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

The Famous Poet

Fiction
Jim Ray Daniels


Photo Credit: Julie Jablonski/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellen was married to the famous poet.

“Famous poet—that’s an oxymoron,” he’d say, while signing books after readings, chatting up his readers, ignoring the length of the line, “the poetic line,” he’d joke, which sometimes extended to ten or twenty—long, in poetry terms. Poetry is full of oxymorons. Or just plain morons. Ha, ha. Poetry joke. Ah shucks. He’s a poet and he knows it. He liked keeping the line long to give the illusion of popularity. He was an illusionist.

She attended most of his readings once he got into his seventies. A deadhead for Dan. Dan was her man. They flew together, then slept in single beds in poetry-budget hotel rooms. It didn’t seem like a lot of people wanted to sleep with him anymore, but while he held a book in his hand—his book—and they waited, he held a brief power, however diminishing. His signature, more precious the closer he got to dying.

You might think her presence was a deterrent to those who might still want to sleep with the famous poet, but that’s not why Ellen was his roadie—not anymore. He was starting to get confused. With or without the book in his hand, he sometimes forgot where he was. He now liked the idea of sex better than sex itself. For years, he liked the idea of being married better than marriage itself.

Why do people get books signed? Ellen was never interested. Dan got so many books sent to him by younger poets that he often sold them to the used bookstore in town. Their signatures irritated him. He didn’t want people in the bookstore thinking he was callous and mercenary, selling books signed to him personally. “Shit,” he’d say, ripping open the padded envelopes, “another signed one.” He kept them those together on a separate shelf. ‘Sell them when I die,’ he’d tell her. “Maybe some of them will be famous someday.”

Always about fame. Dan loved the scheming and feuds. They animated him in ways that Ellen never understood. She never met a person who took greater pleasure in ire.

 

She met Dan when they worked together in a French restaurant in Cleveland as high school kids. His uncle owned the joint. He always seemed to find a way into The Club, whatever club that might be, then passing judgment on nonmembers. He claimed not to be in any club, like all poets, but he’d won the big prize, so that made him a universal card-carrying member, a blood donor for all victims.

Three people on the awards committee, and two of them they’d had dinner with on multiple occasions. Casual acquaintances, he called them, but they did each other favors. Once you win the big prize, they hyphenate it in front of your name forever.

“Hey, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet,” she used to tell him, “take out the trash.” Funny at first. But he wouldn’t take out the trash. At school, they hired an assistant to open those padded envelopes, screen his email. He had a booking agent, Marge, who mothered him, despite him being thirty years her senior. He was shrinking into an elfin wiry hanger of an old man. On bad days, he looked like Munch’s The Scream, skeletal with inscrutable suffering. On good days, it rained, and they sat drinking tea together, and he forgot the tiny world of poetry in which he was a minor god. He’d read the newspaper comics aloud, particularly the odd, serious ones like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan, M.D., giving the characters absurdly dramatic voices. He would be hers again as they watched rain rattle windows, and they’d be happy to be together, inside, and dry, while the world out there got wet.

 

Ellen never really understood his poems, though she was afraid to tell him. He dutifully signed one of his free copies to her “with love” each time he published a new book, and she stacked them in their son’s old room on the shelves below the favorite children’s books they used to read him aloud and couldn’t bear to part with. She sometimes sat on his old bed and reread them—Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Dinosaur Bob, Goodnight Moon, a sweet, endless row of colorful titles—while the poetry books at eye level gathered dust. Their son Pablo (yes, Pablo—Pablo Mitchell) had done well enough to afford to live in San Francisco, far enough away from them in Pittsburgh to exhaust the prize winner on the cross-country flight, though when a school flew him out to get another prize or to give out another prize—once he won the big prize, he was called upon to hand out many prizes himself—he was happy enough to go, and then spend an extra day with Pablo and his partner Walt. He didn’t like Walt much. “Does he have to be so gay?” he asked without irony.

“Our son loves Walter,” Ellen always said. He stopped responding to that, except to harrumph and leave the room or rattle the pages of a manuscript he was working on. His assistant printed out everything for him. Ellen used to do that.

 

Yes, she used to. They entered the past-tense mode, and the rest of Ellen’s dreams took a tumble, so that’s how this little story ends. So predictable—may as well get it out on the table, let you know this is going where you think it is. Not like one of his poems: “a master of mystery and self-interruption, of opacity and misdirection, he gives whole new meaning to the word ‘meaning’.”

Ellen got hit with some moral outrage from the poetry world when she introduced his poems as evidence in the divorce trial. Online diatribes that Pablo read to her over the phone while giggling and drinking some high-priced wine. He was fond of expensive wines and mocking his father.

Evidence of what? Mental instability. Her lawyer thought the judge would find them a hoot, and he was right. He didn’t understand them either. Yet the poets wanted to protect him and his poetic license—no one wanted to take that away, leave him stranded with his fancy certificates and trophies. Ellen had protected him for thirty-seven years, yet she was vilified on social media by a pack of poets who were desperate to write online screeds in lieu of poetry. Yet it made no difference in her daily life. Dan himself once called them a bunch of circle-jerk backstabbers—if you were outside the circle, there were no consequences.

 

“I don’t care about the poems,” Ellen told Dan, “but you have to make sense to me.” They sat in the large, modern kitchen of their sleek house in Upper St. Clair, further from the university, closer to the airport. They’d moved out there for the schools for Pablo and stayed so Dan could use traffic as an excuse to be late for everything on campus.

“That’s always been the problem—you don’t care about the poems. I’m glad you’re finally admitting it,” he said. He took the wallet out of his back pocket and set it on the table between them.

“Does this make sense, Ellen?” he asked, as if she was a stupid student who had dared to challenge him. He only had to teach one course a semester now, and even that, he was mailing in, winging it, having his assistant screen the student poems like she screened his mail.

“You don’t get the joke of my poems,” he once explained. “They deal with the absurdity of the world. Do you think the world makes sense, Ellen?”

“It’s our job to try to make sense of it,” she said, “Not to reproduce incoherence.”

“Who is this ‘we’?”

“Humanity.”

He laughed. What’s the source of this newfound idealism?” he asked. “No, that just won’t do, not at all.”

“Fuck you,” Ellen shouted.

“Fuck me, indeed,” he said, and took his coffee into his study. The next week, he left for a week-long residency at Princeton, and when he came back, he moved out. Even his movers were a bunch of sycophantic grad students.

 

He had given Ellen the opportunity to be cruel, at long last, and she took it. Perhaps he was at fault for taking so long to grab It himself. She was ashamed of playing the martyr, the anchor to his ship straining to pull away.

Since she’d retired early from my job as a paralegal for Hoefner and Reid, a big downtown law firm, she’d been intent on helping his career, but he won the prize, just when you think he’d need her more, and the university, the foundations, the Poetry National Honor Society, all started fluffing up his pillows. Excuse the sarcasm. Or not. She is still working on not giving a fuck.

When she retired, she made the obvious mistake of making the poetry world her world, so when they got divorced, she lost a lot of friends she could no longer call for help with crossword puzzles.

 

She loved him after long shifts together in the restaurant, walking home on the muted streets of Cleveland, hands held, the faint smell of wine and garlic and sweat in their white shirts and black pants, passing only the occasional random drunk, the buzzing lights of the all-night donut shop they sometimes stopped into for coffee. She loved the way he set them apart from the others, quelling her loneliness, squelching the persistent urge to fit in that she always fought against, the behaver in her, the follower. Ultimately, their love became a small club of two. He was always president.

 

“You should have been a lawyer,” they’d tell her at the firm. “You’d be a real ball buster,” Jake Hoefner himself told her. But once Pablo was away at Stanford, it was too late. Ellen knew she could never go back to school and take notes from some little shitheads when she knew as much or more about the law—about practicing law—than most of the lawyers she worked for.

 

When you get older, it’s easy to get hurt. Physically hurt. Ellen had both knees scoped, and a torn rotator cuff—from shoveling the snow while the famous poet was at a conference. Dan had a “heart episode” a few years ago, which led to her snow shoveling, though to be honest, it’d always been, when the flakes were falling, Dan was stalling. Pablo shoveled for years—one of his chores—but not Dan.

 

“Not bad for a poor white kid from Jersey,” was Dan’s favorite line. It had a hint of humility to it and also celebrated the relative poverty of his family (his father had come from money and lost it). Dan had remade himself over the years, telling lies about his family in interviews his family would never read—he never read them himself. He trusted Ellen to read them. “Just make sure they don’t make me sound like an asshole,” he said, which was never a problem, since the interviews were conducted by younger poets currying favor.

Ellen thought lawyers were sleazy, but once she started keeping score in poetry, she understood that the lawyers had nothing on poets except more money. The poets added an extreme level of pettiness in lieu of financial compensation. They were always putting in the fix on the prizes and contests. She was going to bring that up at the divorce proceedings as well, but that’s when he caved. He was correct that introducing his poems would make him a martyr in some circles, but he also knew details of some of the backroom deals might get him the kind of publicity he didn’t need.

 

“After a certain point, shouldn’t you just stick it out till the end, till death do you part?” Pablo asked. He’d never been a big fan of his father’s poetry, or sometimes of his father himself, but he’d embraced his name, and Neruda, and it became part of his image—the silicon valley guy who read poetry. A techie with a deep side.

His mother was calling him to make the announcement. Even before she told Dan. In a way, perhaps she was steeling herself for Dan—to see if Pablo could/would talk her out of it.

“What do you have to lose by staying with him?”

“There’s no hyphens in front of my name,” Ellen said. “Maybe there’s still time for one. I’m thinking ‘ball-buster Ellen.”

“Mom, you don’t mean that,” he said.

 

Ellen could have gone the easier route with “infidelity,” but that was too easy. “Infidelity for $200!” She wanted the upper hand somehow, to not be a victim, despite being victimized for years.

 

“I’m getting a medal next week from the Academy,” he told her as soon as she sat down at his booth at Two Brothers, the one he was sitting at on the cover of his New and Selected Poems. It was a home game for him, she thought idly as she set her satchel down beside her, but then again, it always was.

The satchel was for what her future might hold. She was sixty—not much time. It held her new laptop and nothing else. She didn’t ask what academy. “You look good for an old man.”

He was drinking a martini as if he posing for another author photo, proud of himself forever. He always wanted to be interviewed at the Two Brothers, for it to get mentioned as his place. He was delighted whenever one of the brothers told him someone had come in looking for him. He wanted to be looked for.

Ellen ordered a draft and a bag of pretzels and looked around.

“Are you happy now?” he asked.

She smiled at him. “You know me, I’m never happy.”

“That’s why you should be a poet!” he shouted and laughed.

“You know, Danny, sometimes I think this poetry thing is all these little toy soldiers on a board moving around while above them the rest of the world goes on, not caring who kills who, who takes what territory, because we all know they’re toys. The only ones who don’t know are the poets.”

“This poetry thing you talk about—it’s my life.”

“Come on, it’s me, Ellen. See, I’m not taking notes.”

“You loved me for it back when we worked at Le Petite.”

“I liked you better as a waiter pretending to speak French. You knew you were pretending then. “

Dan pounded on the table. “Pretend? Pretend? I’ve been saving my own life with poetry.”

“What about my life? Have you been saving my life?” she shouted.

“Oh, good,” he said, “you’re making a scene. Everybody loves a good scene.”

“They do,” she replied. “You need more scenes in your poems and less…”

“And less what? Less poetry?” he snorted. He was fingering one of the cigars he’d taken up, chewing them soggy without lighting. Another form of pretending.

“You’re always talking about the image, but I think you mean image in a different kind of way.”

 

Pablo and Walt were having a baby. Or somebody was having the baby for them with somebody’s sperm. Ellen was too excited to ask. She didn’t care.

They were both on the line, talking over each other from different rooms in their San Francisco apartment. “We didn’t want to tell anyone until the baby was born,” Pablo said.

“But we couldn’t wait. Just family, we said,” Walt added.

“Get Dad. Put him on the other line,” Pablo said.

Ellen pulled the phone away and shouted, “Dan, pick up, it’s Pablo and Walt!”

He was reclining in his La-Z-Boy scanning through a stack of literary journals looking for familiar names.

“Both of them?” he said before picking up. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

“Hey Grandpa,” Pablo shouted. “Now you’re going to have something to write about—we’re having a baby!”

“Who? What? Who’s having a baby?” he unreclined his chair and stood up, bending down to shout into the phone.

“We—“

“We’re using a surrogate!” Walt shouted. “It’s when—“

“I know what a surrogate is,” Dan shouted. “Who’s the father?”

Across the room, Ellen made mad hand gestures to indicate happiness, as if it were a game of charades.

“Oh, never mind,” he said, “Congratulations to you two,” he said, then hung up.

“What’s that all about?” Walt asked.

“My Dad doesn’t like talking to more than one person unless he’s performing,” Pablo said. “Was he writing?” he asked Ellen.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter what he was doing,” she said. “I’m excited and proud of you both. So is your father.”

“Will he write the baby a poem?” Walt asked.

“No,” Pablo and Ellen said simultaneously.

 

“It’s not just me and you,” he said, “it’s about saving everybody.”

“Oh, don’t start quoting William Carlos Williams again. You’re going to make me puke.” Ellen was sorry as soon as she said it, and, in fact, liked Williams. She understood some of what he had to say—the plums poem, but not the wheelbarrow poem.

They had been happy and reckless—then they were less reckless, then less happy. Unhappiness was subtle and blurry, almost unrecognizable, something disguised as happiness—as if someone had gently nudged them into a dark room and their eyes failed to adjust.

“When’s the last time you puked, by the way? It might be good for you. A nice purging.”

 

Dan had written poems about Pablo. One of them was anthologized everywhere: Pablo crawling into bed with them during a thunderstorm. Dan recited it from memory. Pablo recited it from memory. Even Ellen could recite it from memory. She sat in the back at readings, then slipped out when she knew the poem was coming, their intimacy turned into a parlor trick, the audience making murmuring noises of approval and wonder.

He rarely wrote about Ellen, at least in any recognizable way. The Pablo poem had been an uncharacteristic dip into sentiment, but it went over so well that Dan had to keep reading it, even after Pablo was a grown man. He would have preferred to leave the room himself and have someone else read it. He didn’t consider it one of his better poems.

 

“You don’t need a beginning and ending if the middle’s good enough,” Dan was fond of saying.

But I need an ending, Ellen caught herself thinking whenever he said it. It was a mistake to follow him around the country and sit at long tables in noisy restaurants and listen to Dan hold forth. He turned it on and off like a faucet, so when they were alone back in the hotel room, it was off for Ellen, or only running cold.

 

The poetry scuttlebutt was that they were getting divorced because of his affairs—small change in the dramatic currency of poets’ lives. “A few peccadillos,” he would raise his shoulders and shrug. “Don’t you love the sound of that word, peccadillos?”

Clearly, she’d hurt him, and that kind of clarity was what she was looking for, without apology. The pain of the needle, not the blunt instrument.

They were both tired of apology.

 

One of the Two Brothers was heading over to check on them. Ellen reached across the table and took Dan’s hand. She squeezed. In the lack of words, they each found their own meaning.

 

She edited their high school yearbook, and he edited the literary magazine. He rarely mentioned this, because what hardscrabble high school had a literary magazine? And in his version, he was busing tables at the restaurant, not waiting tables, not speaking French with only the slightest of accents, as he recited the memorized menu each night.

What was not to love? He stood thick through the chest with a deep resonant voice. His hair was thinning, but he had a beautiful forehead and a sincere smile.

Sincere. Dan, the owner’s nephew who always got more than his fair share of tables, tips. But he could handle it. He was good at handling, his deceptively delicate hands easing plates onto the white tablecloth with a bow.

Ellen had to talk him out of the beret back then, but now he wore one without irony or affectation. He could wear anything because he’d won the prize. He was a noted raconteur, and didn’t a raconteur need a good chapeau?

 

“Ellen, if you go out with me, I’ll explain poetry to you.”

“What makes you think I want it explained?”

They were driving to a writer’s conference at Hawking, a fancy prep school in the suburbs of Cleveland.

“How about you explain yearbook to me then? A collection of vanity mug shots for the cliques to prove they were important once?”

He had the wit of someone who took nothing seriously, but he took everything seriously.

 

They were the two finalists for the English Department award their senior year, and he had won, backed by the passionate endorsement of the gay literary magazine advisor who had a crush on him. The yearbook advisor, on the other hand, was an alcoholic stumbling toward retirement, cynical and defeated.

 

She loved that his French sounded authentic, that he also made jewelry and played the piano. He went to Kenyon College and she went to Denison for a year, then transferred to join him at Kenyon. He wrote her letters full of wild madness that often showed up later as parts of poems. She didn’t wonder then, but later asked him what came first, the letters, or the poems.

“It’s all a process,” he said. “I wrote them all out of love for you.”

They went to Paris once, a rainy week a year before Pablo came along. Dan was unhappy being a tourist and taken advantage of. Ellen did most of the French-speaking. He was uncharacteristically hesitant, fumbling. Ellen loved his reliance on her, how he turned to her for confirmation or assistance. He never wanted to go back.

