociable. But when he returned, he, too, was changed, having suffered at a minimum a head injury from a car accident while serving. No one believed the accusations Theresa and MaryKay made. Only Roak saw him, now straggly-bearded and cloudy-eyed, staggering down the hall, dripping wax on the floor as he snuck into their bedroom. The next morning the mother would scold, “Who spilled wax all over my floor?”

He had watched this, his first family for 50 years. He had listened to their lectures and arguments, their confessions and problems and he felt helpless, for his help was forbidden. He could only creak or groan, moan or whisper when he wished to exaggerate a point.

When the drink finally caught up with the father, and he writhed in pain and vomited blood, Roak patiently waited and marveled at his ability to give it up for good. In what seemed like a miracle to Roak, the father transformed back into the loving husband and father that Roak fondly remembered and sorely missed. The family enjoyed many more happy and joyful years, but these golden years inevitably came to an end when the father became very ill with a sickness that, even with his fortitude, he could not combat.

The family cared for the father as best they could. His cancer raged. Like a mutant laryngitis it stole his speech, and his ability to eat and swallow. Roak watched the mother and grown children weeping, talking, comforting each other. He wished he could console them, comfort them, warm their hearts. In the throes of his illness the father neglected Roak. Autumn leaves lay on the ground where they fell. Cold air crept in through cracked windows. Broken cupboard doors hung loosely on their hinges. Roak missed the tender touch of the father’s gentle hands. The sons attempted to keep up with the repairs, but it was not the same to Roak.

Roak loved the father; he felt a kinship with him; like Roak, he was the wall all the other walls leaned on. Roak wept when he learned of the father’s impending death, the tears of the house staining the ceiling yellow above the stove. He watched the father as he walked in and out of the other world. Only Roak saw what the father saw, the long dead relatives, the white lights, the dark shadows, and the souls of the dead begging him for help.

One morning, the mother and Vivian were sitting at the kitchen table—now modern, yet simple, but store-bought—drinking coffee when Vivian said the words Roak loved to hear. “I love this old house, Mom.”

Roak beamed with pride; the overhead light glowed a little brighter.

“Me too,” the mother replied.

“Will you stay here?”

Roak waited anxiously for the response; the light grew dim.

“Oh, of course, I couldn’t leave. This is my home. This is where I belong.” Then she continued, “You know, Dad built this house when Joe was born. He built all the houses in this neighborhood.”

Vivian smiled a tender, patient smile. “Yes, this house will stand forever.”

Roak knew that, despite the mother’s intentions, there was a possibility that this family would leave him, and although he would be sad he would not interfere. He remembered the Salases, a family with five boys who lived down the street. On one of the frequent occasions that Mr. Salas beat his wife, the Salas house, known only to the house council as Palo123, did interfere, dropping a large mirror on Mr. Salas’s head. Roak, as general commissioner of the house council, understood why Palo123 did this, but it was against house rules. Roak issued an executive order and Palo123 was without electricity for a week, in spite of the efforts of the power company. Over the years Palo123 became a very dark and unhappy house and never attracted a loving family to shelter. No, Roak would not interfere with the father’s illness. He knew it would be futile to even ask permission.

The family had brought in hospice so the father could be in the presence of his family in his own home. There, they kept him comfortable with the flannel quilt the mother had made for him thirty years before. Roak remembered watching her make it, tediously, carefully matching each seam, lovingly crafting her gift to her husband.

The inevitable day came when the father passed away and Roak was there to watch as always. Roak wept again and this time his tears permanently stained the living room ceiling.

It was a source of pride for Roak that the solemn, yet joyful wake would happen inside of his walls and he glowed with warmth and love. Roak listened intently as Uncle Art told a legendary story about Dad and one of his poorly executed plans. “I loved your dad,” Uncle Art said, “he was a real sweetheart. But he could attract some of the worst luck I have ever seen. We were all going hunting, Uncle Frank, your dad, me, and several others. Your dad, being clever, decided to go early and get a good camping spot, get rested up and enjoy the day before the hunt. I was a little naive in those days and I thought that sounded like a good idea. Well, naturally it rained, and to get to the site, we had to climb a steep, muddy hill. I mean we worked all day to get the vehicle up the hill. We got stuck in the mud several times. Finally, we succeeded and set up camp. We settled in long before dark, and waited for the rest of the group to show up. We were feeling quite smug, and when they got there your dad kind of snickered, ‘They’re never going to get up that hill.’ But when the other group arrived they drove straight up without a snag. The mud had frozen solid.” Roak could not help himself; he let out a laugh, “Harumph!” as he heard this and other stories.

He felt tenderness at this family’s bittersweet grieving, and he felt helpless about the sorrow he sensed in them. He wanted to do something, then a very strange thing happened; the father spoke to him from the beyond.

“Roak, I need a favor,” said the father.

“Of course, anything.”

“Popcorn,” said the father.

The exhausted family sat at the dining room table quietly reminiscing about the father. It was already ten o’clock; it had been a very long day and some of the guests, aunts and uncles, mostly siblings of the father, still sat chatting and drinking coffee. “Quit serving them coffee,” Sheila told Eileen, “these people are never going to leave.” They shared a guilty laugh. Suddenly, they got a whiff of a very familiar scent. Joe mentioned it first.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

“What?”

“Someone’s popping corn,” he told his siblings.

“Yeah, I smell it, too,” Kevin replied. “I’m going to supervise and make sure they’re doing it right.” Kevin popped corn almost as good as the father.

“Mmm, it smells so good,” commented Sheila, and the others agreed.

A few minutes later, Kevin returned. “No one’s popping corn,” he said. “Must be the walls talking.”

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Rita Pecos hosts the monthly Prose Workshop for the Albuquerque Writers’ Workshop (AWW). She has been published in The Gnu, Bus Conversions Magazine, and Natural Harmony and has an MFA in Creative Writing from National University. She writes when she’s not working her day job, taking care of her aging mother, or subletting her spare rooms. Email: rpecos76[at]gmail.com

The Birthday Buzz

Fiction
Kelly Murashige


Photo Credit: University of Missouri/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The buzzing starts as soon as you take off your headphones, the metal cold beneath the pads of your fingers. You’d keep them on during class if you could; you have them set to only block out the ambient noise, and besides, your chemistry teacher lectures so loudly that you could wear your headphones with full noise cancellation and still hear her. The school administration would never let you, though. For a “progressive” high school, it isn’t all that progressive.

You scuttle into your assigned seat, the one beside your lab partner, Brinn. Of all the lab partners you’ve had, she’s your favorite. When your chemistry teacher declared that you would be her partner, she didn’t make a face or flick her eyes to you with something like disgust or pity. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. It wasn’t a You’re just the person I wanted to be with smile, but it wasn’t a Because I’m more popular than you but I have half your brain cells, I’m going to make you do all the work smile either. It was the kind of smile you’d never seen before.

