Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Photo credit: atmtx/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“When are you going to tell him that you don’t like magic?” Dot questioned as she flipped through the channels. Dot sat, as always, cross-legged on her beloved ottoman.

“I am not sure that is something he ever needs to know.” Maggie and Sam were a new item. Maggie had fallen in love (well, strong like) with Sam for his hangdog expression and, in part, the sheer geekiness of his embrace of legerdemain. She loved rescues, just not the animal variety.

“Why is he in small town Easton if he is trying to get his career going?”

“He is honing his craft.” Maggie replied as she sank into the sofa opposite Dot.

“He is honing something.” Maggie threw a pillow at Dot and dug into the kettle corn that Dot had brought back from the Farmer’s Market.

Maggie and Dot had been roommates for long enough to have been through a few Mr. Rights for both. They were waiting tables in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in town. Maggie was taking classes at Chesapeake College for the time being. Sam had joined the circle when he came on as a cook at the Kitchen Table. After watching the news recap, Maggie and Dot got ready for work.

On the way in for the dinner shift, the three wandered into the Gallerie de Folie, one of Easton’s ritzier boutiques. They giggled as Sam re-arranged what appeared to be ceramic Lego people. “Which hand is it under?” he said in traditional magician patter.

The salesperson was not amused. “Kindly do not touch the objets d’art,” she commanded. The three philistines left the store duly chastened, almost not laughing at all as they headed to the Kitchen Table.

“Did you see the price on those? One hundred dollars each! Insane!” Dot remarked.

Colleen had started the Kitchen Table as an homage to home cooking. Easton was a small town full of retired people who love to eat out. It was a good place to launch a business, but could be risky in the long term. The Kitchen Table was a little kitschy—avocado refrigerator laden with magnets and children’s art near the entrance, waitresses in robes and moccasin slippers. Her concept might have sold better with a slightly younger demographic but things were coming along. Thursday nights were meatloaf night—a popular night. Her staff rolled in at 3:30 and started their prep work.

As they worked, Maggie and Sam grinned at each other over the counter separating the actual kitchen from the front of the house. Colleen and Dot rolled their eyes at each other. Colleen went over the specials based on what she had found at the Farmer’s Market that day.

Around 4:30, people started shuffling in. And then more and more. Soon they were in the weeds and the side conversations stopped.

Maggie enjoyed working with most of the customers. She figured the small talk and smiles were good practice for her future as a nurse. Having a fun group to work with made it that much better. A busy night did not just mean extra money; it meant the time rolled by faster.

As the evening wound down, Officer Smith strode into the restaurant. Dot looked up as the door swung open. “Officer Wiggum. How are you today?” Officers were given complimentary coffee to encourage their presence.

“Is that a comment about my superior physique,” Officer Smith said, patting his slight paunch ,”or my superior intellect?” Middle age was starting to soften the edges of Officer Smith, and as tough as it could be on his vanity, he found he liked himself a little better as a person for it. He walked in and helped himself to a cup of coffee at the counter. He chuckled as he added milk from the full gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He smiled at “You guys do really capture the kitchen table experience.”

“We aim to please,” called Colleen from the kitchen.

“What’s new in the law and order business?” Maggie asked.

“Actually, we have a case,” Smith announced.

“In Easton?” said Maggie and Dot in unison.

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

“No way,” Sam said, walking out of the kitchen to get himself a coffee.

Three people had reported their wallets stolen this afternoon. Sam made an exaggerated reach for his back pocket. “I still have my wallet but all my money seems to be gone,” he said brandishing the empty wallet with mock horror.

“You didn’t have anything there to start with,” retorted Maggie.

“Oh, right,” said Sam as he retired to the kitchen.

“Pickpocketing seems to fit with your skill set, Mr. Magic,” said Dot archly.

“Sure, blame the new guy,” he shot back.

“You are stealing too much of my roommate’s time,” complained Dot. “That alone makes you a thief.”

The conversation took a turn toward other pressing Easton gossip as they cleaned up and closed up for the night. Their laughter echoed on the empty street as they headed home. All talk of the robberies was forgotten. The magic of a quiet, small town night was restored.

“Check it out,” Maggie announced the next day as she was entering the apartment with a copy of The Star Democrat. “There has been another robbery. One of the objets d’art from Gallerie de Folie. I don’t know if I feel safe living in Easton any more. I mean, the crime.”

“Like you have anything to steal. Wait, you mean the shop we were in yesterday?” Dot scrutinized Maggie’s face. Maggie could feel herself blushing. She knew exactly what Dot was thinking: Sam. But there was no way that awkward, bumbling man-child was a stone-cold criminal. No way. She rolled her eyes and went back to her homework.

Later in the restaurant, Colleen broached the subject awkwardly with Maggie after Maggie could have sworn she saw a glance fly between Colleen and Dot. “So, how much do you know about Sam?”

“We’re not getting married yet,” Maggie shot back a little more aggressively than necessary. She looked at Colleen’s worried eyes peering out under salt and pepper bangs. The concerned scrutiny made her squirm guiltily. How much did she know? But then, how much did she really know about Colleen or Dot or even herself? Maggie’s thoughts ran in philosophical rivulets, allowing her to evade the question at hand momentarily.

“Did you know that Sam is not even his real name?” Colleen’s question yanked Maggie back into the practical, concrete present.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is not his first nor middle name. It is not even a version of his last name—McGill.”

“How odd,” said Dot entering from the kitchen and staring pointedly at Maggie. Maggie kept rolling silverware in napkins.

Since Sam was not working that night, and the restaurant was slow, the thought was able to fester and send noxious tentacles into Maggie’s thoughts. Her mind developed labyrinthine plots that alternately indicted and exonerated him.

Sam showed up to walk Maggie home. Dot had left early since it was a slow night.

Why do you go by Sam?” Maggie asked hoping to sound casual, as if she had not spent the last four hours trying to decide how to ask.

Sam blushed. “Well, I adopted it as a kid because I thought I should have a stage name.”

“Why Sam?”

Sam hesitated. “It is so geeky. I thought I was being clever. It stands for the Society of American Magicians.”

Maggie’s laughter rang out against the brick walls. Her relief made her want to applaud as if he had just pulled off a masterful sleight of hand. Then she felt ashamed at the thought of the wasted anger and fear of the past few hours spent inventing reasons simultaneously to fear Sam and to be angry at him. All was right in her little world.

The following Wednesday was Sam’s stage debut at the Avalon Theater. Maggie sat next to Dot in the small theater, and the newly minted girlfriend was possibly more nervous than the performer. With her eyes, she followed the art deco design up the wall along the stage and over the stage and down the other side. Circle, triangle, flower… how do people generate these random designs? Do I even like these colors together? How did they pick the colors? What if he is awful? Should I be honest? I really don’t even like magic, and I am picky about comedy. Her thoughts fluttered around like leaves, unable to cluster and form a critical mass needed to start a conversation.

Mercifully, Dot excused herself to go to the restroom. Maggie could just sit and let her mind spin for a few minutes. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her. A classmate called and waved from the balcony, and Maggie managed a wave and smile. When would this show start? When would it end? Dot made her way back across the room. Maggie could see her wiggling her way through the conversations straddled across the aisles. Then Dot was back, and the house lights were going down.

Sam tripped onto the stage. Literally. That was part of his thing. Every ounce of his awkwardness was poured into his stage persona. Tricks went horribly awry to emerge as a different, still awesome, trick. And there was a collective holding of the breath as the audience decided. Maggie could not hear his spiel. She could only feel the room deciding. She almost held her breath. There were a few awkward, pity laughs. And then suddenly, magically, roars of laughter and the occasional gasp and round of applause. They had decided. They liked him. And she could relax and enjoy the show.

Maggie and Dot had planned to meet Sam at the bar next door after the performance. Maggie watched Sam work through the crowd over to them. He shook hands with people congratulating him on his show, remarking on some random detail they had in common, and asking fruitlessly how he performed this or that trick. He grinned at her. She grinned back and raised her wine glass.

Meanwhile, near the bar there was a disturbance. A woman was yelling ,”I know I had my wallet. Somebody here stole it! You need to check them.”

“Ma’am, I can’t search everybody at the bar,” the police officer was calmly explaining. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at home accidentally?”

“I think that is our cue to leave,” Sam said, arriving at Maggie’s side.

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

The three headed out the back door into the relative quiet of the night time street. Maggie enjoyed that hush, that release of pressure on the ears that always accompanies leaving a crowded bar. She was not really a crowd person and was glad her compatriots had been ready to leave. But later in her bed she wondered—had Sam had an ulterior motive for wanting to leave?

A few days later, Maggie got back to her apartment from jogging to see an officer on her stoop. “We are asking you to come down to the station; we have a few questions.”

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

Maggie grabbed her purse and followed the officer. She answered the questions that seemed to be about everybody from the restaurant. She giggled a little at the thought of grandmotherly Colleen pickpocketing the well-heeled gentry of Easton. The officer did not seem amused. It just seemed so absurd that anybody in her circle could be involved in the recent spate of robberies — Sam’s skill for sleight of hand notwithstanding. But they kept circling around to questions about Sam. And Maggie couldn’t help feeling that they knew something that they were not telling her. If he was a risk, shouldn’t they tell her?

On the way out, Maggie saw them escorting Sam in. He gave her a sheepish shrug. She spent the ride home deconstructing that shrug. Does he know something? Was he admitting guilt? Did he just assume as Maggie did that the whole thing was misguided?

Maggie went home and showered and sat glumly at the kitchen table trying to study. Dot came in and slumped across from her. “So, they questioned you, too?” She asked.

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

“Small towns are magical, aren’t they?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing. I kind of like it. Finally, something interesting is happening here. Maybe thanks to your boyfriend.” Dot flounced off to the shower.

Maggie sat drowning in confusion and terror. Sam texted her and she ignored it. What am I supposed to think? She asked herself. She tried to convince herself to study and stared unproductively at her text books. For an hour. Then another hour.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. Maggie answered it to find a sea of police officers.

Confused, Maggie assumed they were there for Sam. “I swear he did not do anything. And he is not even here.”

“We know. It’s Dot.” They were already swarming past Maggie ,”Dorothy Detrich, you have the right to remain silent.” Maggie watched feeling underwater as officers flooded her apartment.

“We had you all under surveillance from early on,” explained Officer Smith, the one friendly face in the swarm. “And we really thought it was Sam, but then a review of some of the surveillance tape showed that Sam was not even at the Farmer’s Market on one of the days with the most thefts. Luckily the tape surfaced because he did not have an alibi. You were in class. We checked with your professors.”

“How…” Maggie’s jaw yanked on its hinges as she watched the officers pull the stolen items out of the ottoman, the very ottoman Dot sat on daily. Maggie consciously closed her mouth and stared in amazement asking silently how her roommate had done it, seemingly right in front of her.

“Ta da,” announced Dot, taking an awkward bow as they led her away in handcuffs. “It’s magic!” And Maggie’s mind went through all the times her mind had attributed guilty motives to Sam when Dot had done or said the same things. Sometimes it was Dot herself misdirecting like any good magician. What a trick.

Maggie’s phone lit up with another text from Sam: Why aren’t you answering? Are you okay?

“Hard to say,” she thought as she watched her roommate leave in cuffs.

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Jennifer is a teacher, mother and wife who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she arrived by way of New Jersey,  France, Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana. She has been published once before in Toasted Cheese.  Email: jpantusa[at]talbotschools.org

Fetch the Tuna

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jason Porterfield


Photo credit: petrr/Flickr (CC-by)

Gordon Charles always tried to make an immediate impression whenever he stepped out in front of an audience. It mattered to him if there was a crowd, and it mattered to him that their eyes turned to him.

He dressed for the attention. A purple cape spilled from his shoulders to nearly brush the floor. His suit was the bright orange of a roasted butternut squash and clashed gloriously with the scarlet fedora that crowned his stringy dark hair. Tiny bells concealed in the cape jingled as he swooshed in and assumed center stage.

Today’s stage happened to arrive at Belmont, southbound for Fullerton and onward through Chicago’s Loop, to Chinatown and Hyde Park before terminating at 95th Street. Not that he would go that far on the Red Line. He usually got off after the train left the Loop, sometimes at Roosevelt, sometimes at Chinatown. Every now and then he would go all the way to 35th Street to catch the crowds going to White Sox games. He called the run his Mobile Baseball All-Star Magic Show.

Gordon didn’t always make it down that far. Sometimes riders were indifferent or outright hostile, jeering at his card tricks, his vanishing scarves, or at Little Gus, the fuzzy black cat who rode on his shoulder and played a key role in the show. Or riders called the police on him. Or train operators called the police on him. Or the police simply happened to be around and noticed him.

It was hard to hide while wearing an orange suit and a purple cape. If they didn’t notice the colorful attire, officers were sure to hear the bells. He became swift and agile in moving from car to car, weaving through the crush of passengers and up the stairs to the street.

He always called these brushes with law enforcement his greatest trick, announcing it to his audiences the minute he spotted law enforcement on a station platform.

“My last trick is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!” he would declare to the riders, whether they put a few dollars in the fedora and applauded or booed and threw things at him. Then through the doors, whether the main ones or one of the forbidden, between-car passageways to elude capture. Up and out. Swift and nimble. He was home-free as soon as he hit the street.