 

The yearbook did a feature on the literary magazine, Prism, which was then only in its second year. Dan was in three of the four photos, bent over, pretending to edit, pretending to lay out a poem, pretending to have a staff meeting. The only other picture of Dan in the yearbook showed him sitting in the library, holding a book with his middle finger extended. No one noticed until after it came out, and Ellen had been furious. Even the old, drunken advisor had gotten out of his chair to raise a protest, but the photo was just uncertain enough that Dan could plead innocence. He was an escape artist, even then, hiding his meaning with wit. He’s a clever one, they all said, and he was Ellen’s, and she lovingly put up with him, like in the teen movies she couldn’t help liking—the good girl, the wise-cracking guy. They were a unit in school, in the restaurant, on the street. Because you couldn’t understand his poems, they were good. He was smart enough to be clear, and too smart to be clear—selling mystery and wonder. He had the magic fire stick, and what he did with it was his business.

 

Ellen remembered the phone call, and Dan, of course, remembered it too. A caller from New York who wanted to talk to Daniel Ronson, the poet. She handed him the phone, and they exchanged a look.

“Is this it?” he whispered to her, pointing to the phone.

Ellen giggled. They knew he was a finalist. and that the announcement was coming. He winked at her and crossed his fingers.

“Yes, this is Dan Ronson. Yes, the poet.”

 

When he hung up, he clapped his hands and whooped a series of celebratory shouts, then shimmied a victory dance. Ellen wanted to dance with him, but he didn’t reach for her until he was tired of dancing.

“Ha!” he said, panting, and she took him in her arms. He lifted her up. “How does it feel to be married to a Pulitzer-Prize winner?”

 

He was the first to ask her that question. She soon lost track of how often she was asked. Many of the questions were not rhetorical, like Daniel’s. People wanted an answer, as if there was one. Something witty and crisp, not heartfelt.

“I’m proud of him,” she always said.

“Well, of course,” they said, “but…”

“It’s only poetry,” she said, and laughed, but no one laughed with her.

 

He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got some calls to make,” he said, and pulled away. He’d prepared a list. First, he called Two Brothers.

“I won,” he shouted. “Open up the back room and be ready, we’re coming down!”

It wasn’t as festive as Daniel or Ellen imagined it would be, since winning the prize meant, of course, that his friends had not won. He should’ve just invited their neighbors and the plumber and electrician—anyone who had nothing to do with poetry and could sincerely be thrilled for him.

Back home, he was glum, restless, and couldn’t sleep. “Fuck them,” he said. “Why even show up if they can’t be happy for me?”

Ellen wanted to remind him of the years he’d spent railing about other prizes and winners, but she just took him in her arms and patted his head. They were on the same team. She was happy for him, he needed to know.

The next day, he remembered to call Pablo.

 

Dan had an opinion on everything. He should have been a critic, Ellen used to think sometimes, listening to him evaluate every meal, every movie, every other driver on the road—but she worried that he’d be too harsh. He excelled at finding weak spots.

For many years, Pablo had adopted his father’s beliefs about everything, but when he became a teenager, he stopped and went into reverse, and Dan didn’t have the time or disposition to win Pablo over with reason. He was dismissive and patronizing, as he could be with everyone, but his own son, confused about his sexuality, got no help from his father, who, oblivious for years, offered comments on which girls were cute, and why didn’t he ask them out?

“Dan,” Ellen told him, “Pablo is figuring things out. Don’t pressure him.” She worried about him being gay. At their high school back in Cleveland, they shunned anyone who was different, and different often meant gay—like the Prism advisor, Mr. Hancock, who Dan mocked behind his back. Dan himself had to fend off taunts due to his poetry writing, and Mr. Hancock’s fawning, which lead him to take a more macho stance, denigrating the true gay students, who, in fact, were often interested in poetry and finer things—at least some of the more open ones. Ellen was no expert on who was gay and who wasn’t. Somebody like Walt, it seemed easy to tell. But Pablo didn’t wear the spangly affectations of being gay like Walt. He didn’t fight for gay rights. He just was. Gentle, kind, Pablo, their son, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t stay married and keep whole and simple one part of his life. He never tired of hearing that one poem.

 

Dan didn’t reserve the backroom at Two Brothers when Pablo and Walt made their announcement. He seemed embarrassed, hesitant to share the news.

Ellen couldn’t figure it out. Between academia and poetry, Dan had many friends who were gay. But maybe it wasn’t about being gay at all. It was either about being oblivious, or about how poets count years compared to the rest of us. You can still be a “younger” poet until age forty, when most athletes are already retired. Even at his age, Dan seemed to still have a generation older than him of poets still alive and gently kicking. Dan denied her chiding—being labeled “grandpa” wasn’t going to bother him, he said.

Ellen couldn’t help but compare the two big announcements—they came within months of each other, and led to the third, since all big things come in three.

 

That night after he hung up on Pablo and Walt (not named after Whitman, which would have been too perfect, though Dan, in his softer moments, joked about “those two poets out in San Francisco”), Ellen missed out on sharing the genuine joy she felt, knowing how life gives so little of it—he could go back to scanning his literary magazines for familiar names without it. There’s a reason they only had one child.

Perhaps Ellen’s meanness was a work-in-progress, like a painting class at the senior center. But Dan did not appreciate the competition a child provided. Ellen knew poetry was “a kind of lying,” as Dan always quoted somebody. Williams? But that sweet poem he wrote about Pablo seemed like another kind of lie.

No, not Williams. It was that sweet poet with the long white hair who looked a little like Whitman. Once he was in town for a reading and came to look for Dan, to thank him for something. Dan should have been home. He was probably holding forth at the Two Brothers. Ellen offered to have him paged there, but the man said not to bother—he’d just dropped in—though she’d never seen him before, and he must have looked up their address.

Ellen was holding Pablo in her arms. He asked, “But if it isn’t too much trouble, can I hold your baby for a minute?”

How could she refuse such a request? She gently handed him over.

“And what is this fine baby’s name,” he asked, brushing aside his long beard and holding him to his chest.

“Pablo,” she said.

“Ah, Pablo,” he said, and stroked the fur on the baby’s head. The man handed him back to Ellen and thanked her again. He bowed and slipped out the door.

 

Dan is sitting alone at his booth in the Two Brothers. His assistant sits across from him. Together, they go through a box of mail. She is a poet herself and hopes this might lead to something.

 

Ellen is sitting in Pablo’s room, the stack of old children’s books in front of her on the floor. She will ship them to the boys for when the baby comes. She grabs one of Dan’s books from the lower shelf and opens it to with love. She keeps turning the pages. She begins to read.

 

When Dan finally came home, it took them nearly half an hour to determine who that visiting poet was. Ellen was sure he’d said his name at the door, but she had forgotten it.

“Wow,” Dan said. He was flattered that the frail old poet had come to see him, though not enough to attend his reading that night. “Hand me my son,” he said. “Can’t let the poetry world get their grubby hands on him,” he winked at her.

Ellen thought about making a crack about naming him Pablo in the first place, but she’d agreed to the name herself. She handed him back his award.

pencil

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include a Michigan Notable Book prize, finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jd6s[at]andrew.cmu.edu

Confessions

Fiction
L.M. Brown


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

Nollaig Sheehy sat two seats from the front pew with her coat fastened. Her hands were folded on her knees. The priest’s late start didn’t concern her. He was probably called out to an ailing parishioner. A few children were restless. She heard the whimpers and the hushing noises of mothers. But mostly the congregation waited with nothing more than the occasional whisper and shuffle. Nollaig was thinking of the roast beef she would cook for herself and Margaret when the priest appeared red-cheeked and breathless in his white linen vestment.

Father Kineally, a tall, skinny priest, with a thick head of silver hair and big nose, grasped the side of the pulpit and leaned forward to tell the congregation that a terrible thing had happened.

“Nick Moody was grievously hurt,” the priest said.

“He was bludgeoned and found behind the Dun Maeve pub,” he said.

Nollaig thought he was looking directly at her. She was convinced she’d misheard him and it wasn’t Nick Moody’s name he’d spoken, but her daughter’s, Margaret Sheehy, who had been working in the Dun Maeve last night.

Father Kineally was speaking about community helping each other in this time of need and Nollaig was thinking of her daughter standing by the back door of the pub. No matter the weather she liked to stand there so she could hear the rush of the river beside her.

“The first thing I do when everyone leaves,” she’d said before, “Is go out and breathe that fresh air.”

Nollaig realized she was standing. Her head was light. She could feel the attention move onto her and the worry that had risen from her movement. Many present must have realized that Margaret had been working last night. There was a collective intake of breath. Neighbor’s knees tilted sideways. Nollaig stumbled onto the aisle.

The priest’s voice followed her out of the church, but she heard nothing of the words. Last night’s rain had brought out the dark hues of the countryside. The road was quiet. Nollaig weaved through the cars parked in front of the church. Somewhere close a dog was barking and she imagined Margaret hurt or still hiding in the pub. Her breathing felt trapped inside her head. She ran, then walked, then ran again.

It took three efforts to get her key in the latch. Nollaig didn’t bother taking it out. In her hurry, she left the front door open. Her daughter’s room was at the front of the bungalow. Nollaig opened the door to darkness and a scent of unwashed clothes. Her daughters form was huddled under the covers in bed. Nollaig turned on the light to reveal her daughter’s dark hair and pale skin.

“Hey!” Margaret said, “Turn the light off.”

Nollaig couldn’t move. Her daughter was rising from the bed and Nollaig was looking at the wet clothes that had been thrown on the floor.

“Mammy what is it?” Margaret said.

For a moment Nollaig couldn’t speak.

“Mammy,” Margaret urged and the worry in her voice pulled Nollaig back.

She told her, “Nick Moody was hurt last night”.

“What do you mean ‘hurt,’ what happened?” Margaret said.

Nollaig was shaking her head. She said she didn’t know. She said she’d run home as soon as she heard because she was so worried. “You get up, I’ll put the kettle on,” she said.

Nollaig was standing by her kitchen window when she saw the police car.

*

Across from Margaret was a female detective with short blonde hair and thoughtful navy eyes. She was slim with wrists that looked small enough to break with touch. She had introduced herself as Hennessy. Her partner sat beside her. McMahon was his name. He had broad shoulders and pale green eyes over a small nose and thin mouth. There was some grey in his hair, though his face was young.

In her pajamas, Margaret looked like a large child beside them.

“I didn’t go out the back. I was going to,” Margaret said, “But the rain sounded awful.” She paused and shook her head. “I left the bin bag by the back door.”

Nollaig felt numb, as if she was watching this scene from afar. It was too much to think of her daughter standing at that back door, her hand on the handle, the absurdity of it all. McMahon asked if Nick Moody left with anyone.

“No,” Margaret said, “He left alone just after one a.m.”

The last customer was gone twenty minutes later. Margaret finished cleaning and went out the front. Nick’s car was parked across the road, but it was too dark to see if he was inside and too far for her to investigate. She had gotten soaked running to her mother’s car. She’d driven because the forecast warned of rain and she didn’t like walking alone at that hour anyway, no matter how short the journey. She saw no one on her way home.

“Did anything unusual happen last night, any arguments?” Hennessy asked.

Nollaig had to fight the urge to run to her daughter and tell her not to say anything more. The seconds of silence pulled at her and made the swish of the washing machine sound oppressive. She had not looked at her daughter’s clothes before she put them into the machine. They swirled in suds, one pair of pants, a black shirt, and socks.

Margaret said no, nothing strange happened.

“Are you sure,” Hennessy asked.

Margaret had a habit of biting her lip when concentrating. As a child she used to chew her hair. After a while, she said, “Yes, I’m sure, nothing happened.”

A glance out the kitchen window showed the day had turned darker. Clouds skimmed the sky. Nollaig wanted to be on the other side of the glass, far away from here. The room was stuffy and hot. Hennessy asked who Nick was with last night.

Margaret said, “His wife, Joan, but she didn’t stay long.”

She said she couldn’t imagine how she was now. A silence reigned after this and Nollaig wondered if her daughter was waiting for news, if she expected the police to lean forward and tell her something of the wife, how she greeted them at the door with a tired face and collapsed when she heard of her husband’s murder.

Hennessy had glanced at her partner with the mention of the wife’s name. Nollaig was sure they had been the bearers of bad news; the two had stood at Joan’s door. Maybe Hennessy had held her up.

Hennessy said, “Who else was there?”

Margaret rolled a list of names including their next-door neighbor Finn.

McMahon scribbled the names down. Nollaig wondered what the guards would learn about Margaret. They would probably talk to their neighbor Finn, since he was in the pub. She could imagine them at his kitchen table, huddled as they were now. It was possible Finn would remember spending time with Margaret when they were children. Margaret was never happy in his company. There were one or two instances where Nollaig found Finn crying.

What would the two detectives think when they learnt that Margaret had no friends and a sketchy employment record?

For three months she’d worked in a clothes shop in Sligo town. The manager, a forty-ish, well-kept woman with blonde hair and judicious eye had agreed to take Margaret on part-time. Within the first week, Margaret had come home telling Nollaig that she had dressed the window and had been asked to order the clothes for next week. Nollaig had sat at the kitchen table, listening with a sinking sensation in her gut. Days before Margaret had stopped going to work, their dinners were eaten quietly. Margaret had stopped grabbing her mother’s arm and saying. “Wait till I tell you.” Nollaig had been foolish enough to feel relieved with the end of the lies. She should have known her daughter had had her fun and was getting bored. It had happened with the courses in hairdressing and computers she’d started with a flourish, then let fizzle out. Still it had been a shock when wrapped in her duvet and with her pillow over her head; Margaret had announced she wasn’t going into the shop. By the time the owner of the pub asked if Margaret wanted to work a few shifts, she had been unemployed six months.

Nollaig hadn’t heard the last questions asked. The voices rose and fell and she wondered if the detectives were aware of washing machine. Nollaig couldn’t remember if she’d poured detergent in before turning the machine on. The police had gotten out of the car by then and were walking towards the house. Margaret had stalled in the hall when she saw them. She’d looked frightened.

“It’ll be okay,” Nollaig had told her.

A scrape of the chair brought Nollaig’s attention back to the table. McMahon and Hennessy were standing.

“Let us know if you think of anything else?” Hennessy said and Nollaig noticed the white card that had been placed on the table as she walked them out.

“It’s a shock,” McMahon said to Nollaig, and she realized how pale she must look, how shaken and disheveled. She had lost the power of speech.

“I know,” she wanted to say, but there was nothing in her mouth.

From the door she watched them drive away. When she went back to the kitchen, her daughter turned to look at her.

Margaret’s eyes were red but focused. “Isn’t it terrible, Mammy?” she said.

Nollaig couldn’t answer. Her tongue felt too heavy in her mouth. She didn’t know how she was standing.

*

The house was narrow and painted a light pink color. There was one window to the right of the front door with wooden blinds. It looked innocent, tucked between two nondescript buildings, a few yards from the train station Margaret had to walk to every morning. She’d passed the house seventeen times before she noticed the bronze plaque and she paused to look at the letters, elegant and bold, rising from the color of soil. The words surprised her, but not as much as they might have eight months ago when she’d imagined the seediest thing she’d ever have to contend with were the roaming eyes of the drunks she served at the local pub and how they’d call her over with a quick movement of their head. She’d have to lean forward to hear their order, feel their beer-sodden breath on her cheek. Through the side window, she saw there was nothing innocent about that room with the armchairs hidden behind the door, so the men waiting would have the benefit of seeing the ladies enter from behind. But there was nothing innocent about Margaret either. That’s why she left home and flew to the other side of the world. She could have gone to the States. She had relatives there, but she wanted to go where no one knew her, where she could start from scratch and build herself up into someone different. Her eyes met the reflection in the sun-shattered window. Dark hair, heavy-boned, big-eyed, loose of shoulder. She moved on.

Margaret had been staying in a hostel up the road and living out of her suitcase since she’d arrived in the country. For the last months at home, while she’d waited for her visa to come through, she’d hardly left her bedroom. Days were slept away, and nights were spent watching movies on the small portable TV she’d bought when her mother’s silent existence started to get on her nerves.

After Nick Moody’s death, little could be said about her behavior or her need to stay safe inside. She’d ignored calls from her peers who lived close by. They’d phoned because their parents said they should. Margaret needed some support, a shoulder to lean on. She knew the calls had been their parents’ idea because they’d stopped there, no one bothered to come to her front door. Margaret had imagined the neighbors shaking heads and whispering that it must have been shocking to realize what had happened only a few feet away. They would have thought about Margaret alone and vulnerable in the pub; a few might have imagined what would have happened if she’d stepped out the back like she normally did.

“No wonder she hasn’t come back,” they would have said. “It’s a shock.”

Whenever she’d ventured out of the house, the pity in their eyes made her go cold. There was no curiosity about her being the only one in the pub when it happened—Margaret Sheehy, the big quiet girl with the pretty brown eyes.

If it had been Louise, they’d have wondered why he was there in the first place. They would have looked at Louise’s slim figure and blonde hair and come up with a different answer.

