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

Beware: A Prue Klatter Mystery

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Cayce Osborne


Photo Credit: Jorn van Maanen/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Diary of Prue Klatter
March 15, 1952 (aka my 30th birthday)
Lawrence, Kansas

They told me to beware. I mean, not in so many words. That’s not how these things work. I’ve only worked for the FBI six months, but I’ve learned that much.

The voice on the tape actually said: “If you’re hearing this, you’re in danger. If I had another way…” The next words were lost underneath a noise, something familiar. “I need your help, you’re the only one I can tell. I saw something I shouldn’t—”

The recording cut out.

Usually, the tapes I transcribe are boring. I know I’ve gushed about my job on these pages and at first it seemed like a dream, but every day is the same: I sit at my desk in a long row of other transcribers. Lawrence is the central facility, so tapes are sent by agents in the field, from all over the country, then distributed among us girls in the dictation pool.

All we get to hear are snippets. Sometimes I’ll get a tape marked 2/3 and my friend Laurel, who sits next door, will get 1/3, and neither of us ever gets to see 3/3. I try to get details out of her on our walk home sometimes, to fill in the holes, but she likes to “leave work at work.”

I can keep my mind from wandering by piecing together clues. Each tape is marked with an alphanumeric code to match the agent who is speaking and the field office he is working out of, to the case. And yes, it’s always a he. No girls allowed in Eddie Hoover’s clubhouse.

That’s how I knew today’s tape was special: the voice being piped into my ears through my headphones belonged to a woman.

I must’ve listened to her fifty times. Until the floor matron noticed I wasn’t typing and scolded me. I started clacking randomly at my typewriter keys, the purple mimeo ink recording my gibberish onto the duplicate pages. It looked enough like work, I could concentrate on the voice and what had interrupted it.

I knew that sound.

I just needed to figure out how.

Tuna fish. That’s what I was eating when it came to me. I’d made my tuna salad too wet, and it’d sogged the bread something terrible. Chewing it, there was a nauseating chomp and slosh sound. Laurel glared at me so hard her cat-eye glasses slipped down her nose. I tried to chew quieter. She slid farther down the lunch table bench.

The sound was almost a slosh and swish, like the sound the SuperMat laundromat makes. I walk by it each night on my way home from work, so I hear it a lot. That’s what was on the tape: a symphony of washing machines, overlaid with some sort of long, high whistle.

“What’s got you so moony?” Laurel asked.

“I’m not,” I mumbled, swallowing the last of the tuna fish.

“You still sore about tonight?”

We’d planned my birthday celebration at The Flamingo Club weeks ago, but her cousins decided to come to town so dinner was off. I haven’t had the heart to write about it, which is why I’ve been lax in my diary entries. I’m over it now, mostly. Thirty isn’t such a big deal. Certainly not compared to whatever the woman on my tape got herself into.

“It’s not that. It’s the case I’m transcribing. You ever hear something that’s made you… worry, or need to know more?”

She fought back a smile. I thought she was laughing at me.

“So-and-so went to this address at this time and was driving this make of car? No way. It’s all so dullsville! I know you want to be an agent someday, but me? I’d rather marry one of those men than be one.” She finished drinking her coffee. “Something good on your tapes today?”

She slid back down the bench. Humoring me, only asking because she knows I like to follow the cases on my tapes. But if there was a reason to beware, I didn’t want to say too much. I also wanted to keep the intrigue to myself a bit longer. Laurel would talk me into flagging it for supervisor review, as we were trained to do with unusual recordings.

I waited for a group of other girls to pass before answering. “No, nothing good.”

Laurel didn’t seem put off by my lie. She patted my hand, wished me happy returns, and went to wash up before lunch hour was over. I hurried back to my desk and pulled out the slim notebook I’d taped to the underside. That’s where I note the alphanumeric codes I’ve managed to decipher.

P24 at the beginning of a code means the tape came from the Philadelphia field office, for instance. I discovered this when local landmarks were referenced on recordings all marked P24. When I recognize recurring voices, I can tie agents to the cities I’ve already identified. I don’t know them by name, of course, only by code. I hide my discoveries using a simple substitution cipher (the same one I use in this diary, actually) in case anyone finds my notes.

I thought if I could match the ID code on the mysterious tape to one of the agents or field offices I’ve already identified, I’d be closer to figuring out the rest. After the floor matron passed my desk, I examined the code inked on the tape’s label: S38-BV93.

I’d noted in my book S38 was the code for the Seattle office. BV93 was not an agent I’d been able to place. But the city was a start. I looked up to see Laurel watching me. Pretending to need a new sheet of paper, I leaned down to my desk drawer and slid the notebook back into hiding.

When afternoon break came, instead of meeting Laurel at the coffee pot as usual I ran to the pay phone across the street, scrounging in my purse for a nickel. By the time I got my sister on the line, half my break was over.

“Susan! I need your help. Does the Lawrence Library have any Seattle telephone directories? I need to know if there are laundromats near the Seattle train station.” I waited while she put me on hold, left the circulation desk, ran to the stacks, and returned with the answer.

“There are two within a mile.” She rattled off their addresses, breathless. “Are you going to tell me wh—”

I hung up before she could finish, hurrying back to my desk.

“Bad tuna fish,” I told the matron when I returned late. I tried to look nauseous. I almost was, but with excitement.

When the five o’clock bell sounded, I looked for Laurel to excuse myself from our usual walk home, but she’d already left. I went to the corner store for change and then to the phone booth, not wanting to make my calls from home. (As I’ve noted many times in these pages, Ms. Rainey who runs my boarding house has trouble minding her own business. Thankfully, she hasn’t the sense to understand my cipher.)

The first call was answered right away, by an elderly woman with a creaky voice. I engaged in some light conversation until I was satisfied it wasn’t the laundromat from my tape. The machines in the background were too whiny, like they needed a tune-up. The next call was a failure as well. When the train whistle blew, it was deafening, masking the sound of the machines.

I gave myself a pep talk on the walk home. Real investigative work isn’t easy: lots of footwork, lots of phone work, lots of… work. If I ever want to become an agent, I need to make peace with that. Before leaving work, I’d stuffed the tape back down to the bottom of my stack so I’d have more time with it. There must be other clues, and I was determined to find them.

As my resolve rehardened, the SuperMat came into view. Maybe I’d just stop in, I thought, to see if being there jiggled any inspiration loose. It was silent inside as I tugged the door open, no customers in view. The minute my feet hit the linoleum, life exploded. Laurel and the other girls from the dictation pool. My sister Susan. A few friends from high school. My parents, for heaven’s sake! They all jumped from behind the washing machines, tossing streamers and confetti my way.

“Happy Birthday!” they called in unison.

The B&L coal train, which passed through town twice a week, whistled in the distance as if it too wished me well.

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Cayce Osborne is a writer and graphic designer from Madison, WI. She currently works in science communication at the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been a staff writer at Brava Magazine, and her fiction has been published in Exposition Review and the Dread Naught but Time short story anthology from Scribes Divided Publishing. She also collects her work on her website. Email: cayce.osborne[at]gmail.com

An Unapparent Suicide

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Miguel A. Rueda


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

They told me to “Beware.” Warned me to “Let dead men stay dead.”

The anonymous posts starting popping up on my Facebook business page—Max Haas. Bonded Private Investigator.—the day after I accepted the gig.

I’m not good at remembering random dates: my ex-wife’s birthday, my second ex-wife’s wedding anniversary, but the day the messages began stuck with me, March fifteenth, the Ides of March. Together with the use of the word, “beware.” Yikes.

Not that I’m superstitious but I’ve been known to call off a stakeout if a black cat wanders between me and my suspect.

I did a quick sign of the cross and knocked on my desk, y’know, just in case.

Misty Magnussen had hired me to investigate her late husband’s death. Two weeks earlier, her now-late husband, Lance, took a header out of a back window on the second floor of their brownstone. He landed on the patio in their backyard.

If the plan were to do yourself in, a two-story fall isn’t usually fatal, unless you’re lucky enough to land on the top of your head.

Lucky Lance.

Misty didn’t believe he’d done it. She said the police wouldn’t tell anyone what the note said until their investigation was over. I guessed that her husband’s self-inflicted homicide meant she’d get zip of a fairly hefty life insurance policy.

She told me how they met—she was working a party at his posh Upper West Side home—and that they were making plans for a family. It’s why the note didn’t make sense.

I told her my fee and she pulled a wad of bills from the matching purse she was carrying. In hindsight I should have asked for double.

Lance didn’t have a social media presence, but I did find the public info about him: his obit, how he made his money—investment banker, that Misty was the latest in a long line of brides for Lance; she was his fifth. I guess the rich can afford to keep a priest on retainer.

In contrast, Misty was the proverbial open (Face)book. Although her profile was set to private, I sent a request and she accepted immediately.

A quick look showed that she had the art form down, she had selfie game.

The posts went back to high school. Prom photos, cheerleading… she got a job working catering for high class parties. In one of those, I recognized Lance with his arm around a woman who must have been his previous wife. The couple was standing behind Misty and she was looking over her shoulder at him. Maybe this is when she first set her sights on bagging him.

Photos dated just six months later were of Misty and Lance on a beach together, and two months after that, together at a lavish wedding.

Her last posts were somber, and although her attire didn’t show any real bereavement, maybe that’s just Misty the party girl. Sadness never gets in.

I did everything I could online; I had to get into the house.

*

Yellow police tape was strung across the front doorway and a blue-and-white NYPD cruiser sat in front of the house. I recognized the officer, Patrolman Daniel Hulkenberg, and knocked on the window.

After exchanging enough small talk to make it appear that I wasn’t plying him for information, I asked about the investigation and he confirmed what the widow had told me and said closing off the house was merely a formality. He had been the one to respond to the frantic calls from neighbors about a body with a pool of blood in the backyard.

Hulkenberg said that the body had been there all night.

Thanking him, I asked that he AirDrop me the info for the lead investigator and if he minded if I looked around a bit.