In the months he had worked this route, he had never been caught. There were some close calls, and there were times when he had to retreat from the Red Line in favor of the Brown or Purple lines on the elevated tracks. A cop almost grabbed Gus once, but the little cat ducked out of his grip. Another once blocked the stairway in front of Gordon, only to have the magician winkle under his grasping arm, the cape fluttering up into the cop’s face and causing him to lose his balance. He had sacrificed more than one of his props over time. They could be replaced and new tricks learned.

His favorite working time was four p.m. The trains weren’t yet crowded with work commuters. Instead, the riders were mostly tourists or people going to or returning from some attraction. Or they were fans going to games or leaving games. He liked the tourists best. It was easy to get children interested in his cups as he played the game out on a little folding table that he would extract from the depths of his cape. They followed the ball from one to the next, never spotting the moment he palmed it and always amazed that it wasn’t under any of them. Gus would purr on his shoulder.

He had one trick he perfected with Gus. Patience and long hours of hard work were required before they got it right, and there were still times that it didn’t work right.

He called it Fetch the Tuna. He would place Gus on the El car’s floor and call out “Fetch the tuna!” and the little cat would scamper through the car, all the way to the back. Even people who weren’t engaged in his cups or his cards would turn to watch the cat’s progress, giving the magician several seconds in which to slip wallets out of the back pockets of any standing riders near him. His subtle touch never failed him. The wallets disappeared into the folds of his cape before anyone noticed.

Gus would return from his charge through the train car to leap high into Gordon’s arms. The magician would exclaim “Good kitty!” and proceed to pull a long scarf decorated with a fish-print pattern from the cat’s ear to general applause. Even hostile audiences were typically impressed with that one. It usually functioned as the show’s finale and he would get off at the next stop. There was no point in hanging around long enough for the lucky riders to realize they had been robbed.

“It keeps you in wet food, little friend,” he would tell Gus. Gus didn’t really need Gordon to justify the trick. Gus was fine with the cat food, litter, catnip, and assorted toys that their riches brought them. “It’s just until I land myself a stage show. We’ll be under the lights, in front of a paying audience!”

Fetch the Tuna was turning out to be a lucrative trick. Gordon didn’t always have a chance to stage it due to police activity, hostile riders, or Gus’ occasional recalcitrance. If Gus refused to run, Gordon would produce a cat treat from his pocket and use that to tempt the cat into his arms. The trick could then proceed as usual, but without the pocket-picking that made it so worthwhile.

It was following one of those incidents that Gordon had his first talk with Benny Chain. He and Gus pulled off the abbreviated Fetch the Tuna, the audience applauded them he picked up a hat laden with coins and bills when a nicely dressed man standing nearby introduced himself.

Gordon was initially unnerved. Benny Chain had been one of his prospective marks. Gordon had already noted the position of Chain’s wallet (right rear pocket) shape (slender bi-fold) and speculated on its contents based on Chain’s suit (gas station card, platinum credit card, loyalty card from a yuppie grocery, ID, insurance card, and $320 in cash that would be used to tip valets, waiters and doormen). At first he panicked, wondering if Chain somehow read his thoughts and was about to pound him into a brightly colored paste. But Chain was smiling broadly and offering a broad, manicured hand to shake.

Gordon extended his own, noting the number (three) and size (huge) of the jeweled (diamond, diamond, ruby) rings on Chain’s fingers and the gold watch (Patek Philippe) on his wrist as they made contact. Chain’s hand was soft and his grip strong, that of a man who worked out in the gym and wore gloves while hitting the weights.

A card sharp, Gordon decided. A fellow tradesman whose fingers were sensitive enough to detect subtle bumps on the back of each card in a deck, distinguishing suits and values based on their pattern.

Chain introduced himself and Gordon returned the favor, while Gus took up his usual position on Gordon’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented man, Mr. Charles,” Chain said as Gordon tucked his little table, cups, and cards into his cape’s many pockets as the train pulled into Grand. The hat probably had $40 in it, he calculated as he stuffed the money in place. Not terrible for a five-stop ride without the full Fetch the Tuna. “How do you feel about getting paid for a little private performance?”

Chain had Gordon’s full attention at “paid.”

“How private?” he managed to ask calmly as he passed through the doors and into the station with Chain at his left elbow.

“It’s a very exclusive party,” Chain said, dropping his voice to a low whisper. “These are people you want to know. They can open doors for you.”

Visions of entertaining appreciative audiences who actually paid at a box office to see magic danced through Gordon’s mind. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to not have to board trains, dodge the police, and pick pockets to get by. He and Gus could shop for real, without most of their excursions to the grocery store serving as opportunities to shoplift desirable commodities such as fresh broccoli and cans of tuna. Maybe he could move out of his basement apartment, the one that his landlord had illegally rehabbed in a building that certainly wasn’t adhering to the latest dictates of the city’s building codes.

Success means different things to different people. To Gordon, it meant living a little further away from the ragged fringe of society and paying his utility bills on time.

“I like this idea, Mr. Chain.”

“Benny. You call me Benny and we’ll get along great. You call me Mr. Chain and I’ll start looking over my shoulder to see if my gramps is behind me.”

“Okay, Benny. I am very interested in your proposal. I am, as you see, a working magician. Every magician wants to be noticed. We want bigger audiences. You saw where I perform. The idea of doing magic in a place that doesn’t move really appeals to me. I would appreciate this opportunity very much.”

Chain beamed. “Magnificent!” He clapped Gordon on the back. Gus clung to the cape as the blow pushed Gordon forward. Chain handed him a business card. “Call this number tonight. You’ll receive detailed instructions. They’ll also give you a quote on a fee for your services. It will be generous. I recommend that you accept it without haggling. Remember, these people can open doors for you.”

Three days later, Gordon stepped out of a hired car and onto a sidewalk with a briefcase containing his paraphernalia. Gus rode on his shoulder, as usual. The driver glared at the cat as they got in, but didn’t say anything. Or he could have been glaring at Gordon, who was dressed exactly as he ordinarily would for one of his El performances. Half of the money for the show had already been wired to his bank account. He had already made more on this show than he often made in a year. He wouldn’t let these people down.

He was in Lincoln Park, not far from the Red Line that kept him fed. The lake was east, its harbor full of boats that cost as much as homes in other parts of the city. This street was steps from the park itself, with its lagoons, nature areas, and zoo. He wondered if this job could eventually lead to him living in a neighborhood like this, alongside doctors and lawyers and bankers.

The home he was performing in was aggressively modern, its three-story facade a ringing endorsement of natural stone and reflective, polarized glass. A man with a polo shirt emblazoned with a logo matching the one on Chain’s business card ushered him inside and through a long hallway to a room that in more formal times would have been called a ballroom. Gordon gave in to the old habit of noting exits as he walked through, his eyes taking in the edgy abstracts lining the walls and the sculptures on every surface.

A quick mental headcount told him there were more people milling about in this room than could fit comfortably in three El cars. He brought his things to what appeared to be the front, where his back would be to the French doors leading out into the backyard. A phalanx of Benny Chain’s associates were preparing food and serving drinks out there as guests drifted in and out, enjoying unfettered access to the patio.

He set up, checked his equipment, and glanced at his watch. Three minutes until showtime. Gus nuzzled his neck and he gave the little cat a treat from up his sleeve. He noted Chain’s associates ushering people into the room and the chairs lined up on the floor. Definitely more than three train cars of people. Maybe a whole Friday afternoon train’s worth of people. Gordon experienced a small flutter of nervousness that he quickly repressed with visions of not having to filch wallets and groceries.

The watch ticked down to seven p.m. Everyone was seated. The French doors closed. He was pretty sure Chain’s people were locking them. A more captive audience than usual, he mused. Chain’s people ranged around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the doors. Some were in the halls. He watched one remove a painting. Another pair hefted a bronze statue and began dragging it down the corridor toward the entryway.

The nervousness returned and congealed into dread. He had been recruited into a robbery crew.

“How’re we gonna play this, little friend?” he whispered to Gus. Gus nuzzled him again. More treats, he seemed to be saying. The best way to handle adversity was to eat more treats.

“Good thinking, most valued assistant!” Gordon told the little cat. He rang his bell and all eyes turned forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled!” he announced. His voice boomed in the massive room. “You will see things tonight that you will never see again!”

He performed with fluid grace, the cape billowing and the orange suit seeming to glow as cards flashed, cups moved and items vanished, only to reappear. Fetch the Tuna worked like never before, as Gus made a circuit of the vast space, the audience and the workers alike following the cat’s progress and giving Gordon ample time to unlatch the door behind him. They roared their approval as Gus leaped into his arms and he pulled the scarf from his assistant’s ear.

“Oooh boy, this cat has some serious fish breath!” Gordon announced. “Maybe it’s time to clear the room. What do you think?” They applauded. He took a deep breath. “This one is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!”

The lights went out.

Gordon was sprinting east to the lakefront when they came on again, Gus secured inside his cape. He didn’t hear the roar of applause, or the murmur of confusion that followed when he didn’t reappear. He didn’t see Chain’s people scramble around, looking for the vanished magician. Nor did he see the event’s host realizing that the caterers were trying to make off with millions in inscrutable art, or the cops coming in to arrest Chain and the crew.

No one remembered anything about the magician, other than the colorful clothing.

They slowed at the lake. Gordon took Gus from his pocket and the little cat assumed his usual position on the magician’s shoulder.

“Maybe we’ll try one of those improv theaters that hosts talent nights next, little friend,” he said to Gus. “It was nice to be still for a while.”

Gus nuzzled his neck and was rewarded with a treat.

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Jason Porterfield is a journalist, researcher, and writer living in Chicago. He is still looking for the ace of spades he made disappear when he was in elementary school. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com

One of Wyeth’s Two-Hundred-and-Forty-Seven

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jay Bechtol


Photo credit: Heather Phillips/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their indifference thickens. A kid in the back row shouts an insult. Nothing too clever, something about a rabbit. Or maybe how the rabbit escaped. Doesn’t matter. The party magician is paying more attention to the minute hand on the big grandfather clock in the corner. It crawls toward the six. Three minutes to go.

He pulls the two ropes between his thumb and forefinger, ensuring they show equal length, and snips one in half.

“Can’t wait to see him put it back together,” comes from the back row, the sarcasm as obvious as the trick he is performing.

The scissors, six inches of curved stainless steel reflect the purpling sky coming in through the open French doors. All of the adults outside in the garden drinking, getting a break from the kids. He snicks the blades apart and looks across the pond of young faces. Folding chairs holding the young birthday party attendees hostage. Most sit hoping the juggler is better, a few watch with interest. A line of tweens in the back push smirks onto their faces. He scans the back row trying to figure out which of the young punks is the heckler, chooses the girl in the middle, the one with dark braids draping down either side of her head onto the shoulders of her grey turtleneck. Her smirk seems a little more… practiced.

A grin of his own appears and he locks eyes with her. Without checking his ropes, he snaps the scissors closed. Swiftly and cleanly. Slicing through the first knuckle of his pinky finger and spraying the seven-year-olds in the front row with blood.

He is happy to see the smirk on the girl’s face vanish.

*

My head is starting to hurt. The way it does when things aren’t in order. “Where’s the finger?”

A young officer not much older than some of the kids from the birthday party leans forward.

“Right here, Sir… um, I mean Ma’am… uh, Detective.” He holds up a ziplocked baggie. He may be trying to hide behind it. The red rising in his face almost matches the pink fluid sloshing in the bag of ice.  He adds, “I poured in some milk.” From around the edge of the baggie he smiles at me hopefully as if that will make up for his inexperience.

It doesn’t. “Milk?”

“They told us at the academy that if you put the… the parts… in milk it makes it easier to attach later.”

“You think we’ll be reattaching this soon?” I was young once, but Jesus, some of these kids coming out are dim.

I turn away, leaving the kid stammering, without having the heart to tell him what he can’t figure out for himself. The finger is fake, just part of the magic trick the guy created to make the heist that much easier. The blood, the screaming children, the fireworks, the whole thing. A huge performance piece. Pretty clever, really.

I hate it when I’m impressed with the bad guys.

*

He waits for the kids to start running, which they do almost immediately. Knocking each other over to get out of the living room. Or parlor. Or however these self-obsessed idiots were describing rooms these days. One of the blood-covered seven-year-olds trips on a folding chair, knocking it sideways, and sprawls to the overly polished wooden floor. The child screams. In terror or pain, he isn’t sure. Besides, the more screaming, the more chaos.

Most head for the open doors that lead into the grand backyard garden. Where all of the parents are gathered. Some run in circles.

He steps over the sprawled child and navigates the other hurdles. Red still drips from his right hand. He reaches the staircase with the mahogany bannister, its wood matching the floor in the room below. He’s up the stairs, two at a time.

At the top of the stairs a corridor leads past a sentinel of closed doors. He ignores all of them, speeding toward the door at the end of the hallway. The door into the Treasure Room, as described by the magazine article.  He doesn’t hesitate and brings his foot up, his full weight behind it, perfectly placed just to the right of the doorknob. The jamb gives way with a loud crack and splinters fly into the room at the end of the hall. The door slams open.

*

I pull out my badge. Again. It’s bad enough when men want verification that I’m the detective in charge. It’s embarrassing when women do it.

“Gretchen Skyler?” the woman reads skeptically. Her eyes move back and forth between me and her husband. He is staring at me more intently than necessary.

“Yes, Mrs. Devonshire, I’m Detective Skyler. I’m glad you and your husband and children are okay.”