But it wasn’t Louise, who liked to flirt behind the counter. It was Margaret, who on her first night tending bar couldn’t talk. Their questions were smiled at and left unanswered until the customers gave up.

The hostel was quiet. Just after two p.m. Margaret’s shift in the café finished at noon. Margaret used to hate this time of day. Now she got through listless afternoons by napping. She could sleep until five if her roommate, an English girl who spent most of her time on the roof smoking, didn’t come in to rummage around her rucksack. Then Margaret would walk around the city for hours. She went all the way to Bondi once. She’d lost weight since she got here, but could do nothing about those big thigh bones.

Her hostel room smelt of sweat and beer, the English girl’s input, and grease, which was Margaret’s. The café she worked in was a busy fast food place and suited her perfectly. From the moment she entered at 6 a.m. she was kept busy, preparing food, serving customers, and cleaning their mess. The owners didn’t keep her a minute past needing her. She got her lunch when she finished and ate on the high counter by the window.

The air was hot and muggy, but this never bothered Margaret. Nights, she tossed and turned with flashes of skin and blood. The feel of cold stone against her palm would wake her more than once, and she’d jump breathless from the bed, expecting to see the bloodied rock before her as if it was possible that it had been unearthed from the bottom of the river and could find her oceans away.

The afternoon sun, though hot and intrusive, kept the dreams back, and let her drift to sleep unhindered. Only not today, because today she couldn’t stop thinking of the bronze sign and the women behind it, and this made her think of the parish priest at home. Hidden behind the red curtain with his face made up of tiny squares from the screen that divided him and his confessors, the quiet grey-haired man became someone different every Saturday evening. He was the voice of power. His stutter disappeared as with a flattened hand he made the figure of the cross and gave penance. He never looked you in the eye so Margaret believed he couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed by the sins he was made to hear.

One Our Father and three Hail Marys was his usual. How much would he have given her?

Her knees would have been raw by the end of it, even if he understood, even if he knew she had no choice, because that’s the way she would have told it. She’d lied too many times to stop now.

The police had come to Margaret’s house to interview her a second time. They’d apologized for making her think of that night but they needed to make sure she hadn’t seen anyone linger. She’d started crying and one of them, a young red-cheeked man with watery eyes, let slip that the violence against Nick had been shocking. When she looked at him wide-eyed, he’d apologized for upsetting her and dropped his gaze.

She’d heard the rumors about an affair, though it was hard to imagine how they’d reached her behind the closed door of her bedroom. She might have heard the whisperings the day she gave her notice in the pub. No doubt the moment she entered, people started talking, as if all they needed was a bit of a push to get going. Margaret knew the wife had been more angry than hurt. With her two young children asleep upstairs, and the bruise on her cheek a faded yellow, she’d told police it was probably some jealous husband. Everyone had known the deceased to wait in the dark for someone else’s wife.

Still no one thought that he might have waited for Margaret. Maybe that’s why she decided to leave, because at home she was so easy to overlook. When she applied for the visa and booked the ticket, she thought she was saying goodbye to the notion that she was the type of woman nothing ever happened to. This idea seemed to follow her though and each time Margaret passed the building with its bronze plaque, the deceit of its pink childlike exterior pulled at her, and made her want to expose what lay underneath.

Six days after reading the plaque, she couldn’t sleep. The English girl had moved out and Margaret was surprised by her loneliness. She dressed in a long black skirt and T-shirt, and went to the small shop tucked in front of the train station to buy a pencil and writing pad. She looked through the newspapers and jotted down the name of one.

The front door to the parlor was opened by slim blonde woman dressed in a pink business suit. She looked like a doll with her shiny complexion and small wrists and ankles. Her hair fell thick on her shoulders and her narrow eyes moved up and down Margaret in a way that made her feel naked. She wasn’t entirely sure if she disliked the sensation.

“I’d like to interview the girls for an article,” Margaret said.

“Really?” the blonde answered.

Margaret tried to say yes. The name of the paper she’d picked was on her tongue but she couldn’t let it fall. There was something about the woman that suggested she saw right through Margaret. The woman looked amused, though there was a hard glimmer in her eyes that made that amusement less personal.

“You can talk to Taylor. Are you thinking of trying it?”

Margaret wasn’t sure what the woman meant, but she nodded and stepped inside. The walls were painted a color between pink and red, a warm color that made Margaret feel claustrophobic. The floor had a brown carpet. A smell of perfume was stronger at the foot of the stairs than anywhere else and made Margaret think of ghosts, or parts of the spirits of girls lingering at the spot. Her gaze slipped quickly away from the stairs that fell into the hall, as if it was something perverse. She watched the gentle sway of the woman’s hips as she led her to a small cluttered room at the back of the house. The room resembled a living room with the couch and two chairs. Clothes were strung over the back of the couch and a bag of makeup was on the coffee table, its contents spilled outward. The window to the left of the door looked out to a concrete yard, and a red-haired girl dressed in a short shirt and vest top sat below the beams of sunlight reaching over her head. She could have been any age from fifteen to twenty-three. She had small compact body that exuded energy.

“This is Taylor,” the blonde said. She looked at Margaret in the appraising way she’d seen men look at Louise. “Sorry I didn’t get your name.”

“Margaret.”

“Is that your real name?”

Margaret nodded.

The woman smiled. “Yeah I thought so.”

She said Taylor would tell her everything she needed to know. Taylor was too small, too young, too full of her life, so Margaret listened and wouldn’t have said anything about herself even if she got the chance. There was too much dirt to spill. Besides once Taylor started talking there was no stopping her. Margaret was awed by the rapid movement of her thin painted lips as she talked about moving from Queensland with her father after spending years in the wrong company. She’d started young. At the tender age of fourteen she had sex in the back of a car and was paid with crumpled bills. Taylor’s father tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, but there were too many windows to watch and too many people waiting on corners. Finally he packed up and moved across the sprawling country, putting the desert between his daughter and the people she’d met.

Taylor worked in a laundromat for a couple of weeks, and a café for three days but she couldn’t stand the idea of putting in so many hours for measly pay when in Queensland she made a few hundred in a day. When she paused, Margaret thought the small parting of her lips looked like a full stop.

It was early afternoon. There was only one other girl, who was busy in one of the rooms upstairs. After a half an hour and most of Taylor’s life story, the doorbell signaled the end of their conversation. Margaret had to wait until the man was brought upstairs before she could leave. Walking back through that narrow corridor, she felt too much like the priest, seeing only the patterns people wanted her to see and showing nothing of herself.

“Can I come tomorrow?” she asked, and the blonde shrugged.

“You could try it out, see if you like it.”

She smiled with Margaret’s surprise. “Girls will get fed up talking. You’ll have to make up your mind soon.”

Margaret nodded.

“And you’ll have to think of a better name.”

The next day, Margaret was led into the small courtyard that was surrounded by high stone walls and made the sky appear close enough to touch. A young woman in a short black dress with thin shoulder straps was sitting at the only table. Her legs were stretched before her and her high heels were slipping off her naked feet. A cigarette burned in the full ashtray beside her. The blonde woman introduced the woman as Sam.

“And this is Margaret—she wants to ask you a few questions.”

The blonde woman retreated with sharp clicks of her high heels. Sam took a cigarette from her pack and lit it. With the pull of her cigarette, her cheeks were drawn in to make her look skeletal. Smoke rose above her rouged cheeks and heavily painted eyelids. Her brown lipstick was thick and smudged. Margaret imagined this carelessness might have been sexy to some of the men who came. It hinted at a kind of risquéness. But to Margaret it made her look as if she had been playing dress up and the game had gone on too long, the borders and boundaries erasing themselves so the girl hadn’t known when to stop, and that was why the woman ended up in this courtyard, in the middle of a city, waiting for a doorbell to ring.

Margaret told her she was interviewing all the girls for an article. The masseuse smiled. Margaret expected her to ask about the paper she worked for, like Taylor had done. The excitement in her brown eyes had dimmed with The Herald as if she had hoped for better. Sam’s lack of curiosity made Margaret feel transparent. A line of sweat tickled her upper lip, and she resisted the urge to wipe it. The gesture would have reminded her of how Nick Moody had wiped the white foam of Guinness from his lips, a hint of aggression that she hadn’t thought of until it was too late.

“So, what do you want?” the woman asked her. Her thumb and pointer fingers had thick silver rings. Her distant and humorless gaze pulled at the nerves in Margaret’s stomach.

“I talked to Taylor yesterday,” she said.

Sam was looking at Margaret as if nothing about her visitor might interest her, as if she knew everything there was to know because she was big-boned and plain.

“Yeah…”

“Yes.” Margaret’s mouth had gone dry. The belief that she could be honest with these women dissolved at her feet and made her want to cry.

“What did she tell you?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Margaret mumbled. She went towards the empty chair and tried to ignore the muscles of Sam’s calves. She imagined Taylor and Sam had talked about her. They would have laughed at the thought of the frumpy girl working here or having to see her dressed in skimpy clothes.

Sam’s fringe came down over one eye. The rest of her hair was cropped short around her head. She leaned forward. “Taylor lied to you. Her dad didn’t bring her to Sydney.”

Margaret remembered the red hair lying loose around Taylor’s neck, her vest top clinging to her flat boy-like breasts, her short bare legs. She remembered the glint in her brown eyes and the smile of self-ridicule.

“Taylor followed her pimp. He says he loves her but wasn’t happy with the deduction in funds when she started to go straight. He brought her here.”

Sam looked Margaret over, smiling at her dress with long sleeves and the lack of naked skin.

“Taylor thought you’d follow your dad before a lover. She’s used to pleasing people.”

Margaret couldn’t answer. Her nerves had flattened and hardened inside her and made her so angry at this young woman with the smooth skin and self-assurance. Sam knew what it was like to pretend, and yet she looked at Margaret and came up with the same conclusion as those fools on the other side of the world.

Sam tipped her ash into the ashtray and Margaret felt the same irritation as she did when she opened the back door of the pub and realized he had been waiting for her. She hadn’t been scared which surprised her. Instead there as a kind of relief in having something she could fight against. Sam took a long drag from her cigarette and Margaret remembered him stepping from the shadows and the sound of the river hitting against the wall behind them. He’d smelt of beer and sweat. She’d hit him with the first thing that had come to hand.

“I didn’t have to kill him.”

Sam stiffened.

“He was lying on the ground, and I dropped the rock on his face. Then I finished cleaning the bar as if nothing happened. I drove home and went to bed and didn’t even think of him.”

The air had grown still and heavy, as if the world had stopped to finally take notice of a big girl with pretty eyes. “I would follow a lover,” she told Sam, “I wouldn’t let him tell me what to do though.”

Sam’s lips had parted and her eyes were soft with fright. Margaret thought again that Sam looked like a child caught in the middle of dress up. The clock ticked in the other room and there was a distant sound of traffic. A cloud skimmed by unnoticed. Margaret was in no rush to leave. The woman sitting before her had dropped her gaze. She said nothing, but Margaret heard her apology in the silence. It would have sounded something like his, a pleading tone in the voice. The bell rang and still Margaret didn’t move. She waited for the blonde woman to stand at the door.

“I’m done here,” Margaret said and the woman looked at Sam who had deflated in her seat. Then she looked at Margaret as if she had no idea what she was.

pencil

L.M. Brown is the author of the novel Debris, and the linked short story collections Treading the Uneven Road and Were We Awake. Her novel Hinterland is forthcoming 2020. Her stories have been nominated for the Puschcart Prize and have been published in over a dozen magazines such as Eclectica, The Chiron Review, Fiction Southeast, Litro and more. She has three daughters and they live near her husband’s hometown in Massachusetts but L.M. grew up in Ireland. Email: lornawbrown[at]gmail.com

Appetizers and Armani

Fiction
JG Alderisio


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

How is it possible that an island only thirteen miles long and less than a mile wide at its narrowest point can jam almost two million people onto its shores and not have people constantly tripping over each other? It seems a mathematical impossibility. And yet on the Upper East Side in the middle of the day there’s a place where the luxury of emptiness exists, where walking on the sidewalk is not akin to a rugby scrum because the sidewalks are blissfully free of pedestrians. It may not be the only neighborhood in Manhattan so empty during the day, but between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, from 64th to 85th Streets certainly has to be one of the prettiest.

Sheilah knew that neighborhood well because she ambled through it every day. The apartment she shared with her husband Peter and their two kids was slightly north on Park Avenue and 88th Street. Whether jogging or shopping or simply running errands she usually headed down to the tranquility of that roughly twenty-block area to accomplish what she needed to do, even if it was just to wander. Sheilah loved looking at the rows of brownstones she found, some a white or dark gray color but most a deep red, the color of dried blood. She stopped to look at the black wrought iron fences many of the brownstones had, inspecting their scrollwork and how they impeded access to a small hill of steps as well as the front door. She peeked into what windows she could but most had their blinds down, their shutters closed as if no one was home which Sheilah assumed they weren’t. That’s why the neighborhood was so empty. Everyone was downtown somewhere earning the salary it took to own a brownstone between Madison and Park Avenues.

Today Sheilah headed for a small French bistro she thought was in the upper 70s about halfway between Park and Madison Avenue. She lunched there months ago and instead of looking up the address decided to trust her memory to guide her there. Though hazy on the location she absolutely remembered the name, La Table du Boucher, a name taken from a French fairy tale about a time of famine when an entire town was miraculously kept alive by the food the local butcher served on his small kitchen table.

After a few wrong turns Sheilah quickly corrected, she saw the handpainted sign for the bistro. The restaurant was on the ground floor of a building the color of sand and had a short, dark gray awning over the entrance. White peonies filled the flower boxes outside the two large front windows. A single table with two chairs stood to the right of the entrance, more for decoration than for function since La Table du Boucher did not deliver food, not even to its sidewalk. The real reason for the table outside was to hold the bistro’s menu.

It was a bit early for lunch so Sheilah expected to see many open tables and booths inside the restaurant. What surprised her when she scanned the room was seeing someone she knew at a table near a window.

“How did you get here before me? I’m local, you’re the foreigner here.”

Kyle stood and hugged his cousin. “I took an earlier train,” he explained. “Couldn’t wait to see you.” That was actually true but he knew Sheilah would only somewhat believe it. He thought his cousin looked appropriately casual for a lunch date. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, she wore a man’s white oxford shirt and a pair of black stirrup pants.

“How was the ride in? It must have been exciting to see Grand Central Station again.”

Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t come in through Grand Central. I took a train to the Bronx then hopped on a subway to get here. It takes longer but I saved a few dollars.”

A waiter appeared at their table and handed menus to Sheilah and Kyle. She described the specials and promised to return in a few minutes once they decided what to eat.

Sheilah stared at the menu splayed flat on the table in front of her. “Remember what you promised me,” she said.

“Hmm?” said Kyle absentmindedly since he was busy reading about the wonders French cooking could perform.

“You promised you’d let me know if you needed money,” said Sheilah.

Kyle looked up from his menu. “Where did that come from?” he asked, sounding confused. Then he remembered the subway story. “I’m okay, honest,” he said. “I’m just an efficient spender these days.” He went back to his menu. “What do you suppose a flaugnarde is?”

“Are you looking at the desserts already?”

Kyle went back to the top of the menu. He asked about his favorite aunt and uncle. “What are your folks up to?”

Sheilah exhaled dramatically. “Therese and Don are still hunkered down in the wilds of Connecticut,” she said. “They’ve turned their house into a dog shelter, I don’t know how many strays they have now. All I know is they’re too busy to drive to Manhattan to see their grandkids. When I ask why, Therese says ‘You don’t need us, you have everything. Those poor dogs have nothing, they’re the ones we can help’.” Sheilah closed her menu and left it face down on the table. “Can you imagine your parents saying something like that to you?”

“They wouldn’t say it, they’d just do it,” said Kyle. “You see how they abandoned me on this coast as soon as my little sister moved out west and started having kids. At first it was extended visits, then they bought a house out there. They decorate it with sticks, rock crystals, and cow skulls bleached in the dessert sun and pretend to be Georgia O’Keeffe.” Kyle picked up the wine list. “They haven’t stepped foot on this coast in years. Mom says she waves to it as she flies over New York on their trips to Europe. If I want to see Bill and Joan, I have to go to them. They’re not coming here.” Kyle handed the wine menu to Sheilah. “What would you say to some vin with lunch?”

“I want the biggest glass they have,” said Sheilah as she took the menu. “Remember when they acted like real parents and honestly wanted to be with us? All of us—both our families. For Christ’s sake, they herded us out to Long Island for all those summer vacations. That was a priority back then.”

Kyle closed his eyes. So many things only happened back then. “They dreamed of buying a house out there but it never happened,” he said. “They never really got over that.” Kyle looked around for the waitress so they could order. “But you have a place out there so at least someone in the family eventually got one.”

Sheilah was still deciding what wine she wanted. “Did I tell you the broker who sold us the house called it a ‘tear down’? To her, it was unlivable. We stayed in it for three summers before doing any renovations.” She took her eyes off the wine list and looked at Kyle. “Renovations you’ve never seen, by the way. You haven’t been out there for years.”

“I know,” Kyle said sheepishly. “Work always got in the way.”