He shrugged, tapped his phone a few times and waved me off.

My phone chirped as I walked up to the door and I saw two drops. One from Hulkenberg and one from an unknown sender.

I clicked on the second.

It was close-up photo of Lance’s bloody skull and the single word: “BEWARE.” Dude was definitely into drama.

An AirDrop meant the sender was within Bluetooth range, couple hundred feet at best.

Looking down the street, the only thing out of place was a pearl white Saleen Mustang. It’s a rare car; it stood out among the nondescript sedans and SUVs. I didn’t see anyone in any of the parked cars.

Hulkenberg had said he had to break down the door because both it and the rear door were locked and chained from the inside. All of the windows, except for the one Lance took his swan dive through, were latched.

I headed up to the second floor. A gem-encrusted dream catcher hung askew from above the window. Unknotting the strings let me see that one spider-web shaped piece was missing.

I walked out the back door and looked up. It wasn’t that far a drop. Lance had to be dead set to die, forgive the pun, in order to jump head first. He’d be more likely to end up a vegetable, than a corpse.

The townhouses ringing the block created a private park for the residents. I walked around, not looking for anything in particular, when I noticed an extension ladder against the back of another house. As I got closer, something glinted in the sunlight. I walked around—not under, I’m not stupid, knock on wood—climbed up and found the source of the reflection, the missing piece of the dream catcher.

That’s when I knew who killed serial-groom Lance.

When I nonchalantly asked Hulkenberg for the address, he didn’t ask if I had found anything or why I needed to see the ex-wife. I then asked him about the note.

He said it was the one thing that struck him as odd; Lance apologized to his former wife, the ex, not the widow. He was sorry he had betrayed her and had made a mistake.

*

She lived just outside the city in a neighborhood with big lawns and bigger tax bills. I noticed the rear end of a car just visible in one bay of the three-car garage. The taillights of a pearl white Saleen Mustang.

I thumbed the safety off my .38, sent out a quick text with a dropped pin, and knocked on the door.

It was answered by a woman who resembled the one I had seen standing in the photo next to Lance, but she appeared different than in the picture; she had definitely taken up a workout regimen. Lance’s ex was buff.

She invited me in as though I was expected.

I had to play the game as though she knew everything I knew, which of course she did.

I talked about the neighborhood and the weather a bit before offering my condolences. She said she had made peace with it since he had apologized for betraying her in the note.

Casually, I mentioned it was unusual for the police to release a note since the investigation was still ongoing.

She smiled a bit, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

She was on me like a shopper on the last new game console on Black Friday.

I didn’t even have time to pull my gun and she had me in a headlock and was flinging me around the room. My adrenaline kicked in just in time to keep my face from smashing a mirror.

If a woman kicks my ass in a fair fight so be it, but seven years of bad luck? No, thank you.

Everything was going dark when the front door busted in and my new best pal Hulkenberg was standing there, gun drawn, barking for her to drop me. Which she unfortunately did.

Right into the mirror top table. Dammit, almost made it out unscathed.

*

Hulkenberg got my text and pin and raced into the suburbs at full lights and siren speed.

Lead Detective berated me for not calling her, and after I shared the who and the how of Lance’s unapparent suicide, she told me the why.

Lance had a habit of providing for his ex-wives and their children in the event of his death by splitting up his fortune between all of them. Whoever his current bride was would only get his life insurance, nothing else.

Ex number four decided that she was good with that arrangement and decided to stage his death. And it turns out that in addition to being a gym rat and a tad homicidal, she was a big fan of Shakespearean plays. Tragedies mostly, what with all the murder and whatnot.

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Email: waynehillsauthor[at]gmail.com

Aviophobia

Fiction
Nan Wigington


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

“Behind the Wheel Training” was a a course for losers—the timid, the fat, and four-eyed who were scared by the wreckage and blood they saw in Mrs. Taylor’s driver’s ed films and just wanted a chauffeur or a time machine to whisk them to independence and college. Lana didn’t want to sign up, but she had no one left to teach her. (Her father, dead; her brothers, gone to war; sister, pregnant and married; mother, willing, but usually drunk).

There were three possible instructors—the geometry teacher who was accused of sleeping with a 13-year-old, the football coach who talked ball control, always ball control, and the wrestling coach, the new god in the pantheon.

Lana drew the wrestling coach. She felt like a worshiper pushed into the wrong temple when she met him in the hall—the way he grinned, clicked his pen, and said, “Well, look there, I got the girl.” But no horns grew from his slicked hair, so she proceeded.

“I drive first,” he said, “so you can see how it’s done.”

The grin reappeared as Lana slipped into the passenger seat. He took off before she had her seat belt on. He modeled none of the caution, the look-twice wisdom of Mrs. Taylor. He was the king of aggression, charging at lights as if they were opponents. He gripped the wheel as if he was going to take the car to the mat. Lana sat, mouth open, curls sweating straight, thighs pressed together, ankles crossed, nailed into place. He winked at her when he rolled through a four-way intersection. Lana looked his way, then past the chisel of his nose and chin to what she thought would be a speeding car from the left, the “sure T-bone” Mrs. Taylor had warned of. Did he think she was impressed?

The coach took his hands off the wheel, steered with his knees, and popped his knuckles.

“First flight is in the country,” he said as he resumed Mrs. Taylor’s ten and two.

Lana looked as the streets blurred by—103rd, 112th, Melody Way, Harmony Avenue. She thought of the places she’d rather be—Latin, Chemistry, World History. Better to navigate the cytokine storms of the 1917 flu epidemic than this asphalt and this impending country.

The gas station, the cemetery, the edges of the suburb appeared in the mouth of the rearview mirror, then fell down the throat of a hill. To her left, Lana noted an idle backhoe and a field full of pipe. To her right, a wall-eyed cow and calf. She knew what lay ahead, the fields, the curves that followed the canal.

The coach pushed hard against the accelerator. Free country, she guessed, no speed limit. Part of Lana expected the car to set sail, glide irrevocably toward disaster, two wheels tipping, whole chassis rolling.

The coach turned onto to dirt road, half-nelsoned the car to a stop. They were at the lip of a ditch. Only winter wheat and gray sky for witness.

“Here’s your future, girl,” the coach said and tossed the keys toward her lap.

Lana did not open her hands. The keys rolled and dropped to the floor. Lana bowed her head. There were seconds, minutes maybe, before she heard the man grunt, his door moan, his feet crunching against the dirt. A shadow fell across her window.

The coach pulled her door open. The hair on her arms bristled as she watched his hand claw down and unbuckle her seat belt.

“Your turn,” he said and prodded her in the shoulder. As if a poke could get her moving.

Lana bowed her head, watched him from beneath the shield of her hair.

He leaned back, squared his shoulders, staggered his stance, put one arm under her knees, the other behind her shoulders.

But Lana took her inspiration from the fields and sky and sat as still and heavy as she could. She would have a first flight one day, but not with this man. The coach grunted, backed away.

She knew he would try again—a level change, a wrist lock, a double grapevine. The second time he approached, she turned unexpectedly and kicked. He screamed, fell back into the ditch.

When he reemerged, his hands were muddy, his pants wet, and his eyes narrowed.

“You’re a real—“ he started.

Lana threw the keys at his feet.

“Lady,” he finished.

They drove back to the high school in silence.

Lana was afraid she would flunk the course.

Mrs. Taylor made sure she didn’t.

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Nan Wigington’s work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Gordon Square Review, Defenestration, and Spelk. Although she knows she has to do it occasionally, Nan doesn’t like to fly or drive. She gets around mostly by bike, foot or bus. Email: missprothero[at]gmail.com

The Wild One

Fiction
Greg Jenkins


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

When the doctor walks my daughter out to me, I can’t help but smile. Lacy looks good, very good, all things considered. She’s twenty-nine years old but appears much younger, like a girl fresh out of college, ready to dazzle the world. She’s a slim, fetching brunette—some red highlights in her hair—with big impish eyes and a big happy grin. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with the word ‘Juicy’ in purple script, and her faded jeans have been artfully ripped at both knees. When she pauses in front of a picture window, the warm sunlight glimmering in her hair, I’m ready to believe that anything, anything at all, is possible.

“Hey, babe,” I call to her, and she comes right to me, and we give each other a tight squeeze. “So how you doing?” I ask.

“Great, great,” she says.

“They taking care of my little girl?”

“Oh, yeah. Everybody’s cool, Dad. Everybody’s great.”

“Yeah?”

“Liz here, she’s the best.”

‘Liz’ would be the doctor who brought Lacy out, Dr. Elizabeth Roy by the name tag that hangs on a thin silver chain around her neck. I turn and give her a glance; she’s right there at my elbow. A proper woman in a stone-gray pantsuit, she returns my glance with a long, penetrating stare. To say the least, she seems a bit skeptical of me, and I guess I know why. I’m wearing my motorcycle garb—black do-rag, black nylon mesh jacket, black jeans and heavy black boots. I’ve done her the courtesy of removing my black wraparound shades, but this minor detail doesn’t seem to be helping much. She figures that maybe Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels has just invaded her rehab center.

“I’ve got a motorcycle,” I explain.

“I see,” she says.

Naturally, I’m eager to get Lacy off someplace where the two of us can speak privately, but this Roy woman sticks to us like a burr. A burr that talks. I gather that she’s part doctor, part administrator, and one hundred percent a pain in the wazoo. Her idea is she’ll take me on a cook’s tour of the facility and spell out exactly how their program works while Lacy tags along. I tell her it isn’t necessary, but in her button-down mind it is, so away we go.

They call the place Sojourn House, and it sits way out in the country amid the trees and the birds and the squirrels and the sweet clean breezes that touch your face like a mother’s fingertips. We’re islanded from the evils of the city—or that’s the concept. Before it became a rehab center, Sojourn House was a baronial estate, owned by some reclusive zillionaire. Even now it looks a lot like a giant house, except inside it’s been modified into apartments, offices, activity rooms, a cafeteria and so forth. Out back are a volleyball court, a barbecue pit and a flower garden aglow with colors—with pink hibiscus, fiery zinnias and golden-yellow daylilies.