“And I assume you know my husband?” Her words escape through a smile is as thin as her waist. It’s hard to determine if there is anything else behind the question.

“Yes,” I nod. “I know the councilman. Our paths have crossed from time to time.” I give him my professional smile. He’s still staring at me a little too intently. I extend my hand, “Good to see you again Councilman Devonshire.”

He takes my hand and shakes awkwardly. His hands are smooth.

The throbbing in my head increases. As soon as I get upstairs, get some alone time with the crime scene, some order will restore. The psychologist at the precinct thinks I carry too many secrets. What the fuck does he know?

I push forward, “Neither of you saw the guy? The one you hired?”

The councilman has the wherewithal to act a little sheepish, his wife not so much. “The party planner we hired took care of all of those things,” she speaks coolly, like she’s accustomed to explaining things to the help. “Came highly recommended. So, no,” she puts her hand inside the councilman’s arm and pulls him closer, almost defiant, “no, we did not know The Charming Chaz, or Clarence the Juggling Clown, or any of the servers, or…” she trails off and raises a condescending eyebrow.

I nod and uncharacteristically my own judgement leaks. “Maybe rethinking that decision to have your home highlighted in Home & Garden a few weeks back? Your gardens and statues and treasures upstairs?”

Her thin lips somehow compress even tighter.

I glance at the councilman; he appears to be studying something on the carpet. “Okay,” I say, trying to get back on track by summoning my inner compassionate detective, “can you run through the whole thing again for me?”

*

In the room at the end of the hall there’s a large clock on the wall made from the steering wheel of a sailboat. The minute hand touches the six. The clock looks to be the cheapest thing by far. He is only interested in the paintings that fill the wall with signatures like O’Keefe, Wyeth, and Winslow. He knows the value, each painting potentially worth hundreds of thousands.

Somewhere behind him explosions begin. Whistles and howls of colorfully wrapped chemicals, spewing sparks and fire. He clinches his right hand and smiles. The party planner had been right, the fireworks start right on time.

He pulls the steering wheel from the wall and begins smashing it against the only window in the room. Double-paned sheets with no latches or sashes. On the eighth strike, one of the pane cracks. In two more blows the steering wheel bursts through. His arms ache, even after such a short workout. Red liquid splashes against the wall.

The alarm is going off, barely audible behind the curtain of sound produced by the fireworks echoing in the backyard.

He clears the last of the glass and peers through the window. Dusk is giving way to night and his eyes follow the roof’s slope, down to within about eight feet of the statue garden on the side of the house. Fifty yards past that are trees and he can just make out a hint of red that is a parked car on the street running between some of these mansions in the hills looking over the city.

The fireworks continue. Fireworks. For a seven-year-old’s birthday.

He turns back to the wall of paintings.

*

I have my peculiarities.

I usually take a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes at the crime scene. All to myself putting the pieces in place. Until my head starts to feel better. I’m pretty sure there is something I’m missing on this one, it’s too simple for my head to be hurting like it does.

The story has come together. This guy reads the Home & Garden article, does a couple of searches online and gets hired as a last-minute replacement magician. He bores the kids for a while, sprays some fake blood everywhere, grabs a painting while the preset fireworks are going off. In the pandemonium, he’s out the window and gone. No one even heard the alarm going off.

I turn slowly in the room at the end of the hall. An antique gun rack, a closet door, a vintage writing desk, several sculptures, a broken window, twelve paintings… eleven, and one space where a painting used to be.

Mrs. Devonshire told me it was the Wyeth that was taken. Probably the least valuable painting in the room. Her expression made me think she was glad it was gone.

Two things are still fueling my headache. Of all the pieces to grab in this room, why that particular painting? There are certainly more valuable things, worth so much more on the black market. I wander to the window. The steering wheel clock sits on the roof tiles with crystals of broken glass. The finger is the other thing. Not the trick specifically, figure anyone can buy a kit these days, but something about the finger still pokes my brain.

It’s strange standing in this room, in this house, a year removed. It only happened twice but those smooth hands, I can still feel them on my neck. On my hips. We had been on a city commission together for a couple of months. I made the first move, the councilman made a clever comment, and I put my hand on his knee. I regret it now, but it happened.

I wonder if his wife knows.

I try to refocus. I look at the guns. Examine the desk, probably a Chippendale. I slide the drawers out. Empty. Just a trophy.

Why the one painting?

I stare at the spot on the wall where the painting hung. There are some drips of red goo on the floor, Jesus, how much fake blood did the guy make? Really wanted to sell the trick I guess.

Why this painting? It had been featured in the Home & Garden article, but so had most everything else. He would know the value of it…

I turn and look at the closet door. Likely as empty as the desk.

I pull the door open and in an instant my headache vanishes.

The closet is almost entirely empty, as I expected. It’s not very big. Against the back wall is the missing painting. Leaning there. The woman’s face turned away and her nude image sitting on a stool. I don’t remember much about Andrew Wyeth, but I’m fairly certain the woman in the picture is named Helga. Charles, my husband, would know. He loves art.

How had no one opened this door to check? I suppose the Devonshires would not have bothered, imagining it to be empty. But why hadn’t one of the uniforms popped it open? Would probably have cleared things up right away. I will need to have a little talk with the boys later. Explain to them the finer points of police work.

It hadn’t been a burglary after all. Something else entirely. And I have drastically underestimated the fill-in magician’s sleight of hand. How clever he really is. I realize why the pinky finger is tickling my brain.

Another burglary solved by detective extraordinaire Gretchen Skyler.

All of this goes through my brain in a flash. I open my mouth to speak, but I’m not sure any words come out.

*

He crouches in the closet waiting. Knowing that when the door opens it will be over. He hopes he has anticipated correctly.

He has.

The door opens and he lunges upward, driving the shears into her midsection under her ribcage. Into her beating heart. His arm goes around her back and he pulls her close, pressing their bodies together. He sees her eyes. There is almost no surprise in them. Just understanding. He hears her breathe out. A labored gurgle as blood fills her lungs.

“Hello, Gretchen,” he whispers into her ear and lowers her body to the ground.

He sees her jaw moving, maybe trying to speak, maybe trying to scream. Her eyes are still alive, watching him. He sees the sorrow there. Meaningless now. He slides the scissors out of her body. The blood from his own severed finger mixing with hers. He holds his hand so she can see it and fully understand what’s about to happen in her last moments.

Her left hand has gone limp. He cuts through her left pinky with the shears, severing it where he had severed his own.

He drops the scissors and stands above her. Her jaw still flexes and he can see her eyes searching for his.

Detective Skyler likes her time alone at the crime scene he knows. There is plenty of time to get out the window, through the trees and to the car waiting for him. The other cops will be out front or waiting patiently downstairs. No one would dare disturb her. He’ll have an hour head start. At least. But even then, he might not make it far enough away.

He climbs through the window, his shoes crunch in the broken glass. He is surprised to feel tears.

*

I stare into the face of the man who has burst from the closet and stabbed me. Helga’s face in the painting behind him turned away to avoid seeing. His magic trick far more spectacular than I originally imagined.

“Charles…” I say, but again, no words come out. I can’t imagine how he found out.

I met him in college, we would walk on the beach and talk of the future. We were young. When he asked me to marry him, he didn’t give me a ring. He was a starving artist and couldn’t afford rent, much less a meaningless piece of metal.

From the floor I can see his hand now. His pinky finger is missing and I realize my mistake. He slices my finger off. I don’t feel it. I can’t feel anything.

I try and call to him, tell him I’m sorry, but he is out the window.

My world is going dark. But before it disappears completely, I see us on the beach. The sun is setting. “I want to marry you,” he says. “I want to love you for the rest of my life.” I see me, sitting cross-legged next to him. “I want the same thing,” I say. “Forever and ever.”

He intertwines my little finger with his own.

“Pinky swear?” he asks.

“Pinky swear.”

pencil

For the last thirty years Jay Bechtol has been a social worker helping children, adults and families navigate the world of mental illness, substance misuse and trauma. Jay has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. That experience has influenced many of the things he writes. Some more than others. Jay can be found online at JayBechtol.com and @BechtolJay, and in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Burn Your Life Down

Fiction
Kevin P. Keating


Photo credit: Viewminder/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

1.

Professor Maura Deepmere, standing alone under the great sandstone arch at the entrance to the riverfront memorial park, reaches for the forbidden pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her pilled wool overcoat, a lingering habit from her “experimental phase” with Juliana. Deepmere is convinced the nicotine helps her to relax, but when she goes to strike the match, she is surprised to find that her hands are trembling. After taking those first few guilty puffs, she leans against the arch and listens for the gentle trill of a screech owl. Though she isn’t superstitious, she imagines she hears above the swiftly flowing current the low moans of the restless spirits rumored to haunt the river’s muddy embankments. Five years ago, a riverboat casino christened the Miss Bordereau sank near the oxbow bend after colliding with a barge that carried in its massive hold twelve tons of iron ore. Some of the bodies were never recovered, and on nights like this, when the smoky October air stirs the leaves, Deepmere thinks she can hear the dead as they place their final bets and lay their losing hands on the card tables.

From the corner of her eye she senses movement. Across the street a well-fed possum clambers from a sewer and plunges head-first into an overturned trash can. Deepmere shudders. Suddenly the cigarette tastes quite foul to her and she flicks it to the ground. After crushing the butt under the wide heel of one black boot, she begins walking back to her office on campus. Whenever she has trouble working, she takes long contemplative strolls through the empty streets of Sloperville, Ohio, a small college town in the Appalachian foothills. At this time of night, the greasy spoons and dive bars along Prest Street have all gone dark, and even the rowdiest of undergraduates has returned with vampiric gloom to the dorms to await the dreaded sunrise.

An hour ago, while sipping her customary cup of herbal tea, Deepmere put the finishing touches on “International Episodes: The Real and Surreal in the ‘High’ Middle Period,” an exhaustively researched essay in which she argues that an uninspired Henry James, under his older brother’s medical supervision, had regularly used nitrous oxide. One of these “treatments” resulted in The Aspern Papers, James’s indisputable masterpiece. Penned between uncontrollable fits of laughter and tears, the tale concerns the misadventures of a “publishing scoundrel” who sets off on a doomed quest to Venice to unearth the private letters of a lecherous dead poet. In his underhanded attempts to obtain the letters, the protagonist deliberately misleads a virtuous young woman. But the young woman, with dubious designs of her own, may not be as innocent as she seems.

This essay, like many others Deepmere has published, is sure to generate controversy when it appears in the next issue of Conclusions & Completeness, the leading journal of Gilded Age Studies. This time, however, Deepmere anticipates not only sharp criticism but open ridicule and vehement demands that she retract her paper. Last spring, at a prestigious academic conference, an especially hostile critic, motivated more by professional jealousy than ideological zeal, took to the podium to publicly denounce her work. “I think we can all agree, can’t we, that the professor’s highly speculative claims and maddening baroque style border on self-parody, hallmarks of a decadent, self-indulgent culture that once pervaded our liberal arts departments and damaged so many students.”

Although it’s something to which she would never admit, Deepmere rather enjoys the notoriety that comes from being such a polarizing figure. Thanks to her prolific output and regular appearances on public radio, there is a small but dedicated coterie of Deepmere enthusiasts who continue to cite her work in their own seldom read scholarly papers and who treat the appearance of a new Deepmere essay as a kind of literary event, no small feat in an age when serious scholarship is on the wane. “The important thing,” Juliana used to remind her, “is not to allow success to go to that great big head of yours.”

Even now, five years after Juliana gathered up her secret stash of blue chips and stormed a final time from their house, Deepmere continues to resent her for her constant hectoring, lack of encouragement, and sheer ingratitude. Hard experience has taught her that the best cure for an inflated ego is to spend more time staring at the empty pages of a notebook or the blinking cursor on a blank computer screen. Writing is one of the few activities that fills her with a sense of existential dread, and on lonely nights like this, when the campus is completely deserted, she is convinced she will never again have anything original and interesting to say. The startling thunderclap of inspiration can no longer be heard above the deafening screams of self-doubt, but because she has nowhere else to go, she chooses to listen to the screams and climbs the steps in Clairmont Hall.

She returns to her third-floor office and begins brainstorming ideas for a new project. At her desk she listens to the rhythmic clatter of branches against the windowpane and contemplates the crescent moon shining through the trees. Grateful she has a view of the dark hills and not the river with its somber arch and the campus quad with its imposing wrought iron gates, she leans back in her chair and wonders if Henry James did his best work after midnight. It would certainly seem so, judging from the malevolent specters that disturb his characters. With mildly chewed pencil in hand, she rests her heavy eyes and, within a few minutes, falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.

2.

At two in the morning, according to the wildly inaccurate mantel clock on her shelf, Deepmere comes awake with a start. From behind her closed door, she hears the jovial murmur of male voices and catches the unmistakable scent of marijuana. Her left foot has gone totally numb, and when she tries to stand her knees crack sharply in the empty office. Like some medieval dungeon keeper, she drags her leg across the room and cracks open the door. A feeble light is burning in an office at the opposite end of the corridor. Over the summer the office served as a kind of storage room and temporary shelter for adjunct faculty, but this semester it belongs to the new writer-in-residence, a man Deepmere has met only once at a painfully polite faculty party. She makes it a point never to mingle with the creative writing staff. Their prose is appalling and their insights into human nature embarrassingly trivial. But then few writers possess the style and subtlety of a master like Henry James.