A waitress appeared at their table. “Ready to order?” she asked.

The cousins made their final decisions about food and alcohol then let the waitress convey the news to the kitchen.

While they waited for their appetizers Sheilah asked about Kyle’s job search. He gave short, shallow answers and as soon as possible without seeming hasty he shifted the conversation back to family.

“How are your boys? They must be excited the end of the school year is near.”

“Oh good Lord that’s all they talk about,” said Sheilah. “You’d think they were being released from prison they’re so excited.”

“So Ian is finishing off seventh grade, is he?”

“No, eighth,” Sheilah answered, sounding suddenly panicked. “My baby’s going to high school next year.”

“That’s impossible,” said Kyle. “Did he skip a year?”

“No, honey, you did.” Sheilah looked at Kyle sympathetically. “But it’s easy to do. They grow up so fast.”

Apparently, thought Kyle as he wondered how he lost track of a year somewhere along the way. He didn’t want to make the same mistake with his cousin’s other kid so he chose his next words carefully. “That means come September Malcolm will be what?”

“Angrier than usual,” said Sheilah. “He doesn’t want to go to the same school as his little brother. But anyway, Malcolm will be a senior, Ian a freshman.”

Restaurant servers made periodic trips to the table to collect empty plates, refill water glasses and deliver the chosen entrees. When the entrée dishes were replaced by dessert menus, Sheilah read hers with unusual interest.

“This time we’re getting dessert,” she told her cousin. Kyle was not about to argue but it was odd that Sheilah wanted dessert. Something’s up. He was several spoonfuls into a chocolate soufflé before he found out what.

“I always love when we see each other, and we don’t do that often enough if you ask me,” said Sheilah. She casually picked at her half-eaten apple galette. “But I have to tell you I have an ulterior motive for getting together. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

Was that all? That’s nothing. A favor he could do.

“It’s about the boys,” Sheilah said. “Now that school’s ending, we’ll go out to the beach for the summer. Months ago Peter read about a class at a local school that helps seniors do better on their SATs. So he signed up Malcolm. Of course he didn’t mention it to me. Then Ian found a cultural exchange program in London that he wanted to go to so we booked tickets for that. Now I find out these two things overlap.” Sheilah downed the last of her wine and considered ordering a second glass. “I can’t let Ian go to London alone, I have to go with him. That means Malcolm’s alone at the beach. Peter can’t go out there because he has to work. So I was thinking maybe you’d want to stay out there with Malcolm. The class is only for a week. It’s a ten-minute drive from our house. All you’d have to do is drive him to school in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. The rest of the time you can do whatever you want: go to the beach, take bike trips, hang out in town, whatever.”

Kyle didn’t react. “What’s Malcolm think of this?”

“Oh he thinks he can stay by himself,” Sheilah scoffed. “Of course he does, he’s seventeen. And maybe he could. But the only car he’ll have out there is an old Jeep with a stick shift. He can barely drive an automatic, there’s no way he can handle a stick. So he knows he needs help.” Sheilah’s voice took on a more nostalgic tone. “Besides, I thought it’d be like old times for you. You can go to the same beaches we went to years ago. Some of the same shops and restaurants are still around. You know the neighborhoods out there so I thought it’d be a fun time. That and you’d really be helping out me and Peter of course.”

Kyle’s pictured bodysurfing in the ocean waves and having beers on the beach. “No problem. If you need me, of course I’ll do it,” he said.

Sheilah smiled. “That’s great but I don’t want to put you on the spot. Take some time to think about it and let me know.” She pushed the dessert plate away from her, signaling she was done eating. “Peter will be happy. He’s convinced the class will get Malcolm into a better college.”

“I guess I have to remember where I stored my bathing suit,” said Kyle.

“Most everything else we have out there. Beach towels, umbrellas, chairs, extra bicycles. Just bring clothes and a tooth brush.”

Kyle started making a mental list of the things he wanted to bring.

“And I’ll cover your expenses out there, too.”

Kyle looked confused.

“I don’t want you to lose money because you’re doing us a favor.”

“You’re not going to pay me. You’re family. This is what families do.”

“What if you have to turn down a freelance job because you’re with Malcolm? Or some kind of temporary position?” Sheilah asked. “I don’t want you missing out on income.”

“Stop it,’” Kyle said and imitated his cousin by pushing his dessert plate away from him. “You’re being ridiculous.”

The servers came and cleared the table followed by the waitress who delivered the check. When they saw the bill both cousins reached for it.

“I’m paying. You paid last time,” said Kyle.

“No, wait. Hear me out,” said Sheilah as she tried to wriggle the piece of paper out from underneath Kyle’s hand. “No one’s paying this time.”

“That’s a good trick if you can do it,” said Kyle though he didn’t relax his grip on the check.

Sheilah grabbed her bag and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper. She waved it in the air making the paper unfold like an accordion. “I have a gift certificate. Got it months ago and I’ve been dying to use it.”

Kyle released the check and Sheilah immediately started to write on it.

“Well, thank you. And give my thanks to whoever gave you the certificate,” said Kyle.

“What?” Sheilah looked up. It took her a moment to understand what he said. “Oh. Yeah sure,” she added and went back to writing.

Soon they were outside La Table du Boucher and walking along the city sidewalks, neither one of them anxious to go home.

“How’d you like to go shopping with me?” Sheilah asked.

Kyle had nowhere in particular to be and said as much. That’s how he found himself walking along Madison Avenue and eventually stopping outside the glass doors of the Giorgio Armani boutique.

“I need to pop inside for a few things,” said Sheilah as she moved toward the doors.

“When you said ‘shopping’ I thought you meant groceries,” said Kyle.

“Oh, if only. I need to find something to wear for this thing Peter and I have to go to.” She pushed on the right side of the double doors while Kyle pushed on the left which allowed them to step into the boutique at exactly the same time. They walked into a room with high ceilings, stainless steel columns, black wooden floors partially covered by cream-colored rugs and surprisingly few clothes considering how large the space was. Kyle saw dresses hanging in neat rows in small alcoves along the back of the room, black fabric chairs and dark wooden tables dotted the floor which gave the room a lounge-like look.

“Should I wait here for you?” asked Kyle as he stood at attention next to the entrance like some kind of doorman.

Sheilah looped her arm around his. “You’re coming with me,” she said and pulled him toward the elevator.

Seconds later they emerged onto a higher floor with the same ordered and uncluttered look of the first. A salesperson saw them arrive and walked over.

“Mrs. McKay, so good to see you. How have you been?”

“Hello, Lorenzo,” said Sheilah as the salesman kissed her on both cheeks. “I know I should have been here days ago.”

Lorenzo then looked at Kyle though to Kyle it felt more like an inspection. For the first time that day Kyle wished he’d worn a better pair of chinos and spent more time ironing his shirt.

“This is my cousin. I’m dragging him along on my errands,” Sheilah explained.

Lorenzo shifted his gaze toward Sheilah. “I have the things you wanted plus a few extras I thought you’d like to see. Shall we go take a look?”

Sheilah turned to Kyle. “I have to go try on a few things. Men’s clothes is right around that corner.” She pointed the way to Kyle. “Why don’t you go take a look.”

Lorenzo and Sheilah walked off whispering to each other as if they were telling secrets.

Kyle watched them go, then went looking to see what the Armani man wore.

The Men’s section had the same design aesthetic as the Women’s. Suits hung from shiny, stainless steel rods along the walls, perfectly-folded dress shirts sat on glass shelves that were backlit so the shirts appeared to glow. The top of one rosewood table held cuff links, tie clips, and a selection of leather belts. A second table displayed more ties than Kyle could count. He realized some men must have to wear clothes like these for work, but Kyle didn’t know any of them. He tried to think of the last time he wore a suit. A jacket, yes, sometimes he wore those to client meetings. Suits just collected dust in his closet.

Kyle turned and saw shoes on glass shelves that jutted out from a wall. Shoes were another matter, shoes he could use. Each pair sat on its own plate of glass lit by spotlights somewhere in the ceiling making each pair the center of attention on its tiny glass stage. Kyle looked at leather loafers, loafers that looked like slippers, oxford lace ups, formal patent leather shoes, though he didn’t touch a single pair until he came upon the leather lace up boots.

He picked up the right boot and ran his hand along the side simply to feel the leather that was such a dark brown color it looked almost black. He turned the boot over to inspect the leather sole. Kyle looked for the signs of hand stitching then noted whether the sole was double- or triple-layered.

“That’s my favorite shoe in the whole store.” The voice startled Kyle. He looked up to see Lorenzo by his side. “They’re full-grain calf’s leather so they’ll last for years.”

Kyle wasn’t sure what to say but felt he had to say something. “That’s nice,” was the first thing he thought of.

Lorenzo continued. “The ankle height is perfect for a boot because it looks great with jeans, chinos, almost any casual slack.”

“I’m just looking,” Kyle said. “It’s something to do while I wait.”

“Trying them on would be something to do,” said Lorenzo. “While you wait.”

“Oh, no,” said Kyle as if the thought was impossible. “I’m a tag-along. My cousin’s the customer.”

Lorenzo did not look convinced. “Then can I get you some coffee or water? We have wine or prosecco if you’d like that.”

“Really? Alcohol’s an option?” Kyle asked.

“Alcohol’s always an option,” Lorenzo smiled. “For customers.”

There was the sound of heels clicking on hardwood floors and moments later Sheilah appeared. She wore a slinky black-and-white dress with matching spike-heeled shoes. “How do I look?” she asked as she dramatically raised her arms into the air.

Besides her wedding, Kyle had never seen his cousin in any kind of formal wear. “You look fantastic,” he said.

Sheilah made a short curtsy then noticed what Kyle had in his hand. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. “Why don’t you try them on?”

“That’s what I said,” Lorenzo echoed.

Kyle shook his head. “Not today.”

“Why not? That’s what we’re here for,” said Sheilah.

“It’s what you’re here for,” Kyle replied.

Sheilah would not be denied. “Lorenzo, would you be a dear and bring a pair out for my cousin.”

“I won’t tell you my size,” Kyle said as if that was an impenetrable roadblock.

Sheilah smiled. “You are so adorable,” she said and turned to her personal shopper. “Lorenzo, where do you want to begin?”

Lorenzo winked at Sheilah then crossed one arm over his chest and raised the hand of his other arm to his chin in a classic appraisal pose. “Well, from his height alone he’s statistically at least a size 11, but looking at the shoes he’s wearing now, I’d say they’re a 12. Maybe even a 12-and-a-half.” Lorenzo circled Kyle, more for effect than anything else. “I notice you sometimes wince slightly when you walk, especially when you’re on the left foot. Now maybe you have a pebble or something in your shoe and you’re too embarrassed to take it out. But more likely I’d say your shoes are too narrow for your feet. I’d start you on a size 12, wide. No question.”

Sheilah looked at Kyle and noticed even he seemed impressed. “He’s a professional,” she said as she pointed to Lorenzo. “That’s why it’s so fun to come here.” Sheilah looked down at the dress she wore. “Okay, I have a few more things to try on and now Kyle it looks like you do, too. So Lorenzo, if you’d escort me back to the dressing room.”

“Of course,” he said. And once again Lorenzo and Sheilah walked away whispering to each other like conspirators.

“You said he’d be difficult and you were right,” said Lorenzo. “He’s a hard man to buy a gift for.”

“It’s not exactly a gift,” Sheilah explained. “He’s going to babysit my teenage son for a week.”

“Ugh,” said Lorenzo before he could stop himself. It would take way more than a free pair of shoes to get him to babysit one of his teenage relatives.

Lorenzo dropped Sheilah off at the dressing area then went in search of shoes for Kyle.

He was gone for a while, long enough for Sheilah to try on and reject several outfits. But eventually he returned to Sheilah’s dressing area, boxes in hand.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sheilah.

“He says he doesn’t like them anymore,” said Lorenzo.

“He’s lying.” Sheilah put her hands on her hips. “What’s not to like? They’re gorgeous shoes. Am I wrong? Are they not gorgeous?”

“They’re beyond gorgeous. I told him they were my favorite shoe in the store,” said Lorenzo.

“Will they look amazing on him?”

Lorenzo had no doubt. “His feet were made for these boots.”

Sheilah looked at the boxes in Lorenzo’s hands. “And one of those pairs will fit him?”

“Guaranteed,” he replied.

“Fuck it,” Sheilah said then went to a side table in the dressing area, picked up a pen and began scribbling on a piece of paper. “Here’s his address. Mail those boxes to him but tell him—and this is important—tell him in no uncertain terms that he has to keep one of these pairs. Word it however you like but instructions have to sound ironclad or he’ll never follow them.”

She tore the piece of paper from the pad and handed it to Lorenzo. “He can mail back what doesn’t fit, but he has to keep something.”

Lorenzo pocketed Kyle’s mailing address. “Leave it all to me,” he said. “So that takes care of him, now what about you?”

Sheilah exhaled, as if trying to center herself. “I am so much easier,” she said. Sheilah told Lorenzo which outfits she wanted and which he could put back on the floor then changed back into the clothes she walked in with.

“You’re the best,” Sheilah told Lorenzo when she kissed him goodbye. “Thanks for all your help.”

Then Sheilah went back to the Men’s section where she found Kyle sitting in a black overstuffed chair. He looked like he was staring into space.

“All ready to go?” she asked cheerily.

Kyle saw her empty hands. “You’re not getting anything?”

Sheilah took his arm once again and together they walked toward the elevator. “I don’t want to lug everything around the city.”

“I’ll lug it around. How heavy can it be?”

Sheilah patted his arm. “Thanks, but that’s what delivery services are for.”

Once back on the sidewalk Sheilah and Kyle meandered toward Fifth Avenue and an entrance to Central Park. They were on one of the pathways by the children’s zoo when Kyle said, “I have a few more thoughts about Malcolm and Long Island.”

Oh boy, here it comes, thought Sheilah. He’s had second thoughts about babysitting.

“If you think it’d make Malcolm feel any better, we could position my visit as a week-long private driving tutorial. He can’t drive a stick and I can. I’ll come out there to teach him.”

Sheilah heard everything Kyle said but the only words she cared about were the ones where he said he’d go to Long Island. And if she recalled correctly, he actually said it twice. Kyle wasn’t backing out after all.

“That’s really generous of you,” said Sheilah. “But honestly I don’t care how Malcolm feels about this. I’m the parent, he’s the child and there’s no way he’s staying out there on his own. So I’ll tell him the driver’s ed story if it makes you more comfortable. Otherwise Malcolm just has to suck it up.”

Their circuitous path took them around fountains and up hills; they went passed a vintage carousel and ball fields where young men wearing shorts played games with bats and gloves. Eventually their wandering led them to the other side of the park where they emerged on the west side of Manhattan. The sun was lower in the sky now and without looking at their watches Sheilah and Kyle knew it was time to go home.

“I guess the next time I see you will be in the Hamptons,” Kyle said.

“I know, isn’t it exciting?” said Sheilah. “Don’t forget, I’ll text you all the details and I’ll call you before you take the train out so there shouldn’t be any surprises.”

Sheilah threw her arms around Kyle. Kyle was obscenely taller than Sheilah, the top of her head barely came up to his chin. When Sheilah hugged her cousin it always felt like she was hugging a tree.

“Let’s get you a cab,” said Kyle as he looked at the traffic speeding past them.

“Now where are you off to?” asked Sheilah.

Kyle acted like this was an odd question. “Westchester, where else?”

“So you’ll need a cab too. To Grand Central.”

Kyle turned back to the traffic. “Yeah, yeah,” he said.

“Okay, so you take the first cab and I’ll get one after that.”

Kyle almost laughed at the idea. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “You’re going first.”

Sheilah took a step away from the curb like she was retreating from the street. “I know what you’re going to do. As soon as my cab’s out of sight, you’ll head straight for the subway. I don’t like you taking a subway up to the Bronx.”

Kyle dropped the hand he was using to hail a cab. “There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”

Sheilah’s eyes widened. “I knew it! I knew I was right.”

Then simply because he didn’t want one to at that moment, an empty cab pulled up beside Kyle. The two cousins looked at each other.

“Please,” said Sheilah.

Kyle opened the door and climbed into the backseat of the cab.

Sheilah stepped off the sidewalk and leaned into Kyle’s window. “Thank you for everything,” she said. “And don’t worry, there’s an empty cab right behind you that I’ll get.”

Kyle didn’t turn around and look because he wanted to believe it was true.

“Watch for my text,” Sheilah continued. She reached into her right pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “This will cover the cab,” she said as she threw the bill into the backseat, aiming for a section of it Kyle couldn’t immediately reach. Then she banged twice on the roof of the cab and yelled to the cab driver to get moving.

pencil

J.G. Alderisio is a sometime advertising copywriter who is far more interested in telling stories than selling products. He was educated in New England and lives in New York. An essay of his appeared in Hudson Valley Magazine. This is his first published work of fiction. Email: Getthegenenow121[at]gmail.com

Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


Photo Credit: Richard Bennett/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Raven dropped down on her couch while balancing her mug filled with hot tea. The steamed liquid swirled sharply before settling down when placed on the wooden end table. She gathered her black braids behind her head and secured them with a hair band before picking up the tea again to take a sip. With her free hand, she scrolled through her options for a TV series, for something that could fill the silence of her apartment. She chose a storyline that didn’t entail too much interest so that she could look up from time-to-time and still know what was going on in the series. She would have enjoyed watching a Korean drama or a vibrant, colorful fantasy, or some anime adventure, but that entailed reading subtitles since she hated listening to the dubbed versions. A childhood fantasy adventure would do, since she had seen every episode decades ago, and relived one or two from time to time over the years. This one was about an apprentice wizard where each episode was him learning a new spell that involved helping someone or finding an ancient relic to add to his arsenal.