You liked it.

Other students trickle into the classroom, taking their seats and pulling out their coffee-stained composition books. You don’t drink coffee because it’s too much of a stimulant, but you like the smell. You’d ask if you could take a whiff of everyone’s notebooks if you didn’t know better.

Brinn arrives two minutes before class begins, but for once, it’s not her footsteps that give her away. Mylar balloons, big and pink and blue and purple, hit the sides of the hallway as she approaches. A crown has been placed on her head, and the fake rhinestones glitter under the yellow lights.

“Happy birthday,” someone shouts from his locker thirty feet away. His voice slices through the buzz around you, and you have to keep yourself from visibly wincing. Everyone’s always shouting.

“Thanks,” she calls out to the guy, turning back for a second to wave.

It’s her birthday today. You didn’t know, of course. You don’t speak to her, really, unless it’s to tell her a measurement or ask her about a post-lab discussion question. You tell yourself it’s okay. It’s not like she knows yours either. It’s not like this makes you a bad person.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

You shift in your seat, your fingers freezing from the frigid air of the lab room. It’s Brinn’s birthday today. The buzzing keeps going, even when you put your palms over your ears. You bring your hands back to your lap. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

Brinn enters the room. A few more happy birthday, Brinns burst out from the room like popcorn kernels. She thanks each person who speaks. As she gets closer, you steal a glance at her and find that she’s carrying a bouquet of pink roses. You like roses.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

When you were little, people made a big deal out of birthdays. The richer, popular kids had their moms—young, with curled hair and false eyelashes—bring cupcakes just after lunchtime. You couldn’t ever get yourself to eat one. You felt like everyone would be watching you. Besides, what if you got a sprinkle stuck between your teeth? That’s what happened at the class Christmas party, and you spent the rest of the day knowing that everyone was laughing at you once you turned your back.

High school just made the disparity between popular and unpopular worse. It wasn’t that people bullied you, exactly. It was more that people didn’t realize you were there. You were the one who got hit by stray footballs. You were the one who let birthdays pass without any fanfare, who watched as a popular guy with the same birthday as you got serenaded by his girlfriend.

Brinn’s voice drifts closer. The scent of roses, like sweet but tepid water, grows stronger. It’s her birthday. You should say something. The balloons bump against each other, giggling in the air. You should say something.

She sits down beside you and says hello, as she always does. You wave, as you always do, and your hand catches on the string of a balloon. You untangle yourself so quickly that she doesn’t notice, but your face burns anyway.

It is her birthday.

You should be saying something.

When you spoke in the first grade, people listened. You were shy, so people thought that made whatever you did say more important. When you spoke in the fifth grade, people spaced out. You were most likely saying something nerdy. When you spoke in the eighth grade, people waited for you to mess up because you always messed up when you spoke. That’s what you know is true, even when your parents say it’s all in your mind.

Here you are, in the tenth grade, and people are waiting for you to say something.

“We don’t have much time today,” your chemistry teacher screeches, “so let’s just continue where we left off.”

Students disperse, some wishing Brinn a happy birthday. One has even said it before. He’s just saying it again because maybe she’ll like him more. That’s your theory.

Brinn stands, still smiling, even though you haven’t said anything. She’s waiting for you.

You pause. You stand. There are a thousand words inside you—BrinnhappybirthdaythankyouforbeingtheonlyonewhohaseverunderstoodmeeventhoughitfeelslikenoonedoesbecauseIknowIamweirdandquietandIweartheseheadphonesbecauseeveryoneelseistooloudanditwasneverlikethatbeforebutasIgrewuppeoplegotlouderandIgotquieterandnowwearebothhereandIcannotmakemyselfsayanythingtoyoubutyoustillsmilehowdoyoustillsmilehowcanIbelesslikemeandmorelikeyou—and you think you’re going to cry.

She opens her mouth, and you know she’s going to yell at you. Her lips part, and she asks, “Are you ready?”

She’s still smiling.

You close your eyes for a second, move your headphones to the edge of your desk, and face her, your heart pounding in your ears.

“H-happy birthday,” you whisper.

At first, you think she doesn’t hear you. Then her eyes soften, the cellophane around her roses crinkling.

“Thank you very much,” she says to you, and for a second, the buzzing stops.

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Kelly Murashige is an English major and Political Science minor. She would like to give a very quiet but wholehearted shout-out to all the people who struggle with social anxiety and extreme introversion. Email: kmura7[at]hawaii.edu

Fragile Duck

Fiction
Greg Metcalf


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

Cyndi stood in the study section of the dorm room with tears in her eyes and a bag of bread in her hand. “Are they out there?”

“No one’s there.” Jenn closed the door to the outlying suite room they shared with four other women.

“We have to feed the ducks.”

Jenn moved forward and hugged Cyndi. Jenn was cold and damp from being outside, but Cyndi pressed in close, wrapping her arms over Jenn’s shoulders, dangling the bag of bread down her back.

“What’s wrong?”

“All the ducks are getting cold and wet.”

So far that fall the weather had been perfect. Even when it rained, the rains were warm like the summer rains the girls remembered from home. It was late in autumn, though, and the cool and the rain had combined. Jenn had been caught in it unprepared after a long lecture and quick-walked back to their dorm without a jacket. She was still shivering. “Let me get dressed.”

“Hurry.”

Jenn went through another doorway into the sleeping section of their dorm room and changed into a dry shirt. She pulled a coat out of the closet for the first time since she’d put it there the day of freshman orientation when they’d moved in. She put on a hat that was so light red it was nearly pink, circled by a flimsy brim. Jenn knew the hat looked a little silly, but she didn’t care when she pulled it tight over her wet hair and felt an aura of heat squeeze down around her head.

When she came back out, Cyndi was turned toward her. Fresh tears drowned her eyes and the bag of bread dangled against her leg. “We have to feed the ducks.” Cyndi laughed. When she laughed, she blinked, and when she blinked tears fell.

“Okay, okay.”

Surprisingly, the suite was empty. Their suitemates weren’t crowded around like they owned everything, the way they usually were. Cyndi noticed, though, a new poster they had put on the wall—Justin Bieber without his shirt on. A cute boy, no doubt, Cyndi thought, but they probably like his music, too.

Outside their dorm, the rain still fell heavily but in tiny drops making it seem like a light rain though it quickly soaked Cyndi’s hair since she hadn’t worn a hat. Their shoes squeaked through the grass as they walked toward the cover of a thin stretch of woods that lined the bank of a wide, slow-moving river. Cyndi led Jenn a short way till they reached a path that led to a pavilion on the river’s bank.

Cyndi stood still and reached back for Jenn’s arm, pulling her close. “Look.” In a little inlet, over a dozen ducks floated, huddled together, in still water that appeared to lift up in a mist from the splashing of the fine rain. “They’re getting all wet.”