She cocks her head and listens.

“No, really, you should write a book about my life. Okay, so I’ve never been hunted down by a redneck cartel, but I have been chased by a bunch of wasted frat boys. Believe me, you don’t want to piss off a two-hundred-pound meathead with whiskey on his breath and a baseball bat in his hand.”

“Kid, in your line of work you must encounter all kinds of interesting characters.”

“My line of work? Oh, well, hey, this isn’t exactly a full-time job, you know. I prefer to think of it as a side hustle.”

“But you do provide a service.”

“Well, sure. I mean, I sell to family, friends, acquaintances. Some students, too. But only the ones I can trust to be cool about it. I never sell to faculty members. So far you’re the only exception. But, come on, how many badass authors will I get to meet in my lifetime?”

“Don’t confuse the persona with the real man. By the way, kid, this is some terrific shit.”

“Third generation sinsemilla. I call it Mellow Fruitfulness. In honor of the season.”

“The season?”

“John Keats. You read poetry, right?”

“Sure, kid. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed.”

“I’d like to pick your brain one day, but I have to take off. Believe it or not, I’m the only medicine man in town who makes house calls this late at night. And business always picks up after the bars close.”

“Makes sense.”

“Hey, enjoy the rest of your night. And like I said, my weed is pretty mellow but I’d advise you not to drink any of that tea tonight. I know you’re no amateur or anything, but with this stuff you need to start off slow. Take a few modest sips until the desired effect is achieved. Took me a whole year to get the nutrients in the soil just right.”

“Potent, huh?”

“One of my buddies, a theoretical physics major, totally lost his shit after drinking a cup. He sat in the corner of my apartment and sucked his thumb for almost an hour. Then he convinced himself that the world was nothing more than a hypnotic lightshow, that all of existence was like a film flickering through a movie projector. Good a guess as any, I suppose. To tell you the truth, I’ve always considered shrooms a sentient life form.”

“Well, in that case, I better keep this fancy tin right here in my desk drawer. If I bring it home with me, I might be tempted to sample some before I hit the hay.”

“Guaranteed to provide loads of inspiration. A beautiful example of how art and science can come together in meaningful dialogue.”

“I suppose that makes you my collaborator, doesn’t it? Tell you what, kid. If this stuff is as good as you say it is, I’ll be sure to acknowledge you in my next novel.”

“Are you serious?”

“Perfectly serious.”

“No fucking way! Oh, shit, thanks, Mr. Ryker.”

“Malachi. And thank you for coming to my office at such a late hour.”

“No worries, Malachi.”

“Drive carefully.”

Deepmere slides behind her door and spies a young man slouching down the hallway. His blonde beard grows in patches around his cheeks and neck and his jeans hang loosely around his hips. Deepmere knows the type only too well, a pale and underfed commuter kid who survives on a steady diet of Ramen noodles, bong hits, and big bottles of soda and spends endless hours playing violent video games in his trailer. Juliana introduced her to the manners and customs of the people who live in these misty hollers and hills. A sharp-tongued townie with a taste for bourbon lemonade, late night poker tournaments and middle-aged women, Juliana enrolled in Deepmere’s seminar on heteronormativity in nineteenth-century American literature. Though crude in class with her off-the-cuff pronouncements, she showed remarkable promise as an undergraduate. She just needed some guidance, that’s all, a little refinement, and before the semester had ended, they’d begun to see each other socially.

Now, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his acne-speckled nose, the boy approaches the stairs and suddenly stops. “Almost forgot!” He reaches into his duffel bag and hurries back to the corner office. “Would you mind signing a book for me?”

“My pleasure, kid. What’s the last name again?”

“Archer. Iggie Archer. Guess you need to know that if you’re going to put my name in the acknowledgements page of your next novel.”

“To my favorite botany major…”

“Wow, I can’t believe this. Mad Malachi Ryker. In the flesh. Smoking my weed and signing my favorite book. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading your stories, Mr. Ryker, it’s never to underestimate the power of meaningful coincidences.”

“A keen observation, kid. Yes, a keen observation.”

3.

Thirty minutes later, after retrieving the master key from the department secretary’s office, Deepmere creeps along the corridor. Taped to Malachi Ryker’s door is a life-sized poster of an unshaven middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat and mirrored sunglasses. He looks, at least in her estimation, like a deranged Buster Keaton. In his arms he cradles a .50 caliber double-barrel shotgun, and with a smug smile he leans against a white 1957 Plymouth Fury, a bloated beached whale of an automobile. Above his head a bold-faced caption reads: “Burglars, please carry ID so I can notify next of kin.”

A number of campus activists, outraged by the poster, have demanded the dean amend the university’s code of conduct to include language that expressly forbids faculty members from “promoting any message that valorizes firearms.” The dean, an obsequious little fellow with a nervous twitch in his left eye, has agreed to these changes but says the new rules cannot go into effect until next year. Deepmere shakes her head. In her day someone would have ripped the damned thing down and burned it in effigy.

Worried she might find Ryker slumped over his desk, she presses her ear to the door and gently knocks. When no one answers, she slides the master key into the lock and cautiously opens the door. His office smells like a smoke-filled pool hall. Mounted to the wall above his desk is an elk skull with a lethal pair of antlers. Aside from a dirty ashtray and a manual typewriter, the office is empty. There is no comfy ottoman draped with a crocheted blanket, as Deepmere has in her own office. No teapot or individually wrapped mints in a glass bowl at the corner of the desk. No framed lithographs by John Singer Sargent or custom shelves lined with treasured first editions arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. No degrees or awards or commendations of any kind.

Deepmere flicks on the light and, taking care not to disturb anything, steps inside. She goes to his desk and opens the drawers one at a time. Ryker seems like the kind of man who, just for fun, might place a mousetrap at the bottom of a drawer, and she delicately lifts his notebooks and three-ring binders. In the lower left-hand drawer she finds a small silver tea tin. She lifts the tin, pops the lid, and takes an experimental sniff. It smells damp and earthy, like the forest floor after a steady rain. She waves it under her nose and turns her head to let out an explosive sneeze.

She places the tin on the desktop and searches for a tissue. In another drawer, she finds a tidy stack of paperbacks. Burn Your Life Down: A Novel. The front cover depicts a ferocious one-armed woman with a wild mop of red hair and a bloody meat cleaver in her hand. After wiping her nose with her sleeve, Deepmere reads the description on the back cover and wonders how anything so vulgar, so contrived could garner universal acclaim from reviewers. By some strange chance, the plot concerns a young woman named Juliana, its one redeeming quality, and Deepmere finds herself turning the pages almost against her will.

This is the story, at least in part, of how my older sister Juliana lost her right arm during third shift at Lambert & Sons Rendering Plant. She was just twenty years old when the high-speed belt of a transit bin ripped the arm clean from its socket and whisked it away, along with a pile of animal entrails, to a steaming kettle at the end of the line. My sister, evidently in shock, simply stood there and watched her own hand wave goodbye as it sank slowly into the percolating sludge.

Linus Lambert, the owner’s son and heir apparent, blamed her for the mishap. “Gross negligence,” he called it. He docked her wages for the day and managed to cheat her out of a substantial financial settlement. She’d been drinking on the job and had fallen asleep at her station. This was an incontestable fact. Blood tests revealed alcohol in her system, and a co-worker confessed to sharing a flask with her. But what human being could stay sober working in an environment like that? So, one hot summer night, with my older brothers as accomplices, she decided to make the Lambert family pay dearly for its grievous sins.

As the youngest of four siblings, I’ve had to piece together her story from a variety of sources, including police reports, court records, newspaper clippings, and late-night conversations with cousins and neighbors. Some people were reluctant to talk about the past. They may never admit to it, but they still fear my sister’s wrath even though she’s been dead and buried now these twenty-five years.

Some of the details are pure speculation on my part, but mainly I tried to stick to the facts, tried to tell the truth of how Juliana Jefferies, the Terror of Touchett, Ohio, and the woman who raised me, operated a brutally efficient criminal syndicate out of our clapboard house on Stackpole Lane and how, for a few years, she became the most feared citizen of our forsaken county.

Deepmere finds herself chuckling at the sporadic decapitations and spectacular shootouts. Pure trash, but she is so captivated by the narrative that she doesn’t immediately notice the sound of creaking floorboards outside Ryker’s office. She freezes. For an instant she thinks she hears a muffled cough and the heavy breathing of someone who has just climbed three flights of stairs. In a panic she bolts across the room and switches off the light. With her back pressed against the door, she listens for footsteps.

Except for the steady hiss and occasional clank of the old radiator, all is quiet.

Silently berating herself for her recklessness, she shoves Ryker’s novel in her pocket and grabs the tin from the desk. She looks around the room to make sure everything is in its proper place and, her heart racing, hurries to the secretary’s office to return the key.

4.

Early the next morning an idea for a sensational new essay strikes Professor Deepmere with almost physical force, and she spends a very productive day at her desk. She intends to show how on a rainy Parisian afternoon in 1875, at a fashionable cafe on the Rue de Bretagne, a young Henry James, then drafting his debut novel Roderick Hudson, met and became fast friends with internationally acclaimed fantasy writer Jules Verne. Over the next few years, Verne would exert a profound influence on James’s creative output, particularly his “romances” and ghost stories. The evidence for this theory is flimsy, but Deepmere is so convinced of its essential truth that she furiously scribbles down her thoughts until her aching hand is stained with blue ink.

When she finally decides to take a break, she looks up from her desk and is startled to find that night has fallen. She has been in her office now for close to twenty-four hours and has neglected to cancel her classes for the day. She vaguely recalls hearing a knock at the door and the phone ringing on the corner of her desk.

“Never have I… Never have I…”

She swivels in her chair and catches her distorted reflection in the dark window. She needs to go home, take a scalding shower, write an apologetic email to her students for her unexpected absence. She pushes aside a pile of papers, but before leaving her office she swallows down the cold and bitter dregs from the bottom of her teapot.

A few minutes later she finds herself walking through the bustling town. She is sensitive to noise, to crowds, to loud music, but tonight she actually enjoys the tumult all around her. It’s an unusually warm Friday night in late October, and the streets are teaming with students gathering outside the bars and pizza parlors. It all feels strangely tutorial, the bright neon signs in the windows and the live music pouring from the open doors, as if each kaleidoscopic display of color and virtuosic guitar riff has something unique and meaningful to teach her. At an intersection she stops beside a lamppost to light a cigarette, and for just a second, she feels a little envious of those sweetly intoxicated sorority sisters walking hand in hand and calling to the cute boys standing on the opposite corner. Juliana used to bully her into going out for a drink, a smoke. “Loosen up, relax, stop being so self-conscious.” These were her sacred commandments, and up until their final night together Deepmere always obeyed.

For old time’s sake she considers going into their favorite bar and ordering a bourbon lemonade. But then she sees the giant Plymouth Fury floating toward her like an alien spacecraft, its professionally polished bone-white finish reflecting and magnifying the lights on the strip. In an asphyxiating cloud of blue exhaust, the Fury pulls to the curb. A middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat leans across the front seat and lowers the passenger side window. He smiles at her, and the green dashboard lights make him look less like Buster Keaton and more like Boris Karloff.

“Hello there, Doc. Need a lift?”

“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Ryker, but I believe I’ll walk.”

“I’ve been looking for you. Where’ve you been?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Maybe you should hop in. You don’t look well, if you’ll forgive my saying so. ”

“I feel perfectly fine, Mr. Ryker. I haven’t walked this strip on a Friday night in years. I find it… enlightening.”

He stares hard into her eyes and frowns. “Jesus, Doc, how much of that tea did you drink?”

“Is that an accusation, Mr. Ryker?”

“Would you like me to call someone? A friend? Your spouse?”

She lets her cigarette fall from her fingertips and approaches the car. “Oh, now I think I understand. You’re looking for new material, aren’t you? A funny story for your fanboys? The unfailingly sedate professor having a bad trip? I read your latest novel, Mr. Ryker, and I must say, you certainly are an imaginative storyteller. Albeit one with a rather twisted sense of humor. Some might even argue a decidedly sick sense of humor.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Your novel is deeply offensive. You turned the people of these mountains into an appalling mass of faceless stereotypes. At times it felt as though you were taking the reader on a guided tour of some demented roadside attraction, a freak show crawling with babbling lunatics and serial killers”

As she continues speaking, she is forced to raise her voice. It’s karaoke night, and inside the bar someone growls an obscene version of an old-fashioned love song. Behind her a small group of students stops to listen. Not sure if they’re listening to her or to that awful singer, Deepmere spins on her heels and glares. In the Fury’s red taillights their glowing faces look like brightly painted masks with large empty eyes and wide mocking grins. They’re impostors, not students, she’s sure of it. Spies sent from the dean’s office to observe her behavior and write a detailed report. She’s been reprimanded already for her inappropriate relationships with students.

Deepmere, sensing trouble, backs slowly toward the car. She opens the passenger door and climbs inside.

Ryker says nothing.

In silence they drive along Prest Street, braking occasionally for the masked figures shambling from the smoke shops and seedy taverns. Deepmere stares in fascination and tries to make sense of what she is seeing. She is so entranced by the sights and sounds that she doesn’t immediately notice Iggie Archer staring at her from the Fury’s enormous backseat. He blinks bug-like from behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.