“It’s all very nice,” I say, “but, but what I really—”

“The attention we give our residents is extremely focused,” Dr. Roy tells me.

“I’m sure it is. But, uh—”

“In the United States alone,” she says, jabbing her finger at me, “more than fifteen million people are alcoholics. And if we’re going to help any one of them—your daughter, for instance—we’ve got to be intense about it.”

“No doubt. Buh—”

“Dad,” Lacy cuts in, “this is my apartment.”

By now we’ve circled back inside to a carpeted hallway, and as she gestures at a nearby door, I can see the trail of scars on her forearm from when, a couple of years ago, having drunkenly lost the keys to her home, she rammed her bare fist through a window in an attempt to get in. Get in she did, but she also shredded her arm and was lucky she didn’t bleed to death.

“Let me show you my digs,” she says, and Dr. Roy nods her approval.

The second-floor apartment strikes me as small but adequate—functional, you might say—and the only part of it that really draws my attention is the wooden deck outside. Exactly two deck chairs sit there side-by-side, facing the green and rolling grounds, and the glass door that separates inside from outside looks pretty substantial to me. Pretty soundproof. This, I decide, might be the ideal spot for a confab between father and daughter.

“…medical supervision,” Dr. Roy is droning on, “psychiatric evaluation, and not only individual but group therapy. For their own good, we watch our residents continuously.”

“Very impressive,” I say. “But listen, I wonder if I might talk to Lacy for a while myself.”

The doctor’s gray eyes, which seldom offer a trace of genuine emotion, blink as if I’d just proposed something indecent.

“You’ve been talking to her,” she says.

“I mean just the two of us. Lacy and me. We’ll go out on the deck, and you can—”

“Haven’t you heard,” she demands, “a single word I’ve been saying? At Sojourn House, our vigilance is nonstop.”

“You can watch us from in here.” We’re standing in the kitchenette.

She gives her frosted perm a shake. “Well, no, I don’t… I’m not…”

“Hey.” Sometimes when my temper flares, the back of my neck gets hot, and suddenly I seem to have a mini brush fire under my collar. “Hey,” I go at her, “who do you think’s paying the bills for my daughter’s treatment? Huh? I may not be wearing a three-piece—”

“Dad?” Once again Lacy has cut in; she puts a soothing hand on my shoulder. She puts her other hand on Dr. Roy’s shoulder. “Liz,” she says, “it’ll be OK, I swear. Ignore the do-rag, all right? He’s my dad.”

The doctor looks at her gravely. “Well…”

“Just fifteen minutes,” Lacy promises.

“Fifteen,” the doctor repeats, as if confirming the deadline for a wartime prisoner exchange. Not too cheerfully, she waves her hand in dismissal. “I won’t be far.”

 

Lacy’s a drinker, a practiced, hardcore drinker. That much I know. She’s probably got some other issues as well, some psychological quirks, but she’s definitely a drinker. Now, whether this longstanding fact can be changed, even partway, is the critical question. Though it won’t be easy, I believe she can remake herself if she wants to; she’s got the tools. But what Lacy truly wants has always been something of a mystery to me.

Sometimes I suspect she simply likes to drink, the way other people might like to play golf, or collect stamps, or bake gingerbread.

Or even ride a motorcycle.

In any event, she got started early, back in her mid-teens, the way many drinkers do. I don’t think she was driven to drink as a result of some shattering upheaval in her life. More likely her friends were doing it, so she tried it too.

Actually, her mother and I did get divorced during that period. But the split wasn’t overly messy, and I felt we all handled it reasonably well. Divorce happens; it’s commonplace. In fact, my own parents got divorced—I came home from school one day and found my father naked in the living room with a dishwater blond neighbor named Irene Gruber, also naked—and I was able to manage it. No, I didn’t particularly like it, and yes, I was a frazzled kid for a while. But my world didn’t collapse, and to this day a drinking bout for me consists of sipping two or three Buds, tops.

I remember Lacy’s first encounter with the law; there’d be others. She was seventeen, and I dropped her off at a high school football game. The plan was, she’d watch the game with some friends and, when it was over, I’d come by and pick her up. But no more than ninety minutes after my “You take care”—it wasn’t even halftime yet!—the police called me and said they had her jailed on three or four misdemeanors, mainly underage drinking. When I arrived at the station, I was stunned at how incoherent with alcohol she was. Nuanced conversation wasn’t about to happen.

“Ha’ li’l problem,” she said.

Her eyes were glassy, and I tried to calculate how she could’ve gotten so bombed, and so blatantly bombed, so quickly.

“What the hell happened?” I said.

No answer.

Eerily, my question would have more staying power than I ever could’ve dreamed at the time. It’s still with me now. Still unanswered.

In those days I was inclined to see Lacy’s missteps as merely a case of youthful high spirits. At the same age, I was no altar boy myself. But as she got older, her drinking remained heavy and all too consistent. Then it became even heavier and even more consistent.

Her personal life was erratic. Over the years, she went through a Mardi Gras parade of husbands and boyfriends—I don’t have a precise count—and they, like me, fell into the sorry category of flabbergasted witnesses more than anything else. At a lakefront restaurant, I once sat down for a chat with one of these guys. His name might’ve been Jim or it might’ve been Lionel (they came and they went), but I do recall the lost and almost desperate gaze flickering from his hangdog face. He looked like a man who’d won the lottery and then somehow misplaced his ticket.

“You can tell her,” the guy said, “that she drinks like a fish… and she’ll agree. You can tell her that it’s abnormal… and she’ll agree.” He rubbed his chin. “But then she doesn’t stop. She won’t stop.”

Lacy’s professional life followed the same ragged, up-and-down path as the personal. She had no difficulty landing a job, or not at first, anyway. With her array of attributes—she was attractive, smart, educated, personable—she was more hirable than most. Her problem lay in keeping a job once she had it. Usually she got canned for the expected transgressions: she was late for work, she didn’t show up for work, she showed up but was creatively rude to a customer, she showed up on time and was gracious to everyone but she reeked of Jack Daniels Old No. 7. Other times she was shown the door due to misbehavior that smacked of real imagination and perversity. The last termination, coming about a year and a half ago, occurred immediately after an office Christmas party that saw her get sloshed, climb up on her boss’s desk and perform a grinding striptease, so help me God, to the innocent, holiday rhythms of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Then, in recent months, came the meltdown. For reasons unclear to me, she left one of her husbands for one of her boyfriends. But when that gentleman tired of her shenanigans (she managed to misplace his brand-new Lexus, necessitating a police search), he booted her out. Since she had only five dollars and a cell phone to her name, she was essentially homeless. The next two nights she slept in someone’s backyard hammock. Next morning she used her cell phone to call me, and I helped her gain admittance to a far-off, rural rehab center named Sojourn House.

I have to wonder, though. Has she hit bottom? Does she mean to get cured? Or did she simply need a more civilized place to sleep?

 

The deck chairs outside Lacy’s apartment are a trip in themselves. Their rounded metal framework is flamingo pink, and the puffy cushions we sit on are sunny yellow with a sprinkle of fat white polka dots; it’s a combination almost militantly upbeat. But the chairs are comfortable enough, and the view beneath us is rather pleasant.

I gaze down and out at the sylvan scenery—plenty of trees and shrubs—and I like what I see. The sheer natural wholesomeness of it. Right in the midst of things stands a large weeping willow, its dense canopy a soft and gorgeous green. Butterflies and hummingbirds flit around it in a kind of syncopated dance, and at its shaded foot is a cluster of blue and purple geraniums. I’ve never been much of a tree buff, but the willow, which appears both sad and beautiful at the same time, holds a strange appeal for me.

Over to one side is a parking lot, where, of course, my motorcycle awaits me. It’s a Triumph Bonneville, the same make once favored by movie legend Steve McQueen. Mine’s blacked out, no chrome anywhere, and it sits there in the sunlight gleaming darkly at us like a massive chunk of anthracite coal. Magnificent machine.

“That’s a hot-looking bike you got there, Dad,” Lacy says.

“Thanks.” I wait a few seconds and add: “I ride it when I’m tense. Helps me relax.”

She throws me a look of disbelief. “You don’t get tense! Do you?” Pause. “What makes you tense?”

“You,” I say. “You make me tense.”

She laughs and flicks a hand at me. “No need for that. I told you, I’m fine. I’m just as smooth as goose juice.”

One thing I must say about Lacy—I’ve rarely seen her downcast, regardless of her circumstances. And she’s had some circumstances to contend with. Yet her relentless positivity leaves me confused. Should I salute her resilience or doubt her judgment?

“I’ve got to admit,” I say, “you look fine. Lean and fit. They got you on a diet or what?”

“They do. I’m on a dopamine diet.”

“Dopamine! Is that a diet for dopes?”

She laughs again, and I’m pleased to see her sense of humor is still intact. “It’s just basically no caffeine, no sugar. Who needs a bunch of sugary crap anyway?”

“You’re sweet enough as is,” I tell her. “You working out?”

She bobs her head, causing her long cinnamon hair to shift and shimmer. “Volleyball, yoga. I like yoga.” She stands up, does a one-legged ‘tree pose’ and sits back down. “We’ve got a gym, too. You see it?”

“No.”

“You want to?”

“Maybe later.”

I ask her to tell me about her therapy, and she says it mostly comes down to blabbing to others about her problems.

“We’re trying to determine who I am,” she says.

“So who are you?”

She crinkles her pug nose. “We don’t know yet.”

“Do you like therapy?”

“Oh, I love it. I love talking to people.”

“But are you…” Here I hesitate. I’m choosing my words cautiously. “Are you making any progress?”

“I guess. This morning they told me I’m bipolar.”

“In addition to being…”

“An alkie, yeah.”

“That’s not good, is it?”