Satisfied, she sat back, grabbed a pillow to balance on the armrest and placed her tablet on top of it.

“And let the questions begin,” she sighed, as she double-clicked on the familiar icon, and read the next one out loud. “Do you prefer a lot of rest before starting your day? Yes. No.”

Raven figured she would answer a few more questions before taking a shower and then finish up the next few hours answering more, that is, if she was able to make it that far. And so far, she’s been able to continue for two days.

She was now comfortable enough with the questions and had an idea on what was needed to answer. For a job, she should answer ‘No,’ since there may be times where she would need to have little sleep to complete a project. However, this test sometimes had another agenda.

She chose ‘Yes’ and then the next question appeared.

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

“What type of bed do you prefer to sleep on?” Five images appeared displaying different backgrounds and shapes of beds. She chose one with a contouring shape. One must have lumbar support.

“What type of lighting do you need for sleeping?”

Raven wasn’t sure why this endless, unnumbered sequences of questions were pertinent for job employment, and she most definitely didn’t understand why it had been a total of six hours for the past two days. However, countless people of had tried to qualify for this famed company, but many had failed—as much as ninety percent. The contender would know they were not qualified within the first two hundred questions. It was that probability that made Raven not even try, though anyone, world-wide, could try. A candidate is only given a single chance before being declined from ever trying again. Not even the smartest of hackers could get around the questionnaire’s protocol. It always seemed to easily identify those who had already taken the test, even if they put in a person’s name who hadn’t.

The company’s logo of two worlds interlocked and its name, “Interdependence,” was on the top of the screen, while the next question with choices hovered in the middle.

“Choose between these melodies.” Raven press the buttons, listening to each one, before placing a check underneath the one that was quite lovely to her ears.

“Can you sleep while listening to this song? Yes. No.”

Raven had earlier stated that she didn’t need complete silence while sleeping, and that she favored music to sleep with. Now, she was being asked what types of music she would prefer. She had been asked about different colors that were pleasing to her eye yesterday, and the types of animals that she liked. Before that, it was about physical activities and roller coasters.

“Can you remember your dreams? Yes. No.”

Raven sighed. “From sleep to dreams.” Yes, she dreams in color. Yes, there were some dreams that she would still remember from time to time. Yes, sometimes the dreams reflect her day, and yes sometimes they didn’t. Yes, she believed in dreams. And, yes, she thought they were fun.

Six hours. She had been answering questions for six hours over the last two days, and she was beginning to think that this was all a joke. Interdependence promised the best job one could ever imagine, where one would be completely happy to do, and enjoy doing, the job, and with a salary to match it. These opportunities were given to some in their sixties and some as young as sixteen. It didn’t matter the background or place of living. Alarmingly, even someone on parole could apply. There were no standards. The only thing one had to do was to get access to download the app, and answer the questions.

“Do you like to kill in video games? Yes. No.”

Actually, she didn’t like shoot-’em-ups. Puzzle and adventure games were more her style. And, of course, that was the next question. She answered more questions related to how she enjoyed playing a game, and how long would she play one.

“Do you prefer mornings, afternoons, or evenings?”

The random, off-topic question would appear now and then, and it would proceed from there before going back to its main line of questioning.

“How many stars do you enjoy seeing in the night?” This question came in relation to her choice of preferring evenings. Several images appeared and Raven chose one. Then questions related to celestial bodies, which transitioned to spiritual questions, and went back to similar questions from two days ago, about teamwork, meeting goals, handling stress and mistakes.

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

Raven thought about it. Should she be honest? Yes. So, she answered No.

“Do you believe a secret should not be told to you? Yes. No.” Yes.

“Do you believe a secret should be shared if told to you?” Yes.

“Do you want to know a secret now? Yes. No.”

Raven laughed. At least this part of the questionnaire was interesting. She answered No.

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

Raven stared at the screen. There was no selection to choose from. Slowly, she tapped the tablet’s screen.

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

Suddenly, “Will you allow Interdependence to run interference in your life? Yes. No.”

Raven sat up on the couch. “Wait. Am I being offered an opportunity?”

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She raised her eyebrows at that question. Mental institution? Why would Interdependence want to do that? She thought about the many interviews of those who had been accepted by Interdependence and how each beginning was a bit different from the last. At the time of acceptance, candidates were secretly transported out to avoid the swarm of people. Once inside Interdependence, each were individually trained on whatever job that would make them at peace for the rest of their lives. But, she never heard of a beginning that started with lying to family and friends.

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

“Oh no.” There wasn’t anything about time sensitivity!

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

Raven froze as she reread the sentence, before it blinked out and the previous question returned.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She didn’t realize how fast her heart was racing. Was this an opportunity? What if she answered the question wrong?

She knew she didn’t have much time. This had to be time sensitive.

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

The screen went blank, and stayed that way for what seemed like minutes. She didn’t want to close her eyes. She just couldn’t miss the next question.

Then, “Please meet the delivery person downstairs. They will be standing with a sign that says, ‘Game.'” It blinked and then went to the Interdependence logo.

Raven jumped, grabbed her keys, and went out of her apartment. She needed to check to see if it was true, and was shocked to see a woman standing in front of a parked town car, holding up a sign indeed with ‘Game’ written on it.

She went back to her apartment, her mind racing: When did the driver get there? When was I accepted? Was the driver out there when I grabbed my tea? Who should I call? Should I call anyone? This is just too good to be true!

She picked up the tablet and double-checked the app to make sure it was legitimate. It had to be. She didn’t understand the reason why Interdependence wanted to proceed in this way, but she thought perhaps it was another test, like the hours she took taking the questionnaire.

Making a decision, she jiggled her keys, and went to the waiting car.

*

The cube was the size of two shoe boxes and its smooth surface emitted a warmth that was comfortable to touch, but just a few degrees from almost unbearable. Raven was glad that she had a short walk back to her apartment on the first floor, since any longer it would have been a bit too heavy.

She sat it down on her coffee table and stared at its glossy black surface. She wasn’t given any instructions; the driver simply handed it to her without saying a word, and now she couldn’t find anywhere on how to open it. She wasn’t even sure if she sat it down on its correct side.

Grabbing its warm sides, she turned it over, looking for some kind of button or latch. After examining it, she then began rubbing it, as if it would produce a genie. Then she tried voice commands, but none of it worked. Going back to review the app didn’t help either. Only the Interdependence logo remained.

Finally, she gave up. It had been an exasperating night, and she hadn’t taken her shower yet. The thought made her yawn, as she headed to get ready to settle down to sleep.

In the morning, she decided to take another look at the cube with a fresh pair of eyes, only to be greeted by a holograph of a creature with three twirling tails sitting on the edge of the cube with legs crossed. She wore a knee-high dress, and had ears that swept back along both sides of her head, tips touching. Hair grew in the center of the ears and draped down her back, and her skin sparkled with a hue of blue.

Large black eyes and lavishing eyelashes turned her way as she said, “Good morning, Raven.” Her voice was rather pleasant, with a welcoming tone of someone who was genuinely happy to see you.

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

The creature laughed. “I know. I’m quite amazing to look at, aren’t I?”

The comment made Raven chuckle. “I would say, quite unexpected.”

“Well,” the creature said, “you weren’t planning on going to work today, were you? You did accept the agreement to allow us to intervene in your life.”

Raven had almost forgot about that.

“The calls will be made, as soon as work hours begin, and then to the rest of the people in your life.”

Raven meekly asked, “How do you know who is in my life?”

The creature smiled. “We know.”

This is Interdependence. They had global and major resources everywhere. Especially with all the talent they had in all walks of life. They all contribute back to Interdependence in some way or another.

“My name’s Cerasee,” she said with a bright smile. “How do you do?”

Raven nodded towards her, still laughing at the idea of talking to a hologram. “How do you do?”

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Cerasee stated, “and I hope I can answer just the few major ones in my introductory speech.” She cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”

Raven waved the floor to her. “Go right ahead.”

“Yes, I am completely interactive. No, I am not programmed with standard answers. Yes, you can ask me anything and I will try my best to answer your questions as much as I could. Why did we choose you? Because we enjoyed watching your thoughtful expressions before answering. And because of your honesty and bright answers. Yes, we will really contact everyone and tell them you are in a mental institution, and if anyone becomes a bit aggressive with wanting to speak to you, we will provide them with a fake video of you inside a mental ward, and being provided a treatment of meditation and a vow of silence in order to help you regain your balance in the world. No, you will not be able to see this video as we have far too much to do in the next few weeks. And why did we choose this route for you?” She leaned forward, and dramatically whispered, “Because you can’t keep a secret.”

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

“Yes, this is really Interdependence and it is happening for you and for real. From this point forward, Interdependence will be responsible for your every meal, your health, your social environment, and simply.your entire being. Starting today, you will be a member of Interdependence and we leave as soon as you have completed your morning routine. I will only answer any remaining questions during our travel to our destination. You should wear a comfortable outfit like when going for a walk in a park, but no tennis shoes, please. Sandals or comfortable strapped shoes would be preferred. No perfumes or jewelry or makeup, please. Lotion and deodorant are acceptable. Breakfast will be provided.”

Cerasee smiled then, quite proud with her presentation. “Well, what are you standing there for?” She waved her hand towards Raven’s bedroom. “Get ready!”

Raven moved with the climb of excitement that made the night sky turn into glimmers of wonder and dawn into shimmering gold. She was quick with soaping her brown skin, being careful not to allow too much water underneath her shower cap as she bent down to quickly clean from her knees to her toes. As she showered, she thought of the many questions that she wanted to ask Cerasee.

Interdependence.

It was not just a company that people’s first thoughts were its profitable revenue, but it was tied to making a cherished way of life come true. And somehow, she was one of the ten percent to hold such an opportunity. Or would testing continue once they reached the next stage of this reward? However, Cerasee had said she was already a member of Interdependence. After all of the hours of answering needless questions.. Was it really this simple?

Raven was ready to go, wearing a light sundress and flat sandals. She didn’t use makeup much, so that was not a concern for her, but she did miss her earrings and rope chain necklaces.

The same driver was waiting and helped Raven place the black cube into the town car, still not speaking a word. Raven sat in the spacious passenger compartment, separated from the driver by black sliding glass. She immediately recognized how minimal the outside sounds were as they drove off.

Cerasee appeared again, wearing the same outfit that Raven had on. “I will be with you at all times during this part of your training. What training, you ask?” The small creature didn’t wait for Raven to speak. “We will find that out once we reach Interdependence. For now, please enjoy breakfast.” She waved her hand towards a drawer under the facing seat. Inside, were warmed pancakes, Raven’s favorite, scrambled eggs, and link sausages. “Please eat while I continue.”

Raven picked up the gold fork (she had never eaten from one before, only silver) and listened carefully to Cerasee’s speech.

Though surrounded with a lot of verbiage, the rules were rather simple—follow and do whatever Cerasee asks of her to do. If a continuous defiance occurred, then Raven would not reach the full potential that Interdependence could provide for her. She would be given a manageable and uncomplicated life.

“Like this driver and courier,” Cerasee indicated to the front of the car. “I’m not demeaning, mind you. She is quite content with her life, but she refused to grow for whatever personal reason she wished upon herself. And we will not interfere with that, but will continue to provide until death do us part.”

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

Cerasee continued to speak, providing information Raven already knew about Interdependence, which was all positive and dreamy-eyed fulfilling. She watched the streets and then the highway, predetermining their destination, and that was the nearest facility outside the city limits. Interdependence owned a 500-acre campus, designed so employees wouldn’t have to go beyond its borders during the course of their work days. From numerous dining options, retail services, health care and child care facilities, there wasn’t anything that the campus couldn’t provide.

IDs were scanned numerous times as the town car made its way from the outside borders of the campus to the interior roads. They drove up a coiled ramp when they entered a garage and exited on level five, with three more levels above. Raven didn’t see when the handle and wheels appeared on Cerasee’s cube, as the handle telescoped to a height easy for her to pull. Interdependence was top in technology.

From walking from the garage to the entrance door of the same fifth floor level, there was more scanning of fingerprints and facial recognition, which included Raven. As Raven pulled the cube, the driver led her down a carpeted hallway, passing several secured doors before stopping at one. Raven scanned her face and the door opened. The driver left.

Inside, was a comfortable studio apartment playing music that Raven had chosen from the app. A kitchen to one side, a king-size bed on the other, and a reclining chair with a swing-away table in the middle. Sitting near the bed was a six-panel dressing screen displaying the silk flowers of a plum blossom tree, an actual moving image swaying gently in the wind. But what really caught Raven’s attention was the black oval contraption towering to the ceiling next to windows displaying the forest bordering the Interdependence’s campus.

“We call it Raindrop,” Cerasee’s voice broke through Raven’s mesmerized eyes. “It’s what will be your life for the next several weeks, and more. And all of this,” she waved around the studio, “will be your dwelling. A chef will come at mealtimes and prepare all acquired substances.”

“What is it?” Raven said, letting go of the cube’s handle and walking towards the device. Its black surface looked identical to Cerasee’s cube: shiny, but with no reflection.

“It’s where we start,” Cerasee said. “There’s a suit behind the dressing panel. Please put it on and we will begin.”

Remembering the rules Cerasee had provided in the town car, she did as instructed. Behind the dressing panel was a three-drawer dresser. A black, shiny jumpsuit sat on top. Raven undressed and didn’t notice the footies and gloves were incorporated into the suit until she held it up. It had a hood and mask as well, with translucent coverings for the eyes. Her entire body would be covered with this suit, zipped without metal interlocks, but pressed together making it almost seamless. Raven left the hood resting on her back as she came to the front of the dressing panel.

“You must have everything covered before entering Raindrop.” Cerasee pointed at the hood.

“Is this some kind of protection against dangerous rays or something?” Raven looked at her arms and hands covered in the black suit, which actually felt quite light, almost as if she was wearing fine silk.

“Nothing like that,” Cerasee said, now also wearing the same suit Raven had on. “Hood please. We have a lot to cover.”

“Okay,” Raven breathed in and pulled the hood on, sealing it closed around the neckline.

“One hand on Raindrop, please,” Cerasee extended her hand, indicating what Raven should do next, and Raven complied.

A part of the contraption melted away, displaying only darkness within.

“Step inside, please.”

Raven tried to see what was inside, but couldn’t make out anything. She looked back at Cerasee and she was standing up on the center of the cube.

With curiosity rushing to its peak, Raven stepped inside, and all light was sealed away.

Raven didn’t hear her own breathing as she stood in the darkness. Then, a small light appeared and grew, until someone was standing in front of her, unclothed. She recognized herself.

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

She heard Cerasee, but she couldn’t find her projection anywhere.

“This is your avatar. Unfortunately, you will not be able to dress her until you’ve acquired the skills. Fortunately, the weather isn’t harsh, so being unclothed while you learn will not be a problem.”

Raven continued to look at herself as if a real person stood right in front of her.

“This is the only time you will be able to see yourself, until you acquire all the items necessary to have those types of luxuries like shelter, clothing, mirrors, etc. Though food can be sought anywhere, since we can only eat fruit.”

The avatar disappeared and a wave of colors filled the air around her, like seeing the smeared rainbow colors in bubbles.

“Here we go!” The excitement in Cerasee’s voice filled up the contraption.

The colors finally stopped, to change to white and yellow sharp spears of light, and then were replaced with sounds of a forest and the cool light of the sky.

Raven looked around to see strange trees with trunks that twisted up to branches with dark green leaves. The ground was covered with the fallen leaves and grass hinting small flowers at their ends. Looking up, she could see a large sun and two moons. One of the moons had a ring.

“Oh my god.” Raven didn’t know she spoke as she noticed that not only could she see, but she could feel wind, and hear creatures, and smell the fresh scent of air.

“Are you okay?” It was Cerasee’s voice behind her and she looked to see a being of her same height, looking as real as her next door neighbors.

She was completely naked, and Raven could see where her three tails stretched from her sides and lower back to make gentle curves that rose above her head. Her smile didn’t contain teeth, but cartilage, blending with the same color as her skin. She had five fingers, but no opposable thumbs. And her blue skin had specks that looked like colorful glitter.

“Are you okay?” She repeated, slightly tilting her head.

Raven was speechless, as her mind went to: Where are we? To: What is this place? To: How can I smell and feel the air? To: What’s going on?

Cerasee laughed as she completely understood. “This is Heofon. The sister world of Earth. You will learn how to live here and, in turn, how to also live on Earth. Everything you do and learn here is a mirror to what you can complete on Earth.”