“What is the meaning of this?” she says.

Ryker shakes his head. “I think you know.”

“No, actually, I don’t. Perhaps you’d care to explain.”

“Something went missing from my office last night.”

In her sternest professorial voice she says, “We are not having this conversation, Mr. Ryker. Not in this vehicle. And most certainly not with a student present.”

“He’s as much a part of this as I am.”

“Yes,” says Deepmere, “and he’s going to pay a price for it.”

Iggie smirks. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“What I mean, Mr. Archer, is that according to the Ohio criminal code, the penalty for growing and selling hallucinogenic mushrooms carries a minimum of one year in state prison. And I’m quite certain that a college tribunal, once it finishes a thorough investigation into this matter, will recommend immediate expulsion. You can, of course, avoid all of this trouble if you simply drop out now. Hmm, yes, I believe I should give you that option.”

Ryker sighs and says, “No one is going anywhere, Doc.”

He spins the wheel hard to the left, and they turn down an alley where the loose bricks clatter like bones beneath the tires.

“You are in no position, Mr. Ryker, to dictate the terms of an agreement. I told you that I didn’t want to have this conversation. But since you’ve insisted on taking things this far, you should hear the rest of my demands. You need to make a public confession. Tonight I’d like you to go home and write a letter to the editor of the college newspaper, explaining how you purchased illegal drugs from a student. And just for good measure, I’d like you to send copies to your editor and literary agent.”

Iggie thrusts his head forward. “You hypocrite, who the hell are you to speak this way?”

“Cool it, kid, let me handle this.” Ryker turns the wheel again and mutters, “This place is a maze.”

Spittle flies from Iggie’s lips. “Do you know how much college costs these days?”

Deepmere shrugs. “Not my concern, Mr. Archer.”

“I have loans.”

“Then I suggest you scrub dishes or wait tables. Or are those jobs too menial for you?”

“Growing shrooms and weed is hard work. There’s a lot of chemistry involved. There’s commerce, too. Books to keep. At least I’m making practical use of the bullshit courses I take at this second-rate college.”

“What did you just say?” With shocking agility, Deepmere turns and grabs Iggie by the ear. “What did you say about this institution?”

She twists his ear and squeezes until the boy’s face turns red and then a rather lovely shade of purple. Wine, maybe. A rich, satiny Pinot Noir. At first he smiles defiantly and then he tries in desperation to yank his head away.

“You’re not hearing me. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to save you from years of trouble. You silly fool, look what you’re doing right now. Peddling dope and driving around town with a part-time instructor. I don’t think you realize the serious danger you’re in. Students develop complicated feelings for their mentors, and the relationship can spiral quickly out of control. Yes, you might learn some new and wonderful things, but like everything else in this world, the relationship will evolve, sometimes in ways you cannot possibly anticipate. One day you may find that your mentor, just to keep the doomed relationship going, has become your enabler.”

By the time the car comes to a screeching stop, Deepmere has grabbed a handful of hair and is shouting, “Isn’t that right, Juliana? Isn’t that right? Answer me!”

The passenger door flies open, and before she can raise an objection, she feels a pair of powerful hands pulling her from the vehicle.

“Crazy bitch,” Ryker snarls.

She is being assaulted, profaned, but no one hears her screams. She slaps and scratches and kicks her assailant, and when she finally frees herself from his grip, she runs over to the great sandstone arch. She pulls the collar of her wool coat tight around her throat and looks back to see if she is being pursued. A lovely white mist rises all around her, and she notices how everything seems eerily still.

“Wait a minute,” she whispers. “What are we doing here? Are you giving a reading, Mr. Ryker? Is this some kind of avant-garde literary event?”

In a kind of trance, she touches the arch and with one unvarnished finger traces the familiar names engraved there for all time.

“I need to work, to write. You must take me back to my office.”

But she has already forgotten the brilliant idea that, only a short time ago, had taken complete possession of her. She crosses the memorial park, and at the river’s edge she searches her coat pockets for her cigarettes. Once again, her hands are trembling, but this time she fumbles the matchbook and drops it to the ground. “So clumsy of me. So stupid. You’ll wait for me, won’t you, Juliana? Please don’t go gambling tonight.”

She kneels in the wet grass and whimpers, but the giant white Fury has already rumbled away into the misty night.

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My first novel, The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. My second novel, The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015), was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Email: kevinpkeating[at]hotmail.com

An Aroma of Plums

Fiction
Travis Inglis


Photo credit: jay-chilli/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She, Rose, she thinks about it. It’s funny how life changes. You grow and get older, and those days of youthhood, terrifying and ballistic no longer exist. What was carefreeness, is now unfreeness. Unfreeness. She likes this thought. She likes words that aren’t words. When had she signed up to this life? She cannot remember.

Looking around Anna’s home, she sees furniture new and shiny, she sees clean surfaces and good salaries. She sees old friends, all hidden and dressed to impress, the way women do. Dressed as metaphors of their happy shiny lives. Dressed to impress each other, impress and shame. She wonders whether there is a breath of honesty anywhere.

The wine is good, it is red. She is an adult; therefore, it is important that she knows the difference between good wine and bad wine. She had learnt the difference between red wine and white wine when she was thirteen. She also at thirteen learnt that they both do the same job, more or less. Happiness, bliss, openness, chaos, hangover, vomit, dread, repeat. And then when she was in her awkward growth between childhood and adulthood, she learnt its other trick, the one involving lack of inhibition and sex. It was a good red, fruity note, an aroma of plums.

What had happened to these other women, her old friends? They acted man-made, their appearance and how they moved, were full of straight lines, full of function. They were shaped and fitted by trends and expectations. They are cookie-cutter versions of each other. Fashions usurping truth. Artificial. Maybe, she thinks, maybe she was too. This realisation had been haunting her. She had always thought she was on the outside looking in. That she occupied the high ground so often claimed by devout-individualists. Devout-individualists. She smiles, smirks at her new phrase.

This was another trick of wine. The self-doubt about one’s worth, about one’s uniqueness.

There apparently is a lot to talk about. At first it appears that the conversation must be around spouses and kids, and childcares and homeownership. This bores her, it more than bores her it sucks the will from her. She replaces her will with wine, which she sucks from the glass. She tries to outwardly look interested. Tries to mask the straight lines she can feel in her face. She wonders whether everyone else is pretending to look interested too, whether they are burning on the inside. A room of masks?

She is a risk taker, always has been. There is foreplay in the pursuit of annihilation, a fulfilment in the chaos that she can cause. It is addictive, like the taste of blood, and dangerous, like choking in sex.

Her friends all have children; she is the only one who sees the sense in being childless. And of the four, she again is the only one not to have married. She had been with the same man for ten years, but couldn’t reconcile why you would marry, convenience maybe? They had never talked about marriage. What would it change?

Maybe it was time to grow up. Maybe it’s just the way of things. Nature or social conditioning. That self-doubt. Maybe she should pity herself.

The room talks weddings. Her friends are in competition, each trying to extend the importance and pomp of their big days. Openly take pride in the obscene amount of money spent, and waste created. As the politely veiled insults battle, she opens a second bottle of wine and observes. She laughs internally at the idiocy, and the ridiculousness of it all. These women are clichés.

She escapes into memory, into fantasy. Drifts away from that room, that space, those old friends and their words. Memories are like lucid dreams. She controls and shapes histories. Connects dots and creates new pasts, discards unneeded truths.

She remembers the wedding, Tom’s wedding, Anna’s wedding. Like a story told for generations, it changes from truth to myth. She replays the chaos, the risk, the sounds. The pictures are dull. What are dreams and what are memories, what’s the difference?

It is unhealthy, but she remembers the rush of destroying something beautiful. When was the last time she had been destructive? She misses that high.

Lucid dreaming mixes with reality.

The battle has simmered down, as it does between old friends. Memories and laughs are being shared. They talk now about Anna’s wedding. She had been beautiful. It was a beautiful wedding.

Her own private peace.

A memory from her hidden and dangerous past; sin flashes in her mind. Heavies her breath. She had enjoyed Anna’s wedding, enjoyed it well, the risk of being caught.

A lot of money had been spent on that wedding. And looking around the pristine house it seems important to Anna to display wealth. Everything shines with expense. The house is imposing, and the little corner of it where wine is being taken, is not little at all. Thirty square metres dedicated to the sole function of lounging formally. High ceilings and chandeliers. Decor and furnishings are a blinding array of whites.

She has an urge. An internal fantasy. A secret joke. Foreplay. An urge to spill wine on the obscene whiteness. Destroy something beautiful. She thinks about fighting this urge. The chaos is too tempting. She reaches for her glass, clasps her fingers around the stem and drinks. She hesitates, but only briefly, returns the glass to the table. Her hand spasms. There is a magnificent spill, and a bloody stain across the blinding white rug.

There is a rush by her friends, and an attempt to reverse time, reverse the bloody stain. A brief chaos brings her a brief satisfaction. A low-current of joy. It does not last.

The moment passes and the afternoon moves on. That’s how it is, events evaporate into nothing.

Wine has eroded inhibitions. They are back onto the topic of weddings. Weddings and who had fucked who in past lives, in the hedonism of the wedding reception.

She looks at her friend Sarah, she remembers her how she used to be. Reckless and beautiful. Sarah would leave carnage not chaos. Looking now at her friend, she remembers how much she was in love with her, that lifetime ago. A catastrophic beauty. She smiles at her thoughts; she smiles at Sarah. Sarah winks back, and in that briefest of moments they have removed their masks. They are twenty-one again. This is dangerous. This is honest.

She is terrified by the way Sarah is looking at her. There is experience of memory; that look will lead to devastation. She is alive with electric current caused by the foreplay.

“I know what you did.” Sarah announces to the room, face hidden behind false expression. Was she play-acting?

“What…? What did I do?” She, Rose, she speaks, conceals her real fear, the fear of the unknown, not the fear of admission.

“I can’t say.”

She could leave it there. The moment would move on. But she wants that rush and completeness of chaos.

“Why can’t you say?” She dares her friend.

“You know why… you… you hooked up with Tom.” It was a masterpiece. “Tell her!”

“What! You’ve got it wrong.” She was in between excitement and fear, she didn’t know whether to confess.

“Tell her! At their wedding!”

“You’ve only got half the story.” This was not a game anymore, this was real, this was people’s lives. People’s expensive, shiny lives. But she cannot stop herself. Vile admission spills forth. “I fucked him, well… he fucked me! He bent me over and he came inside me.” She is shocked by her own words. Shocked by the crudeness.

Chaos and carnage.

“Get out!” A voice pierces the room. She assumes it is Anna’s, she is electric and blind.

She stands and walks. But high with the moment and drunk enough not to give a shit, she cannot help herself, adds. “And you know what, I didn’t enjoy it!”

There is fury and violence and punches, kicks and hair is loosened. Skin is collected by fingernails. She does not fight back; she just laughs and spits and smiles and bleeds. Oh the fucking rush.

She is the centre of the world.

The moment passes, like all moments.

Bliss of chaos, she feels alive with self-harm. Her face is swollen from the attack, she loves the pain. She is aglow with self-satisfaction.

As she drives, erratic and reckless and drunk and dangerous. She is living.

It is glorious, her triumph of annihilation. She is wet thinking about the ramifications, Tom and Anna and their happiness distressed. The destroying of friendships, a cathartic culling of useless people from her life.

And from the safety of home, and in her garage, and still in her car, secure and blissful, she is static with orgasm. And as she climaxes, she admires her perfect lie. Laughs to herself, satisfied and electric, Imagine, she thinks, if only it had been true.

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Travis Inglis has been living abroad on and off for the past ten years collecting stories, he guesses. His work is influenced a lot by the idea of home and identity and finding out how to fit in in this world. Email: travisinglis[at]gmail.com

Solution B

Fiction
Zixu Fan


Photo credit: Chris Spiegl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Damn it! God damn it!” he shouts out as he scratches his pen hard on his paper. The hour hand has already turned to twelve but the last geometry problem on his exercise book remains unsolved.

“Stop doing your math, Ian,” his mother says and barges into his room. “You’ve spent two hours on this question. Have a rest now. Don’t run into a dead end every time.”

“Get out of my room! I’ll solve it out in five minutes,” he yells at her, like a mad lion.

She frowns, but still follows his words, and says, “Only five more minutes” before she steps out of his room.

He looks at the clock, which shows 12:10 a.m. He still hasn’t started his Chinese and English homework, as he always does his math exercise first after coming back home. Finishing math gives him a sense of security, so he will study other subjects more calmly and efficiently. But it seems that something has gone wrong with his exercise today: he fails to prove one side length of the triangle in the last question is 5 cm, though he is quite sure it should be 5.

As Mr. King has collected all the key pages from them, there is no way to consult the answer and get any new ideas. He cannot imagine what will happen if he doesn’t work out the last question this evening. Will Mr. King force him to stand outside the classroom again, which he did when Ian just entered the school two years ago, because he was only one minute late for class? Will Mr. King rip his exercise book into pieces, like he did to Laura’s notebook, since she fell asleep in his class? Will he throw out one question after another to him in class every day and ask him to copy the questions and answers one hundred times if he can’t answer them, the way he did to Bryant, the student who doesn’t like to study?