She shrugs. “It’s good to know what you are, even if you don’t know who.”

Behind me, I hear the glass door slide open, and Dr. Roy thrusts her head out almost like a giraffe.

“Everything OK?” she asks.

“Everything’s wonderful,” I answer, and I hope I don’t sound too sarcastic. I have a peek at my watch. “We still have some time,” I remind her. Without another word, she withdraws her head and shuts the door firmly behind her.

“Boom,” says Lacy, in response either to the door closing or to my closing down the officious doctor.

It costs me some effort, but I catch my daughter’s eye and hold it for a moment or two.

“Any friends or relatives been by to see you?” I ask. “Besides me, I mean.”

“Nope. You’re it.”

“Not your mother?”

“Nope. Just my dad.”

“Well, listen.” I take a breath, knowing I’m heading somewhere, though I’m not sure where. “You’ve, you’ve disappointed some folks with your…”

“My wacky behavior.”

“Yes. And more than that, you’ve worried us. I tell you, my phone rings in the middle of the night, and I—”

“You’re a worrier.”

“I never know—”

“You’re a worrier by nature.”

I shake my head. “Not by nature,” I correct her. “But for a while now I have been worried.”

I sketch out for her this silly vision I first conceived when Lacy was a newborn, a vision that nags at me still. In it, I see us both growing older and, as we do, becoming increasingly coequal. Just as she’s always counted on me, I can count on her. I can have faith in her because, like most adults, she’s acquired a measure of wisdom and responsibility. I can chat with her about her home (a real home), her job, her husband and her kids. About her goals and her projects. About her investments, both financial and spiritual. I can trust in her opinion, knowing it’s a sound one, and I can be confident that she’ll be on hand to care for me as I take to wearing an old man’s scruffy fedora and baggy brown pants and go hobbling uncertainly into my final years, dimwitted and arthritic…

“But then,” I say, “I open my eyes to this.” I wave my hand at Sojourn House. “To reality.”

“Oh, Dad,” she chuckles. “I’ll be there for you.”

“Lacy, I want you to be there for you.”

“I will be.”

“Will you?”

“My word of honor.” She tilts her head at me. “You know,” she says, “I get it from you.”

“You get what from me?”

“My whatchamacallit. My wildness.”

“From me!”

“Yep.” She flings her arm toward the parking lot. “In the whole world, how many sixty-year-old guys ride a motorcycle?”

At this, my fatherly instincts leap up, ready to tussle. “Quite a few,” I say. “And Lacy, at least I can afford a motorcycle—unlike some people. Because I’ve got a steady job—unlike some people.”

“All right.”

“And I don’t ride the thing drunk.”

“OK, OK.” Eventually she smiles and brings her big brown eyes to bear on my smaller ones. “I’m getting better,” she says.

“I hope so.”

“I’m doing everything Liz wants me to. And I can feel myself changing.”

“Good,” I say. “That’s my girl.”

“I’m getting stronger. Healthier.”

“Good. Good.”

“And I want to thank you,” she says, “for all the love and support you’ve shown me. Not just the rehab thing. Everything.” She leans over and kisses my cheek.

We can sense Dr. Roy looming behind us, and we stand and stretch as if cued.

“Tell you what,” Lacy says. “Soon as I get released, you and I’ll go out on the town to celebrate. We’ll both get snockered, OK? We’ll do it up right.”

I’m not sure I heard her correctly.

“And don’t give me that look,” she says. “It’ll be one time only—purely to celebrate. We’ll really get hammered, OK?”

“Lacy—”

“Course you’ll probably have to foot the bill.”

The glass door slides open, and out steps Dr. Roy. She presents us with a chilly smile; it’s a smile that would suit an IRS auditor or an oral surgeon.

“Time for therapy,” she announces.

We all take turns staring at each other awkwardly. At last my daughter and I share another hug, though this one feels a hint different.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” I tell her. “In the meantime, babe, keep working.”

We step back inside the apartment, which, after the splendorous sunlight of the outdoors, seems dim and shadowy. I’m trying to see where I am. Briefly, I turn to the doctor, supposing I should grant her a comment as well.

“You too,” I say. “Keep working.”

 

In the parking lot, I stand next to my bike and put on my gear in a distracted but methodical way. Shades first, then my World War II-style helmet, then my gloves. The weather is still nearly perfect, just a few thick white clouds are drifting along. They look like mounds of vanilla ice cream, a treat that a youngster, a ten-year-old girl, would love.

I fire up my Triumph and just sit for a while appreciating its throaty rumble. The exhaust note is assertive but not crass; this is a motorcycle of refinement and taste. Finally I kick it into first and zoom off on the flat curving blacktopped road. The lively torque makes me grin with pleasure.

Traffic is sparse, and I slip the bike into second gear and pull back on the throttle. The wind smacks me, but I savor it; it feels cleansing, like an air shower. As I find third gear, the roar from the liquid-cooled parallel twin fills my head, pushing other matters far away from me. For the time being, I feel terrific, like Sonny Barger in his youth.

Like Steve McQueen in his prime.

No worries.

pencil

Over the years, Greg Jenkins has had four books, including his recent novel A Face in the Sky, and roughly 55 short stories published. His work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Prism International, South Dakota Review and Chicago Quarterly Review. Email: drgjenkins[at]yahoo.com

99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


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

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


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

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

The Grave of Samuel Seymore James

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
M. Luke Yoder


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

Preservation of the dead. That’s why I take grave rubbings.

Isn’t preservation the reason we created gravestones in the first place? To preserve the proof of the people we care about?

I imagine the first burial marker was the turned earth that hid the body. But the earth is ever changing, and humans are ever sentimental, so we needed more permanent signs of death. Mountains. Landmarks. Rocks. At first, it was a small pile of stones that wind and water wouldn’t wash away. As we evolved, those piles became pyramids and monuments and henges for the great; for the mediocre, short words of remembrance etched on small granite or limestone or marble slabs: name, date, epitaph. I think it’s sad that the mediocre, the most common human lives, are the first to vanish, eroded and effaced by weather or vandals or lack of care. We will forever know where the memories of our Pharos, Presidents, and Poets are housed, but the proof of Samuel Seymore James of Huger, South Carolina, 1781-1806, Beloved Husband & Faithful Fisherman, might moulder to obscurity if not for rubbers like me. In a way, I keep the dead alive.

But many cemeteries and plantations and old properties with old graves no longer allow rubbings. They argue rubbing hastens the decay or someone may break fragile stones even with best intentions. And I understand: gravesites are solemn places for the safeguarding of our past and the one true promise of our future. They are as concerned for preservation as I am. We need archival proofs, however. In time, those cold carved letters on stones and marble slabs will be erased and return to mere rock, and those names will vanish from the earth. Without archival proof, those weathered words may as well be written on the dirt and the rain. So I continue to rub, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Some cemeteries still allow rubbing from anyone, but I’m not concerned for those graves: they have their archivists and plenty of them. I seek lonelier treasures.

Which is why Samuel Seymore James’ grave is so important to me. It’s the loneliest thing I have ever seen.

For fifteen years, I’ve taken rubbings from countless sites. Piles of archival boxes and hard plastic document tubes rise from the floor of my apartment. I’ve rubbed stones and revealed names and dates indecipherable to the eye from weathering. I’ve recorded hopeful goodbyes inscribed on crumbled white obelisks tucked away in a decaying cemetery corner. I’ve taken rubbings from a collapsing antebellum family complex marking the death of a dozen children, each vulnerable to the diseases that plague mankind. I’ve found and documented our names and fears and hopes of death before nature or man could erase them, and I’ve brought them home with me on paper and cloth rubbed with colored wax. I’ve seen it all. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James haunts me to this day.

While visiting cemeteries in the area one steamy summer, I pried a story from old Huger locals. Deep in the wilderness, there is a small grave site, unknown to any from off. It was, as they said, a local legend, preserved by a vengeful magical creature, as if the stones were erected that very morning rather than centuries ago. They would not take me—one visit was enough for each of them—but they told me about hidden markers along the way and gave me detailed directions, the same they’d pried from their grandparents when they were younger and bolder. They admonished me to return as soon as I could.

I hiked seven hellish hours to the grave, prepared to camp for the night. The paths often took me through flooded lands and cypress swamps. Snakes rattled at me. Alligators slid from logs to follow me. Tall pines and sweetgums and shade oaks drenched in Spanish moss gave me no relief from the close heat. I was ripped at by piercing thorns and hounded by insects that thirsted for blood. It was brutal. I understood why those locals refused to accompany me.

I stumbled to the grave site at dusk in a putrid film of sweat, covered in welts from the giant mosquitoes that arose in those stagnant, humid lands. My clothes were torn and bloody from long briars, my hair was matted from grime; I imagine I looked like some filthy being borne from those wild swamps that nature allowed to live. What a contrast I was to the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

Tucked beneath an ancient sprawling live oak with heavy branches drooping to the ground, I saw two gleaming white stones rising out of the leaf litter like incisors. It was as if nature decided against decay and allowed the markers to remain as unblemished as the day they were set. A pair of alabaster hands, one from each stone, stretched and clasped one another through space, binding the graves. When I looked closer at the hands, I could see words etched on the back of each, in a perfect Gothic font: Together in Eternity.

The left marker bore Samuel’s name and date of death. The edge of each letter was sharp and crisp, without hint of moss or mold, so pristine I thought it a wonder I didn’t hear the pinging of hammer on chisel as I approached earlier. I was amazed a grave so old and isolated could be so clean and free of weathering.

The right marker, just as pure, bore a name as well: Edith Anne James. Unlike Samuel’s grave, there was no epitaph or date of death: 1785–. Samuel was buried here alone, forever.