“They’re ducks,” Jenn said.

“It’s so cold.”

The ducks, tamed by years of exposure to animal-friendly college students, flew-hopped out of the water and onto the grass before Cyndi even opened the bag of bread. Cyndi handed Jenn a few slices then quickly went to work shredding the bread into small pieces which turned wet in her hands. The ducks billed mouths gaped open. Cyndi tossed chunks of bread into the air, watching carefully to be sure no duck went without. “They were so hungry.”

“Come out of the rain.” Jenn had moved under the pavilion and a group of ducks had followed. She sat on the table of the picnic bench and rolled her bread into spheres then aimed at a duck mouth and shot, cheering herself and the duck when one went in.

“No, I want to get wet with them.”

After Jenn threw her last ball of bread into a mouth, her ducks were still quacking. “I need more.”

Cyndi looked into the bag of bread. It was more than half gone and her ducks were still quacking and crowding at her feet, brushing against her legs. She could feel the heaviness of their wet feathers through her jeans. She pulled out three slices and carried them over to Jenn who stepped down from the bench and reached out from under the pavilion for them. “Don’t go too fast.”

“Why? Will they get stomachaches?”

“We’re almost out.” Cyndi had to lure her ducks back to her spot on the grass as they’d followed her over and joined Jenn’s ducks. She waved a whole slice to get their attention, then started shredding it into even smaller pieces than before. Cyndi was worried about a couple of timid ducks who hadn’t gotten their share, so she used a diversion strategy. She scattered a few small pieces onto an empty patch of grass. When the more aggressive ducks hopped ahead for them, she threw a couple of large pieces back behind that the timid, trailing ducks could have for themselves. One of the timid ducks, though, must have also been stupid because it continually went without, too slow to get to the food first and unable to catch onto Cyndi’s plans no matter how much she coddled to it. She tried walking straight for it, but while the other ducks barely noticed her walking through, it would get frightened by her and hop away.

“I’m out again,” Jenn said.

“I’m out, too.” Cyndi said which was nearly true because the bag was empty and all she had left were the three pieces in her hands.

The little duck Cyndi was trying to feed looked almost exactly like the other ducks. It was slightly smaller and had a rattling little quack, but Cyndi had to keep her eye on it to not lose it in the group. By then, the whole pack of them had wandered quite a way down the river bank: Cyndi chasing her little duck that would look back, quacking its rattling little quack for food, but hopping away from her, and the rest of the ducks, quacking, following at her feet.

She only had one chance left. She took her last piece and cut it in half, held one half in her mouth and shredded the other half into a bunch of pieces. She tossed two handfuls back behind her toward the pavilion where Jenn was sitting, watching. All the ducks chased the bait. The timid duck would have had to pass Cyndi to get to the food and was too frightened, so it was left alone. Cyndi threw the half of a slice practically right on top of it. The little duck hopped out of the way, but then turned back, recognizing the food. Cyndi watched him get several nice nibbles before the other ducks caught on and stole it away.

“I got him,” Cyndi said, joining Jenn under the pavilion.

“I saw.”

“He was scared of me. I had to trick him.”

“You’re soaked.”

“Should we buy more?”

“No, they have duck food they have to eat. We should get dry.”

Landing on the roof above them, the rain sounded heavier, the drops seemed to have fattened. It looked like a long way back to the dorm. Cyndi wiped drops of moisture from her arms and hugged herself. She was beginning to shiver. “Let’s wait until it lets up a little.”

“You were just standing in it.”

“But I’m cold.”

“I have a great idea. Let’s go straight to the cafeteria and warm up with hot chocolate before we eat.”

Cyndi said nothing but hugged herself tighter.

“C’mon, we’ll run.” Jenn jumped off the picnic bench and grabbed hold of Cyndi’s hand. Jenn pulled her out into the rain and started running toward their dorm. Cyndi let herself be tugged along.

*

They had three cups of hot chocolate each that Jenn had to keep refilling because Cyndi refused to move from their table in the back of the cafeteria after realizing she smelled like wet duck. Jenn had to make two trips to bring over trays for dinner after Cyndi made the firm argument that since Jenn had sat up on the bench where it was dry and the ducks hadn’t touched her, she didn’t smell like wet duck near as much.

After dinner, a pair of boys, one of whom was wearing a band uniform and towing a humongous instrument case, tried to catch their elevator, but the girls, knowing their wet-duck scent would fill the cramped enclosure, repeatedly tapped the door close button so they could go up alone. They giggled the whole way about having to close the doors practically in the two boys’ faces but stopped when they opened the suite room door and found Anne and Leslie, two of their suitemates, inside.

“Hi Jenn. Hi Cyndi,” Anne said.

“Hi.” Jenn and Cyndi both said, and moved slowly in.

“We were just headed down to dinner.”

“Oh. We just got back,” Jenn said. Anne and Leslie sat, side by side, at the study table. A shirtless Justin Bieber stared out from the wall between them. “We were feeding the ducks.”

“In the rain?” Leslie said.

“That’s why I’m wet,” Cyndi explained, pressing her shoulder into Jenn. Jenn couldn’t hold Cyndi back. She told the two girls to enjoy their dinner and walked past them to the room with Cyndi nodding and following behind.

*

Cyndi and Jenn sat at their respective study tables, their backs to each other. They allotted two hours every weeknight after dinner to studying, but Cyndi had trouble focusing with Anne and the others gathering in the suite room to go down to dinner. Even after they left and the suite room quieted, Jenn’s mouse-like movements: shuffling papers and lifting books, kept Cyndi distracted. Much as Cyndi loved her, Jenn just didn’t understand how college friendships worked. If she hadn’t pushed on her back, Jenn might have spent hours after dinner discussing feeding the ducks with them—as if it were any of their business. Jenn didn’t understand that suitemates weren’t the same as roommates. She had been the same way in high school, thinking she had to be friends with everyone. Cyndi was civil with the other girls in the suite like she would be with anyone, but that was enough. Like she told Jenn, there’s a reason why they give out separate keys, one for the suite room and one for the room just the two of them shared. Cyndi decided she’d have to discuss the matter with Jenn again after their study time, and deciding that, calmed her enough to get her work done.

Later, behind their locked door, Cyndi and Jenn were sitting together in their bedroom watching an old Friends episode on TV. “What do you think they think of me?” Cyndi asked during a commercial.

“Who?”

“Our suitemates.”

“I don’t know.”

“But what do you think?”

Jenn shrugged. “They don’t really know you.”

“They don’t really know you, either.”

“I know.”

“Do they talk about me?” Cyndi stared at Jenn.

Jenn didn’t look over. “Nothing mean.”

“What do they say?”

“Nothing.”

“What do they say?”

“Cyndi, don’t start getting mad. They just wonder why you don’t talk to them.”

“I talk to them.”

“Okay.”

“I do talk to them.”