He thought Mr. King looked like a frail scholar the first time he met him, as he had a short and thin figure and wore a pair of black-framed glasses. He doesn’t remember exactly when he became a tyrant to them. As both the class and math teacher, he always said they should study harder, as they are one of the elite experimental math classes. Always delayed his class, sometimes not finishing until the next Chinese class or English class begins. Often liked to add a math class when school finished early in the afternoon. Each time before their monthly test, mid-term or final, he would grit his teeth and point at them with a strained face. “Write your paper carefully. We must achieve the highest score among the whole grade. The highest.”

Fortunately, the class lived up to their teacher’s expectation every month, not as a result of hundreds of classes he taught and lots of homework he gave, but of the high pressure and the fear, the fear that he may treat them like Bryant if they drag down the class average. As the lowest student, Bryant always sat in the corner, as Mr. King arranged their seats according to their ranks. “Top students sit in the front, while low-level students sit in the back. The lowest is also in charge of throwing out the garbage every day.” So he named Bryant “The Garbage King,” to warn everybody if you fall behind, you cannot escape the same punishment.

But even though they were the top class, Mr. King was still not satisfied with it. “Don’t feel too proud. Don’t think you become a somebody simply because you get a high score. You should keep working hard and try to compete with other excellent middle schools in Beijing one day. Never get slack. Arrogance may destroy you.”

Ian knows Mr. King really hates conceited people. When Lemon, the math genius, questioned one of his statements in class, he asked him to sit down, boiling with anger. “You know all of them, so you think you’re number one? That you’re qualified to challenge me? Let me give you a university-level axiom. Prove it, and hand it to me after class.”

Five minutes have passed, and Ian is still struggling with the question. As a middle-level student, he dares not make a mistake when doing homework, having classes, or taking exams, though he doesn’t like math. Mr. King is content with what he does most of the time. But what’s wrong with today’s homework? It is not the Olympic math Mr. King gives them on Friday, which is often unsolvable; it is only the exercise book they do every day. It should be easy enough. It should be.

He tries to organize his thoughts again as he begins to sweat. Maybe I have made a mistake when proving it. Maybe I lost a condition when writing the deduction. Maybe. I’ll try it one more time.

“Fuck,” he says several minutes later, tossing the book on the floor.

“You’ve promised me five minutes, and now it’s over. Come out and have some fruit,” his mother says with a more serious tone this time.

“Shut up.”

“Don’t think you’re allowed to speak like this only because it’s your math assignment. Your father and I are doing our best to assist you. We are not your servants, and you’re not Mr. King. If you don’t come out for rest now, I will not help you with anything from now on,” his mother says and places the fruit plate on the table before she leaves.

Being silent for a while, Ian throws his pen to the corner of his desk, rushes into the living room, grabs all the grapes on the table and stuffs them into his mouth. As he is munching hard, he hears his father’s hoarse voice from his study.

“Don’t hurry me. I’m trying to solve the assignment with all my strength. I’m almost sixty and must work all day for the family. I know what time it is. Don’t blame me. Isn’t it you who chose this school for him? Other middle schools in Beijing may also have lots of homework and exams, but they don’t have such an insane teacher. Now I must pick up middle school geometry and work out the problem, just so the teacher doesn’t punish him. It’s all your fault so don’t blame me.”

Ian pricks up his ears but can only hear his mother’s mumble. When he finishes the fruit a few seconds later, his mother returns, “Your father will solve it out for you. Now go to bed. It’s already 12:30.”

“Impossible. I haven’t done the Chinese and English homework yet,” he says as he walks into his room again.

“What can I say? Why don’t you do the easy work first? You’re almost fourteen and still act like a little boy? Finish them immediately.” She slaps the table, wipes it, and takes the empty plate to the kitchen.

His Chinese and English assignments are quite simple today: to copy the new characters and new words and make some sentences. He sits down and takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. He writes down the Chinese characters and the English words fast, but still tries to keep them legible. Their Chinese and English teachers are also easily angered if they do not do their work well. Miss Jiang, their Chinese teacher, is probably undergoing her menopause these days because she always bawls them out like a shrew when they don’t finish her homework or get a bad grade in exams. “You all love to do your Mr. King’s math, and never learn my lesson?” is what she often groans. Their English teacher is an eccentric old lady, who never shows her temper in front of the class, and would go to tell their misbehavior to Mr. King instead, which is the most frightening, as Mr. King would never spare them and give them detention and lots of homework on that day.

Because of the punishing homework, Ian has stayed up late many times, and learned to yawn with his lips closed during class, in case that Mr. King may find it out. Like last Friday afternoon when they were having an extra class, he got extremely sleepy but still hid his yawns, and tried to straighten his back on the seat. The temperature in the room kept rising as the door and windows were all closed. He could feel his face glowing, as hot as a fever. Staring at the blackboard, he didn’t know what Mr. King was teaching and writing but kept nodding to him. When his eyelids were about to meet each other, Mr. King suddenly threw his chalk towards someone in the back, and before everybody realized what was happening, he threw his textbook hard in the same direction, with wide and burning eyes.

“Ouch!” One girl sitting in the back put her hand over her mouth when everybody turned around. It seemed like the book had hit her teeth.

But this was not enough for Mr. King. He dashed toward the back of the classroom and roared, “What the hell are you doing?”

Ian dared not look back. He only heard Mr. King overthrow a desk, and then saw Luke, the boy who often dozes off in class, flee out of the front door in panic. Mr. King also ran to the front, trying to catch him.

“Do… do… do not… do not come… to my… class tomorrow!” he shouted at Luke again before he shut him out.

That was the first time when Mr. King, such a quick-witted man, stuttered. His aim was so bad that he hit the girl by mistake. It was amusing but everybody was too frightened to laugh. His temper seems so unpredictable that their hearts raced every time he exploded. He had no bias. Anyone can be his target. Anyone who does not study well, anyone who feels too proud, or anyone who is disobedient. Ian was lucky that he wasn’t one of the victims, but he should still be careful, careful enough. At the beginning of the semester he forgot to write down the counting process in his algebra assignment, and Mr. King caught him. He asked him to copy the whole paper ten times, a way to teach him to write all the details when doing homework.

After finishing other assignments on that day, Ian became crazy because he could not find his math paper anywhere. Maybe I have left it in the classroom? But it is locked now… No. It can’t be. It can’t be. He threw everything out of his schoolbag and freaked out since there was still no paper.

“Don’t run into dead ends. That cannot solve any problems.” His mom came to him and said, “You must have left it in school. Call Elizabeth and go to her home to pick her paper up.”

He lives in the suburb and only their class leader, Elizabeth, lives nearby. The class leader was supposed to be voted by the students, but Mr. King chose Elizabeth himself because her father is a famous math teacher. Nobody in the class liked her as she looked down upon everyone. Ian didn’t want to call her but had no other options. She answered the phone and agreed to lend her paper to him, reluctantly. He doesn’t know how he completed the two-mile run within fifteen minutes, as he was not all that athletic. He only remembered he was out of breath but hardly stopped to have a rest after coming back home. He copied everything from the paper nervously and carefully, and hardly knew what time it was when going to bed.

Time passes quickly, and the math exercise book still lies on the floor. Looking at it again, Ian stops copying English words. He goes to pick the book up, checks if it is damaged, and cleans it with tissues several times. I’ll try to solve it out again. He flips the pages gently, and copies the question word by word. He is not in a rush. He does not get crazy. This is the most careful and peaceful time he’s ever had.

“Shit.”

“What have I told you? What have I told you? Why are you struggling with that question again?” His mother rushes into the room.

“Get away,” he says in a strong and low voice.

“How can I get away? The whole family is staying up late with you, don’t you know?” She sighs and is about to leave the room, “I really have to talk to your Mr. King one day. Why does he always give you such difficult assignments?”

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare talk to him.”

She stares at him, with shocked eyes. Without saying a word, she storms out.

He’ll never let his mother go to school and complain about Mr. King. Never. He cannot forget that afternoon before they finished school, when Mr. King went into the classroom to give them assignments as usual. Nobody noticed the changed expression on his face.

“Well, from tomorrow every row of desks will move one unit to the right. The rightmost row, you move to the left side,” said Mr. King after pointing out some problems in yesterday’s homework.

“To be honest, I don’t think changing your seats is a good idea. But one of your parents suggested it to me on the phone today.”

That would be my mom, thought Ian. His mom often worried he might develop exotropia because he always sat on the leftmost side of the class.

“This parent also complained I gave too much homework to you. You think it’s too much? Hmm?” Mr. King started to glance around them, trying to discover the culprit.

That also sounds like what my mom would say. Ian started to quiver.

“The assignment is far from enough. Do you know what time other school’s students go to bed? 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. is not uncommon for them. Since we are the elite experimental math class, it’s reasonable to give you a little more to do every day. So why don’t you study hard and get a good grade, instead of complaining about our homework?”

Glaring at them a few seconds, he suddenly banged on the lectern and broke out, “Fuck off if you can’t be the top student! You only know to tell your parents. What else can you do? You think you are God, so everybody should listen to you and have less homework? A coward! Why didn’t you get a high mark during the mid-term? Why didn’t you enter the top ten? Why didn’t you achieve a prize in the Olympic math? Shut the fuck up if you can’t do any of this! The whole class is working hard for the final, and they face all the difficulties, like you. They never cry out; they never say the homework is too much. Only you can’t stand it. You think you are the most pitiful one? Let me tell you everybody is much more hardworking than you. You are nobody compared to them.”

With a deathly pale face, Ian stared at the floor. He dared not look up again.

“And the parent is also ridiculous. Why don’t you tell your child to study hard? You only know to complain about me. Then you go. Go to the headmaster to complain. You think I’m afraid of you? Let me tell you, I don’t like fucking teaching anymore. Especially teaching your lazy child.”

When all the children’s nerves stretched to the breaking point, Mr. King paused, and sneered at them. “Well, you think we got too much homework. Then I’ll show you what is too much today. Juliet. Come and hand out the papers to them. Remember three double-sided papers for each person. This is the Olympic math. Don’t hurry. It’s extremely difficult.” He left and slammed the door behind him.

“Who did this? Who the fuck did this?” As soon as Mr. King went away, almost everyone in the room exploded.

“A stupid jerk. Fuck you. Fuck your mom and dad,” the boy sitting behind Ian blurted out.

But Ian said nothing. He pretended to be calm and tried to pack up his schoolbag as quickly as possible. I’ll go home right now. I’ll blame my mother. She has ruined my entire future.

He can’t tell how many times he was about to fall on his way home, because he never stopped shivering. Maybe it’s not my mother. Then I won’t become the whole class’s enemy. I’ll make sure right now. I’ll make sure.

The one-hour bus ride should have been the longest time in his life, and he doesn’t remember how he summoned up the courage to ask his mother and hear the truth.

“Why are you so frightened? I never called your teacher. But what the parent said is right. You should change your seats regularly. And the homework is too much.”

He felt a great sense of relief. He thought his life came back to normal again. He was still that hardworking and obedient boy. Nothing changed. It felt so great, so great that he was about to laugh out loud. It didn’t matter that he was going to spend the whole night with those Olympic papers. It really didn’t matter.

As his mother leaves, he tries to cool down and do the proving again. “Holy shit.”

“Do not curse, Ian. I’ve worked it out! Worked it out!” With sleepy eyes, his father comes to his room, “I’ll tell you my solution. It’s a little long. Listen.”

*

After finishing all the assignments, Ian has a sound sleep late at night, so sound that he almost forgets everything the next day he gets up. He grabs the glass on the table, swigs down the milk in a few seconds and carries his schoolbag. His mother is saying something about eating his bread as he walks out of the house and closes the door behind him.

When he arrives at school, many of his classmates are discussing yesterday’s homework. The boy sitting behind him, who usually likes to copy others’ work, asks almost everybody coming into the classroom, “Have you solved out the last geometry question?”

Lots of them reply no. And what a pity he just misses Ian. Then he turns back to discuss it with Elizabeth and Elizabeth turns back to discuss it with the math genius, Lemon. While the whole class seems to be discussing the problem, Ian just sits silently on his seat, and starts to review his textbook, one chapter after another. He imagines one of his classmates comes to him and finds out he has solved the problem out, and how surprised they may be. But it cannot be possible. Nobody thinks he can solve the problem. Only the TA, Juliet comes to his seat to collect his assignment, so he hands it to her grudgingly, feeling a little desperate.

The first two classes slip by, and Ian quickly forgets about the assignment. During the break before the third math class, some of his classmates become a little fearful, as they say they haven’t worked out the last problem, so they worry that Mr. King might torture them in class. But at least it will not be me, thinks Ian, so he takes out the textbook and notebook calmly, ready for the new class.

Mr. King is late for class. Five minutes after the bell rings, he walks fast into the room with an exercise book under his arm. Ian thinks he may teach a new chapter, but he just opens the exercise book, and begins to talk about yesterday’s assignment.

“I apologize, that I didn’t realize yesterday’s last geometry problem is a very difficult one.” Looking at them, he pushes up his glasses with his index finger. “I shouldn’t have let you do it if I had known it. But still, it’s an interesting question, and I’d like to discuss two solutions in class.”

Mr. King starts to write his Solution A on the blackboard and the class is busy copying it in their notebook. “This is my solution, which uses trigonometry,” he says and explains each step slowly and clearly. The whole class jots it down and listens to him simultaneously, trying to keep up with his thoughts.

After Mr. King finishes teaching the first solution, he turns back from the blackboard and says, “Now I’m going to show you the second solution. This is a very smart way because it doesn’t use trigonometry.”