A loneliness I’d never felt before, or have experienced since, rolled over me in an instant and settled on my bones. In the fading light, I stood at Samuel Seymore James’s grave and I wanted to weep. The grave was so far removed from everything else in space and time and companionship that I was struck with the grandeur and sadness of it all. Buried alone, here, in a place so far removed it’s a wonder it exists at all. I took the rubbings of the stones and the clasped hands binding them among the crying crickets and flickering fireflies long after the sun disappeared.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In the fitful heat of my tent, I imagined I could hear Edith Anne wailing, wandering outside my tent, seeking her beloved Samuel and her rightful final resting place beside him. I could not dissuade myself that this grave was the loneliest on earth, hidden from the eyes of others, and destined to remain hidden until nature, if it was within its power, did away with it.

I returned home feeling I’d taken my most important rubbings. I placed them in an archival box and continued my work for years, knowing that no grave would need more proof of existence than Samuel Seymore James’s. I’d trekked through hell to take those rubbings. I could say that if I should die tomorrow, I’d die happy having brought Samuel Seymore James out of the wilderness, returned to life, and having captured the spectre of his beloved Edith Anne and her unfulfilled promise to him as well. Despite the terrible hike, I was satisfied my passion for preservation drove me to his grave and gave me such a sad, haunting story as that of two lovers long dead and separated for eternity.

But now I have to go back through that hell once again.

I received a call last week and I’ve been digging through my archives ever since. Thousands of rolls and sheets and I cannot locate the rubbings for Samuel Seymore James: not with the other Huger rubbings nor in the archive box for Charleston and Surrounding Area.

The call was from the American Institute for the Preservation of the Dead. They are a historical advocacy group that insists rubbings are a vital method for safeguarding the burials of the past. They won a grant from the Smithsonian and want to take their message on a tour to raise awareness for rubbings and the importance of preservation. The representative who contacted me knew of my work through other rubbers and mutual friends. The Institute would be thrilled for me to submit my most important rubbing for approval. The award for the twenty-five works chosen would be a one-year gallery tour throughout the country for advocacy and a prize of one thousand dollars. I told the representative I knew the exact rubbing I would submit and that I would send it soon.

That was six days ago. I’m now convinced, after having exhumed nearly all of my past work, against all odds I misplaced the rubbings of Samuel Seymore James. There is no reason I should believe I committed such a crime, but there it is. They are nowhere to be found.

I thought about submitting others. I have a beautiful rubbing from Boston I did on cream cloth and purple wax with a date of 1713 and a tearful poem yearning for positive judgment on a life lived. But it wasn’t the same. I know what I’d had with Samuel’s grave. I cannot bring myself to submit another sample in its place. I am certain I am, in all of Creation, the only human to have taken a rubbing of that grave, and the importance of its preservation is undebatable. The rest of my rubbings can burn for all I care.

I’m sure I can find the grave once again.

I live three hours from Huger. It’s winter now and the drive should be easy. Winter in the South is different than most people expect. They expect it to be mild, but not cold. They are wrong. It doesn’t snow much in Huger, but there are countless days from December to March when the cold is as close and heavy as a hide blanket and the clouds press down upon your shoulders with weight. You can’t help but hug yourself to hold on to the heat being pulled from your chest. And when it rains, the damp lasts for weeks beneath the feeble sunlight that manages to filter from the heavens. Darkness falls early on those days and the dawns are slow to return. It’s one of those looming mornings as I drive through Huger.

I think about the story of Samuel Seymore James often. Every grave I’ve visited since has evoked the memory: I see him kissing Edith Anne goodbye that late August morning and heading into the forest to find a secret fishing hole. I see the hurricane clouds and flooding winds, the oak branch that fell on him after he lost the path home in the darkness and rain. Edith finds his body herself. She buries him beneath the oak and spends everything she has on the gravestones. The few people who trekked into the wilderness to witness the ceremony said Edith refused to leave with them. She sat on the ground at her own gravestone, silent, tracing patterns on the smooth surface with her finger. She was broken, they said. So some stayed with her. But Edith Anne never got better. They built her a shelter and found her food and soon she was alone.

When one couple took it upon themselves to return from guilt, Edith Anne was gone. Two days later, the couple died in a house fire. A man traveling through the forest to Jamestown noticed small piles of stones which lead him to the grave; he camped at the site on the way up but he never returned home. His body was found beneath the oak. Just twenty years ago a Ranger found two Wiccan lovers dead on Edith’s grave. Visiting the grave now is a dare that few local children still rise to. But no one ever goes back twice.

And so the locals told me the story of Edith Anne James, alive still in that wilderness, caring for the gravestones and punishing those who leave her.

The locals told the story with such conviction that when I first stumbled to the site that long ago summer, I wanted to believe it as well, seeing those stones absolutely unaffected by the very same nature that attacked me every step I took toward the grave. There Samuel lies, below two shining white beacons of stone that defy degradation and decay. Edith Anne is there, too, somewhere, the magical source of that defiance. I wanted to believe that wave of loneliness crashing over me in my sweaty exhaustion was Samuel’s and Edith’s. I wanted to believe it all. But while that abject feeling of loneliness is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced since, my reverence for the story has waned. Evidence soon proved otherwise.

I found many examples in the literature of gravestones in near-perfect condition after over one hundred years, stones that nature just doesn’t touch, due to differences in material or local conditions or a variety of other rational variables. Despite decades and centuries of heat and floods and droughts and deep chills, despite the enduring press of nature upon all things in this world, there are exceptions immune to that press. There are things in existence that resist the inevitable laws of nature, and the grave of Samuel Seymore James appears to me to be one of those special examples. I’ve found other examples on every continent and within every other climate. There is evidence in this world our markers can endure those laws to which all other things must succumb. And isn’t that why we created gravestones in the first place? Preservation! Isn’t that wonderful enough in itself to justify returning through hell for a rubbing, despite a local legend and the natural part of me that still wants to believe that legend is true?

I think it is. I thought it was the moment I was contacted about the award and I still do as I see signs for the Wadboo Trail a few miles north of Huger.

The Wadboo Trail is an old horse path that meanders through the forest for fifty miles. It was cut out before the Revolution and farmers, travelers, and enthusiasts have been using it ever since. This is the main passage I will follow to reach the first pile of stones.

I park in the small gravel lot at the head of the trail, empty as last time. I sit basking in the final warmth I’ll have until the campfire I build tonight. The head of the trail is wide and paved in pine straw, but it soon narrows and becomes ribbed in places with exposed roots and fallen branches. Despite the hellish heat of my last trek, I enjoyed a brisk pace and admired the scenery until I left the trail at the first pile of stones, a rough footpath that’s noticeable if you know where to look. But after are the swamps and muck that pulled down on me like I was wading through hell with little hope of reaching the grave. Swamps tend to ebb in the winter, and I hope this is true today. From there, the land rises to dry and is choked with greenbriers and thickets to the grave site.

I’m going to camp through the night. There’s not enough sunlight in the day now to avoid it and hiking in the dark is unthinkable. I can reach the grave site well before dusk but I’ll return in the morning. I have two battery lanterns that will give me enough light to work in the dark, but with the fire I plan on building to stay warm, I may not need them.

I tug my hat over my ears and open the car door to pull on my stuffed backpack. The cold slaps my face. I can see my breath. The sound of crunching gravel radiates a few feet and dies close in the heavy air. There is no wind, but wind would be a mercy if it lifted these pressing clouds from my shoulders. I feel like I’m in a cold, grey box stuffed with cotton spun from the dampness. A mist seeps from the sodden ground. It’s as quiet as a fallen blizzard. I stand up straight, shrug my backpack right, and pass between the two short wooden rail fences that mark the cold beginning of the trail.

I can’t see the tops of the pines for the low clouds. The mist is so thick I can just make out a few magnolias scattered about the edges of the trail. All I can hear are my winter clothes swishing with my steps, my boots crunching the pine straw and dead leaves on the trail, and my heaving breath. I walk to the rhythm of these sounds and it takes my mind off the depressing conditions: I plan on making quick pace to the first marker. This will give me more time to navigate the swamp waters and will also keep my temperature up besides. I still shudder when I think about this hike in that hellish heat in the past, but I suspect this gross day will do its best to beat it.

In quick time, the first marker appears just as it was before. I find the footpath, but it’s more crooked and rugged than I remember.

The trees are older and closer together here. More oak and sweetgum. Spanish moss hangs like curtains from the branches; dank green moss and gray lichens grow between the bark. If I didn’t know those swamps still awaited I’d take my time to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle to breaking. But those swamps do await. So I do my best to follow the winding trail and keep the pace. My cheeks are numb and my lungs sting from the cold.

I am alone with my marching sounds. Swish, crunch, breath. Swish, crunch, breath. Now at the edge of my hearing, softer but higher pitched than my cadence, I can hear a pinging. As if someone struck a bright cymbal or triangle. I don’t know what is, but I incorporate the sound into my march. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. I fall into the rhythm and quicken my pace.

I trip on an exposed root. I grab a branch to steady myself, but it snaps off and I land on my hands and knees. One nub on the branch punctures the palm of my hand. It hurts like hell. I scream and the sound dies close, smothered by the mist and clouds. When I raise my hand to examine it, I leave a bloody handprint on the detritus and exposed roots.

The wound is deep. I wrap a bandage around my wrist to stave the blood. I clean the wound with water. A large splinter of the nub is still stuck. I yank it out and scream again. Soon, the bleeding slows and I dress the wound. It may not be enough, but I’m not stopping. The grave is too important. I start the hike once more.

I’m lost in the swamp. My wound has broken open. I’ve also twisted my knee. I don’t have time to stop now, not with dusk already settling in. Winter dusk is not like summer dusk. Especially on cold, disheartening days like today. In the summer, the colors dusk throws into the sky are brilliant: purples and reds and yellows tossed from below to bloom on the belly of the slow, darkening heavens. In the winter, dusk is more like closing your eyes to die; the light slowly fades in the gray until there is nothing left to see. And when the darkness finally comes, it comes quick. I should not rest, but I must. This hike has been far worse than my first.