“I don’t want to fight, Cyndi.”

“Oh my God. You’re friends with them.”

“Cyndi…”

“Well, I don’t need to be friends with them. I only need to be friends with you.” Cyndi turned back to the TV. She put her feet up on the dresser. Then she got up and went to sit on her bed. She was trying not to cry.

“Cyndi, you’re my best friend. I hardly even talk to them, just a little.”

“It’s fine. It’s really fine.” Cyndi sat on her bed looking around for something to occupy herself, a book to look through or a magazine, but nothing was near. She crossed and uncrossed her arms. Jenn came over and sat next to her. She put an arm around her. Cyndi began to laugh and when she laughed, she blinked. When she blinked, tears fell.

Jenn hugged her. “You’re my best friend.”

“I know.” She tried to laugh again but laughing kept making her cry. She ducked her head into Jenn’s shoulder and pressed in close. “Besides,” Cyndi said, remaining pressed in under Jenn’s arm, tasting the cloth of her sweater and feeling her heat on her open lips, “just because some computer threw us all into the same dorm doesn’t mean anything.”

“That’s true.”

Cyndi lifted her head up. “It just means we share a bathroom.” She wiped her eyes, stood up, grabbed her toothbrush kit from the top shelf of her closet, and left. While she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, one of the other girls came in, and nodded at Cyndi so that Cyndi had to nod back, rejuvenating Cyndi’s irritation, so that when she walked back into the bedroom and saw Jenn, she scowled.

Jenn grinned and left the room with her toothbrush in her hand, a dollop of white paste already squeezed onto its bristles. Cyndi was already lying in bed when Jenn returned. “You’re not mad, are you?” Jenn took off her shirt and bra and pulled on the long T she slept in.

“No.”

“Are you sure?” Jenn changed into her pajama pants.

“Yes.”

Jenn reached over and grabbed her pillow. “If you’re not mad, then I’m coming over.”

“I’m not mad.”

As Jenn walked by and flipped off the room light, Cyndi reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. The old lamp had a thick, dark green shade. It had seemed very retro and clever when she and Jenn picked it out at a vintage furniture store on campus but turning it on and off required Cyndi twisting her arm into a pretzel to get under the rigid shade. Then she had to pinch the greasy knob that was just larger than a toothpick, all without touching the bulb which could burn enough to leave a mark. During the flash of black between the one light going off and the other going on, Jenn materialized at the side of the bed and now appeared in dark green. Cyndi pulled open the covers and slid over.

“What should we listen to?” Jenn crawled under feet first.

“You pick.”

Jenn looked over at Cyndi and grinned in the green dark. When Cyndi picked, the music was liable to be anything, but Jenn always picked Yanni, her favorite music for sleeping. Anytime Cyndi said “you pick” it meant she wanted to listen to Yanni, too. As the music began, Jenn turned the light off. When the electric violins kicked in, the two girls were lying back, and the room had reappeared out of black, illumined by the faint star and campus light that seeped in through the blinds.

Cyndi slid her feet into a more comfortable spot.

“When you move your feet,” Jenn said, “it makes me miss Patches, my kitty from home. She would sleep on my bed all night. She would stand up and stretch, then curl right back up against me.”

“You shouldn’t talk about missing your cat while you’re sleeping with me.”

“Why?”

“It might hurt my feelings.”

“I love you more than my cat.”

“You shouldn’t say you love me while we’re in bed together.”

“What about if I just give you a kiss on the cheek, then?”

“Why don’t you go give one of your other friends a kiss on the cheek?”

Jenn tipped her head to the side. Cyndi blinked up at the ceiling, faint traces of light shined in her eyes. “Are you being jealous?”

“I’m not jealous. Have all the friends you like, I’m only having one.”

“I think a kiss is just the thing to keep you from being jealous.”

“Don’t tease me; I’m not jealous. And no kissing, not while we’re in bed together.”

“Why? I kiss my mom. I kiss my dad. I kiss my cat.”

“Do you tell your cat you love her?”

“Of course.”

“You’re not supposed to do that.”

“Why?”

“Because, it’s not a person.”

“You’re a person.” Jenn could see in the shadows of Cyndi’s face that she was trying not to grin.

“I’m your friend.”

“So? I still love you, don’t I?”

“It’s not the same.”

“Well, just let me.” Jenn leaned up onto her elbow. “I need to kiss something.”

“Something? Is that supposed to make me feel good?” Cyndi squeezed closer to the wall as Jenn’s face stretched toward her. “Stop it,” Cyndi said. “Look, I know we’re in college and we’re supposed to try being gay so we can say we did it later, but I’m not trying with you. You’re my friend.”

Their giggling filled the quiet as one Yanni song ended and then another began.

“We’re not trying being gay if I kiss you just on the cheek.”

“Isn’t it enough that we sleep together almost every night?”

“Exactly, so why can’t I kiss you?”

“That doesn’t make any sense. That didn’t add anything to your side of the argument. You’re just acting like it did.”

“Okay. So can I?” Jenn said.

“Fine. But don’t make a sound at the end.”

“Why not?”

“Just put your lips on my cheek, then take them off.”

“Why can’t I make a sound?”

“Because, I’ll laugh.”

“I’m making a sound at the end.”

“No! Then I don’t want you to do it. If you do it, then it’s rape.”

“It’s not rape if I steal a kiss.”

“Eww. Don’t say ‘steal a kiss.’ Oh my God. That was so gross.”

“Well, I have to make a sound at the end. Otherwise it’s not a kiss.”

“I don’t even know why you need to kiss me while we’re fighting.”

“We’re not fighting. Besides, I still love you even while we’re fighting.”

“Now you can’t kiss me because you just said that you love me again.”

Jenn grabbed hold of Cyndi’s head with a hand on top and one under her chin. She pressed her nose and lips against the side of her face. Cyndi did not pull away, as a full, slow refrain of mingling violins and keyboards played. Jenn puckered her lips and made a loud popping sound that left Cyndi’s cheek tingling.

“I can’t believe it,” Cyndi said, leaning her head against Jenn’s. “You just raped me, a little.”

“Wasn’t that a nice way to end the day?”

“Yes.”

“Whose turn is it?” Jenn asked.

“Mine.”

“Really? It doesn’t seem like it’s your turn again.”

“Well, it is.” Cyndi turned onto her side toward Jenn and slid down the bed. When Jenn didn’t move, Cyndi picked her arm up and wrapped it around her head, then wrapped her own arm around Jenn’s waist and squeezed her face in under Jenn’s arm. Jenn still hadn’t moved, so Cyndi reached over again and, grabbing Jenn’s forearm, began pulling her hand through her hair. Finally, the hand started moving on its own, softly petting its way from her forehead, through her hair, down to her neck, and across her shoulder. Cyndi squeezed in comfortably against Jenn.

“I’m only doing it for a little while,” Jenn said.