As Mr. King is writing down Solution B, Ian notices that it’s the same answer his dad taught him. He never knew it was a smart way. He just keeps copying all the lines from the blackboard.

As soon as Mr. King finishes the blackboard, he turns around, places his book on the rostrum and asks, “Ian, did you figure out this solution yourself?”

Ian is speechless. He didn’t know Mr. King was teaching his answer, his answer, as the standard answer. While his teacher is staring at him, Ian’s heart begins to thump. His teacher’s eyes seem to be so sharp and keen, that they are going to debunk something, something hiding deep inside Ian’s heart. But he still tries hard to conceal it, and nods at Mr. King, repeatedly, with his innocent and blank eyes.

“This Solution B is not mine. It’s worked out by Ian Cheng. Let me show you how clever it is.”

Staring at the blackboard, Ian gradually loses his concentration. He doesn’t have to listen to Mr. King since he already knew the proving steps. He feels attracted to something else, something very light, very slow, and very cozy. It’s like someone is massaging him, that every inch of his skin feels so cool, so sensitive and so relaxed. He imagines a lover is kissing his body, his forehead and lips, that he cannot move even a millimeter. Time is frozen, the whole classroom is frozen, and only he is enjoying this silent and static world.

“Before the class ends, I want to say Ian has done a great job this time. I’ve learned a lot from his solution. I strongly encourage everybody to share your thought or solution, if it is new or different from ours.”

Ian peers at Mr. King, who still looks quite serious, that he cannot tell if his teacher is genuinely happy this time. Then he casts a glance at his classmates sitting around him, who turn out to be preoccupied with class, never giving him a look of praise. But he can imagine what they think of him, and how envious they are of his success. He is lost in his own world again, where he grows out a pair of wings, flies up to the sky, and lies on the cloud, which feels as soft as a marshmallow. He is having fun with the birds, the winds, and the sunshine. So much pleasure that he wishes he would never come back to real life again.

He realizes the class is over as the bell rings. Mr. King leaves the class on time, but nobody moves out from their seats in the first minute. Ian doesn’t look around, but he knows they will scatter and chat as usual, they will take out snacks to eat as usual, and they will talk about him. Which is unusual.

Several students leave their seats and start talking. The classroom becomes louder and louder. As nobody comes to interrupt him, Ian continues to linger on the soft cloud, float on the sunny sky and flirt with the warm breeze, until Elizabeth calls him.

“Mr. King wants to see you, outside the door,” she says without any expression.

His heart beats a little faster, not knowing what else Mr. King will say to him since he has already praised him in class. So he stands up, adjusts his uniform, and goes to the corridor, where Mr. King is standing, arms crossed.

Turning to Ian, Mr. King narrows his eyes and says, “Don’t be arrogant. I praised you only because this solution is great and special. I know you didn’t work it out yourself. I did not expose you in front of everybody because I like this solution very much. But remember don’t play with me.” He points at Ian, frowning, “No matter where you copied it from, don’t play with me again. I won’t be as patient as today.” He points at him one more time and then disappears down the hall.

Returning to the classroom step-by-step, Ian falls into a trance. He feels so dizzy that he puts his hand on the wall to seek support as he enters, while other boys and girls are gossiping and chasing each other like any other day.

pencil

Since she was a little girl, Zixu always wished to be a writer. She wrote her first Chinese novel, The Falling Flowers at the age of 14 and chose to study Chinese Literature in college. However, none of the professors there taught literary writing, so she came to join the MFA program in the U.S. in 2016 and started to write in English. Email: zf4059gs[at]cnr.edu

I Can’t Tell Him

Fiction
Vidiya Dawah


Photo Credit: Franco Lautieri/Flickr (CC-by)

“Ouch.”

My scalp pricks with pain as I try to pull my hairbrush out of my hair. I set the brush down with the strands of hair I had to rip out on my dresser. The mirror looms over me, the only way to avoid its gaze is to look down, but like a magnet my eyes are drawn straight to the center. Eyes red at edges and trembling, I try to take a breath.

“Nothing happened. I’m ok. Ok I’m ok.”

My heart pounds as I try to rid my mind of all thoughts that swirl and swim through my head like rainwater. I close my eyes and tilt my head upwards, straightening my posture and shutting down my mind. My entire world is oppressed under a frigid grey fog, there’s no source of light, but no source of shadows either.

“Hey.”

I jolt from my stupor and grip the edge of my dresser, I can’t see him in the mirror, but my eyes are still stuck in my reflection. I can tell what he looks like though, his hair is a curly mess of dark ink and he’s wearing his usual sweats. The only thing keeping him from becoming a shadow is his translucent pale skin and blue veins that pop against the black.

“What happened this morning?”

My mind dredges up all the memories I’ve spent the past six hours trying to silence. They come in slow waves as I relive the nausea and discomfort from before. I’m going to touch you. Everyone is going to touch you. The world is out to get you. Once you turn 18 I’m gone. You’re running away from your problems. You’re not like other children. You’ll be all alone. You’re hurting me. You’re unreasonable. You’re pathetic. You’re a freak.

“Nothin’ happened. M’fine. Totally fine.”

I look up at him over his shoulder and give him a small smile. He leans against the desk and looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, arms folded and sweatshirt bunched up.

“You were screaming when he was in your room. He didn’t mean any harm.”

I swallow back my vomit of words, all my excuses burn the back of my throat like acid. What do I say? He’s creepy, he’s scary, he’s weird, he’s gross, he scares me. It’s not like you’ll believe me, so what do I say? The truth tries to claw out from my body, starting as a numbing feeling in my toes, then making its way up to my torso where it settles. It claws at my stomach until it reaches my heart. It pounds and pounds until my vision fades away and all I can see is my ripped up heart, covered in punctures.

“He wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

He says it with such a softness and sadness in his eyes that I have to hold back my laughter. Everyone loves him, he’s such a good guy, he’s been through a lot so we have to forgive him, he’s trying his best, he loves you, he’s not in his right mind, he’s sick, he’s ill, he’s our Dad.

I want to laugh. I can’t tell him.

pencil

Email: vdawah7663[at]bths.edu

Coyote

Fiction
James Butt


Photo credit: naathas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Angie was on the sofa in the living room, on her side with her back to the TV. One of those reality wedding shows was on, the ones where the drama appeared natural enough. I put my work bag on the kitchen table and poured a glass of water.

“Any dinner?”

She didn’t respond. I didn’t expect her to. She rolled toward the TV, resting her right arm across the top of her waist as she reached for the remote. She probably thought these little gestures of hers prevented me from noticing her growing bump.

I rummaged in the pantry for a loaf of bread and filled a sauce pan half-ways with water before putting it on the stove. “I’m boiling some weenies. You want any?”

She shook her head no, and I went to the fridge. There was a casserole dish with sour cream and salsa dip on the middle shelf, covered with cellophane.

“We having nachos?”

“No,” she said. “That’s for Eileen and me. She’s coming over later and we’re doing some planning for the baby. You’re going over there to play poker with Ray tonight, remember?”

Eileen was a few months pregnant. She and Angie got together regularly now to discuss her baby. I’m not sure what things they discussed, in terms of Eileen’s baby plans. But it seemed to help Angie some. She’d been happier the last month or so. It meant I had to spend more time with Ray, because that’s who we hung out with now, Ray and Eileen. Tonight was poker, and he’d have his construction pals over to fill out the table.

I closed the fridge and put the pot of water in the sink. I threw the bread in the trash. “I got fired today.”

She glanced over briefly and I couldn’t read her face. I said nothing else and turned for the bathroom to get ready for poker night.

*

Ray and Eileen lived next door to me and Angie. We shared a fence in the back, and the path between us was beat down to a thin dirt trail. Ray had a new poker table set up in his garage. We usually played at the kitchen table, but now, with Eileen pregnant, she didn’t want smoke in the house.

Ray was a big guy. He looked exactly how a construction worker ought to, with a large shaved head and barrel chest. His construction pals looked the same as him, each had arms thicker than my legs.

They were already at the table. Ches and Paul, and a new guy I hadn’t seen before. He was younger than the rest, with a cap pulled tight over his head, and a thick, wiry beard hung down below his chin. All four of them were smoking cigarettes, something I rarely seen outside of poker night.

The garage door was open, and their beers dripped with condensation from the humid night. A few moths pecked at the light attached to the door opener above the table.

“Hey, Chuck,” Ray said.

My name isn’t Chuck. But I’d gotten sick the first time playing poker with Ray and his pals. They all called me Chuck now.

“This here’s Aiden. Hired him for that hotel contract we got a few months back,” Ray said.

I nodded and reached my hand across the table. Aiden passed me a beer from the fridge behind him. Ray started to deal. I looked at my cards. None of them made any sense so I folded. The hand played on without me, and I gazed around Ray’s garage. It was neat and organized, obsessively so, with a workbench along the far wall. There were painted outlines for all his tools on the pegboard above the workbench.

“I knew Angela back in high school,” Aiden said, “before she went away to college.”

“That so?”

“Small world, sometimes, seeing people like that from the past again.” He grinned and flashed teeth white as bone, bright against his dark beard.

“Yeah,” I said. My attention drifted to the middle of the pegboard to where a large machete hung vertically. The blade was close to two feet long, coated in black enamel that’d been chipped away in some spots.

“She was popular back then, being so pretty. Smart, too.”

“She still is,” I said, getting up from the table. I moved over to the pegboard. They continued to play the next hand.

“A lot of us fools went for her back in school. Asking her out or trying to get her to come out to a party. She wouldn’t have any of it, though.”

“Never seen this before, Ray. It’s a big blade,” I said.

Ray turned from the game to eye what I was on about. “Yeah, needed that for hunting last fall. Glad to have it, too. Saved my skin.”

“You serious?”

“Yeah. I went deep in the Highlands after the first snow. Tracked a buck for miles. He led me deeper than I’d been before. Big buck, a full seven pointer. Maybe close to 600 pounds. It took awhile, but he fell. Good thing he was close to the road.”

I glanced back to him. “Thought you said you were deep in the Highlands? No road out there deeper than one or two miles.”

“Well, I had to cut the road first,” he said and nodded toward the blade.

Ches and Paul and Aiden laughed behind me, but I didn’t get it. I leaned in close to the pegboard and could see old blood and fur caked to the edge of the blade. “What’d you use it on? That doesn’t look like deer hair.”

“Coyote,” Ray said. “They came at me while I was hauling my buck down to camp. Must’ve smelled blood where I quartered him and tied him to the sled. I heard their cries, but the sound bounced around the hills up there. I couldn’t get a good read on where they were.”

“That’s something else, Ray,” Ches said.

“Thing is with coyotes is they’re smart. They got intelligence enough to know when to be tricky. They used that so I couldn’t get a sense for them. I don’t usually see them in packs, but with the snow and my buck, I’d a hunch they’d be round in a pack. They answered howls back and forth, louder and closer for about an hour. But they used those hills. Smart, see.”

I had a recollection of this story from some time before.

“They have weakness, too, just like all animals,” Ray said. “They come at you from the front, for the throat. You get a chance to see them before they strike. And soon enough they showed themselves right in front of me.”

“Christ,” Paul said.

“No matter. They showed themselves, and I cut each one down in turn. I brought those hides home, too. A nice trophy to go with my seven points.”

I lingered at the blade a couple minutes more before taking my seat again. I stared over at Aiden, but he seemed less interested in me then. The next hand was dealt and I finished my beer. My cards made no sense so I folded, and the hand played without me.

*

I was home later than I’d liked. Eileen had left a couple hours before, and Angie had gone to bed. The TV was on in the bedroom, the blue glow visible between the floor and bottom of the door. When I entered she was on her side, facing the wall away from me. All the blankets had been stripped off the bed, and she lay there in an old tank top and a pair of my boxers. She wasn’t asleep. People asleep have a softness to them, like all the weight been squeezed out of them. Her body was too rigid for sleep.

I flicked off the TV and opened the window a bit wider. A night breeze came in, and a ceiling fan spun above our bed. I lay next to Angie. It took less than six years for me and Angie to fall out of love. I tried to think of what that meant, but my attention strayed to the twirling blades above.

If I stared at one blade at a time I could follow each unique rotation around the room. I watched them spin and tried to listen for the call of coyotes in the distance. I watched them and wondered who the father was. I watched them and wondered if it mattered.

pencil

James Butt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A graduate of Dalhousie University, his time is split between the excitement and spontaneous nature that is family life, and the crafting of short fiction based upon those experiences. Email: james.butt[at]eastlink.ca

Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.

*

Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”

*

Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”

“Grandfather?”

“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”

*

There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey


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

The ancient yew tree stood in the Fraser family graveyard. Dense, dark leaves absorbed the weak winter sunlight, making gewgaws of its red berries and silver wren pendants. Family legend said that the tree had watched over the clan for a thousand years. The dead lay tranquil in its shade. The living prospered, the clan’s assets expanding as surely as the great yew’s girth.

*

Felicity stormed out of the house three weeks after her birthday, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass. She heard her mother cry out, but Felicity’s anger could not be soothed with words. She needed to run. She didn’t know how she could ever look her mother in the face again—her mother, yes, her actual mother, her real flesh and blood mother.

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

Her mother had been telling her this lie since Felicity had been old enough to understand the concept.

“Where are my real mummy and daddy?” Felicity had asked when she was three years old.