Raven continued to look around, seeing and hearing the leaves wrestling and some colorful birds flying in the air. “This is some simulation.”

Cerasee laughed. “Your essence, your soul, is using the avatar. Now come, we must work on the first lesson.” She walked towards one of the trees. “You must learn how to speak.” She tapped the tree’s trunk.

Raven look at Cerasee and then at the tree. “You want me to talk to a tree?”

Cerasee nodded. “They have the most patience for teaching those not native to Heofon how to speak, especially those from Latter Ages where life is not capable of enlightenment.”

Raven grasped what Cerasee was softly trying to explain to her, while trying to minimize any insult. “You mean, like Earth.”

Cerasee stood still.

Raven continued to elaborate, in order for Cerasee to know she understood. “Where we’re violent towards each other, at so many levels.”

Cerasee changed the sad subject. “Please place your hand here, and try to empathize with the tree.”

“Empathize?” Raven chuckled lightly. “With a tree.”

“This particular tree,” Cerasee patted the trunk, “is a bit perturbed because it must wait for that other tree to move in order to move itself. It wants to change places, you see?”

Raven looked and saw in the distance a tree slowly moving, its roots lifting it up and dragging along the ground.

“Okay, trees walk here.” Raven took a deep breath. “There is so much I have to learn.”

Cerasee’s tails twitched. “We are one language here. Once you master it, you can speak to any living thing on Heofon.”

Raven placed her hand on the tree’s trunk and thought of how to empathize. To have to wait for so long for another to move in order to move itself. She understood that type of frustration, especially when the other didn’t quite care for your own predicament.

A voice drifted into her mind. She/he did care, but was enjoying her/his walk, thus taking a long time to settle into place. One must allow the joy of others in order to then enjoy oneself.

Raven lifted her hand away from the trunk. “I—I think I heard it.”

Cerasee gave a huge smile. “Yes! Yes, you did! We just knew you would be able to adapt quickly here!”

Raven stared at her hand where she could still feel the impression of the tree. “This place is real.” It was a statement. A fact. It was something she knew to be true.

“Yes, it is,” Cerasee said. “We bring all candidates here, but majority only see it as a simulation. And they bring what they learn back to Earth, a spark of light from Interdependence, one member at a time. But then there are candidates like you, who will learn and, with time, come to stay on Heofon, once your body is slowly transformed by the meals we prepare for you, so that you can actually live here.”

Raven turned to Cerasee. “Why? Why are you doing this for us?”

Cerasee grasped her hands. “Because our worlds are tied to one another, interdependent, where one has more light, and a little dark, and the other has more dark and a little light. We exist in contradictory opposites, but are inseparable. The gateways between our worlds have always existed, but we pass through to each other in different ways as the ages change. In the past, it was through stone gateways monitored by mystics and sages. Today, it is through entertainment and challenges.”

A white horse galloped by with its proud tail curved upward. Its horn caught the rays of the sun and sparked as it spread its massive wingspan and caught the air. Raven watched in awe as the uni-pegasus flew in the direction of one of the moons.

Raven whispered to herself, figuring out the Old English terms she remembered from an anime show. “Eorthe. Earth. Heofon. Heaven. Helle.” She turned to Cerasee.

“Oh, Hell,” Cerasee said. “Its gateways are on the underside of Earth, and handled by a different division of Interdependence. But, we don’t talk much about that world here.”

pencil

Fairy Tales have always been a favorite of Deana Zhollis, along with folktales. Yet when she set her eyes on the movie Gargoyles (1972), her young mind began drifting with romance and/with the inhuman. And so the storytelling began, first with dolls and paper dolls, and on to writing Science Fiction and Fantasy—even before she knew what it stood for! Engulfed in the genre, she dreamed over and over of that Happily Ever After, in the adult life, with a fashionable twist. Email: penvizion[at]gmail.com

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


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

Unspoiled vegetables cost too much, almost thrice the price of moldy ones. Rafa picked through the rotting wares.

“Father, why can’t we have fresh carrots for a change? Oh, and some meat?” Samuel pleaded as he pulled on Rafa’s threadbare grey woolen coat.

“Shush now. Devil of a time putting a few pence together. What, with me working all day digging black rock from the ground. Be glad we have something in our bellies tonight and hush down.”

The stall’s owner—a wizened hag—cackled at him to get a move on. Finding a few tomatoes, carrots, and other random provisions with a bit of crunch left to them and very few spots which he could cut away, he paid the crone her blood money.

Vegetable stew then for Rafa and his son tonight. Unless luck was with them and they came across a dead animal on the way home—even a juicy rat would do. Been months with no meat on the table.

Samuel kept pulling on Rafa’s coat as they walked in the middle of the street, avoiding horses and carriages that paid no heed to those in their path. Despite the risk of being trampled, walking on the streets was safer. Never knew when a flying bucketful of human waste and filth would be dumped out a window right onto you if you kept yourself on the side paths.

“Father. I want some milk tonight. Can we get some? Maybe a sweet? Please, Father.”

Rafa sighed. “Sorry, son. None of that for ya tonight. Maybe another day. We have to make do with what we have. Can’t let the Devil get us before our time, eh?”

Samuel pouted but stayed silent as they trudged along, keeping an eye on the gutters for any chance of having meat in his stew. After a few minutes, Samuel tugged on Rafa’s coat again.

‘Father, why don’t you hunt for meat? You were a hunter you told me. You can go out and get a goose, or a duck, maybe even a grouse.”

“Aye, I was a hunter. I hunted all types of game, Samuel. Not all of them were wild animals either. You know why I can’t hunt.”

“But Father, I want some meat.” Samuel’s protest was causing passersby to take notice.

“Hush boy. The forest is owned by the King. He doesn’t give leave to us for hunting. If caught, the penalty for poaching is death. That’s the why, boy. Now keep an eye out for a dead rat.”

 

Rafa and Samuel entered their home. Rafa couldn’t help but think it had seen better days when Maria was alive. She kept a clean and tidy home. She even patched things up when they needed repair. Now, piles of dirt and debris, webs and tiny insects littered the place. Rafa had to get up when the sun rose, take Samuel to Old Lady Veronica, then head to work in the dark mines digging for coal. He pulled out a few lumps from his bag. Part of his daily pay. He placed them in the stove and stoked a fire. He filled a pot with water and placed it on top of the stove. He then washed off the black powder which covered him from head to toe while the house warmed and the water boiled.

Freshened, Rafa sat at the table near the stove. He added salt and some dried herbs he had picked from the roadside to the pot of bubbling water.

He set to work on cutting off the bad bits from the vegetables, placing them into the pot to simmer. He heard a skittering and without a pause he threw his knife, skewering a rat against the corner. “Samuel. We be having meat tonight after all.” Rafa retrieved his knife and bounty.

Samuel looked up from his cot. “Father, when will supper be ready, I am starving.”

“We only just arrived, boy. Be a few minutes. Make yourself useful and sweep a bit, eh? Looks like the Devil blew through here. Could use a bit of tidying.”

“I’m tired, Father. Had to work on maths today with Miss Veronica. She’s a mean one, she is. Made me work hard.”

“Samuel, ya don’t know what tired is. Tired is where you work until your back is bent and your bones are crackling. Now get up and clean for ya supper.”

“I never knew Mother. I know others have mothers who clean and cook and look after them. Where is Mother?” Samuel asked trying to distract his father.

“We live in terrible times. What, with witch burnings, lynchings, and plagues killing people off. It is how we lost your mother, may God rest her soul. One day she was all cheery-eyed, the next she fainted with fever. Few days later, it took her. Had to raise ya by myself, I did. You were just a babe swathed in cloth then. Been seven years now. We managed to survive alright.”

“But Father…”

“Clean I said. Or may the Devil take you.” Rafa realized he had let his anger come out, but before he could apologize, there was a knock on the door.

Samuel stopped reaching for the broom and looked up at his father.

Rafa put down his knife. He had finished skinning the rat and had started butchering it. He washed the gore from his hands in the wash basin. Another knock.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Rafa answered as he kicked some of the clutter into a corner.

Rafa opened the door.

An old stately gentleman stood at the door. He removed his bowler hat and gave a slight bow. “Good evening. Mr. Rafa I presume? I am here to accept your offer.”

“Who are you? What offer might that be?”

“Ah, please forgive my manners. I go by many names: Scratch. Old Nick. Or, your favorite, the Devil. And the offer for me to take your son, Samuel, of course.”

Rafa’s unshaven face wrinkled in disbelief. “The Devil you say? I flirted with you most of my life and I must say, you don’t look like much. So please forgive me if I don’t believe you. Now if you don’t mind, I am making supper for me and my son.” Rafa began closing the door when the gentleman’s cane shot out and blocked it.

“Oh, I am definitely the Devil. I can prove it too.” The old man tapped his cane on the hard dirt floor three times and in an instant the house was clean, repaired, and tidied. A roasted grouse was sitting in the middle of the table with all the trimmings and sides. The aroma wafted over to Rafa. His mouth watered. Samuel ran to the food and was about to grab a leg when Rafa called for him to stop.

“Well, whether you be the Devil or a witch, matters not. I cannot allow you to take my son. I made no offer. So you best be gone.” Rafa straightened himself up to show he meant every word.

“You did make the offer. Heard it myself as I was walking past your place. You said ‘May the Devil take you.’ I may and I will.”

Rafa’s countenance darkened. “’Twas said in frustration and anger. There was no offer being made. Now, you don’t want to make me cross. I am not a nice man when I am pressed.”

“Rafa the Bloodhound. Rafa the Hungry Hunter. Rafa the Shadow. I know you. You have earned your way into my realm many times over. I have many who have entered it thanks to you. You are indeed a formidable man. But you are no match for me. I am not a man. Nor am I mortal. Come, let us partake of the feast I prepared while we come to terms?” Scratch’s arm outstretched towards the table as he tilted his head.

“I think not. You are not welcomed in my home. Take your favors away. We don’t need them.”

“Father. But it’s grouse. A proper roasted grouse. With potatoes and look, gravy! Oh and cranberry jam. Father, I am hungry. We have never eaten like this. Please let us eat?”

The food did smell good and Rafa’s belly was aching to get some into it.

Rafa opened the door wider to let his visitor enter. He allowed the visitor to take his chair while he sat in Maria’s. Samuel stood near his cot, not sure what to do.

“Samuel, come boy. May as well enjoy this food. Our benefactor won’t be staying long.” Rafa motioned for Samuel to take his seat. The boy did so.

Rafa carved the bird, giving Samuel a leg and a wing. He gave Scratch a breast and himself two thighs. Samuel piled potatoes, gravy, and cranberry jam onto his plate. He also poured himself a glass of milk. Rafa also filled his plate up. Scratch served himself some cranberry jam. He then dipped pieces of meat he delicately sliced off the breast in it before sending the fork to his mouth. He chewed quietly but with a smile. Several minutes passed as each of them ate without speaking.

Finally, it was Samuel who broke the silence. “Father, why is the Devil wanting to take me? You didn’t give me away as he says.”

Rafa released a low grunt and responded. “That I didn’t, son. Don’t you worry, you aren’t going anywhere. I will make sure of that.” Rafa’s fork stabbed a thigh, piercing it all the way through, releasing squirts of pink juice. He lifted the thigh and took a large bite out of the meat.

“So Mr. Scratch. Why not chalk this one up to experience and leave us be? We are a struggling folk, trying to survive in troubled times. My son has not yet ripened into a man. Has not discovered the curse of drink, the promise of love, nor the guilt of fight. He has a lot to do before he moves on from this Earth. All he needs is time. You have plenty of that. You don’t need him now. You can afford to wait for him when his time is done. Just like you are waiting for me, I suppose.”

Mr. Scratch finished chewing and swallowed. He then smiled showing bright white teeth.

“My dear Mr. Rafa. Your son is an innocent this is true. And you are not. But will he grow to be like his father? There is no guarantee of that. I don’t want to break up your home, but I must remind you, it was you who uttered the offer. I didn’t come to you unbidden.”

“Then I rescind the offer. No contract has been made.”

“You cannot rescind. There was no contract terms given when you offered. You didn’t ask for anything in return for Samuel.”

Rafa stood up, knife in hand, nostrils opening wide. “You. Will. Leave. Us. Alone.” His voice held steel, his eyes flashed the red of molten metal.

“Now. Now. Mr. Rafa. I’m a reasonable being. Perhaps we can substitute one offer for another?”

Rafa’s body relaxed and he allowed himself to sit down.

“Speak.”

“Your old life was, let’s say, profitable to me. When your wife passed, you made the choice to leave that path so you could take care of little Samuel here. You have done a marvelous job of it too, haven’t you? So you took to working menial jobs to help feed you both. But you miss your old life don’t you? I know you still practice to keep your skills honed.”

“That is not my life anymore. I no longer hunt people. For anyone. Not even you.”

“Here is my proposal, Mr. Rafa. You can keep your son. He can grow into a man and do all the things you envision for him. He will make his own decisions and decide his own fate. But you, you have to work for me. Hell has grown so much over the years, so much so that we have occasional misplaced souls. I am certain they have made their way up to the Human Realm. I want you to hunt them down and return them to me.”

“My son needs me. I cannot disappear for long periods of time hunting your sinners.”

“Also, in return for your services, you will be rewarded with enough gold to move from here to a bigger manor and have staff to watch over Samuel. Who knows, you may be able to woo a young lady to become his mother and care for him while you are away working.”

Rafa looked over to Samuel. Gold. Samuel could have meat every night. Fill out into a man of strong and sound body. He could have proper tutors. He could have a future much better than the one currently promised..

“Father. What does the Devil want you to do? I don’t understand.”

Rafa sat for a minute. “He wants me to hunt again. Not animals but people. Like I used to before you were born. He offers me good pay for it too. And, I must admit, I miss that life. It is in my blood.”

Scratch’s smile grew just a bit more. “So do we have a deal?”

Rafa looked at his son. Samuel’s eyes were wide, hopeful.

Rafa returned the Devil’s smile, albeit with yellowed teeth. “We do.”

pencil

Joshua Flores manifested in Chicago with Spanish as his first language, the struggle to learn English well lead him to read. He devoured comics and men’s adventure novels. Eventually, he exchanged Doc Savage, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes for authors. He scoured thrift stores and used book stores for Poe, Bloch, Beaumont, Ellison, and Bradbury. Horror wasn’t a specific genre but whenever Josh found it, it never failed to draw out raw emotions. Those emotions beckoned Josh to write. At ten years old, he two-finger-pecked short stories on an old electric typewriter. He hasn’t stopped writing since. That scares Josh. Email: Squarehopper[at]gmail.com

Risk Assessment

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Annie Percik


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

Captain Zheng Gan of the Terran Exploration Alliance flagship, Lapsang, raised his sandwich to his mouth to take a large bite.

“You’re going to die!”

The holographic form of the ship’s Virtual Engine for Risk Notification (VERN) materialised at his shoulder. It appeared as a slender white man in a dark suit and bowler hat, carrying a clipboard. Some programmer’s idea of a joke. The way it screamed right in his ear wasn’t particularly funny.

Gan didn’t even glance at it. “Why this time, VERN?”

“That white bread will spike your blood sugar and eventually all your limbs will have to be amputated! And then you’ll die!”

Gan wished he hasn’t asked. But past experience told him it was always worth checking with VERN before dismissing its warnings. The system’s settings were way off and desperately needed adjusting. But the technician working on the problem had died in the epidemic when the ship’s doctor had ignored VERN’s apparently paranoid rantings about a possible alien pathogen in the air vents. So now they were stuck with it.

To demonstrate his disinterest in VERN’s warning, Gan raised his sandwich and took a huge bite. As he did so, the ship’s proximity alarm sounded piercingly, making him jump. The bite of sandwich shot to the back of his throat, blocking his windpipe completely. He dropped the rest of the sandwich and reached out an arm in supplication, unable to draw in any air or make a sound.

VERN, still at his side, waved its hands frantically. As a hologram, it was unable to assist with the Heimlich manoeuvre.

“The captain is dying! The captain is dying!”

After Gan failed to respond to VERN’s panicked yells, Commander Janet Harcourt looked round from her station, took in the situation and sprang into action. She made two quick strides to the captain’s side, hoisted him up in front of her, placed her hands in the required position under his sternum and jerked backwards. On the third attempt, Gan felt the lodged mass of bread and chicken break free and shoot out of his mouth. It flew in a high arc over the pilot’s shoulder and landed with a squelch on the communications console.

As Gan bent over, gasping and coughing, Harcourt’s arms still steadying him, he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye. Struggling to regain control of his breathing, he tilted his head to look at the view screen, which showed the wide-eyed face of a Tlagan, staring at him in horror from the bridge of one of their standard battle cruisers. The yellowish tint of the lizard-like alien’s leathery skin told Gan it was a male. The Tlagan opened its mouth and a stream of enraged hissing spewed out. The Lapsang’s translator kicked in.

“How dare you disrespect my people in this way! I will spare your puny vessel, but only because the importance of reporting your egregious disregard for the terms of our erstwhile peace treaty allows for no delay.”

The screen went black.