It’s as if nature redoubled its efforts from long ago to prevent me reaching the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

The land rose and sank in places I could not remember. The footpath twisted through the dense woods in an unimaginable and illogical way, turning back upon itself and forking madly. It was more maze than trail. I could still find piles of stone markers, but there were fewer than I remembered and I found them at odd intervals. At one point I thought I saw someone sneaking in the mist. They didn’t answer my calls; I twisted my knee when I left the path to find them. Branches scratched at me and roots stubbed my feet. I finally stumbled to the edge of the swamp. And still, I could hear that ping, out there somewhere, hidden within the mist and clouds that enveloped everything.

I was exhausted. I forced myself deeper into the swamp. I couldn’t find the next stone marker. There was nothing but cypress trees and vines and that damned mist obscuring it all. I tried to find the source of the ping, but it was difficult to know the direction beneath those dampening clouds. I’ve been unable to find my way out of the swamp since, and now I don’t think I ever will.

I’ve torn something in my knee. Blood runs down my wrist, soaking the tourniquet. It drips from my fingers into the water when I rest my arm by my side. I can’t keep warm, no matter how hard I hug myself. I redress the wound in the dying light, but it won’t help. The bleeding won’t stop. And the pinging won’t either.

I rest on a small dry area between two cypress trees. I think of my favorite rubbings: the one from Boston; an eighteenth-century angel fighting Satan in Louisiana; a severe slab of marble from Boise, 1896-1945, with a tasteless joke and an etching to match. These were all fine examples, examples that need to be preserved, and any one of them or countless others were good enough to win one of those awards. I could’ve submitted any of them and won. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James called to me, and for that I am lost.

What would my gravestone look like, if someone should chance upon my body? I imagine aspects of each of those rubbings coalescing into my own gravestone, erected in my name, here. I’d have a witty epitaph. Something to make people laugh. Above my name, a quote on preservation and the innate need for humans to create things that remind us of those we miss the most. I imagine sculpted adornments and effects that would make anyone who stumbled upon it ask themselves: who the hell was bold enough to die out here? And, at moments, I imagine Edith Anne visiting my grave to keep the unrelenting weathering forces of nature and time at bay, as she did for her beloved these last two centuries.

I imagine these things and it makes me smile. But I know the truth. The only things that will mark my grave are my possessions and the small portion of my bones that don’t get carried off by alligators and other scavengers. Those things will mark my grave for a time, but nature will claim those, too, with hurricanes and floods and larger tides. I imagine this tiny island I lie on now will be gone in five years, and my bones and belongings will fall to the swamp, carried away to wherever nature wishes. Soon, there will be no trace I lived and died. There will be nothing to stop the weathering of my grave and no one near enough to preserve my existence.

This is why we build monuments to the dead, in hopes that we can defeat nature and, in a way, live forever. But that won’t happen for me. I die as we died before, when nature hid us from the universe as soon as it could and we didn’t know enough to do anything about it. Before henges and pyramids, before piles of stone.

There is little light left. The pinging is as fast as it’s ever been. My eyes are heavy. It’s no shame, to die like this. In the name of preservation, I tried. I look to the dusk horizon, as close as it is, and I hope to see a color. Any color but gray. Purple. Red. Yellow. Something. But all I see is that damned mist and those awful clouds above. I can’t tell if darkness is here or my eyes are finally closing. I’ve lost a lot of blood. The pinging stops. As the last bit of light leaves, I see something strange.

I fumble for my light and flick it on: it’s a white tube that wasn’t there before, propped against a nearby cypress.

I slide back into the cold water. My knee screams and I almost sink. I manage to hold the light on the object and I splash to it. It’s a plastic document tube. Written along its length, in black Gothic letters: Preservation of the Dead.

I carry it back to my island and set the light on the ground. I unscrew the cap. I pull the rolled cloth from the tube. It’s the rubbing of Samuel’s grave.

It’s my rubbing. My cloth, my color of wax, and my signature; Samuel’s name, date, and epitaph. It’s mine, except for a message written in the margin, in the same letters as on the tube: This is Your Award.

I’m not alone. I shine the light about. The clouds are lower. The mist swallows the light and spits it back at me. I hear a splash behind. I swing the light around; a figure wades into the mist. I shout, but it’s pointless; it doesn’t look back. I chase as fast as I can.

I can’t keep up and they won’t slow. My leg feels like it’s going to snap. I’m dizzy from losing blood. I keep the light enough to spot glimpses of the figure through the mist. I can’t scream anymore. I can barely breathe. If I falter, I won’t have the strength to continue.

The ground starts to rise. I claw my way onto land. There’s another document tube. Beyond, the figure stops. I crawl to the tube and twist it open. This time, I see the impression of two hands clasped, rubbed in red wax: Together in Eternity. In the margin, again: This is Your Award.

I beg for the figure to stop and to help me. Instead, it disappears into the mist. I roll over onto my back and try to scream at the clouds. My voice dies in my throat. I can’t tell if this is real or an irrational dream; I’m not certain I want to know. The ping starts once more. Clearer. Closer. I shine the light in the direction I know it’s coming from and I see a familiar pile of stones.

The grave isn’t far, now.

I force myself to my feet, but my leg gives and I fall. I crawl forward on my hands and knees. I hit snaking vines of greenbrier and deep thicket. The thorns catch my clothing and pierce to my skin. I can feel blood dripping from my head and ears. Vines wrap around my ankles, denying my efforts to continue. I pull myself, digging my hands in the soil and using roots like ladders. I hold fast to the light and I see a clearing. More vines seem to reach out at once to bar my way; they tangle my limbs and twist me around. A thorn stabs my throat. I am being torn apart. I bellow loud and pull as hard as I can. I squirt out onto the leaf-littered ground beneath the oak like I was pushed.

I crawl to the grave site. My body is throbbing. I imagine I look like some pathetic creature, spewed from nature like excrement from disgust. A thing that has no choice but to go where drawn. A mindless maggot seeking by instinct.

I shine the light at the grave.

The figure is hunched over Edith’s marker, striking the stone ping ping ping ping ping! Just behind it, on the ground, another document tube. A wave of absurd terror rolls over me and I want to weep. I know what awaits. I know, and still, I must see. I find a stick to prop myself to my feet and limp to my fate.

Ping ping ping ping ping!

The white cloth inside this tube isn’t mine, but I wish it were. As illogical as that seems, I wish it were.

There are words written once more: For Loving Samuel as much as I do. But above the epitaph, an image of my own face, as if the cloth was placed over my sleeping eyes and rubbed with some ethereal red wax while I dreamed impermanent things.

The pinging stops. The figure stands and turns. My light shines through it now, a spectre transparent like a fine mist rising from the ground. I cannot see if the creature is man or woman from the pulsating shimmer that springs up in a halo around it like dawn. But I know. In my bones, I know. It unleashes a sound of happiness so pure I wonder how it is that I was ever frightened of dying out here in the first place; my doubts of returning to the grave vanish in the flood. The rubbing was worth it. For Samuel, it was worth it.

And then Edith Anne reaches out and pierces my chest with an incorporeal hand. My heart seizes and I can’t breathe. I drop the light and fall to my knees as she screams in delight.

The last thing I see is my gravestone, pure white, next to Samuel’s. Name, date, epitaph: Dedicated Preservationist.

I wonder, will it weather?

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M. Luke Yoder is a writer from Charleston, SC. Email: mlukeyoder[at]gmail.com

On Second Thought…

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


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

I was savoring my first bite of fresh apple pie when a knock on the front door startled me.

Swallowing quickly, I flipped on the porch light, opened the door and Bill Canfield stood there smiling. He’s six-foot-four with thick brown hair, broad nose, high cheekbones and sad brown eyes. A paunch drapes generously over his belt. He and Louise are my only neighbors for miles along our stretch of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Hi, Bill,” I said. “What’s up? Come in out of the dark. Cup of tea? Piece of pie?” I held the door and he stepped inside.

“Oh, everything’s fine, Larry. I can’t stay long this time, so I’ll take a rain check on the pie. Just wanted to tell you I’ll be away for a few days. My dead brother’s wife’s got a problem with her father’s will—family squabbles, you know. They asked me to help straighten things out.”

“Sounds like a rough situation.”

“Yeah, kinda ridiculous too.” He shook his head slowly. “Here it is 1975, man’s been dead near two years and they still can’t agree on who gets what. Just wanted you to know where I’d be. Louise doesn’t get along with that side of the family so she’s stayin’ here.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say I won’t be around either, Bill. I’m heading out early tomorrow for a month in the Philippines. Hate to leave the same time as you, but… no choice.”

“I understand, Larry. You come and go on short notice. I’ll only be away for a couple of days; Louise can take care of herself. Got her plenty of groceries and there’s a pile of books she’s been dying to get at. She’ll be fine.” He turned and opened the door to the porch.

“OK, Bill. Good luck on your trip and hope you can get things sorted out.”

“Talk to you when you get back, Larry, and I’ll see to your grass.” He chuckled. “Good night.”

I switched off the porch light when Bill reached the dirt road. My piece of pie was waiting patiently on its plate.

*

My work in the Philippines was exhausting. So when I returned, I picked up mail, back issues of the local newspaper, and drove home. Shopping could wait. Pulling into the yard, I noticed my grass was almost knee-high. Bill’s lawn looked mowed but his car was gone.

My fridge was empty except for a can of beer. Unpack in the morning, I thought. Opening a package of cookies, I sat down at the table to scan the local news. The second page shocked me. Louise Canfield had died. I stared at the three-week-old obituary. Tears welled in my eyes. What would I— could I say to Bill?

I had a restless night. In the morning, Bill’s pristine metallic-green Chrysler was in the driveway and he was out raking under the tall pines. His large frame seemed smaller and moved a little slower. I watched through the window for a few minutes, mulling over what to say. Then I stepped outside and walked across the yard between our houses. Bill’s back was turned and he was scratching his rake on a shabby patch of lawn and pine tags.

“Don’t mean to sneak up on you, Bill, but how’s it going?” I said from a few yards away.