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

“My husband died a long time ago. You were only a baby when he left us.”

Sometimes, when her imagination was alight in the darkness before sleep, Felicity remembered a sly, handsome face with a clever smile, reading her stories in a melodic golden voice.

“He didn’t have time to read to you. Your mind is just playing tricks.”

Once she started school, Felicity’s curiosity about her real parents grew. Every year on her birthday, she asked her adoptive mother about her real parents.

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

“They left you in a shelter, they didn’t leave their names.”

“They died in a car accident, there’s no one left to find.”

Felicity might have wondered why her adoptive mother changed the story every year. But she had no time to wonder about anything; she spent her childhood energy adapting to moving home every few years, learning her way round new cities, finding new friends and settling into new schools.

“Why do we have to move again?”

“Because it’s better to be a bird on the wing than a tree stuck in the earth.” Felicity had seen her mother clench her hands, heard her muttered monologue. “Roots in the earth, going where they don’t belong, grabbing what isn’t theirs.”

So they’d moved, always living in characterless concrete tower blocks. Felicity never got to play in a park. Her mother made strange warding gestures every time they passed a tree. Her childhood had been filled with hard greyness.

It’s too easy for you, thought Felicity, you’re not an orphan. She became determined to leave home as soon as she was old enough and start laying down roots of her own. Her mother had told her that she was adopted, that there were no ties of kinship between them—Felicity didn’t owe her anything.

On her eighteenth birthday, Felicity excitedly tore open the DNA test kit she’d bought. On impulse, she had bought one for her mother too, not that her secretive mother would have agreed to take part. Felicity had obtained saliva from her mother’s toothbrush and hoped that it would work.

Felicity ran blindly on the rough pavements, stumbling as she recalled opening the test results that had arrived that morning. She’d opened hers first. Her ancestors were Scottish Celts, going back for generations with very little genetic variation. The results included a map which showed the familial matches they’d found on their database. The stars that marked her family’s location looked like a new and wonderful constellation. Her relatives were scattered all over the world, but one relative was very close to where she lived now and then there was a cluster in the far north of Scotland.

Felicity took out her adoptive mother’s results. At first, she thought she’d got the papers mixed up. But no, the results were almost identical. In that moment Felicity knew that the woman who had claimed to be her adoptive mother was her biological mother.

They’d had a colossal argument when Felicity confronted her mother.

“You stupid girl! All these years I’ve protected you, hidden you. All my efforts undone in a moment.”

Her mother waved at the map.

“See these stars? This is their way of finding the people who dared to leave. Now we have to fly again. Why couldn’t you just let it lie? Why wasn’t my love enough for you?”

“Lies aren’t love!” Felicity had yelled. “What sort of mother pretends not to be a mother? What sort of twisted life is that?”

“I had to. You don’t understand the danger. Give me five minutes to explain, but then we have to get away. You need to pack some things. Quickly!”

“I’m not listening. Everything you say is a lie; you’ve lied so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore.”

Felicity rewound their argument over and over as she ran. She lost track of time, but suddenly became aware of the chill air cooling her sweaty body. She looked around. There was an inviting coffee shop on the corner.

As she sipped her hot chocolate, the flickering film reel of their argument coalesced into a single tangible image—her mother’s face, full of love and terror, reaching out to her. She sat there for an hour, hoping the steamy warmth of the cafe would thaw her icy confusion. Eventually, Felicity realised that whatever came next, she would have to go home first, gather her things and move on, either with or without her mother.

Felicity hadn’t appreciated how far she’d run until she stepped out of the coffee shop and realised where she was. She recalled her mother’s fear and almost called an Uber to take her home, but she preferred to walk, using the time to clear her head.

She saw the reflections of the actinic blue lights from around the block. As she turned towards her home, she saw an ambulance and a police car. The front door was open. Just beyond, her mother lay unmoving as a paramedic shouted “Clear!” Her mother’s body jumped as the defibrillator discharged. She saw the paramedic check her mother’s vital signs, then shake his head. She heard him call time of death, a knell that drowned out the police officer’s voice, asking her if she knew the deceased. As they led her inside, Felicity glimpsed, in the distance, a strangely familiar face, a good-looking man with a clever smile. She blinked, but when she looked again, he was gone.

Although the police quizzed her for many hours about the broken door and the argument with her mother, they could find no evidence of foul play. The inquest recorded death by natural causes, a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of the conflict with her daughter. Felicity hated the pity on the coroner’s face.

Felicity inherited a comfortable amount of money. Her mother’s will was clear, especially about being cremated rather than buried. The solicitors managed the paperwork efficiently and impersonally, though Felicity had to sign for one envelope, a letter from her mother.

Dear Felicity

I hope that when you read this letter we will both have enjoyed long and happy lives. I hope that you have made your own family and are surrounded by my grandchildren. If you are young, then it means they have found me. I beg you to flee, use the money to travel, get away, find a new identity. Families are what you make rather than what you inherit, never forget that.

xxx Mummy

Felicity fingered the pendant that had accompanied the letter. The exquisite silver disk showed a perfectly sculpted wren, every detail chased into the metal with delicate skill. She could feel the individual feathers with her fingertips, metal cold but somehow alive to her touch. There was a curious golden chain attached to the pendant, too small to be a necklace. Felicity turned her mother’s letter over. There was no explanation.

Although her mother had urged her to use her inheritance to travel far away, Felicity had only one destination in mind. The clustered galaxy of stars on her DNA map drew her to Scotland.

*

It was Christmas Eve when Felicity arrived in Aberdeen airport. The wild and robust landscape was a world away from her cloistered urban childhood.

It had taken a few weeks to follow up on the DNA test results, but she was relieved when her relatives had enthusiastically agreed to meet her. They’d invited her to join them for Christmas. A cousin had picked her up from the airport, loading the two suitcases that held all her possessions into the back of his truck and driving her to their ancestral home.

She held on to the bag which contained her mother’s ashes—her new uncle had asked her to bring them, suggesting they could be laid to rest in the family graveyard. He’d also asked her to bring the silver wren, telling her it was a precious heirloom.

Felicity was astonished when her cousin parked the car in front of a castle. There was no other word for it, though it was no fairy-tale confection of turrets. This building had stood firm against war and weather for a thousand years and looked set to endure for thousands more. The grand hall was palatial, but Felicity couldn’t see beyond the throng of her extended family as she was greeted and hugged exuberantly. She wept as a deep feeling of belonging filled a space in her soul that she never knew existed. Her uncle shooed the flock of cousins away and asked a servant to show her to her room. The tartan-draped walls were cosy and comforting; the roar of the fire in the hearth lulled her to sleep.

Christmas day passed in a whirl of feasting and song. Felicity delighted in her family’s lively energy. Her uncle had fiery red hair and was clearly the king of the castle. Her many aunts bore a striking resemblance to her late mother. She seemed to have a legion of cousins, some already working on the next generation with babies due the following spring. They swept aside her apologies, accepting, without rancour, her explanation that her mother had kept them a secret. She felt embarrassed when the family gathered to open the gifts lavishly piled under the Christmas tree. She had prepared a few thoughtful tokens for them, but was overwhelmed when her uncle handed her a carved wooden box. She removed the silk and velvet wrapping and found a newly minted silver wren, identical to her mother’s.

“The wren is an ancient family emblem gifted to just one daughter in each generation. We thought the family had lost the wrens forever when your mother disappeared. To have you back amongst us is a gift beyond your comprehension.”

Felicity stuttered a reply. It was hard to perceive herself as a gift when her family had heaped such unearned generosity on her.

She woke early on Boxing Day. Her uncle had invited her to the family graveyard at dawn. He said that she could be part of an important family ceremony and she could lay her mother’s ashes to rest. He asked her to bring both silver wrens.

The castle was silent as she walked down to the breakfast room. It was still dark, so she knew she wasn’t late, yet the horde of cousins was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper served her strong tea and bitter salted porridge, smiling at her protests. There would be a raw wind at the churchyard; she would need this traditional fuel to keep her warm. As the first light blushed the crystal dark sky, the housekeeper ushered her toward the nearby churchyard.

A low granite wall surrounded the cemetery, the natural stone glowing as the sun’s rays shimmered across them. Felicity walked in through the iron gates and threaded her way between the gravestones towards a dark shape in the centre of the graveyard. The ancient yew’s dark green leaves absorbed the rising sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the reflected luminosity of the bright red berries and the silver wren pendants hanging from its branches. Felicity was enchanted by the tree’s beauty as the sun’s radiance filled the graveyard with colour.

A hand grasped her shoulder.

“This is a moment that I have dreamt of since your mother took you from me.”

A honeyed voice wrapped the words around her. She turned, knowing that she would see a man with a sly, handsome face and a clever smile.

“Daddy?”

“Do you remember me?” His voice was melodic and soothing.

“You used to read me stories. Sometimes I couldn’t remember your face, but I would know your voice anywhere.”

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

“Where is everyone?” Felicity asked, looking around the empty graveyard.

“They stayed in the castle, out of respect for me, and this divine moment.”

They stood for a while and then her father snapped his fingers. The sound echoed jarringly among the gravestones.

“Come, this ceremony must be completed before the sun is fully risen. Are you ready, little wren?”

Felicity nodded, but she had no idea of what to expect.

Her father pointed at the abundance of tiny red berries adorning the yew.

“These are not strictly berries, they are arils. The seeds sit at the bottom of tiny cups of sweetness. The fruit keeps the birds alive in winter. We must offer a gift to the tree in exchange for its bounty.”

He gestured for her to hang the two wren pendants from the branches. The golden chains looped perfectly around the fine-needled branches. The silver birds settled smoothly, blending harmoniously with the green leaves and the red arils. Felicity felt a strange flutter in her chest, the birds looked so peaceful on their perches, but her mother had never wanted this. She felt a sudden urge to grab the wrens and fly away, but then she flushed with fear at the thought of losing her cherished new family.

Her father looked at her curiously, then turned to thank the tree as he picked a handful of arils.

“Now we must share this fruit—this ritual binds us to the family tree. Let the fruit dissolve in your mouth then swallow. Do not chew the seeds inside the arils as they are poisonous when broken.”

Felicity hesitated, but couldn’t resist her father’s invitation to join the family. She saw him place a handful of arils in his own mouth and swallow them with relish. She put a few arils in her mouth. Their sweet flavour was delectable, but the flesh dissolved into a sticky slime that was difficult to swallow. She resisted the urge to chew the seeds, and was grateful when her father offered her his hip flask.

“This is mead, made from our own honey. It will help to wash that down.”

The sweet drink melded deliciously with the fruit, though the spirit burned her throat as she swallowed.

“There, we have completed the first part of the ceremony, now we must welcome you home.”

He gestured at a small hole that had been dug nearby.

“Return your mother’s ashes to the family tree where she belongs.”

Felicity knelt and poured the ashes into the ground, her heartbeat loud and urgent in her chest. She supposed that the emotion of meeting her family, of saying goodbye to her mother, was finally catching up with her. She lifted her hands to wipe away the tears that were blurring her vision, but her eyes were dry. Her arms trembled, overcome with weakness.

She looked up, surprised to find that she was now lying beneath the tree. The silver wrens sparkled in the branches above her. She felt strangely warm and comfortable as her father knelt to cradle her head.

“Rest. The yew seeds that salted your porridge this morning will soon do their work. You will not suffer, I am sure of that. I did not let your mother suffer. We were distant cousins and childhood friends. We married young and I loved her, even though she was marked as the wren. We could have had a long life together; the tree is patient. But she tried to escape her fate and forced the family’s hand.”

Felicity looked at her father’s clever face. She felt cosseted by his mesmerising voice, even as her mind wrestled with his words. She did not understand what he was saying, could they have had a life together, been a family? Her body was weighed down with sadness and regret.

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

“This tree has safeguarded our family for a thousand years. As it thrives, so do we. As we nurture it, so it cares for us. All it asks is a sacrifice, a wren on the feast of St Stephen, one in each generation to bind the family to the tree. Your grandfather chose your mother to be the wren, but she was afraid that I would choose you in the next generation. Her love for you transcended her love for our family. However, she was the wren of her generation, there could be no other. I knew that we would find her one day.”

Felicity felt her father lift her unresisting body. Her heart was fluttering frantically now, like a captured bird. The family tree blurred into shimmers of silver, red, and green, festive tinsel colours. He lowered her gently into the shallow grave that had been hidden behind the yew’s vast trunk.

“We had not chosen the wren for your generation. In the olden days, we could rely on pestilence and plague to choose the sacrifice, but now we have to be more direct. It is a difficult decision, though the wrens can choose to live up to fifty years before the tree demands their lives. We were about to choose your generation’s wren when you turned up, a stranger to us. Your arrival was a blessing. Now we can let you go before we have time to love you and suffer the pain of your loss.”

He stayed with her as her heart faltered and stopped. Felicity’s cousins emerged from behind the gravestones and covered her body with earth.

Back at the castle, the family celebrated the sacrifice that would bring them prosperity for another generation. Felicity’s possessions were burned—no one would come looking for her.

In the graveyard, the yew’s fine, questing roots covered Felicity’s body with its downy filaments, binding her, bone, joint and socket, to the family, forever.

pencil

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate—it’s a sweet life. A number of her poems and short stories have been published in the horror ezine Siren’s Call. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Of her horror writing, Alex’ best friend says ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted! Email: sue[at]collavoce.co.uk