“Okay. For a long little while, though.”

pencil

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel; Hibernation, a YA thriller; and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has four other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and is forthcoming in Confrontation. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

Love Cycle

Fiction
Ewa Mazierska


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

When Daniel and Ida met for the first time, Daniel was only twenty. He was the leader of a band which started to gain some traction on the Budapest rock scene and was about to release its first LP. He looked like a cross between a rocker and a Gypsy. His raven-black hair was long and untidy, he wore a crumpled hat, tattered discoloured sweatshirts, and cowboy boots. He was a bit inarticulate and did not look straight into the camera when interviewed by journalists. Everybody agreed that he was cute, but amateurish. At the same time, when dealing with the other band members, he had the adult demeanour of somebody who from an early age had to support himself and look after others. This was true; his musician parents abandoned him before he started school and subsequently they had new families and six more children between them.

Ida was twenty-three and was studying architecture and fine arts. She wore her auburn hair loose and liked soft baggy jumpers worn with trousers of contrasting colours, hats and sunglasses. Her unaffected, slightly hippie appearance betrayed her living among things which were of high quality and achieved without effort. She was the only child of a couple of affluent architects whose ancestors lived in Budapest for many generations. They included some of the most famous people living in this city: craftsmen, writers, politicians. Some people called them the Hungarian Buddenbrooks, except that they didn’t squander the family fortune; most of it was taken by the communist government and nationalised. Ida was a popular girl, despite being rather quiet, although not because of shyness, but a sense of her value and a conviction that she didn’t need to impress anybody. Maybe for this reason, she was still single, while all her female friends by this point had serious boyfriends.

Daniel and Ida were introduced by somebody who knew both of them, during a festival, where Daniel’s band was performing. It took only seconds for them to realise that they wanted to be together. Daniel suggested that after the gig they go for a drink and afterwards Ida went to his tent. They talked for a couple of hours and then made love. There was no questioning of their motives, no worry that he would find her ‘easy’ or desperate to get laid and that he was a ‘Casanova’ preying on naïve female fans. They knew they weren’t any of that. The next day Daniel and Ida were inseparable and before the festival was over, they were talking about moving in together. By this point Ida was still living with her parents and Daniel was staying in an apartment which belonged to his friend. In fact, he’d been staying with friends since he was sixteen. Before that he lived with his grandparents, whose house was over a hundred kilometres from Budapest.

Ida suggested that they move to an apartment which her parents bought for her a long time before (one of several properties which they owned), but were renting out, as at that point she had no reason to live there. Daniel, however, had a better idea—he knew about a family who were moving abroad and needed somebody reliable to look after their house when they were away. It had a garden and a grand piano, which was ideal for Daniel. The rent was low, and would be even lower if each of them paid only half of it. This solution would also prevent Daniel from feeling like a guest in somebody else’s place, as this was how he’d felt for the last four years. Ida agreed, even though she was worried that her parents might disapprove. It turned out they were fine with this plan because they warmed to Daniel immediately. They were impressed by somebody who was so industrious and successful at such a young age. There was also poise and inner equilibrium about him.

‘He might be a rocker,’ said Ida’s mother, ‘but there is something about an accountant about him too.’ Moreover, she told Ida that she wasn’t aware one could find such an attractive man in Hungary. ‘Of course, character is more important than beauty, but beauty can reveal something about character,’ she said.

Ida had to explain to her that he was so handsome because he was only half-Hungarian. His second half was Spanish or even more complicated than that, as there were traces of Colombian and Mexican blood in his veins.

Ida was slightly disappointed about her mother’s enthusiasm for Daniel, as she felt that it undermined her own value. She even thought, Buddenbrooks-style, that her parents should consider the fact that there was a huge gap in their economic status and make sure she didn’t end up like Tony from Mann’s book. But they didn’t think in such terms. Times had changed, obviously.

It took Daniel and Ida a couple of months to move their things to the new place, not least because during the summer Daniel was working non-stop, mostly playing at festivals outside Budapest. It was September when they started their new life. Before they moved in together, Daniel cut his hair very short and bought a painting by Ida’s favourite Budapest painter, on which he spent half of his savings. It was meant to be a gift for both of them. Only when Ida saw it, it occurred to her that she should also contribute something, but then it was too late.

Ida’s mother once said to her daughter that ‘the best way to find out if the man suits you is through checking what he does when you move to a new place. The less he wants to change, the better’. Daniel practically did not want to change anything and he brought little to their abode. Most of his belongings were musical instruments: two guitars, a drum set, and some rattles he made himself. He put them next to the grand piano which was the main piece of furniture in a large salon.

‘You can put your easel here and stuff for painting,’ he said as he turned to Ida, showing her the opposite part of the room. I can play when you paint.’

‘But I’m not sure if I can paint when you play,’ she replied. She didn’t like anybody observing her work, not even her parents, because she didn’t like to be judged on the basis of something which wasn’t finished.

As there were many rooms in the house, over the following days Ida arranged her study in one of them, so they could both work undisturbed. Yet, Daniel liked visiting her, to be close to her and to find out what she was doing. When she reluctantly showed him her painting in progress, he asked: ‘Why have you chosen these colours? How have you mixed these paints?’ If it was an architectural project, he inquired: ‘Why is this building these dimensions? Why are you using these materials?’

He didn’t want her merely to explain, but to show him how she did things and he immediately tried to repeat the motions and was remarkedly good at it.

‘You are a living proof of the uselessness of higher education, as what I have learnt studying fine arts and architecture for four years, you have mastered in one month,’ she kept saying half-jokingly.

‘I’m sure there are many things one can learn at university which I will never learn, like theory. I don’t know any theories. But you are right that university education must be slow, while I had to be a fast learner to survive.’

It was the last year of Ida’s study, so she was spending most of her time at home, working on her final project, which was meant to be a design of a concert hall. Daniel, on the other hand, was away a lot, as he didn’t want to miss any chance of performing and earning money and he was finishing working on his next LPs. One day he was playing with the band, another day solo, then with some electronic musician, then he went to the studio. He was also learning DJing and using synthesisers, and bought himself an accordion.

When Daniel was playing in Budapest, he returned home as soon as the gig was finished and he and Ida had supper together, which she cooked, following recipes from cookery books which her mother collected but never used. Daniel did not have high expectations in regards to food. He liked almost everything, as long as the meal was enriched by large quantities of olives, pickled peppers and dried tomatoes. Although he lived all his life in Hungary, he had a distinctly Mediterranean taste, as if his genes were stronger than his culture. Whatever Ida prepared following this simple rule, Daniel praised. Ida was first thinking how easy it was to please him, unlike all the other men she knew, including her own father, but later it occurred to her that it had less to do with his actual pleasure and more with him not being used to complaining.