“Hi! How’re ya’ doin’, Larry? Welcome back!” His confident tone contrasted with the flustered look on his face.

“I’m fine! Beautiful afternoon. I, ah, read in the paper about Louise. So sorry I was away, Bill. How’re you holding up?”

His eyes filled as we shook hands. “Still pretty rough, I reckon,” he said with a shrug, letting go of his rake. It tilted slowly and thudded to the ground.

“Sure is a beautiful weekend, just the kind of weather for November.” My lighter tone fell flat.

Bill bent over, picked up the rake and leaned on the handle, droop-shouldered, mouth slacked at the corners. “She’s been gone over three weeks now,” he drawled, shaking his head slowly. “Still listen for her to tell me what to do—my scheduler, alarm clock, and director, all gone at once. Life sure is boring without her yellin’ at me. You know, I’ve overslept more lately than in the whole time we were married. That would be thirty-two years this January.”

“Long time…” I nodded.

“Remember I had to go away on that business with my sister-in-law?” Bill asked. “I told Louise I’d only be a couple of days. When I got there the lawyer said it’d take near a week. So I called Louise right away. No answer. Thought she might be outside so I waited and called again, still no answer. I had the car and she’d never leave with anybody else, once I was gone.”

“So I left right then, to hell with the lawyer. Drove all night, straight back; kept stoppin’ and callin’… no answer! Pulled into the yard early in the morning and spotted her first thing, layin’ out there under those trees beside the beach, buzzards circling.” He pointed to a stand of tall pines. “She must have died while I was on the road.”

He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

I stared at him—my mouth hanging open. The newspaper hadn’t mentioned that part of the story.

“Right here in my yard—my poor dead wife being picked over by buzzards and I had to come home to find her. I ran at ‘em. Scared ‘em off, but they kept circling. Got a blanket from the car to cover her just so I could go in the house to call somebody. It panicked me. I yelled and screamed at those birds, blubberin’ like a baby. I think about it when I’m alone—where was I when she needed me?”

“I’m sorry, Bill, I didn’t know. Thought she—”

“No, right there. Ain’t nobody around to find her this time of year, just summer places up the road, you know. She prob’ly had some scraps to throw back for the crabs… empty bowl beside her. Buzzards must’ve ate it and were about to start on her. Doctor said it was a massive heart attack.”

I looked away, drew a deep breath and wiped my eyes.

“It was awful,” he went on. “Neither of us have family in the area, you know, and she’s an only child. She meant the world to me, Larry. You never realize it ’til they’re gone. Doctor told me she didn’t suffer. I thank the Lord for that, but I never knew how much I’d suffer.”

“You two sure had a good life… a lot to be thankful for.”

He turned his head and stared across the two-mile width of flat, brown, mid-November bay.

“Know what I miss the most?”

“No, but it must be hard thinking back. You’re brave, Bill, don’t think I could do it.”

“Never know ’till it happens to you… can’t never prepare.” His voice trembled. “You know, she used to iron my— my undershorts and handkerchiefs. Now I don’t mean no harm but that’s what I miss… the little things. She took care of me and I wasn’t even here when she needed me most.”

A tear ran down his cheek to his chin. He let go of the rake handle and wiped his face with the back of his hand. The rake balanced then tipped slowly toward the water landing in the grass. He bent over, picked it up and leaned it against a tree.

“I’d worry when she was late coming back from the store, get mad at her. Not that she might get in an accident or something, but ‘cause she wasn’t here to cook my supper. She wasn’t here for me! Now I can get as mad as I want and it don’t do no good. That’s 32 years of thinking of myself!” He spread his arms wide and looked straight at me. “In the end, she checks out on her own, without me.”

“You know, when I went to the war in Korea, I feared I’d get…” He pointed below his belt buckle. “You know, shot off so I couldn’t use it anymore. I’d rather they shot me dead. Never thought about what it’d be like if she passed first. Just assumed I’d go first, like men mostly do. She was always there for me.”

“I wasn’t even here to see her go! Hell, I’d trade… you know what… to have her back for just an hour to say good-bye.”

“I miss our walks. No hand to hold. Not that we walked through the woods holding hands all the time, but now when I reach out, that hand’s not there. Blows me away!”

I nodded.

“You know I like to read the paper in the morning, front to back, ‘fore I ever get going and do anything. We’d sit there and I’d come across lines or stories—read ‘em out loud to her—get her ideas—talk about ‘em. Now I read to the goddamn walls—nobody there. We never had kids—maybe we shoulda.”

“I went fishin’ the other day. Got back to the dock and I let ‘em all go. Poured ’em outta the bucket right back into the water. Couldn’t bear to clean ’em. All I thought of was their relatives, how they’d be missed.” He shook his head. “Think I’ll ever get back to fishin’ again?”

“Louise, she was a real stickler about leaves and pine tags, remember? I’ve raked a couple of times since she died, not for me, but for her. Thought she might feel better, wherever she is. I feel close to her, out here raking her leaves. She’s here with me every day, right here in my heart.” He thumped his chest. “I know she is.” He kicked the dry pine tags. Silence settled with the dust.

“When she finished rakin’, we’d sit down and have a soda, you know, right over there on the lawn chairs,” he pointed. “They say you never know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Well, I’ve got nothing now.”

“You took care of her, Mr. Canfield, and she took care of you. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Watch out for each other… hope and care. Hope and care’s all we can give.” I placed my hand on his shoulder.

He lowered his head, shoved a hand in his pocket. “Yeah, she used to talk about that. Kept this sad-assed lawn clean hopin’ the grass would grow. You know you can’t grow decent grass this close to saltwater. But she hoped and now I reckon I’m continuin’ to hope for her. She’d be proud of the way I keep it all clean. Only one thing, though, when I’m done, there’s nobody waitin’ over there with a cold soda. She’d quit a minute or two before me, go get the sodas—her ginger ale and root beer for me—then we’d drink ‘em together, sittin’ right under that tree in those chairs.” His voice was thick.

All the chairs needed were Louise and Bill sitting in them, seats weighted down perilously close to the ground. She’d have her hands in her lap, ankles crossed in front of her. He’d cross his legs in the manly fashion, ankle atop the opposite knee. Sometimes he’d cock his arm behind his neck like a headrest.

“Keep working on the memories, Mr. Canfield,” I said softly, patting him on the back. “Pretty soon, you’ll be able to take comfort in ‘em. Now, I know you don’t drink, Bill, but there’s a cold beer back in my fridge and two glasses—one for you and one for me. You wait here and I’ll get ‘em.”

“Well, no thanks, Larry. I don’t drink, you know. Louise never approved. But I appreciate you thinking of me that way.” Then he tipped his head back and gazed up at the sky. The tops of the pines swayed in the wind. He drew a deep breath, slowly combing his fingers through his thick hair. Then he turned back to me. “On second thought, Larry, I think I would like one. We can sit in those chairs over there under the tree.“

I smiled, turned, and trotted back to my house.

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Louis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others. He has also been published online in Grey Sparrow, Wild Violet, twice in Toasted Cheese and in Zero-dark-30. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He currently lives and writes in Revere, MA. Email: abbey_louis[at]yahoo.com

Trapped in a Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Karen Davis


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

“Step right this way, sir! Win the little lady a stuffed animal of her choice!”

“Try your luck at the ring toss!

“Come see our two-headed cow, perfectly preserved for over fifty years!

“Come show your skills at the balloon dart throw! Everyone’s a winner!”

As the couple strolled down the midway, the sideshow barkers called to them with one attraction after another. The old man looked at his wife and smiled. After all these years, they still loved to people watch at one of the only surviving public events from their youth. They remembered going to carnivals together as kids, and it remained pretty much the same, even now. Freak shows, rigged games, mirrored houses, and rickety dizzying rides. It was a thrilling place to them, even though they knew there was a curtain that separated the magic of the place from the grim reality of the world.

There were crowds of young people walking along. A few of them were laughing, taking pictures of themselves together, and daring each other to try the various games and shows. The old man remembered what it was like, to be young and full of so much energy and enthusiasm. But many of the groups of people were trudging past the games without noticing, too busy looking down at their phones. The old man was sad for them. He was part of the last generation that had grown up without internet access, and he wished they could experience life the way he had. He sighed but then looked over at his wife and remembered the good life that he’d had with her.

As they were walking past one colorful attraction, he noticed a boy getting in line. It looked like he was trying to impress his young girlfriend by attempting to win the over-hyped contest.

“Test your powers of bravery and fortitude!” The man at the podium called to everyone walking by, while encouraging the boy to move forward to the front of the line. “Take a step back in time and see how you might survive the torture of the ages!”

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” the boy said with a mixed look of bravado and fear on his face.

“That’s a fearless young man!” the barker yelled to the crowd. And then he said quietly to the boy, “You sure you can handle it?”

The boy balked and then set his face to stone. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a joke, right? Of course I can handle it.”

“Fine. One ticket, please. You will remain inside the room until you ask three times to be let out. We will give you three chances so that you will be sure you want out. We wouldn’t want you to lose your chance just because you panicked.”

“Panic? Why would I do that? This is just a silly trick. There’s nothing in there that can scare me into wanting out.”

“Nothing, indeed, sir! I believe we may have our winner for tonight!” He gave a wide smile and a wink and gestured toward a small metal box that was built into the door. “Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The boy looked around with a smirk. “Why do I have to do that?”

“It’s for your own safety and for the integrity of the game, sir. Thank you very much!”

The boy emptied his pockets into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir.”

The boy looked at the phone in his hand and paused for a moment. He placed it in the box with his other items, and the man closed and locked it.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now just step inside the room of torture and see how you fare. Any man who can withstand this room is a brave soul, but the man who holds the record for the longest time in the room tonight will win free tickets to our main-stage show tomorrow night! Good luck to you, sir!”

With that, he closed the door behind the boy, who looked back one last time with confusion on his face as the door sealed shut.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this young man be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the boy’s friends looked at each other and smiled.

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“I want to come out now, please.”