Gan looked over his shoulder at Harcourt, having difficulty processing what had just happened. The Tlagans abhorred physical contact of any kind—they reproduced by parthenogenesis—and had originally declared war on Terra after witnessing the multitude of ways in which humans used touch to communicate in everyday life. The conflict had been long and bloody, and had only ended six months previously. The Terran Exploration Alliance (TEA) had been founded in the wake of the peace treaty, with the Lapsang launching its maiden voyage to celebrate the new opportunities for exploration without fear of attack.

And now, after the Lapsang’s first encounter with another ship, they were apparently at war again.

VERN flailed its holographic arms. “You’ll all be court martialed! Unless you all die first!”

Gan thought fast. For once, VERN might be right. The TEA was still a branch of the military and High Command was going to be less than impressed with them being responsible for war breaking out again.

“Follow that cruiser, Lieutenant,” Gan called out to the pilot.

Lieutenant Kozlowski turned in his seat and stared at the captain.

“You heard me, Lieutenant,” Gan said, wishing his voice sounded less hoarse. “Get after that Tlagan ship right now. Don’t let it get too far ahead, but try not to attract its attention.”

The Lapsang might not have much weaponry, but it was fast and agile. They ought to be able to keep up with the battle cruiser without drawing its fire. Kozlowski capitulated and turned back to his console, tapping in commands. The starfield visible through the view screen shifted perspective as the ship came about. A small dot far ahead denoted the cruiser’s progress.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” Commander Harcourt asked.

Gan answered her question by issuing more orders. He spun to face the communications console.

“Lieutenant Commander Owusua, can you jam any outgoing signals from the cruiser?”

She looked at him gravely. “I should be able to. Yes, sir.”

“Do it.”

Owusua regarded the sticky glob of ejected sandwich and carefully gave it a wide berth in executing Gan’s order. “Signals jammed, sir.”

“It’s all very well stopping them getting a message out now. But what are we going to do when they get back to Tlagan space?” Harcourt wanted to know. “We can’t follow them all the way home. And if they decide to confront us, we’re toast.”

“I’ve just bought us some time,” Gan said. He had no idea how to solve their dilemma, either. “I’m hoping someone will come up with a plan before things get worse.”

“You’re all doomed!” VERN wailed. “The situation is hopeless!”

“Thanks, VERN. You’re a ray of sunshine as ever.” Gan looked round at the rest of his bridge crew. “Does anyone have anything more constructive to offer?”

Blank, worried faces looked back at him. Strategic planning was meant to be his department, but instinct had only brought him so far. They were hurtling towards what was now enemy space, with no hope of surviving a direct conflict. And, if they turned tail and went back to Earth, they would probably be thrown in prison. He would have to hope something occurred to him before they reached the point of no return.

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, as Kozlowski worked to keep the Tlagan cruiser in sight and the Lapsang off its radar, while Owusua kept any announcements of the renewed war from escaping the jamming field she had extended around the cruiser. Gan noticed the rest of the bridge crew throwing anxious sidelong glances at him every now and then. But inspiration refused to come.

Eventually, Lieutenant Kozlowski announced, “We are approaching Tlagan space, Captain. What do you want me to do?”

Gan opened his mouth but nothing came out. He was an explorer, not a soldier. How was he supposed to know what to do in this situation. But before the silence dragged out to an embarrassing length, Owusua broke it.

“There’s another ship coming at us fast. From the direction of the Tlagan homeworld.” She turned wide, frightened eyes on Gan. “It’s an elite battle cruiser.” Those were three times the size of the standard ones. “And it’s hailing us.”

Gan felt what little of his sandwich he’d managed to eat turn over in his stomach. They were for it now. VERN was right. He had led his entire crew to their doom. He glanced round the bridge to make sure nobody was touching anyone else. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem even more. Then he straightened his uniform jacket and took a deep breath.

“On screen.”

The starfield was replaced by a larger and fancier version of the other cruiser’s bridge. This time, the purple tint of the captain’s skin denoted a female.

“Greetings, Lapsang.” The translator turned her hisses into a very cheery-sounding salutation. “You’re a long way from home.”

Gan stared at her. Was the jamming field still in effect? Had the other ship not managed to alert this one to the changed war status?

The Tlagan captain continued. “And I see you’ve brought us a present. We appreciate the assist.”

What on earth was she talking about? Gan looked at Owusua, who looked straight back, as baffled as he was.

“Um, you’re welcome…” He trailed off, not wanting to reveal his complete ignorance of what was going on.

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a human ship with little to no offensive capabilities would be willing to risk attack from one of our battle cruisers.” The Tlagan captain’s eyes shone with admiration. “I’m impressed that you humans are taking the peace treaty so seriously. To risk yourselves just to track a rogue ship and broadcast a distress signal on an open frequency to let us know where you were…” She shook her head in amazement. “That took some guts and could easily have gone very wrong for you. But we’ve been looking for this crew for weeks and haven’t managed to track them down. So you’ve done us a huge favour.”

“Um, you’re welcome…” Gan repeated, swallowing hard.

When it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, the Tlagan captain nodded. “Right then. We’ll take it from here. We’ve got them secured in a forcefield so they won’t get away from us again. Oh, and I’ll send a communique to Terran High Command to commend you for your actions. I think you’ve just strengthened the peace between our two peoples considerably.”

The screen went blank, leaving Gan opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He turned to Owusua.

“What distress signal?” he asked. “You didn’t send out a distress signal, did you?”

Owusua shook her head. “No, sir. That would have been insane. Anybody could have picked it up and come to find us.” She gestured at the screen. “Just like they did.”

“So what was she talking about?” Gan felt like he was seriously losing the plot. He jumped as VERN appeared at his side again. At least this time, he didn’t have anything in his mouth.

“I sent the distress signal,” the hologram said. “The ship was in imminent danger of destruction! So I called for help! Any kind of help, from anywhere that was listening! It was the only way to save you all!”

Owusua scanned her console, her eyes alighting on the chewed up piece of sandwich. With a grimace of distaste, she flicked it away with her fingers to reveal a bright, flashing yellow light. The distress beacon. It had been going off the whole time.

“You can switch that off now,” Gan told her, then turned to gape at VERN. “I don’t believe it. You actually saved us.”

The hologram adopted a superior expression that actually matched its prim and proper appearance for once. “Of course,” it said. “It is my job to identify risks and protect the crew from danger.”

Gan collapsed back into his captain’s chair and wiped his hand over his face. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.

“Lieutenant Kozlowski, plot a course for Earth. It seems we’ve averted a war and now we have commendations to collect. Let’s go home.”

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Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website, which is also where all her current publications are listed. She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time. Twitter: @APercik | Email: annie[at]alobear.co.uk

It Will Happen to You

Beaver’s Pick
Jeff Bakkenson


Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr (CC-by)

“It will happen to you,” Meghan’s dad Tom, Josh’s father-in-law, once told him. Tom was standing suit and tie in front of the open freezer. He’d forgotten to get ice for the party, and now there was no time to go back out before church. So it must have been Christmas. Meghan and her sister Colleen’s footsteps ran in both directions along the hallway between their bedrooms and the upstairs bathroom. Mary, Josh’s mother-in-law, or future mother-in-law at that point, stood at the top of the stairs.

“You didn’t make a list?”

“If I could remember a list, I wouldn’t need a list.” He raised his voice as Mary turned towards their bedroom. “We can stop by Walgreens after church!”

She raised her voice back. “We’ll be late to our own party!”

Tom looked around for allies and found Josh trying to blend into the couch. “You think I’m kidding, but it will happen to you.”

A spray of magazines lay across the coffee table. Tom was constantly rearranging them, tugging their corners into alignment on an undescribed grid. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, a headline would catch his eye, Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, and he’d lick his finger and gently, still nodding along as you spoke, open to the first page. Not to the article, not the table of contents, just two full-page ads facing each other, and he often wouldn’t get up again until he’d read the magazine straight through or fallen asleep trying.

Probably he’d been sick even then, before Meghan and Josh were married. After a second exam, he called the family together to tell them the secret he hadn’t known he’d been keeping. Or maybe he’d known on some level, thought Josh. The body knows, right?

A procedure was scheduled, and life continued with deliberate normalcy, which was why the morning of the procedure found Meghan and Josh following a guide named Mehmed on a tour of downtown Sarajevo. Why Sarajevo? everyone asked. Because it was cheap.

“Until you hear sniper’s bullet,” said Mehmed. “You do not think this is happening here.”

Despite their best efforts, they kept finding themselves checking their phones to make sure they’d have enough time to call home when the tour was done.

Mehmed’s memories took the form of snapshots vivant as he asked them to imagine families lined against a wall waiting for water. Lives remembered for their premature ending. “Here is Markale Market, site of massacre 5 February 1994, and also 28 August 1995.” “This Bosnia Dragon Street, where sniper shoot.” And once, a literal Polaroid, pulled from the crossbody pouch he wore at his belly button, of two young men sitting against a sofa pushed onto its side. “This is my cousin Harun. Lived by Markale Market.”

Miracle of miracles, Harun himself came hustling out of a cafe a few minutes later. He kissed his cousin and walked alongside him for the remainder of the tour, nodding whenever anyone spoke.

He nodded vigorously when Mehmed explained the city’s ethnic divisions.

“Bosnian Serb is in hills, shooting. Bosniak is me, shot.”

As they walked around the presidential palace, Mehmed pointed out damage left by mortar fire, as well as skyscrapers rising down the street. Meghan stood in front of Josh and leaned against him.

“This finished our tour,” he said. “But I leave you with one idea. My name Mehmed Banjac.” He pointed to his cousin. “His name Harun Banjac. Mehmed and Harun are Bosnian’s first name. Banjac is Serbo-Croatian’s last name. So Bosnia Herzegovina is both Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian.”

Both men smiled. Josh went into his wallet and tipped Mehmed in convertible marks, and as Harun nodded one last time, Josh tipped him too.

A cafe across the street offered WiFi and seemed as good a place as any to FaceTime from. They ordered thimble cups of coffee and sat side by side on wicker chairs, Meghan holding her phone out in front of them. But Tom didn’t pick up. Meghan called again, no answer. She tried her mom, then Colleen, Josh with his own phone ready in case he found a way to help. He watched her cycle again through her mom, dad, and back to Colleen. They confirmed the time difference and she tried again. Nothing. By the time Colleen called back, the procedure had already begun. Whoops, sorry. Enjoy the day, and we’ll let you know how it goes.

They sat blankly for a while. When the time allotted to the call expired, they gathered their things and walked to the car they’d rented to drive down to the coast.

They’d already had the conversation about not feeling guilty for keeping their trip. They’d had the conversation about the difficulty in not feeling guilty despite that being the correct response, and they knew to push the guilt down until they could barely feel it. They were at the point where they could look at each other and say, “I know,” and have that be a whole conversation about their guilt.

At first Meghan looked like she was having trouble swallowing. Once they’d left the curving roads of the city center, she hunched over her phone firing off volleys of texts. The procedure, Tom had told them back in that other world before the procedure began, could take a short time or a long time, depending on what the surgeons found and where they found it. Then, depending, further treatment would be advised.

“It probably didn’t even occur to them because it’s such a routine procedure,” said Josh.

“But didn’t he want to talk to me?”

“Maybe they thought it would make you worry more.”

“I’m not worried. I’m mad.”

Pocket cemeteries dotted the slopes as the city slowly faded into forest. Meghan put down her phone and rubbed her eyes. The highway switchbacked up and up and finally down the other side of a woody mountain, glances of the next valley stealing through the trees, and another mountain beyond it. On the valley floor, they passed a village set around a gleaming slab stitched with consonant-choked names.

“Didn’t Mehmed say the -ic means they’re Serbian?” asked Josh.

“Maybe we’re in Serbia.”

“Check the book please?”

The book, a Rick Steves travel guide, had an inset after the section about Sarajevo. Meghan read aloud, “As you leave Sarajevo, you will see memorials for the Serb fighters who laid siege to the city. While this seems confusing to us now, remember that the conflict… good people on both sides, etc.”

They stopped for lunch in Mostar and ordered a mixed grill plate at a restaurant overlooking the famous humpbacked bridge. A metal cross stood on a hill above, a memorial, said the book, to the fighters who’d used the vantage to fire down into the city. The bridge was a reconstruction.

“I’m kind of done with the war stuff,” said Meghan.

“Me too.”

Their waitress brought out two mounded plates, then two plates more, and two more after that.

There’d been a misunderstanding. Josh waved his hands over the table.

“No more, please.”

“Yes,” she said. “Is more!” She laughed from the back of her throat and brought out a final plate.

They ate what they could of the sausage, another sausage, chicken, thin beaten steak, french fries, raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and rice. Meghan’s phone buzzed with a waving emoji.

“She has to text every thirty minutes whether or not there’s news,” she said. “At least this way we’re still in the loop.”

Josh scrolled through his own messages. The last time he and Colleen had texted was on her birthday. The time before that was on his.

“Does she know you’re upset?”

When the bill came, the price was double the price in the menu. The waitress stood over them, waiting.

“Where does it say per person?” asked Josh, but she seemed not to understand.

He relieved himself of a wad of bills while Meghan let Colleen know she might be out of phone range.

Someplace between Mostar and the coast, the woods became scrubby hills. The sky cleared. Meghan played bongos on the dashboard. She folded her arms and picked at her teeth.

“Why is everything here cash only?” she asked.

“It’s real money.”

“So’s a credit card.”

A while after that, Josh heard her humming.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Not thinking, just humming.” But then, “It’s taking a long time, isn’t it?”

The road passed from Bosnia to Croatia, back into Bosnia for a few miles, and then back into Croatia. At each crossing, they stopped and had their passports stamped. At the final crossing, Josh gave a man in a kiosk the rest of their marks, and he gave them a smaller stack of kuna in return.

Meghan read some more from Rick Steves. “Apartment Maria lies steps from the Old Harbor and a secret swimming hole. Nikola is a conscientious host who enjoys helping his guests. Mention this book for a 10% discount.”

Another time she asked, “Are we sure we weren’t wrong not to be there?”

The hills in Croatia were lower, chalkier. There were no more villages with roadside memorials. They rose, descended, rose, and suddenly the ocean appeared, glittering away towards the walled city of Dubrovnik. They pulled to the side and got out to take pictures.

“Fuck!” said Meghan. She sprinted back to the car, found the baggie with the Croatian sim card, and switched it for the Bosnian one. Her phone buzzed with an overdue heart emoji.

At five, 17:00 on the clocks in Dubrovnik, they returned their rental car and caught the last ferry of the day for Riba, an island appearing as the first of a series of smudges stretching out into endless water. They sat on the top deck, bags at their feet. In front of them, a castle passed from left to right along the shoreline.

“What are we watching?” asked Josh.

“Dunno. Check the book.”

The women sitting next to them spoke Croatian. At least Josh assumed it was Croatian. He was a tourist; it was okay not to be sure. There was something comforting, finally, about listening to a voice you didn’t have to understand.

Because enough with this stuff at weddings about, I don’t feel like I’m losing a sister so much as gaining a brother. It was like that thought experiment where you replace all the parts of a boat one by one. At what point does the old boat become a new boat? And at what point do you, let’s say you’re a screw drilled in midway through the restoration, begin to understand why the sails and the rudder pull in opposite directions, what foundational assumptions and unsettled arguments they use to navigate each other? Because whatever else happened, today would be a permanent fixture in that relationship.

Riba was shaped like a goldfish cracker with a walled town at the head and a beach at the tail. Meghan’s phone buzzed just the dock came into view, and she threw her arms around Josh. The surgery was done.

They breathed deeply in and out together.

Josh asked, “You’re doing okay?”

“Better.”

As the crowd gathered on the dock inched closer, they basked in the glow of having been through a close call and coming out the other side still themselves.

“Did they say how it went?”

“He’s still asleep. The doctor will talk to everyone when he wakes up.”

“Then wake him up already!”

Nikola was waiting in the shade of the old city gate. They walked a short distance to Apartment Maria, which was really just a room on the third floor of his house.

Nikola led them upstairs and then back down to the kitchen on the second floor, where a bottle of wine and a scatter of brochures waited on the table. He poured into three glasses.

“The bottle say, Desire is stronger than love, but here there is both.

Meghan went back upstairs to FaceTime Colleen while Nikola shuffled through his brochures. If they wanted to rent a boat, if they needed a guide, his friends had the best prices.

“Now you pay please,” he said. He set a calculator on the table between them, making a show of punching in the room rate times three.

“We have the Rick Steves book,” said Josh. “The ten percent discount.”

Nikola was confused.

“Rick Steves?” asked Josh. “Just a second.”

He mussed around in his backpack and came up with the book and the line about the discount. Nikola shook his head.

“I never have discount.”

“It says so right here.”

Nikola flipped to the author’s photo at the back. Josh thumbed back to the page with Nikola’s name on it.

“This is you, right?”

“You bring this book.”

And a shrug for good measure, as if to say, We have our own set of rules. Like the war had permanently severed them from the outside world. Josh counted out kuna and dropped the money on the table.

“This is my house,” said Nikola.

“Take it or leave it. Do you know this phrase?”