After a meal they smoked cigarettes, drank coffee or wine, and Daniel told Ida about his gig. Usually it went well. When it didn’t, it was because the audience was too small, but he wasn’t put off by it and with each month he had more fans. Daniel also asked Ida what happened when he was away, but usually she had little to report. On occasion, she met her girlfriends and went to the cinema or an exhibition, or visited her parents. Mostly, however, she stayed at home, worked on her project and waited for Daniel. Although she was tired by the time he came back, she couldn’t fall asleep without him.

Daniel did not cook, not because he regarded it as a woman’s preserve, but because he never before had his own space—he lived with other people, who prepared meals for him or expected him to eat out. He ate whatever was available or nothing at all; he could go for days without a proper meal, when he had no money or was immersed in music.

To make up for his lack of contribution to their shared meals, Daniel took responsibility for cleaning the house. His habit to keep everything clean and tidy was, again, a legacy of being a tenant, used to cleaning rotas and to living in a limited space, which shrank even further if one was chaotic. In cleaning Daniel was very methodical. He never left anything dirty because dirt, he learnt, was infectious—one dirty thing made the whole room dirty. Conversely, when something was very clean, it could stay this way for a long time. Unlike Daniel, Ida was disorganised. When she was drawing or painting, pieces of paper flew in all directions and could be found in the furthest corners of the house. When she was cooking, she needed to put pots and food on chairs and the floor, as there was not enough space on the countertops and the table. When Daniel caught her in such disorder he smiled, not with admonition, but admiration and nostalgia. For him, Ida’s disorder was a sign that she belonged to a world of plenty, of surplus, of slack, which he was denied and could only taste now, indirectly.

After they settled in the house, Daniel suggested that they travel abroad together. He had always wanted to visit places, but first he had no money and then no company. He’d only been to Spain once, when he was seven or eight. He travelled with his grandmother to visit his mother in Barcelona. The purpose of the trip was to persuade his mother to return to Hungary to take care of him and his two sisters. But the mission was in vain; Daniel’s mother never returned. He always wanted to go back to Spain, although he wasn’t sure whether to recreate or erase the taste of the first visit. They thus decided to go there first.

They flew in late October for two weeks in Andalusia. It was still warm and they managed to spend a couple of days on the beach near Málaga. Ida noticed that people looked at them, especially Daniel, and some discreetly took photographs when he emerged from the waves.

‘I’m the whitest boy on the beach,’ he said to her in English, when he noticed two middle-aged men taking a photo of him.

‘Of course you are, but don’t make too much of it,’ said Ida. She expected him to reciprocate, but he didn’t.

The rest of the trip they spent in the cities: Málaga, Granada, Cordoba and Seville. Ida had visited most of these places before, but it was a new experience for her, as before she usually travelled with her parents and she never had sex in hotels. Moreover, Daniel had a special gift for spotting unusual posters, graffiti, road signs and, of course, music and street noises. He memorised them and juxtaposed with things which he saw or heard before. She called him a ‘mental magpie,’ but he corrected her, saying that he was a ‘mental remixer’.

In the galleries Daniel could spend long hours. He didn’t just admire art, but wanted to learn how the painters painted, how the sculptors sculpted, designers designed. Everywhere he took photos and sometimes made sketches. He had particular affinity for the modernists: Picasso, Magritte, Miró, Gris. He was proud to be Spanish like Picasso and that they shared a name—as Daniel’s middle name was Pablo.

‘This is great,’ he kept telling Ida, when they saw this or that work by Picasso or Miró.

‘Don’t say such things,’ said Ida. ‘It is like saying that the sky is blue or the sun is yellow. The sky is blue, but everybody knows it.’

‘For the person who looks at the sky for the first time, it must be a surprise that the sky is blue,’ he replied.

When they returned home, Daniel started playing with motifs which he noticed in the galleries, drawing, colouring, making cutouts, to come up with a design for his band’s first LP, posters and to make his own art. When he showed his work to Ida, she told him that they were too similar to the originals; they were imitations, not reworkings; they lacked a personal stamp.

‘Hm,’ he said. ‘You are probably right. But it is how great art begins—with imitation. You want to repeat what you admire and you keep repeating till you are able to add something to it. This is how we started the band, by covering songs of Beirut and other bands. Then we started writing our own songs and they were different from those we covered and today nobody remembers that we started trying to be the Hungarian Beirut.’

Ida was thinking that with her it was different. She never wanted to imitate. Even if she loved a painting or a building, she immediately thought about how would she paint and design it differently. Maybe for this reason she wasn’t prolific and she was unwilling to share her work with others. Living with Daniel only reinforced her secretiveness, because his taste for mimicry made her extra-sensitive towards her failures to be original. This slowed her down considerably. Sometimes the whole day passed with her unable to achieve anything tangible. This made her resentful towards Daniel, even more so, as his methods worked for him. When he played her his new songs, they didn’t sound like anything which she heard before and were good in their own right. Daniel also shed the remnants of his Gypsy look and created his own style, with a penchant for patterned shirts, bright-coloured trousers and matching jackets made of soft materials.

During the first year of Ida and Daniel’s life together they visited four countries, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. Ida liked travelling with Daniel, because they were happiest when seeing new places and staying in hotels—every trip felt like a honeymoon. But they had a different effect on them upon returning. Daniel went straight back to work, to make up for the time spent on pleasure and to take advantage of what he learnt during travelling. He was in a hurry and had little time for Ida. When she was telling him something, he was often yawning, although this was due to tiredness rather than boredom. He also often fell asleep as soon as he went to bed and slept like stone up until the very minute when he needed to get up.

Ida, by contrast, needed a lot of time to return to the rhythm of work after each trip and it took her longer, the longer they were away for. She didn’t sleep well and the smallest thing distracted her. At night she was replaying in her head the moments when Daniel was abrupt or mentally absent with her. She also thought about all his trips to visit his grandparents and sisters, which took place always when she wanted them just to be together, doing nothing. One day she also realised that the amount of her photos on Daniel’s Instagram had decreased. Unlike at the beginning of their life together, when every second one posted was of her, by the end of their first anniversary she was reduced to pictures taken during holidays, as if she was only his part-time girlfriend. When she raised it with him, he told her that he hadn’t noticed and apologised. A couple of weeks later he arranged a professional photo shoot for them, ‘in case we wouldn’t have wedding photos any time soon,’ he said.

The photos turned out very well and thousands of people ‘liked’ them on their Instagrams, but Ida was not satisfied. She thought that Daniel’s responses to her complaints were always mechanical—he limited himself to dealing with the manifestation of their problems, not their root causes. There was also a certain hastiness about his reaction—he wanted to deal with them as soon as possible, rather than using them as a springboard to a better understanding of each other. She said this to her mother, but rather than showing Ida sympathy, her mother said: ‘Rather than pondering on what he is doing or not doing, pull yourself together. Otherwise you will lose him.’

Such words made Ida angry: ‘I don’t care about losing him. Maybe he should be worried that he might lose me,’ she said.