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The young man has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

After another minute, there was another knock. “I really want out,” the boy called from inside the room.

“That’s two! Be brave, young man! We believe you can do it! Just another thirty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

At that point, there was a terrible commotion from inside the room. The boy was banging on the door and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! You’ve gotta let me out of here! I can’t stand it anymore!”

The man at the podium shook his head and opened the door.

The boy stumbled out of the room, looking disoriented. His face was flushed, and his hands were shaking.

His friends looked at him wide-eyed. “What was it? What was in there that was so scary? Is it another person? Did they hurt you? What? Tell us! What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he whispered as he quickly gathered his belongings from the small metal box.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? It’s just a gag, right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just… can we leave now?”

“Well, why were you screaming then?”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he yelled at his friends. He walked away, and his friends followed as they made their way toward the exit of the carnival.

The old man who had been watching turned to his wife and asked, “Should I try it? It can’t be that bad, right? He was just a kid. They probably spooked him with some flashing lights and fake monsters or something.”

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “That kid looked pretty freaked out. Do you think your body could take that kind of stress?”

He looked at his wife and frowned. With his recent health problems, a lot of the fun things in his life had been taken away. This would be just one more thing that he couldn’t enjoy like he used to.

As they were talking, another man walked up to the podium. He was in his thirties and was looking at his phone with an irritated expression until he stopped in front of the podium.

“One ticket, please,” the barker told him.

“What is this anyway?” the young man asked.

“A simple test of your manhood, sir! See if you can withstand—”

“Okay, okay. Whatever. Here’s my ticket. What do I do now?”

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

“Okay, let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” the barker scolded. “Don’t forget to put your cell phone in the box.”

The man dropped his phone in with a huff.

“Good luck, honey!” the young man’s girlfriend called from the line. She was laughing at him as he entered the room. “He hates this stuff,” she told the old man’s wife as they watched the door close for a second time.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the young man’s girlfriend looked at the older couple and smiled nervously. “He really does hate these types of things. I’m surprised he agreed to do it.”

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

The girlfriend spoke again. “I thought he would come out by now. He just wants to prove me wrong. I told him he wouldn’t last more than a minute.”

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Let me out,” the man called forcefully.

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The gentleman has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

Immediately, there was another knock. “Let me out, I said!” He sounded angry and fearful.

“That’s two! Be brave, sir! We believe you can do it! Just another sixty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

“Get me out of here, or I’m going to sue!” the man roared from inside the room.

The barker cleared his throat and opened the door, making sure to take a quick step back so the young man could rush out of the room. He was breathing heavily, gulping down the air as if he’d been deprived of it for the last couple of minutes.

“Where are my things?” he demanded.

He was shown the open box where he hastily grabbed his belongings and stomped off down the midway with his girlfriend following in a panic.

“Are you okay, honey? What happened? Did they suck all the air out of the room?”

“Of course not! Don’t be silly! Let’s just get out of this stupid place.”

“Don’t be mad at me, please! It was supposed to be funny! I’ll never make you do anything like that again!”

The young couple could be heard arguing until they were out of sight as they left the carnival.

The old man and his wife looked at each other in disbelief. What could possibly be so terrible in that room? The second person had been a grown man and was clearly disturbed when he left the room.

The old man’s wife shook her head. “I don’t think you should do it. I don’t want to take any chances. If these young people can’t withstand whatever is in that room, how will you do it? I don’t mean to insult you, but I also don’t want to risk your health.”

The old man looked at the small, colorful building and then back at his wife. He had a look of determination on his face. “I’m going to do it,” he declared to her.

After all, what was living if there were no risks to be taken. Plus, he was older and wiser than those other two. Surely, he would be able to see through the illusion of whatever scary thing was being done or seen in that room. He was smarter than those other two and was sure he could do it.

His wife begged him, “No, you don’t have to. I already know you’re brave. You’ve done so much over all these years. You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“But I can win,” he told her. “I’ve never been very good at games and contests, but I really do believe I can win this one.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“No, but it’s just a carnival game. How bad can it be?”

She looked at him and wished he would change his mind, but she knew there was nothing she could say now to make him do that. Once he got that look on his face, he was determined that he would succeed. She had learned over the years to trust him when he decided to do something. She knew that he wouldn’t do anything too dangerous. She knew that he would never do anything that could hurt him or her.

She felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, probably because of his recent health diagnosis. She had tried to shelter him so much more recently. She had tried to stop him from taking any risks that could damage his health. Maybe she had done too much to get in the way of his ability to live his life and to be the man he wanted to be. Maybe this would be a good chance to show him that she trusted him and that she believed in him.

“I’m going to do it,” he said again.

She smiled at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she said as she gave him a small kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. “I know you will.”

He turned confidently and walked up to the barker who was grinning at their overheard conversation. He put his face close to the old man’s ear and whispered, “That’s a good woman you have there. And I think she’s right. I think you can win this one. One ticket, please.”

The man gave him his ticket.

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The old man put his wallet, comb, and pocketknife into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir?”

“Phone? No, I didn’t bring it tonight. The only person I need to call is here with me.”

The barker gave him a strange smile and waved him into the room. As the door closed, the old man turned around to look at his wife, confused for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face.

He could hear the barker outside calling to the crowd, “The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes! Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

The man looked all around the room, which was dimly lit, to see if there was anything that might open to allow a “monster” to come into the room to scare him. He saw nothing. It was simply a white-painted metal room with no windows and no doors except the one he had come through. There was nothing.

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

But the the metal box in the door began to hum. It had the sound of a cell phone ringing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He hadn’t put anything electronic into the box, so he wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from.

After a minute, the barker called again, “Will this man be our winner tonight? Can he withstand the torture of this time-travelling room of the ages?”

The metal box vibrated again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

*What was that sound?*

Ninety seconds, and he could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. The noise of the people was muffled, but there were many voices of concern and fascination.

At two minutes, the man thought about the fact that there was nothing in the room. Nothing except that infernal buzzing. He wondered why on earth this would be tortuous to anyone.

At three minutes, he got bored and started daydreaming. He thought about the first carnival he ever went to. He had gone with his friends, and they had very little money between them. They had tried some of the contests on the midway and had lost every time. They hadn’t been told that so many of the games were rigged and that their money would have been better spent on spinning rides or cotton candy or popcorn. He had won one time—one of the easier games—and his prize was a plastic ring. He had given the ring to a girl at school who had blushed and run away.

At seven minutes, the man could hear the crowd growing larger and more agitated. The buzzing in the door continued, but he was able to ignore it as he thought again about times he had been to the carnival before. He had taken his wife to one when they were young and foolish, but he had learned some of the tricks of the contests and knew which ones he would lose and which ones he could win. She had come home with a giant smiling stuffed bear that night, and she had kissed him for the first time on her doorstep before she stepped inside, smiling back at him through the window in the door.

He smiled to himself now, thinking about how lovely she had looked that night, and how she was still that girl to him. He thought about her standing on the other side of this metal door and wondered if she was still proud of him today.

At twelve minutes, the barker yelled loudly, to draw more attention to “the marvel behind these walls, the man who could do the impossible!” He didn’t feel like he was doing anything spectacular, but if standing in this little room made him a hero to his wife, he would stay in as long as they would allow him to.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

It reminded him of a time, not so very long ago, when his phone sat buzzing on the kitchen table. When he had gotten the call from his doctor with that awful diagnosis. He hadn’t known that words could bring a man to his knees like that. He wasn’t worried for himself. He only cared about how it would affect his family.

He did everything the doctors suggested, every treatment that was available. Nothing seemed to work. He had resolved to die gracefully and without all the hysteria. But one day, he went to an appointment and his doctor said he was getting better. He said that the man might even be fine for a very long time. He had thought it was impossible, a miracle. It was unusual, but it did happen occasionally. His doctor told him, it was like winning the lottery. He had told his doctor that he’d never won anything like that in his life. And his doctor told him maybe he should try his luck more often.

At seventeen minutes, the man began to wonder how long he had been in that metal room. It didn’t seem like very long, but his mind had been wandering so he wasn’t sure.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He looked at the box and thought about the boy and the young man who had been in this room before him. They had been panicked, afraid, anxious to get back out into the world. To have their things in their pockets again. To get out of this dream world and back to their well-documented realities where they could escape almost anything at the touch of a button.

He had no need to escape. He was right where he wanted to be, in this strange little room with a buzzing metal box and a head full of memories. He was sad for those other two and also for the one who had set the three-and-a-half-minute record earlier in the evening—if he really did exist at all. He wished those others could have been comfortable in this place, locked in with themselves, but he guessed that was just too much to ask of some people. Or maybe of most people. He didn’t know because he had his small circle of people who concerned him, and the rest were of no consequence to his daily life. And he was of no consequence to theirs.

At eighteen minutes, there was a knock on the door. “How are you doing in there, sir? Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” The barker grinned at his clever techniques for getting the crowds riled up.

The old man’s wife had a worried look on her face, and she stepped forward to confront the barker.

“Let him out,” she told him forcefully.

“But he hasn’t called to be let out yet. I have to give him three opportunities—”

“You open that door this very minute!” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” he complied.

He opened the door to find the man standing in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. The crowd that had gathered gawked at him with their eyes wide and their mouths gaping.

The woman asked her husband, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call to be let out? I thought something terrible had happened to you.”

The man just looked at her and kept smiling. “I’m fine. You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been around long enough. I can handle pretty much anything.”

The barker seized the opportunity. “Come one! Come all! See the man who can endure the strangest and most debilitating torture our century of technology has ever cooked up! He stayed in this ancient room of torture for eighteen minutes! That’s, right, eighteen minutes! Do you think you can do better?! Come and see! Test your mettle in this impossibly horrific room! Who can do it? You, sir? Can you do it? Can you?”

As the old man and his wife walked away, he held his head high, proud to know that he was a man who would not be tortured by his own mind.

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Karen Davis is a short story writer from Knoxville, TN. Email: davisflyer.karen[at]gmail.com