He gave what he felt was a convincing look, and when Nikola reached for the money, turned and ran upstairs.

Meghan was sitting on the bed, phone in her lap, looking out the window. Josh felt a bounciness as he stepped into the room, like his feet were still climbing.

“He’s awake?”

Meghan shook her head. “Nobody’s picking up.”

“Maybe he’s just not awake yet.”

“It’s the same thing all over again.”

It’ll happen to you, Tom had said. Meaning what, exactly? It was like even when they won, they lost. Josh sat on the bed and put his arm around Meghan. The window was a vision of what they were missing, a cobblestone street lined with whitewashed and red-roofed houses, shining for a few more minutes in the summer sun. Below them, a car stopped to let out a man in a leather jacket.

“Do you think they found something bad?” asked Meghan.

According to the guidebook, a path behind the apartment led to a door in the city wall and a stone staircase leading into the water. If they left now, there was daylight left to find the door, leave their clothes by the wall, and sidle down the stairs until the water buoyed them away.

“Josh?” said Meghan.

The water would be warm, and still, and clear. They’d pinch their noses, close their eyes, and slip below the surface.

There was a knock at the door, and Meghan turned to face it.

Josh stood.

“Hello?”

In the darkness, surrounded by water, each would be a universe gently sinking. As pressure pounded their ears, their chests quivered, and finally they’d rise, gasping at each other on the surface. A sense of clarity, that trusty fight or flight, and together they’d swim back to shore.

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Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com

In a Silent Voice

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

The other boys won’t play with Kevin. In his pink pullover and purple leggings, he twirls around on the parking lot by himself, singing softly and shaking his head back as if long hair cascades down behind it.

Ruthie sits on the curb, waiting for recess to end. The thin November sun catches a shard of amber glass in the gutter next to her, its curved edge like a shark’s tooth. Kevin spins an imaginary baton, and when Mrs. Peavey rings the bell, the other kids rush past him for the classroom’s back door. One boy clips him with his shoulder, but Kevin just turns the jolt into a jerky dance move.

Ruthie takes off her jacket as she passes the empty desk next to hers, heading toward the scrum of kids in the closet. She edges around the flying hands and heels, the hard leather soles of the girls’ shoes. Two weeks ago, her best friend, Betsy Greenaway, moved to Pennsylvania. Miss Monroe, lacing her fingers together nervously, reminds Mrs. Peavey that two students still have to make their presentations.

Mrs. Peavey’s black hair sweeps off her liver-spotted forehead like the glossy wings of a crow. “End of the day,” she tells the student teacher, looking over her half-glasses at the skinny little girl already back in her seat, as separate from the commotion around her as if held within a shell.

*

Mrs. Peavey chalks two columns of numbers on the blackboard, the first in base 10, the second in base 4. Fourth grade is early for this material, but she believes her students can handle it. She describes how base 4 works, and then she writes out a couple of equations.

Ruthie gnaws at a hangnail. To her left, David Weeks has aligned all his pencils at the top edge of his desk, their sharp points aimed toward her. You can use the real numbers on the left, she sees, then translate to the column on the right. She takes her finger away from her mouth—You look like a little rat when you do that—but soon it goes back again.

Mrs. Peavey pulls down the map of the United States, hiding the half of the board that holds the key. The chalk taps like a secret code as she poses another equation.

Ruthie frowns. Then a wave rushes though her head and everything shifts, so that what used to be 4 is now 10. She sits up in the plastic chair anchored to her desk, her hands pressed under her thighs, like two hot little pancakes, and waits for the next equation.

Across the aisle, Donna Schmidt protests. She flips her ponytail, a shimmering yellow plumb line. “But there is a five,” she argues. “You can’t just take it away!” Behind her, lynx-eyed Katy Halloran leans sideways and echoes the objection.

Mrs. Peavey’s lips make a thin maroon line, and she leads the class through more equations. Then she turns to write another problem on the board, the chalk long and cool in her stiff hand.

“Tell me the equivalent,” she says, and next to the base 10 number 16, she etches two options: 40 and 100. “How many people think the answer is forty?” she asks. Donna understands now; her hand shoots into the air, followed by Katy’s and then some eighteen others. “Four sets of four with none left over,” David Weeks chants, repeating the formula.

“And how many vote for one hundred?” Mrs. Peavey says.

Only Ruthie’s arm floats up, sickled above her head.

“Superb!” Mrs. Peavey exclaims. “Ruthie, do you want to tell the class why the answer is one hundred?”

Ruthie shakes her head, a barely perceptible movement. Mrs. Peavey notices the parted sea of faces turned toward Ruthie, their expressions of wonderment and suspicion, and reveals the secret herself: there is no four.

*

Bolted to the cafeteria’s ceiling are rows and rows of long light fixtures, yet three feet off the floor, everything seems murky.

Ruthie extracts her lunch items from a brown paper bag. She lays the expected peanut butter sandwich on the table and reaches for something soft and silver. When she peels back the tinfoil, it turns out to hold last night’s leftover string beans, now sumpy-smelling and congealed. She presses the foil closed and pushes it back inside the bag, and the last item rolls forward. Under her fingertips it has a familiar, too light feeling.

There is an empty seat next to her, and another one across, where Betsy used to be. Ruthie nibbles at the sandwich’s crust. To her right, a short, round lunch lady with a large magenta birthmark scorched across her neck cackles at something.

Donna jolts the table, shrieking as she jumps up to take a brownie from Katy. Under the fluorescent glare, Donna’s skin looks ghostly, her nose as sharp as a book’s corner. Ruthie cuts her eyes across the aisle as a second grader walks her tray toward the garbage bins. The girl’s spindly legs and knobby knees look like a starving child’s from TV. Ruthie feels queasy and angles her head down, the peanut butter dry in her mouth.

*

Miss Monroe tries not to startle the little girl, but when Ruthie turns in response to the tap on her shoulder, the expression on her face flusters the student teacher. She squats down at the end of the table, her nylons scissoring as they slide past each other.

“Hi there,” she says. She is aware that this is something Mrs. Peavey, eating her chicken salad sandwich in the faculty lounge, would never do. But the children are not in a one-room schoolhouse, working out the three Rs on slate tablets; the world is more complicated now, Miss Monroe understands, and it can be hard to reach some of the kids.

“We’re all looking forward to your presentation this afternoon,” she says. “Are you excited about it?”

Neither sentence makes any sense to Ruthie, her little fingers wrinkling the plastic baggie.

“It’ll be simple.” Miss Monroe tucks her shiny auburn hair behind one ear and smiles with the sort of confidence instilled by years on soccer fields. “All you have to do is tell the class what your project shows, and then a little bit about how you made it.”

That radiant smile has caused a few of the boys to develop obvious crushes on the petite student teacher. Ruthie sees the pink flesh of her gums above her even white teeth, glistening with saliva, and the pale fine down on her cheek, and, when she blinks, how the eyeliner on her right lid has bled crookedly into the follicles of her lashes.

“You’re a little worried about speaking in front of the class, aren’t you?” asks Miss Monroe, and Ruthie nods. “It’s no big deal,” the student teacher assures her. “Once you get started, it’s easy-peasy.”

Ruthie stares at her, as if hoping to hear how this can be so.

“You’ll do fabulously,” Miss Monroe goes on, shifting a little because squatting is making her legs go numb. But Ruthie only looks as if someone has struck her.

Miss Monroe changes tacks. “Remember that girl from third grade I introduced you to?” the student teacher prompts. “I thought she could be your twin!”

Ruthie pictures a brown-eyed, brown-haired child wearing a sweater like hers, a sky blue crewneck. The girl had been as bubbly as soda pop, as bouncy as a puppy. Ruthie had hoped to never have to see her again.

“See? We’re all alike,” Miss Monroe says.

Ruthie starts putting the last corner of her sandwich back into its flimsy bag.

Miss Monroe places one hand on the table to get some of the weight off her legs. She wants to ask how things are at home. “Is there anything,” she says softly, studying the greenish cast in the hollows under Ruthie’s eyes, “you want to talk about?”

Ruthie’s dark gaze returns to Miss Monroe’s face. She raises one shoulder and tilts her head; Miss Monroe has seen children use that gesture before they bring up something they don’t understand. She smiles again and bobs her head encouragingly, light bouncing off the flat silver heart on the delicate chain around her neck.

Ruthie’s mouth works, and she looks off to the side. In the kitchen, something heavy and metal crashes against something else. She pulls her shoulders in.

When Miss Monroe stands, she finds that her right calf has gone to sleep, and she walks slowly so that the children won’t see her limping.

*

Ruthie folds the plastic and puts it in her lunch bag with the fragile egg and the packet of squished green beans and walks it up to the trash bins at the front. Ricky Kirwin spikes his own balled-up brown bag into the open receptacle. “He beats the buzzer!” he whoops as he spins around, almost knocking into Ruthie. “Argh, back to class,” he says to her in cheerful grievance. Everyone likes this freckle-faced kid: boys, girls, even other classes’ teachers. His grin is open, guileless, the edges of his front teeth minutely scalloped. Ruthie, smiling back up at him, sees where a green film of mucus has gotten caught partway across one nostril.

Johnny Iovine, returning his lunch tray, tries to wing it through the slot in the wall from a couple of feet away, and it clatters to the floor, mashed potatoes exploding into the air. A small, dark boy, he holds his sides when he laughs.

“Shame on you!” squawks the lunch lady, her neck livid beneath the red blotch.

Ruthie flinches and moves over to the line in which they will return to class.

*

Ruthie understands that her project isn’t very good. Libby Berger, whose father is an eye doctor, brought in an actual snuffbox, a delicate oval case made of engraved silver worn almost smooth over the centuries, with an enamel portrait of Benjamin Franklin on the lid, and all the kids were allowed to touch it. It wasn’t, technically, relevant to the unit the class is studying—the pioneers’ move westward—but Libby had also made a poster that tied snuff to tobacco and tobacco to how we smoked the peace pipe with the Indians but then took all their land during the Gold Rush.

Back in the classroom there’s an edgy energy, kids clumping and splitting and clumping again. All the projects are lined up on the shelves under the windows, past which brown oak leaves swirl in a coppery wind. While they were in the cafeteria, low clouds crept in, and now it feels to Ruthie like nighttime.

She sits down, her fingernails finding the little ridge at the edge of the laminate desktop. Her whole idea is dumb: a relief map of the journey Marcus and Narcissa Whitman made from St. Louis to the Oregon Country, across the Continental Divide. That is the focal point of the effort, in fact: all that flatness in the east builds to the crisis of the Rocky Mountains, which Ruthie made from a recipe she found in a magazine and painted brown with white tops. Her project was just playing with mud pies, and she doesn’t see how she can explain it to the class. The paste map shows only the route, not how, a few years after that crossing, the Whitmans were massacred.

Mrs. Peavey quiets the children and says that half of them will work on the marine life mural and the other half on their independent Reading Rally exercises. When Ruthie learns that she’ll be in the reading half, she stops pinching the skin of her fingertips between her nails and the desk.

*

At the end of the day, with only the final two presentations to go, the students are given a few minutes to look again at one another’s projects. A frigid wind seeps in through the loose sash where Ruthie is peering at Katy Halloran’s diorama in a shoe box of a pioneer family’s sod hut, with a dirt floor and two small, dim windows made out of waxed paper. Ruthie has just recognized the Monopoly iron in front of the red-hot fire when Kevin appears next to her and says, in his soft voice, “This stuff is so stupid.”

Ruthie starts and angles her head toward him. He had sewn a perfect replica flag of the short-lived California Republic, with its bear and star, and he’d held it up proudly in front of the class and described how he’d had to use both machine stitching and handwork. She’s gotten nothing from her project that she hadn’t already understood from reading about the Oregon Trail—instead, there’d been a moment of terror when she banged it into a metal seatback on the school bus and thought it would all crack apart.

“Those aren’t, like, volcanoes, are they?” he asks about her line of chocolate mountains, pointing at the snowy top of one that is unintentionally cratered.

Ruthie shakes her head no.

“Because my folks took me to Hawaii last year, which was really beautiful, all these strange flowers everywhere, and we saw a volcano with smoke coming out of the top.”

Ruthie nods. She didn’t think there were volcanoes in the Rockies, but now she wonders if there are, if she should have put one in.

“So how’d you make them?” Kevin asks.

Ruthie sucks in her lips. It was flour and salt and water, but the instructions also called for cream of tartar, which they didn’t have. So she followed the recipe, only skipping the tartar, hoping it didn’t do something crucial, and she spread the mixture on an unused FedEx box, flat for sea level and adding another layer for Oregon’s high desert. And then, obviously, built up the peaks.

“Well, I guess you’ll tell us soon,” says Kevin, his eyes flaring as, at the front of the room, Mrs. Peavey claps her hands sharply to get everyone back in their seats.

*

Even Johnny Iovine understands that his project is lame. He makes snorting, honking sounds as he sidles up the aisle between the desks to the front of the class, flipping it between his hands, and he guffaws again as he plunks it down on the old metal typewriter table set up there.

It’s a totem pole, like that majestic symbol of the Northwest Indians. Only instead of a large pillar of cedar, his has been made from one of those white foam rollers people use in gyms, and instead of being carved, it’s just painted.

He explains about the figures he drew on it, snickering when he can’t help but point out the divot where his pencil stabbed into the foam, and a speck of spittle flies from his lips. The traditional totem pole typically shows a tribe’s ancestors or its myths or history, he says, so he used his own family. He webs his fingers over the big-toothed grimaces that represent his grandfather and grandmother and the triangular black snoot, as he calls it, of his dog, turning the tube to show it to each side of the class. As he pivots, the kids on the opposite side glimpse blank styrofoam, since he only painted the front.

Mrs. Peavey looks at her watch, then takes off her half-glasses to clean the lenses with a white handkerchief. She puts the cloth back in her purse, the latch catching with the sound of a trap snapping shut.

“OK, Johnny, very good,” she says, explaining that she’s giving him credit for his understanding of the material but subtracting points for his “cavalier attitude.”

Johnny drops his head between his shoulders and shuffles back to his desk. Just before he sits down, he can’t resist bopping Jimmy Dombrowski on the head with his foam totem and guffawing.

*

Ruthie carries her Oregon Trail project up to the front of the room, the blood rushing in her ears like rolling thunder. As she sets it on the little table, the loose window rattles, and Mrs. Peavey twists in her chair and scowls at it. Ruthie tilts the map up so that the class can see it, but it shakes, skidding on the metal, and she lays it flat again, afraid that the mountains will shear off. An acrylic fiber on one of her knee socks pricks her skin like a needle.

Her tongue feels like it’s been wrapped in gauze. She points at the Rockies, those towering, white-capped peaks, because they’re really the focus of the map, the pioneers’ crucible, the thing that would forever separate life before from life after—if there even would be any life after. In the back of the room, Miss Monroe smiles her big, gummy smile and Ruthie looks away, through the heavy mullioned windows, where, in the seasick light, the wind is whipping dead oak leaves in a fresh fury.

Donna Schmidt torques her neck and pops her eyes at Katy.

Ruthie understands that her map is pointless—basically the same picture from right in their history textbook, only larger and made out of sludge. In her chest, a squirrel’s claws scrabble against wood.

Again she points to the Continental Divide. Rust blisters one edge of the wheeled table under the map. Again Miss Monroe, in the back, nods and smiles, though less widely this time, and again Ruthie looks out the window, at the cold, dead leaves.

To Ruthie’s right and a little behind her, Mrs. Peavey shifts in her chair, the vinyl creaking forward.

“Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.” Her voice sounds tinny and far off, like she is a great distance from herself.

She introduces the pioneers, and in the back of the room, Miss Monroe beams, her cheeks bunched like rosy apples. Donna Schmidt slides down in her chair and fiddles with something in her lap, but Ruthie stares straight ahead, like a horse wearing blinders, and plows on, explaining how the Whitmans traveled by sleigh and then steamboat and then covered wagon.

Mrs. Peavey gently clears her throat and suggests that Ruthie speak a little louder and not so fast. She peers over her narrow glasses at Andy and Russell, who always have to be stopped from battling with their action figures during class but are now both staring, open-mouthed. “You’ve even got the attention of our two rowdies,” she says in a funny lilting tone.

Ruthie takes a ragged breath and projects her thin voice forward, drawing it from deep beneath her ribs, and says how in the mountains, they had to abandon the wagon, leaving behind all their furniture and most of their clothes. Her lungs feel like gills, their filmy membranes fluttering and catching. At the rear, Miss Monroe leans back against the wall, closing her eyes, and Ruthie thinks that what passes over the student teacher’s face is relief, like the lightness in Mrs. Peavey’s voice.

She realizes that they were afraid that she would not talk at all, and she falters and struggles to pronounce the word “flour.” They think she’s triumphantly crossed the mountains, but she knows that’s not true. Remaining silent would have exposed her entirely; only through this pointless and terrifying bout of speaking is she able to conceal herself.

pencil

Bonnie Thompson is a writer and book editor who lives in central California. Her work has been published in several literary journals, including the Antioch Review, Ascent, and the late, great Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email: bthompson.xyz[at]gmail.com