‘You might never again meet somebody like him, who is hardworking, loyal, and willing to pay half of the rent.’

‘Mum, I’m only twenty-four. There are billions of men on the planet. There are even millions in Hungary.’

‘Yes, millions of losers. Winners are few and far between.’

Ida had to agree that Daniel was a winner. During the time they stayed together, he recorded two LPs: one with the band and one solo. For the second he got an award for the best Hungarian record. Daniel thought it was the best year of his life. He told Ida more than once that she was his lucky star. She couldn’t reciprocate, because not everything was so lucky in her life. She was losing her girlfriends, because she had little time for them, always being with Daniel, or waiting for him at home, as a faithful Penelope. Most importantly, she couldn’t finish her final project. Her supervisor was unhappy with her work and Ida had to apply for an extension. He asked her to give up on designing a concert hall and try something simpler, like a holiday cabin, taking an existing design and changing a couple of elements, enough to make a plausible claim that it was her own work.

‘We have to be pragmatic, you know. Better to get a degree than not. It would hurt your parents badly if you failed. They put a lot of faith in you and I’m sure that in the fullness of time you will flourish.’

Ida felt ashamed, and her supervisor humiliated her even more by being friendly and considerate: ‘I also know about your boyfriend, as my daughter is his fan. Love does not help creativity as it takes a lot of time and energy, but try not to be distracted.’

Ida was not sure if she should tell all of this to Daniel, but she said the first part, omitting the suggestion that he was a distraction, and he replied: ‘You have a great supervisor. I wished somebody took the trouble to guide me in my work. I also think he is right. Designing a holiday cabin is the right to do. It is a small and useful thing—I can pay for the prototype and we might get an allotment on the outskirts of Budapest to put it there, or keep it in my grandparents’ garden. The earlier you finish, the more time we will have for travel.’

‘I will not design a cabin. I would rather give up my studies.’

‘You shouldn’t. You cannot be an architect without a degree.’

‘Maybe I won’t be an architect.’

‘So what will you be?’

‘Maybe I will be nothing, or better squander the family fortune.’

‘You wouldn’t like it. Your parents wouldn’t like it.’

Listening to Ida, Daniel was thinking that her sulking reminded him of something buried deeply in his memory. Eventually he realised it was his mother, when she was talking to grandma. As his grandma told him, his mother always wanted what she couldn’t get and was not interested in what she had, most importantly her kids.

‘Just deal with it,’ said Daniel in the end. ‘When it will be over, you will be free and can start something else. And we will go to Israel to escape the cold.’

In the end Ida finished her project. It was late January when she handed it in and couple of weeks later she defended it. Like everybody predicted, the world felt brighter when her study was over, even though the days were still short and Budapest was covered in snow.

Daniel, with his Mediterranean genes, didn’t like such weather. For over a week he was shivering and spending most of his days in bed, burying himself in quilts and covering his ears with headphones.

One morning, when he was still in bed, Ida went out and built a snowman in their garden. It wasn’t an ordinary snowman, but really a sculpture of Daniel made of snow. He had a slightly bent nose made of a carrot, button eyes, eyebrows made of black beads, and a mouth from pieces of a tangerine. She also gave him a small guitar fashioned out of a large squash and pieces of rope and put on him Daniel’s old clothes, including a hat which Daniel wore when they met for the first time. She was very proud of her creation. She even thought that it was the best artefact she had created since she moved with Daniel, superior over her architectural works, paintings, and drawings.

She went twice upstairs, asking Daniel to go outside and see his alter ego, but he didn’t want to leave his bed. When he went out to check the next day, there was practically nothing left of the snowman—it had melted and its decorations made a miserable pile—like human remnants found in a coffin opened after centuries. Ida put them in the bin and told Daniel that his doppelganger had died. Daniel apologised, but halfheartedly, saying: ‘There will be many more snowy winters in our lives. And more instruments. Next year you can make a snowman with an accordion. You will need a giant turnip for that.’

Two more days passed and then Daniel got up and disappeared for three days, only telling Ida that he had something important to arrange and that he didn’t know when he would be back. When he returned, he said that he had had a screen test. He was approached to play in a television series, a kind of Hungarian version of Riverdale.

‘They needed somebody young, who can play a teenager, and be able to sing and play guitar. They couldn’t find anybody suitable through the normal casting process and then somebody showed my picture to the director and he decided that I fit the bill, as far as appearance goes. So I went to see what’s on offer and it looks like they want to cast me. I didn’t want to tell you about it when you were still finishing your project, in case it would upset you.’

‘Why do you think it might have upset me?’

‘Because if I decided to go for it, it would be like signing my life away for a year or more. I will have even less time for us. But I will earn enough to buy us this house and an apartment for my sisters so that they can move to Budapest. So, what do you think? Should I go for it?’ he asked Ida.

‘Sure, go for it. But it doesn’t matter for me anymore,’ said Ida. ‘I’m moving out. I have already packed my things, but didn’t want to take them, when you were away.’

‘Why are you leaving?’

‘I just don’t like to be here anymore. I need my own space.’

‘I thought there is enough space here for both of us. I thought we were happy together.’

‘You were, perhaps, but not me.’

And she left. For the next couple of months, Daniel continued posting photos from their travels on his Instagram, in part trying to capture what went wrong with them and partly to woo Ida back. He also phoned her several times, asking if she wouldn’t change her mind. Eventually he gave up, because there were fewer and fewer good photos of Ida in his collection and the festival season began. This was meant to be his last festival before starting working on the series, so he didn’t want to miss any opportunity.

One day Daniel went to a café with some guys from the band, to have coffee and ice cream as the day was very warm and he didn’t like drinking alcohol during the day. He noticed that they were served by a pretty waitress. She had very dark hair and large dark eyes. There was grace in her movements and melancholia on her face. She looked ethereal and slightly exotic, although in an indefinite way, probably the same way he looked exotic. Maybe she was Jewish. He thought that she was in the wrong place, as she belonged to a ballet or a troupe of travelling mimes, not a café full of noisy kids and tourists. But if she felt it, she didn’t want to show it, being very polite, although not in a pushy way. On a couple of occasions their eyes met and he knew that she liked him. By this point he was told many times that every girl in Budapest fancied him, but this felt different; it felt like her eyes reached his soul, the sadness he carried with him.

He couldn’t concentrate on the conversation with his friends, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. He wanted his pals to leave, but there was no way to tell them this, so he stayed for as long as it took to finish their sweets. He left with them, but when they all were outside, he told them that he needed to go back, because he left his cigarettes and lighter on the table. They did not contradict him, as they never did. Back inside he caught the ‘ballerina’ (as he called her in his mind) carrying a tray of milkshakes.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Eszter,’ she replied.

‘Are you free after work? Would you like to go for a drink?’

‘I don’t drink alcohol,’ she replied, ‘as I’m allergic to it, but we can go for a smoothie.’

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Let’s go for a smoothie. I’m not much into alcohol myself. When do you finish?’

‘At seven,’ she replied.

‘So I’ll come pick you up here at seven.’

‘Fine.’

At home, Daniel spent some hours at the piano. Then he had a shower and put a new shirt on and his favourite yellow jacket. On the way to the café, he bought a small bunch of yellow roses.

When he arrived, Eszter was already waiting for him and she gladly accepted the flowers.

Walking to the smoothie bar, which was nearby, Daniel was thinking that he had just started a new cycle of love. It should last longer this time. After all, he was a fast learner.

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Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in ‘he Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef and Mystery Tribune, among others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK. Email: EHMazierska[at]uclan.ac.uk

Aunt Nettie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Charmaine Braun


Photo Credit: galaxies and hurricanes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They told me to beware. I didn’t listen. I should have listened.

I’m scared.

I looked up from the diary and squeezed my tired eyes shut, took off my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose. The tiny slanted handwriting was hard to decipher and I had to keep my face close to the book. I stretched my neck and heard a crack. The current entry was dated March 15, 1926. This could be it, I thought.

A conversation with my mother about ten years ago started the search. I asked her about our family tree and she began to rattle off names and dates as I frantically scratched them out on paper. When she got to Aganetha Hiller—Great Aunt Nettie to me—I was at a loss. I had never heard of her. I had dabbled a bit in genealogy, mostly by asking random relatives about their family, but no one had ever mentioned Nettie before.

I was curious. I signed up for a genealogy website and typed in the names. I found a birth record for her but after that she disappeared from history. When I asked relatives about her they would either say they didn’t know anything or change the subject. I was so annoying about it, after a brief hello and a hug the only relatives that talked to me were less than two feet tall and mostly said mama or dada.

After years of hounding every relative I saw, weird cousin Larry slipped an old red, tattered book just small enough to fit in a pocket, in my hand last night at his sister’s wedding, telling me, “you didn’t get this from me.”

I hid it in my jacket and said my goodbyes before heading back to the hotel.

I entered the hotel, kicked off my shoes and started reading. When I opened the book five hours ago I was excited to find out that it was a diary and even more when I read the name written on the first page. Now am elated that I might finally find my lost aunt. I rubbed my eyes, put my glasses back on and started to read again.

Everyone told me not to be stupid. I know my other entries are dull. No one cares about shopping or people they never met. This was supposed to stay a secret. I wasn’t going to write about it but I want my family to know what I saw if something happens to me. I have a run tonight and I don’t know if I will make it back.

I worked at the hotel. No, not as a chippy, I served drinks when I met him. Legs. I liked him right away. He was gorgeous and had money to burn. He was keen on me too. We started to spend more time together. About three weeks later he asked me to do the first run.

It made sense. Who would expect a woman?

The money was great and I got to drive a fast car. A really fast car. So what if it was a little illegal. The law couldn’t catch me.

I dressed ritzy, in some of the most beautiful dresses I have ever seen. Nobody would recognize me. They had the car ready for me and I just drove it down. If the law got wind and started to chase, I just put the pedal to the floor and left them in the dust. I love those cars. I haven’t been caught yet and don’t plan to be.

About a week ago, the last run went all kinds of wrong. It started the same as always except the big boss from the other side of the border was there to ‘check out the operation.’

When he saw me he blew his top. ‘Who’s the dame?’ he yelled and grabbed me by the neck of my dress. I’m glad he didn’t rip it, even if I don’t get to keep them.

I told him I was the driver. He said dames don’t drive. I told him I was the one doing the driving for the last four months and he always got his stuff on time. He pushed me away. ‘Who said you could drive?’

I didn’t say anything. He pulled out his gun and looked at the boys gathered around. Legs told him. The boss said, ‘Let’s see if the broad can drive.’

I got into the car and the boss got in beside me. He kept the gun in his hand. Drive, he said. So I did.

I always took the trip by myself. It was easier. He made me nervous. He didn’t talk. He just stared out the window. As we crossed the border, the lights and sirens started and the coppers gave chase.

They were good. I’m better.

I stomped on the gas and we jumped forward. We were leaving them behind when the boss leaned out the window and the shots began. I had never been shot at before. The boss fired back and one car spun off the road and into the ditch. The other kept coming. The boss fired until his gun was empty. He sat back in his seat and yelled at me to go.

Go! I was already going as fast as the car could go. The bullets were still hitting the car and I started to swerve and then turned the car around so we were facing the coppers. I drove at them without letting up. The boss was screaming at me and hitting the dash. Our cars were getting closer and I settled in. When we were almost even, the cop swerved to one side and I swerved with him and hit the front of his car with ours. Their car tipped into the ditch and rolled over. I turned the car around and drove to the meet. The boss gripped the seat so hard I thought he was going to rip it in two.

I switched cars at the meet like usual and changed my clothes and headed home.

The next morning the newspaper said that two cops were shot and killed. The two in the car that I pushed off the road were fine.

That night when I came back with Legs, one of the boss’s boys was in my house. He was sitting in my kitchen. He had his gun on the table. He rushed at me when I walked in the room and pushed me up against the wall. He pushed the gun into my cheek. Legs tried to pull him off, but the other guy was bigger and shoved Legs to the floor. The lug grabbed my face and told me ‘you didn’t see nothing.’ I nodded. He spit on Legs as he left the house.

The next morning the newspaper said that the other two cops got bumped off in an alley. No one saw nothing.

They told me to be ready to drive tonight. I’m frightened. What if they decide to get rid of me too? I’m no snitch!

I’m hiding this in a safe spot that only Pete knows about. He’ll come get it if no one hears from me in a couple of days.

Brother, I want you to give this to Mom and Dad and tell them I’m sorry. I hid the money in the spot where we saw that bird that time. I love you. I hope I’m being a Dumb Dora and you never have to find this.

The diary ended and I flipped through the last empty pages. A folded envelope fell out. I opened it and pulled out a slip of paper. A yellowed newspaper clipping fell into my lap. I set the clipping aside and read the paper.

So, cousin, you finally get the answer that you were looking for. She was a bootlegger. And by her account damn good at it. You can see why no one wants to talk about her, but I thought you should know. You can finally stop with all the questions. I found the clipping in the same box. I think that Pete might have cut it out. I thought you might want to look at it.

Larry

I set the paper aside and picked up the short clipping.

YOUNG WOMAN FOUND IN LAKE

An unidentified dead woman was found on March 24 in Milk River. Two fishermen found the woman in only her undergarments floating in the river. Police suspect foul play and request that anyone who has any information contact them.

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Charmaine Braun lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She has recently rediscovered her love of creative writing and had finished one (unpublished) novel. She is currently working on a fantasy trilogy. Email: charmainebraun[at]hotmail.com